President Warren Harding

One of the Worst U.S. Presidents in History

Picture of U.S. President Warren G. Harding.
Studio headshot portrait of 29th United States President Warren Gamaliel Harding. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Who Was Warren Harding?

Warren Harding, a Republican from Ohio, was the 29th President of the United States. He died while crossing the nation on a train tour during his third year in office. After his mysterious death, it was discovered that Warren Harding had been involved in several adulterous affairs and that his cabinet was severely corrupt. Many historians consider him one of the worst U.S. Presidents.

Dates: November 2, 1865 – August 2, 1923

Also Known As: Warren G. Harding, President Warren Harding

Growing Up

Born on a farm near Corsica, Ohio, on November 2, 1865, Warren Gamaliel Harding was the firstborn of eight children of Phoebe (nee Dickerson) and George Tryon Harding.

Harding’s father, who went by “Tryon,” was not only a farmer but also a buyer and seller of businesses (later he also became a doctor). In 1875, Harding’s father bought the Caledonia Argus, a failing newspaper, and moved his family to Caledonia, Ohio. After school, ten-year-old Harding swept the floor, cleaned the printing press, and learned to set type.

In 1879, 14-year-old Harding went to his father’s alma mater, Ohio Central College in Iberia, where he studied Latin, math, science, and philosophy. With an expressive voice, Harding excelled at writing and debating and founded the school’s newspaper, the Spectator. He received a Bachelor of Science degree in 1882 at the age of 17 and proceeded to find a career.

A Suitable Career

In 1882, Warren Harding acquired a job as a schoolmaster at White Schoolhouse in Marion, Ohio, hating every minute of it; he quit before the end of the school year. On the advice of his father, Harding tried to learn law under the tutorship of a Marion attorney. He found that boring and quit.

He then tried selling insurance, but made a costly mistake and had to pay the difference. He quit.

In May 1884, Tryon bought another failing newspaper, the Marion Star, and made his son the editor. Harding thrived at this business, covering not only human-interest stories but also his rising interest in Republican politics. When his father was forced to sell the Marion Star in order to pay a debt, Harding and two friends, Jack Warwick and Johnnie Sickle, pooled their money and bought the business.

Sickle soon lost interest and sold his share to Harding. Warwick lost his share to Harding in a poker game, but stayed on as a reporter. At the age of 19, Warren Harding was not only the editor of the Marion Star but now its sole owner.

A Suitable Wife

Tall, handsome Warren Harding, now a leading figure in the town of Marion, started dating his strongest opponent’s daughter, Florence Kling DeWolfe. Florence was recently divorced, five years older than Harding, and homely, but also ambitious.

Amos Kling, Florence’s father (and one of the wealthiest men in Marion) backed the rivaling newspaper, the Marion Independent, and made it clear that he did not want his daughter dating Harding. This, however, did not stop the couple.

On July 8, 1891, 26-year-old Warren Harding and 31-year-old Florence married; Amos Kling refused to attend the wedding.

After two and a half years of marriage, Harding began suffering severe bouts of stomach pain due to exhaustion and nervous fatigue. When Harding’s business manager at the Marion Star quit his job while Harding was recuperating at the Battle Creek Sanitarium in Michigan, Florence, whom Harding called “the Duchess,” picked up the reins and took over as business manager.

Florence subscribed to a news wire service to bring global news to the county within 24 hours of its occurrence. As a result, the Marion Star became so successful that the Hardings were revered as one of Marion’s most prominent couples. With a generous income, the couple built a green-shingled Victorian home on Mount Vernon Avenue in Marion, entertained their neighbors, and revived their relationship with Amos.

Growing Interest in Politics and Love Affairs

On July 5, 1899, Warren Harding announced in the Marion Star his Republican interest for state senator. Winning the Republican Party nomination, Harding began campaigning. With his ability to write and deliver eloquent speeches with an expressive voice, Harding won the election and took his place in the Ohio State Senate in Columbus, Ohio.

Harding was well liked due to his good looks, ready jokes, and eagerness for a poker game. Florence managed her husband’s contacts, finances, and the Marion Star. Harding was re-elected for a second term in 1901.

Two years later, Harding was nominated to run for lieutenant governor with Republican Myron Herrick running for governor. Together they won the election and served the 1904 to 1906 term. Experiencing intra-party bickering, Harding served as peacemaker and compromiser. The following term, the Herrick and Harding ticket lost to the Democratic opponents.

Meanwhile, Florence suffered emergency kidney surgery in 1905 and Harding began an affair with Carrie Phillips, a neighbor. The secret affair lasted for 15 years.

The Republican Party nominated Harding in 1909 to run for Governor of Ohio, but the Democratic nominee, Judson Harmon, won the gubernatorial race. Harding, nevertheless, stayed involved in politics but went back to working on his newspaper.

In 1911, Florence discovered her husband’s affair with Phillips, but did not divorce her husband despite the fact that Harding did not break off the affair.

In 1914, Harding campaigned and won a seat in the U.S. Senate.

Senator Warren Harding

Moving to Washington in 1915, Senator Warren Harding became a popular Senator, again liked by his cohorts for his willingness to play poker but also because he never made enemies – a direct byproduct of him avoiding conflict as well as avoiding controversial votes.

In 1916, Harding made a keynote address at the Republican National Convention in which he coined the term “Founding Fathers,” a term still used today.

When the time came in 1917 to vote on a declaration of war in Europe (World War I), Harding’s mistress, a German sympathizer, threatened Harding that if he voted in favor of war she would make his love letters public. Ever the compromiser, Senator Harding spoke out that the U.S. had no right to tell any country what kind of government they should have; he then voted in favor of the declaration of war along with most of the Senate. Phillips seemed appeased.

Senator Harding soon received a letter from Nan Britton, an acquaintance of his from Marion, Ohio, asking if he could find her a job in a Washington office. After procuring her an office position, Harding then began a secret affair with her. In 1919, Britton gave birth to Harding’s daughter, Elizabeth Ann. Although Harding did not publicly acknowledge the child, he gave Britton money to support his daughter.

President Warren Harding

In the last days of President Woodrow Wilson’s term, the Republican National Convention in 1920 chose Senator Warren Harding (now with six years experience in the Senate) as one of their choices for presidential nomination.

When the front three candidates faded for various reasons, Warren Harding became the Republican nominee. With Calvin Coolidge as his running mate, the Harding and Coolidge ticket ran against the Democratic team of James M. Cox and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Rather than traveling across the country to campaign, Warren Harding stayed home in Marion, Ohio, and conducted a front-porch campaign. He promised to return the war-weary nation to healing, normalcy, a stronger economy, and away from foreign influence.

Florence spoke candidly with reporters, knowing the power of newspapers, sharing recipes and giving her anti-League of Nations and pro-suffrage political views. Phillips was given hush money and sent on a trip around the world until after the election. The Hardings used their Victorian home to entertain stage and screen stars for endorsements. Warren Harding won the election with an unprecedented 60 percent of the popular vote.

On March 4, 1921, 55-year-old Warren Harding became the 29th President and 60-year-old Florence Harding became the First Lady. President Harding created the Bureau of the Budget to oversee government spending and held a disarmament conference to provide an alternative to the League of Nations. He asked for backing for the nation’s highway system, for government regulation of the radio industry, and for the conversion of part of the U.S. naval fleet to be used as a merchant marine.

Harding also supported women’s suffrage and publicly condemned lynching (mob executions of individuals, usually by white supremists). However, Harding did not pressure Congress, feeling it was their duty to make laws and policy. The dominant Republican Congress bickered, which kept many of Harding’s suggestions from being put into effect.

Cabinet Corruption

In 1922, while the First Lady advocated for World War I disabled veterans, Charles Forbes, appointed as head of the Veterans’ Bureau in Washington, misused his power. The Veterans’ Bureau was granted $500 million to build and operate ten nationwide veterans’ hospitals. With this vast budget, Forbes gave the building contracts to his construction business friends, allowing them to overcharge the government.

Forbes also declared that the incoming supplies were damaged and sold them at bargain prices to a Boston company, which secretly gave him a kickback. Forbes then bought new supplies at ten times their worth (from other business friends) and even sold supplies of alcohol to illegal bootleggers during Prohibition.

When President Harding found out about Forbes’ actions, Harding sent for Forbes. Harding was so angry that he grabbed Forbes by the neck and shook him. In the end, however, Harding let go and allowed Forbes to resign, but Forbes’ betrayal laid heavy on the President’s mind.

Voyage of Understanding

On June 20, 1923, President Harding, the First Lady, and their supportive staff (including Dr. Sawyer, their doctor, and Dr. Boone, the doctor’s assistant) boarded the Superb, a ten-car train taking them cross-country on the “Voyage of Understanding.” The two-month trip was designed so that the President could persuade the nation to vote to join the Permanent Court of International Justice, a world court to settle disputes between nations. Harding saw a chance to put his positive mark on history.

Talking to enthusiastic crowds, President Harding was exhausted by the time he got to Tacoma, Washington. Nevertheless, he boarded a boat for a four-day trip to Alaska, the first president to visit the Alaskan territory. Harding asked Secretary of Commerce (and future U.S. president) Herbert Hoover, who joined the expedition, if he would reveal a great scandal in the administration if he knew about it. Hoover said he would in order to show integrity. Harding continued to obsess over Forbes’ betrayal, undecided about what to do.

Death of President Harding

President Harding developed severe stomach cramps in Seattle. In San Francisco, a suite of rooms at the Palace Hotel was obtained for Harding to rest. Dr. Sawyer declared the President’s heart was enlarged and there were other implications of heart disease, but Dr. Boone thought the President was suffering from food poisoning.

On evening of August 2, 1923, 57-year-old President Warren Harding died in his sleep. Florence refused an autopsy (an action that seemed suspicious a the time) and Harding’s body was quickly embalmed.

While Vice President Calvin Coolidge was sworn in as the 30th President, Harding’s body was placed in a casket, carried onto the Superb, and taken back to Washington D.C. Mourners watched the train covered in black streamers as it went through their cities and towns along the way. After his burial in Marion, Ohio, Florence hurried back to D.C. and cleaned out her husband’s office, burning numerous papers in his fireplace, papers she felt might damage his reputation. Her actions didn’t help.

Scandals Revealed

President Harding’s cabinet underwent scandal in 1924 when a congressional investigation revealed that Forbes had cost the U.S. government more than $200 million.

The investigation further revealed more cabinet corruption, including the Teapot Dome Scandal in which another cabinet member, Secretary of the Interior Albert B. Fall, leased Navy petroleum reserves at Teapot Dome, Wyoming, to private oil companies at low rates without competitive bidding. Fall was convicted of accepting bribes from the oil companies.

Moreover, Nan Britton’s book in 1927, The President’s Daughter, revealed Harding’s affair with her, further tarnishing the nation’s 29th president.

Although President Harding’s cause of death remained unclear at the time, with some even claiming that Florence had poisoned Harding, today doctors believe that he had a heart attack.