Warren G. Harding: 29th Retrospective
“Whatcha got ain’t nothin new. This country’s hard on people, you can’t stop what’s coming, it ain’t all waiting on you. That’s vanity.” – Ellis, No Country for Old Men (2007)
By 1920, Americans were tired of wars abroad and progressive programs at home. The “high-minded” rhetoric had lost its appeal as the country was in a conservative mood.
The only president elected on his birthday, Harding promised a return to normalcy. There was to be nothing big nor ambitious accomplished, but the creation of a quiet, calm period.
Harding was a former newspaper man. He was rumored to be an extrovert, gambler, drinker and womanizer. He played the sousaphone and loved to be around people, gladhand and slap folks on the back. These of course proved to be valuable political skills.
Many felt Harding wasn’t fit to be president for he lacked the intellect and ambition. Many thought he didn’t even want to be the President of the United States of America nor had the confidence in himself to do the job. Harding was savvy, though, and knew what he wanted to accomplish.
Harding acknowledged that he did not have all the answers but would hire the “best minds.” There was some truth to this as his Secretary of State was Charles Evan Hughes, and his Secretary of Commerce was future President Herbert Hoover.
Meg Matthias On October 26, 1921, Harding delivered a speech in Birmingham, Alabama for the 50th anniversary of the city. While the speech is often identified today as the first time a sitting U.S. president condemned lynching, the speech was actually a much broader discussion of racism and race relations.
In the speech, Harding revealed he was in favor of equal educational and economic status for Black and white Americans. He began, though, by discussing industry—before noting how the South would be hurt financially if Black Americans continued leaving the area for the North, the West, or Europe.
The most notable quality of Harding’s speech may have been the clarity with which he discussed race, especially considering the white Southerners in his audience—people who were accustomed to the political and social power they gained from being white. “Politically and economically,” Harding said, “there need be no occasion for great and permanent differentiation [between white and Black people], for limitations of the individual’s opportunity, provided that on both sides there shall be recognition of the absolute divergence in things social and racial.…I would say, let the black man vote when he is fit to vote; prohibit the white man voting when he is unfit to vote.…I would insist upon equal educational opportunity for both.”
Though Harding’s speech was brave for its time and setting in regard to political and educational equality (regarding quality of instruction, at least—Harding wasn’t advocating for integrating schools) for Black and white Americans, he was less progressive in other aspects of interracial relations. “Men of both races may well stand uncompromisingly against every suggestion of social equality,” Harding said. “Indeed, it would be helpful to have that word ‘equality’ eliminated from this consideration.”
The type of equality that Harding wanted was one that, ultimately, benefited his nation’s economy more than it did any community of people. In his speech, he repeatedly emphasized the individual, calling on each person to participate in society to the best of his or her ability, regardless of their race. But Harding still welcomed social separation between white and Black Americans, even claiming that Black Americans weren’t looking for social equality at all. For 1921, his speech was groundbreaking—and may well have made his Republican bosses realize that if they wanted someone inoffensive, they should have picked another man. But after the speech was done, there was still much to be desired. At no point in it did Harding condemn lynching. He did not even mention it.
Tulsa Race Massacre
The Tulsa race massacre took place on May 31 and June 1, 1921, when mobs of White residents, many of them deputized and given weapons by city officials, attacked Black residents and destroyed homes and businesses of the Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma, US. Alternatively known as the Tulsa race riot or the Black Wall Street massacre, the event is among “the single worst incident[s] of racial violence in American history”. The attacks, carried out on the ground and from private aircraft, burned and destroyed more than 35 square blocks of the neighborhood – at the time the wealthiest Black community in the United States, known as “Black Wall Street”.
More than 800 people were admitted to hospitals, and as many as 6,000 Black residents were interned in large facilities, many of them for several days. The Oklahoma Bureau of Vital Statistics officially recorded 36 dead. A 2001 state commission examination of events was able to confirm 39 dead, 26 Black and 13 White, based on contemporary autopsy reports, death certificates and other records. The commission gave several estimates ranging from 75 to 300 dead.
The massacre began during the Memorial Day weekend after 19-year-old Dick Rowland, a Black shoeshiner, was accused of assaulting Sarah Page, the 17-year-old White elevator operator of the nearby Drexel Building. He was taken into custody.
After the arrest, rumors spread through the city that Rowland was to be lynched. Upon hearing reports that a mob of hundreds of White men had gathered around the jail where Rowland was being kept, a group of 75 Black men, some of whom were armed, arrived at the jail in order to ensure that Rowland would not be lynched.
The sheriff persuaded the group to leave the jail, assuring them that he had the situation under control. A shot was fired, and then, according to the reports of the sheriff, “all hell broke loose.” At the end of the exchange of fire, 12 people were dead, 10 White and two Black.
As news of these deaths spread throughout the city, mob violence exploded. White rioters rampaged through the Black neighborhood that night and the next morning, killing men and burning and looting stores and homes. Around noon on June 1, the Oklahoma National Guard imposed martial law, ending the massacre.
About 10,000 Black people were left homeless and property damage amounted to more than $1.5 million in real estate and $750,000 in personal property (equivalent to $32.65 million in 2020). Many survivors left Tulsa, while Black and White residents who stayed in the city largely kept silent about the terror, violence, and resulting losses for decades. The massacre was largely omitted from local, state and national histories.
In 1996, 75 years after the massacre, a bipartisan group in the state legislature authorized the formation of the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. The commission’s final report, published in 2001, states that the city had conspired with the mob of White citizens against Black citizens; it recommended a program of reparations to survivors and their descendants.
The state passed legislation to establish scholarships for the descendants of survivors, encourage the economic development of Greenwood, and develop a park in memory of the victims of the massacre in Tulsa. The park was dedicated in 2010. Schools in Oklahoma have been required to teach students about the massacre since 2002, but in 2020, the massacre officially became a part of the Oklahoma school curriculum.
The Rosewood massacre was a racially motivated massacre of black people and destruction of a black town that took place during the first week of January 1923 in rural Levy County, Florida. At least six black people and two white people were killed, though eyewitness accounts suggested a higher death toll of 27 to 150. The town of Rosewood was destroyed in what contemporary news reports characterized as a race riot, but Florida had an especially high number of lynchings of black men in the years before the massacre, including a well-publicized incident in December 1922.
Before the massacre, the town of Rosewood had been a quiet, primarily black, self-sufficient whistle stop on the Seaboard Air Line Railway. Trouble began when white men from several nearby towns lynched a black Rosewood resident because of accusations that a white woman in nearby Sumner had been assaulted by a black drifter. A mob of several hundred whites combed the countryside hunting for black people and burned almost every structure in Rosewood.
Survivors from the town hid for several days in nearby swamps until they were evacuated by train and car to larger towns. No arrests were made for what happened in Rosewood. The town was abandoned by its former black and white residents; none ever moved back, none were ever compensated for their land, and the town ceased to exist.
Although the rioting was widely reported around the United States at the time, few official records documented the event. Survivors, their descendants, and the perpetrators remained silent about Rosewood for decades. Sixty years after the rioting, the story of Rosewood was revived in major media when several journalists covered it in the early 1980s. Survivors and their descendants organized to sue the state for having failed to protect Rosewood’s black community.
In 1993, the Florida Legislature commissioned a report on the incident. As a result of the findings, Florida compensated survivors and their descendants for damages incurred because of racial violence. The incident was the subject of a 1997 feature film directed by John Singleton. In 2004, the state designated the site of Rosewood as a Florida Heritage Landmark.
Officially, the recorded death toll of the first week of January 1923 was eight (six black and two white). Some survivors’ stories claim there may have been up to 27 black residents killed, and assert that newspapers did not report the total number of white deaths. Minnie Lee Langley, who was in the Carrier house siege, recalls that she stepped over many white bodies on the porch when she left the house.
A newspaper article in 1984 stated that reports of up to 150 victims may have been exaggerations. Several eyewitnesses claim to have seen a mass grave filled with black people; one remembers a plow brought from Cedar Key that covered 26 bodies. However, by the time authorities investigated these claims, most of the witnesses were dead or too elderly and infirm to lead them to a site to confirm the stories.
Budget and Accounting Act of 1921
The Budget and Accounting Act of 1921 was landmark legislation that established the framework for the modern federal budget. The act was approved by President Warren G. Harding to provide a national budget system and an independent audit of government accounts.
The official title of this act is “The General Accounting Act of 1921”, but is frequently referred to as “the budget act”, or “the Budget and Accounting Act”. This act meant that for the first time, the president would be required to submit an annual budget for the entire federal government to Congress. The object of the budget bill was to consolidate the spending agencies in both the executive and legislative branches of the government.
The act created the Bureau of the Budget, now called the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), to review funding requests from government departments and to assist the president in formulating the budget. The OMB mandates that all government estimates, receipts, and expenditures be cleared by the director of the budget. From the director, the estimates go directly to the president and from the president, directly to Congress. In addition, the act created the General Accounting Office, now known as the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the non-partisan audit, evaluation, and investigative arm of Congress, and an agency in the legislative branch of the United States Government.
The act required the head of the GAO, to “investigate, at the seat of government or elsewhere, all matters in relation to the receipt, disbursement, and application of public funds, and shall make to the President … and to Congress … reports [and] recommendations looking to greater economy or efficiency in public expenditures”. The name of the General Accounting Office was changed to Government Accountability Office in 2004 to better reflect the mission of the office.
Washington Naval Conference
The Washington Naval Conference was a disarmament conference called by the United States and held in Washington, DC from November 12, 1921 to February 6, 1922. It was conducted outside the auspices of the League of Nations. It was attended by nine nations (the United States, Japan, China, France, Britain, Italy, Belgium, Netherlands, and Portugal) regarding interests in the Pacific Ocean and East Asia. Germany was not invited to the conference, as it had already been disarmed under the terms of the Versailles Treaty. Soviet Russia was also not invited to the conference. It was the first arms control conference in history, and is still studied by political scientists as a model for a successful disarmament movement.
Held at Memorial Continental Hall, in Downtown Washington, it resulted in three major treaties: Four-Power Treaty, Five-Power Treaty (more commonly known as the Washington Naval Treaty), the Nine-Power Treaty, and a number of smaller agreements. These treaties preserved the peace during the 1920s but were not renewed in the increasingly hostile world of the Great Depression.
Harding Is Guilty By Association
Harding took a train trip west in the summer of 1923 becoming the first sitting president to visit Alaska. His health was failing though, and on July 29th he checked into the Presidential suite of the Palace Hotel in San Francisco to recuperate. He died there four days later of a heart attack.
Why is Harding remembered as a joke and failure with a comprehensive budget deal and an arms reduction treaty? Less than a year after his death, several scandals emerged.
Teapot Dome Scandal
The Teapot Dome scandal was a bribery scandal involving the administration of United States President Warren G. Harding from 1921 to 1923. Secretary of the Interior Albert Bacon Fall had leased Navy petroleum reserves at Teapot Dome in Wyoming, as well as two locations in California, to private oil companies at low rates without competitive bidding. The leases were the subject of a seminal investigation by Senator Thomas J. Walsh. Convicted of accepting bribes from the oil companies, Fall became the first presidential cabinet member to go to prison; no one was convicted of paying the bribes.
Before the Watergate scandal, Teapot Dome was regarded as the “greatest and most sensational scandal in the history of American politics”. It damaged the reputation of the Harding administration, which was already severely diminished by its controversial handling of the Great Railroad Strike of 1922 and Harding’s veto of the Bonus Bill in 1922. Congress subsequently passed legislation, enduring to this day, giving subpoena power to the House and Senate for review of tax records of any U.S. citizen regardless of elected or appointed position. These resulting laws are also considered to have empowered the role of Congress more generally.
Carrie Fulton Phillips
Caroline “Carrie” Phillips (September 22, 1873 – February 3, 1960) was a mistress of Warren G. Harding, 29th President of the United States. The young Carrie Fulton was known by admirers to have epitomized the Gibson Girl portrait of beauty, a look popular at the turn of the 20th century.
Her relationship with Senator Warren G. Harding was kept secret from the public during its time and for decades thereafter. The affair ended when Phillips blackmailed Harding during the Senator’s run for office for President of the United States. Phillips is the only woman known to have successfully blackmailed a president of the United States.
Nanna Popham Britton (November 9, 1896 – March 21, 1991) was an American secretary who was a mistress of Warren G. Harding, the 29th President of the United States. In 1927, she revealed that her daughter, Elizabeth, had been fathered by Harding while he was serving in the United States Senate, one year before he was elected to the presidency. Her claim was open to question during her life, but was confirmed by DNA testing in 2015.
Florence Mabel Harding (August 15, 1860 – November 21, 1924) was the first lady of the United States from 1921 to 1923 as the wife of President Warren G. Harding.
Florence first married Pete De Wolfe and had a son, Marshall. After divorcing him, she married the somewhat-younger Harding when he was a newspaper publisher in Ohio, and she was acknowledged as the brains behind the business. Known as The Duchess, she adapted well to the White House, where she gave notably elegant parties.
By 1923, both Florence and her husband were suffering from dangerous illnesses, but still undertook a coast-to-coast rail tour, which they called the Voyage of Understanding. Florence proved highly popular at their many scheduled stops, but Warren was visibly ailing. After falling seriously ill while visiting British Columbia, Harding died at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco on August 2, 1923.
On this tour, Warren had been under the care of Charles Sawyer, who is believed to have misdiagnosed the President’s condition, and administered stimulants that brought on his fatal heart attack. As Florence did not request an autopsy and also destroyed many of his papers, a controversial theory was put forward in a semi-fictional book The Strange Death of President Harding, claiming that Florence had poisoned her husband. However, this claim was soon debunked.
At the time, these scandals were highly believed at the time. Unfortunately, Harding is remembered for scandals both real and imagined. History may have been unfair to him, but his real tragedy was that he was unable to live out his first term. From what we know, he was good with Congress, good with foreign affairs and good with the budget.
Modern budgeting debates still hinge on the powers given to the Congress and the President in this act. The act didn’t link the budgeting process to the amount of revenues brought in through taxes. The result is deficits and surpluses since the budget isn’t based on what money is available. It puts the focus on what the country wants rather than what it can afford. In practice, Congress approves expenses and then later determines if it will increase the government’s ability to borrow money.
With Harding, we also see the danger in electing a President who is a media entertainer, unfocused on policy but promising to “hire the best people.” Unfortunately, we have done that before in the United States. The results were mixed.
Office of management and budget. (n.d.). The White House. https://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/
ONI and the Washington naval conference of 1921-1922. (2017, November 13). Center for International Maritime Security. https://cimsec.org/oni-washington-naval-conference-1921-1922/
The rosewood massacre: How a lie destroyed a Black town. (2017, November 14). ajc. https://www.ajc.com/news/national/the-rosewood-massacre-how-lie-destroyed-black-town/wTcKjELkGskePsWiwutQuO/
The teapot dome scandal. (2014, 8). https://www.wyohistory.org/encyclopedia/teapot-dome-scandal
Tulsa Historical Society & Museum. (2018, November 1). 1921 Tulsa race massacre. Tulsa Historical Society & Museum. https://www.tulsahistory.org/exhibit/1921-tulsa-race-massacre/
(2020, 9). U.S. Government Accountability Office (U.S. GAO). https://www.gao.gov/
What did it look like for a U.S. president to condemn racism in 1921? (n.d.). Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/story/what-did-it-look-like-for-a-us-president-to-condemn-racism-in-1921
Why is the budgeting & accounting Act of 1921 important? (n.d.). Budgeting Money – The Nest. https://budgeting.thenest.com/budgeting-accounting-act-1921-important-28658.html
Calvin Coolidge (1923-1928) would follow Warren Harding.
Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921) preceded Warren Harding
Zachary Taylor (1849-1850) would assume the presidency after the Mexican War.
Jimmy Carter (1977 – 1981) would be the only Democratic President for 25 years post Civil Rights.
George W. Bush (2000 – 2008) is the final President in our series.