Around here, it isn’t hard to figure out that we have a certain affinity for American Presidential history. Which brings me to Jason’s post on Warren G. Harding, the 29th President of the United States, and an essay that appeared on First Principles titled, “Warren Harding and the Forgotten Depression of 1920.”
Harding, throughout history, has been labeled, fairly or unfairly, one of the worst Presidents that has graced the American political scene. H.L. Mencken wrote of him after his death, “He was first to last, and obscure man, even as President. No salient piece of legislation bears his name. He led no great national movement. He solved no great public problem. He said nothing arresting or memorable.”
As history often does, it proves observers of present day moments, such as journalists, wrong. There is hardly anyway to see past the moment into the future and guess the legacies people might leave behind them or how they might influence. Harding might just be an example of this.
The most obvious place to start is his dealing with the 1920-21 Recession which acted as one of the inspirations for this post.
First Principles-The economic situation in 1920 was grim. By that year unemployment had jumped from 4 percent to nearly 12 percent, and GNP declined 17 percent. No wonder, then, that Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover—falsely characterized as a supporter of laissez-faire economics—urged President Harding to consider an array of interventions to turn the economy around. Hoover was ignored.
Instead of “fiscal stimulus,” Harding cut the government’s budget nearly in half between 1920 and 1922. The rest of Harding’s approach was equally laissez-faire. Tax rates were slashed for all income groups. The national debt was reduced by one-third. The Federal Reserve’s activity, moreover, was hardly noticeable. As one economic historian puts it, “Despite the severity of the contraction, the Fed did not move to use its powers to turn the money supply around and fight the contraction.” 2 By the late summer of 1921, signs of recovery were already visible. The following year, unemployment was back down to 6.7 percent and was only 2.4 percent by 1923.
Another of Harding’s more positive contribution to the political landscape of America was popularizing the civil rights movements. Harding was one of the first sitting Presidents to address the idea of equal rights for all Americans.
Marion History-By the 1920s the Ku Klux Klan had its largest membership ever and had become a formidable political force in many parts of the nation. On October 26, 1921, in a speech in Birmingham, Alabama, President Harding advocated civil rights for all segments of the American populace, including African Americans. Earlier, he had proposed appointing African Americans to federal positions and supported an anti-lynching bill and establishment of an interracial commission to find ways to improve race relations. Politicians from both the Republican and Democratic parties had a hand in thwarting these presidential initiatives.
Harding also created the Veteran’s Bureau. At the time there was no social infrastructure in place to deal with the problems facing veterans returning home from WW I. Many were displaced, crippled, or mentally incapable of normalcy. Although the Bureau was plagued with corruption it was later consolidated with the Bureau of Pensions of the Interior Department and the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers into the Veteran’s Administration. This created a more comprehensive government approach to answering the needs of the country’s veterans.
Among his other accomplishments, Harding was the first President to become involved with the budgetary and fiscal expenditures of the United States, officially ended WW I, and assisted the country in returning to its normal state of affairs after the war.
However, one of Hardings most famous quotes exemplifies the troubles that followed his Presidency.
“I have no trouble with my enemies. I can take care of my enemies in a fight. But my friends, my goddamned friends, they’re the ones who keep me walking the floor at nights!”
Harding’s administration was afflicted with corruption brought on by his “friends.”
- Albert Hall (Secretary of the Interior)-TeaPot Dome Scandal
- Thomas W. Miller (Office of Alien Property)-Convicted of conspiring to defraud the American government. Served 18 months in federal prison but was later pardoned in 1933 by then President Herbert Hoover.
- Harry M. Daughtery (Attorney General)-Although never convicted on any particular criminal activity, it was widely alleged that Daughtery was engaged in working with bootleggers and resulted in investigations into illicit activities. At the time the 18th Amendment strictly prohibited the manufacture or sales of alcohol. Despite never being found guilty of any wrongdoing, Daughtery resigned his post as AG on March 28, 1924 while the Senate was still conducting its investigation.
- Charles R. Forbes-(First Director of the Veterans Bureau) While serving in his appointment it was found that Forbes had entered into corrupt arrangements with a number of contractors, particularly with those involved in the operation of hospitals, and sold government property at a fraction of its value.This resulted in him embezzling $200 million from the United States government. After fleeing to Europe he was later convicted, fined $10,000, and served two years in Leavenworth.
With all of this in mind, there was never any evidence that President Harding was involved with or even had knowledge of the corruption that riddled his administration. Unfortunately for the President he passed away from a heart attack in San Francisco on August 2, 1923 and was never able to defend himself against allegations.
Often history is written by the victorious, other times it is written under the veil of opinion. However, looking through the prism of history often, more than not, shows us a different picture than we first assumed. This leaves us scratching our heads saying, “Wow, I always thought…”