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article number 307
article date 01-14-2014
copyright 2014 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
Beware of the Friends You Make, Especially as President …Warren Harding, 1921-23
by Fredrick Lewis Allen

From the 1931 book, Only Yesterday.

ON THE morning of March 4, 1921,—a brilliant morning with a frosty air and a wind which whipped the flags of Washington,—Woodrow Wilson, broken and bent and ill, limped from the White House door to a waiting automobile, rode down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol with the stalwart President-elect at his side, and returned to the bitter seclusion of his private house in S Street.

Warren Gamaliel Harding was sworn in as President of the United States. The reign of normalcy had begun.

March 4, 1921: what do those cold figures mean to you? Let us turn back for a moment to that day and look about us.

- The war had been over for more than two years, although, as the Treaty of Versailles had been thrown out by the Senate and Woodrow Wilson had refused to compromise with the gentlemen at the other end of the Avenue, a technical state of war still existed between Germany and the United States.
- Business, having boomed until the middle of 1920, was collapsing into the depths of depression and dragging down with it the price-level which had caused so much uproar about the High Cost of Living.
- The Big Red Scare was gradually ebbing, although the super-patriots still raged and Sacco and Vanzetti had not yet come to trial before Judge Thayer.
- The Ku-Klux Klan was acquiring its first few hundred thousand members.
- The Eighteenth Amendment was entering upon its second year, and rum-runners and bootleggers were beginning to acquire confidence.
- The sins of the flappers were disturbing the nation; it was at about this time that Philadelphia produced the “moral gown” and the Literary Digest featured a symposium entitled, “Is the Younger Generation in Peril?”
- The first radio broadcasting station in the country was hardly four months old and the radio craze was not yet.
- Skirts had climbed halfway to the knee and seemed likely to go down again, a crime commission had just been investigating Chicago’s crime wave, Judge Landis had become the czar of baseball, Dempsey and Carpentier had signed to meet the following summer at Boyle’s Thirty Acres, and Main Street and The Outline of History were becoming best sellers.

The nation was spiritually tired. Wearied by the excitements of the war and the nervous tension of the Big Red Scare, they hoped for quiet and healing.

Sick of Wilson and his talk of America’s duty to humanity, callous to political idealism, they hoped for a chance to pursue their private affairs without governmental interference and to forget about public affairs. There might be no such word in the dictionary as normalcy, but normalcy was what they wanted.

Every new administration at Washington begins in an atmosphere of expectant good will, but in this case the airs which lapped the capital were particularly bland. The smile of the new President was as warming as a spring thaw after a winter of discontent. For four long years the gates of the White House had been locked and guarded with sentries.

WILSON AND HARDING RIDE TO THE CAPITOL for the latter’s inauguration, March 4, 1921. In the front seat are Speaker Joseph G. Cannon and Senator Philander C. Knox. Underwood & Underwood photo.

Harding’s first official act was to throw them open, to permit a horde of sight-seers to roam the grounds and flatten their noses against the executive window-panes and photograph one another under the great north portico; to permit flivvers and trucks to detour from Pennsylvania Avenue up the driveway and chortle right past the presidential front door.

The act seemed to symbolize the return of the government to the people. Wilson had been denounced as an autocrat, had proudly kept his own counsel; Harding modestly said he would rely on the “best minds” to advise him, and took his oath of office upon the verse from Micah which asks, “What doth the Lord require of thee but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?”

Wilson had seemed to be everlastingly prying into the affairs of business and had distrusted most business men; Harding meant to give them as free a hand as possible “to resume their normal onward way.”

And finally, whereas Wilson had been an austere academic theorist, Harding was “just folks”: he radiated an unaffected good nature, met reporters and White House visitors with a warm handclasp and a genial word, and touched the sentimental heart of America by establishing in the White House a dog named Laddie Boy.

“The Washington atmosphere of today is like that of Old Home Week or a college class reunion,” wrote Edward G. Lowry shortly after Harding took office. “The change is amazing. The populace is on a broad grin.” An era of good will seemed to be beginning.

Warren Harding had two great assets, and these were already apparent. First, he looked as a President of the United States should. He was superbly handsome. His face and carriage had a Washingtonian nobility and dignity, his eyes were benign; he photographed well and the pictures of him in the rotogravure sections won him affection and respect.

And he was the friendliest man who ever had entered the White House. He seemed to like everybody, he wanted to do favors for everybody, he wanted to make everybody happy. His affability was not merely the forced affability of the cold-blooded politician; it was transparently and touchingly genuine.

“Neighbor,” he had said to Herbert Hoover at their first meeting, during the war, “I want to be helpful.” He meant it; and now that he was President, he wanted to be helpful to neighbors from Marion and neighbors from campaign headquarters and to the whole neighborly American public.


His liabilities were not at first so apparent, yet they were disastrously real. Beyond the limited scope of his political experience he was “almost unbelievably ill-informed,” as William Allen White put it. His mind was vague and fuzzy. Its quality was revealed in the clogged style of his public addresses, in his choice of turgid and maladroit language (“non-involvement” in European affairs, “adhesion” to a treaty), and in his frequent attacks of suffix trouble (“normalcy” for normality, “betrothment” for betrothal).

It was revealed even more clearly in his helplessness when confronted by questions of policy to which mere good nature could not find the answer.

White tells of Harding’s coming into the office of one of his secretaries after a day of listening to his advisers wrangling over a tax problem, and crying out: “John, I can’t make a damn thing out of this tax problem. I listen to one side and they seem right, and then—God!—I talk to the other side and they seem just as right, and here I am where I started. I know somewhere there is a book that will give me the truth, but, hell, I couldn’t read the book. I know somewhere there is an economist who knows the truth, but I don’t know where to find him and haven’t the sense to know him and trust him when I find him. God! what a job!”

His inability to discover for himself the essential facts of a problem and to think it through made him utterly dependent upon subordinates and friends whose mental processes were sharper than his own.

If he had been discriminating in the choice of his friends and advisers, all might have been well. But discrimination had been left out of his equipment. He appointed Charles Evans Hughes and Herbert Hoover and Andrew Mellon to Cabinet positions out of a vague sense that they would provide his administration with the necessary amount of statesmanship, but he was as ready to follow the lead of Daugherty or Fall or Forbes.

He had little notion of technical fitness for technical jobs. Offices were plums to him, and he handed them out like a benevolent Santa Claus—beginning with the boys from Marion Ohio.

He made his brother-in-law Superintendent of Prisons; he not only kept the insignificant Doctor Sawyer, of Sawyer’s Sanitarium at Marion, as his personal physician, but bestowed upon him what a White House announcement called a “brigadier-generalcy” (suffix trouble again) and deputed him to study the possible coordination of the health agencies of the government.

For Comptroller of the Currency he selected D. R. Crissinger, a Marion lawyer whose executive banking experience was limited to a few months as president of the National City Bank and Trust Company—of Marion.

Nor did Harding appear to be able to distinguish between honesty and rascality. He had been trained in the sordid school of practical Ohio politics. He had served for years as the majestic Doric false front behind which Ohio lobbyists and fixers and purchasers of privilege had discussed their “business propositions” and put over their “little deals”— and they, too, followed him to Washington, along with the boys from Marion.


Some of them he put into positions of power, others he saw assuming positions of power; knowing them intimately, he must have known—if he was capable of a minute’s clear and unprejudiced thought—how they would inevitably use those positions; but he was too fond of his old cronies, too anxious to have them share his good fortune, and too muddle-minded to face the issue until it was too late.

He liked to slip away from the White House to the house in H Street where the Ohio gang and their intimates reveled and liquor flowed freely without undue regard for prohibition, and a man could take his pleasure at the poker table and forget the cares of state.

And the easiest course to take was not to inquire too closely into what the boys were doing, to hope that if they were grafting a little on the side they’d be reasonable about it and not do anything to let old Warren down.

And why did he choose such company? The truth was that under his imposing exterior he was just a common small-town man, an “average sensual man,” the sort of man who likes nothing better in the world than to be with the old bunch when they gather at Joe’s place for an all-Saturday-night session, with waistcoats unbuttoned and cigars between their teeth and an ample supply of bottles and cracked ice at hand.

His private life was one of cheap sex episodes; as one reads the confessions of his mistress, who claims that as President he was supporting an illegitimate baby born hardly a year before his election, one is struck by the shabbiness of the whole affair: the clandestine meetings in disreputable hotels, in the Senate Office Building (where Nan Britton believed their child to have been conceived), and even in a coat-closet in the executive offices of the White House itself.

(Doubts have been cast upon the truth of the story told in The President’s Daughter, but is it easy to imagine any one making up out of whole cloth a supposedly autobiographical story compounded of such ignoble adventures?)


Even making due allowance for the refraction of Harding’s personality through that of Nan Britton, one sees with deadly clarity the essential ordinariness of the man, the commonness of his “Gee, dearie” and “Say, you darling,” his being swindled out of a hundred dollars by card sharpers on a train ride, his naive assurance to Nan, when detectives broke in upon them in a Broadway hotel, that they could not be arrested because it was illegal to detain a Senator while “en route to Washington to serve the people.”

Warren Harding’s ambitious wife had tailored and groomed him into outward respectability and made a man of substance of him; yet even now, after he had reached the White House, the rowdies of the Ohio gang were fundamentally his sort. He had risen above them, he could mingle urbanely with their superiors, but it was in the smoke-filled rooms of the house in H Street that he was really most at home.

Harding had no sooner arrived at the White House than a swarm of practical politicians of the McKinley-Foraker vintage reappeared in Washington. Blowsy gentlemen with cigars stuck in their cheeks and rolls of very useful hundred-dollar bills in their pockets began to infest the Washington hotels.

The word ran about that you could do business with the government now—if you only fixed things up with the right man.

The oil men licked their chops; had they not lobbied powerfully at the Chicago convention for the nomination of just such a man as Harding, who did not take this conservation nonsense too seriously, and would not Harding’s Secretary of the Interior, Albert B. Fall, let them develop the national resources on friendly and not too stringent terms?

The Ohio gang chuckled over the feast awaiting them: the chances for graft at Columbus had been a piker’s chance compared with those which the mastery of the federal government would offer him. Warren Harding wanted to be helpful. Well, he would have a chance to be.


§ 2

The public at large, however, knew little and cared less about what was happening behind the scenes. Their eyes—when they bothered to look at all—were upon the well-lighted stage where the Harding Administration was playing a drama of discreet and seemly statesmanship.

Peace with Germany, so long deferred, was made by a resolution signed by the President on July 2, 1921. The Government of the United States was put upon a unified budget basis for the first time in history by the passage of the Budget Act of 1921, and Charles G. Dawes, becoming Director of the Budget, entranced the newspaper-reading public with his picturesque language, his underslung pipe, and his broom-waving histrionics when he harangued the bureau chiefs on behalf of business efficiency.

Immigration was restricted, being put upon a quota basis, to the satisfaction of labor and the relief of those who felt that the amount of melting being done in the melting-pot was disappointingly small.

Congress raised the tariff, as all good Republican Congresses should.

Secretary Mellon pleased the financial powers of the country by arguing for the lowering of the high surtaxes upon large incomes; and although an obstreperous Farm Bloc joined with the Democrats to keep the maximum surtax at 50 per cent, Wall Street at least felt that the Administration’s heart was in the right place. Every foe of union labor was sure of this when Attorney-General Daugherty confronted the striking railway shopmen with an injunction worthy of Mitchell Palmer himself.

In January, 1923, an agreement for the funding of the British war debt to the United States was made in Washington; it was shortly ratified by the Senate.

The outstanding achievement of the Harding Administration, however, was undoubtedly the Washington Conference for the Limitation of Armaments—or, as the newspapers insisted upon calling it, the “Arms Parley.”


Since the war, the major powers of the world had begun once more their race for supremacy in armament. England, the United States, and Japan were all building ships for dear life. The rivalry between them was rendered acute by the growing tension in the Pacific.

During the war, Japan had seized her golden opportunity for the expansion of her commercial empire: her rivals being very much occupied elsewhere, she had begun to regard China as her special sphere of interest and to treat it as a sort of protectorate where her commerce would have prior rights to that of other nations. Her hand was strengthened by an alliance with England.

When Charles Evans Hughes became Secretary of State and began to stand up for American rights in the Orient, applying once more the traditional American policy of the Open Door, it was soon apparent that the situation was ticklish. Japan wanted her own way; the Americans opposed it; and there lay the Philippines, apparently right under Japan’s thumb if trouble should break out!

All three powers, Britain, Japan, and the United States, would be the gainers by an amicable agreement about the points under dispute in the Pacific, by the substitution of a three-cornered agreement for the Japanese-British alliance, and by an arrangement for the limitation of fleets.

Senator Borah proposed an international conference. Harding and Hughes took up his suggestion, the conference was called, and on November 12, 1921—the day following the solemn burial of America’s Unknown Soldier at Arlington Cemetery—the delegates assembled in Washington.


President Harding opened the first session with a cordial if profuse speech of welcome, and true to his policy of leaving difficult problems to be solved by the “best minds,” left Secretary Hughes and his associates to do the actual negotiating.

In this case his hands-off policy worked well. Hughes not only had a brilliant mind, he had a definite program and a masterly grasp of the complicated issues at stake. President Harding had hardly walked out of Memorial Continental Hall when the Secretary of State, installed as chairman of the conference, began what seemed at first only the perfunctory address of greeting—and then, to the amazement of the delegates assembled about the long conference tables, came out with a definite and detailed program.

The program included a ten-year naval holiday, during which no capital ships should be built; the abandonment of all capital-shipbuilding plans, either actual or projected; the scrapping, by the three nations, of almost two million tons of ships built or building; and the limitation of replacement according to a 5-5-3 ratio: the American and British navies to be kept at parity and the Japanese at three-fifths of the size of each.

“With the acceptance of this plan,” concluded Secretary Hughes amid a breathless silence, “the burden of meeting the demands of competition in naval armament will be lifted. Enormous sums will be released to aid the progress of civilization. At the same time the proper demands of national defense will be adequately met and the nations will have ample opportunity during the naval holiday of ten years to consider their future course. Preparation for offensive naval war will stop now.”


The effect of this direct and specific proposal was prodigious. At the proposal of a naval holiday, William Jennings Bryan, sitting among the newspaper men, expressed his enthusiasm with a yell of delight.

At the conclusion of Hughes’s speech the delegates broke into prolonged applause. It was echoed by the country and by the press of the world. People’s imaginations were so stirred by the boldness and effectiveness of the Hughes plan that the success of the conference became almost inevitable.

After three months of negotiation the delegates of Japan, Great Britain, and the United States had agreed upon a treaty which followed the general lines of the Hughes program; had joined with the French in an agreement to respect one another’s insular possessions in the Pacific, and to settle all disagreements by conciliatory negotiations; had prepared the way for the withdrawal of Japan from Shantung and Siberia; and had agreed to respect the principle of the open door in China.

The treaties were duly ratified by the Senate. The immediate causes of friction in the Pacific were removed; and although cynics might point out that competition in cruisers and submarines was little abated and that battleships were almost obsolete anyhow, the Naval Treaty at least lessened the burden of competition, as Secretary Hughes had predicted, and in addition set a precedent of profound importance.

The armaments which a nation built were now definitely recognized as being a matter of international concern, subject to international agreement.

Outwardly, then, things seemed to be going well for Warren Harding. He was personally popular; his friendly attitude toward business satisfied the conservative temper of the country; his Secretary of the Treasury was being referred to, wherever two or three bankers or industrialists gathered together, as the “greatest since Alexander Hamilton”; his Secretary of Commerce, Herbert Hoover, was aiding trade as efficiently as he had aided the Belgians; and even discouraged idealists had to admit that the Washington Conference had been no mean achievement.

Though there were rumors of graft and waste and mismanagement in some departments of the Government, and the director of the Veterans’ Bureau had had to leave his office in disgrace, and there was noisy criticism in Congress of certain leases of oil lands to Messrs. Doheny and Sinclair, these things attracted only a mild public interest.

When Harding left in the early summer of 1923 for a visit to Alaska, few people realized that anything was radically wrong with his administration. When, on his way home, he fell ill with what appeared to be ptomaine poisoning, and on his arrival at San Francisco his illness went into pneumonia, the country watched the daily headlines with affectionate concern.

And when, just as the danger appeared to have been averted, he died suddenly—on August 2, 1923—of what his physicians took to be a stroke of apoplexy, the whole nation was plunged into deep and genuine grief.

MOURNING FOR THE MARTYRED PRESIDENT. A portion of the black leaded front page of the ‘New York Times’ for August 3, 1923.

The President’s body was placed upon a special train, which proceeded across the country at the best possible speed to Washington. All along the route, thousands upon thousands of men, women, and children were gathered to see it slip by.

Cowboys on the Western hills dismounted and stood uncovered as the train passed. In the cities the throngs of mourners were so dense that the engineer had to reduce his speed and the train fell hours behind schedule. “It is believed,” wrote a reporter for the New York Times, “to be the most remarkable demonstration in American history of affection, respect, and reverence for the dead.”

When Warren Harding’s body, after lying in state at Washington, was taken to Marion for burial, his successor proclaimed a day of public mourning, business houses were closed, memorial services were held from one end of the country to the other, flags hung at half mast, and buildings were draped in black.

The innumerable speeches made that day expressed no merely perfunctory sentiments; everywhere people felt that a great-hearted man, bowed down with his labors in their behalf, had died a martyr to the service of his country. The dead President was called “a majestic figure who stood out like a rock of consistency”; it was said that “his vision was always on the spiritual”.

Bishop Manning of New York, speaking at a memorial service in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, seemed to be giving the fallen hero no more than his due when he cried, “If I could write one sentence upon his monument it would be this, ‘He taught us the power of brotherliness.’

“It is the greatest lesson that any man can teach us. It is the spirit of the Christian religion. In the spirit of brotherliness and kindness we can solve all the problems that confront us. . . . May God ever give to our country leaders as faithful, as wise, as noble in spirit, as the one whom we now mourn.”

WARREN G. HARDING. Nice person, poor choice of friends.

But as it happens, there are some problems—at least for a President of the United States—that the spirit of brotherliness and kindness will not alone solve.

The problem, for example, of what to do when those to whom you have been all too brotherly have enmeshed your administration in graft, and you know that the scandal cannot long be concealed, and you feel your whole life-work toppling into disgrace. That was the problem which had killed Warren Harding.

A rumor that the President committed suicide by taking poison later gained wide currency through the publication of Samuel Hopkins Adams’s Revelry, a novel largely based on the facts of the Harding Administration.

Gaston B. Means, a Department of Justice detective and a member of the gang which revolved about Daugherty, implied only too clearly in The Strange Death of President Harding that the President was poisoned by his wife, with the connivance of Doctor Sawyer.

The motive, according to Means, was a double one: Mrs. Harding had found out about Nan Britton and the illegitimate daughter and was consumed with a bitter and almost insane jealousy; and she had learned enough about the machinations of Harding’s friends and the power that they had over him to feel that only death could save him from obloquy.

Both the suicide theory and the Means story are very plausible. The ptomaine poisoning came, it was said, from eating crab meat on the presidential boat on the return from Alaska, but the list of supplies in the steward’s pantry contained no crab meat and no one else in the presidential party was taken ill.

Furthermore, the fatal “stroke of apoplexy” occurred when the President was recovering from pneumonia, Mrs. Harding was apparently alone with him at the time, and the verdict of the physicians, not being based upon an autopsy, was hardly more than an expression of opinion.

Yet it is not necessary to accept any such melodramatic version of the tragedy to acknowledge that Harding died a victim of the predicament in which he was caught. He knew too much of what had been going on in his administration to be able to face the future.

On the Alaskan trip, he was dearly in a state of tragic fear; according to William Allen White, “he kept asking Secretary Hoover and the more trusted reporters who surrounded him what a President should do whose friends had betrayed him.” Whatever killed him—poison or heart failure—did so the more easily because he had lost the will to live.


Of all this, of course, the country as a whole guessed nothing at the time. Their friend and President was dead, they mourned his death, and they applauded the plans of the Harding Memorial Association to raise a great monument in his honor. It was only afterward that the truth came out, piece by piece.

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