The Jazz Age President: Defending Warren G. Harding
By Ryan S. Walters
(Regnery History, 320 pages, $25.44)
Warren G. Harding, who was president from 1921 until his death in 1923, has been disparaged, defamed, and derided for the past century. The journalist H.L. Mencken famously said of the Republican president: “No other such complete and dreadful nitwit is to be found in the pages of American history.” Journalists, historians, and scholars have been highly critical of the two-year Harding presidency, broadly categorizing it as punctuated by ineptitude and scandal. Harding, who enjoyed a high level of popularity with the American people during his lifetime, has the dubious distinction of finishing last in every major presidential poll from 1948 to 1996.
While his ratings have improved in more recent presidential polls such as C-Span’s 2021 Presidential Historians Survey, he remains in the failure category. The former newspaperman has been described as a lazy, easily corruptible womanizer. Even Harding’s death while in office by cardiac arrest has been fodder for the libelous legend that his wife Florence poisoned him.
While Harding’s critics are ever-present, some contemporary historians and journalists now view the Ohio native’s brief tenure in the White House in a more favorable light. Historian Ryan S. Walters has added his voice to this hopefully growing chorus with his new book The Jazz Age President: Defending Warren G. Harding. Walters asserts that the Harding administration had several significant accomplishments which historians have completely ignored. While he acknowledges the administration’s scandals, he argues that Harding took corrective action once he became aware of them. Although he states that there is evidence Harding participated in two extramarital relationships including one that produced a child, he claims that the rumors of excessive womanizing are overblown.
When I was a high school junior, my history teacher made a cursory remark about Harding which stayed with me. He described him as an ineffective, scandalous president whose only positive attribute was his good looks. My teacher’s cavalier dismissal of Harding reflects the “worst president” narrative which continues to this day. The fact that historians on both sides of the aisle have disparaged the Harding administration has had the unintended consequence of virtually obliterating it from elementary, high school, and university curricula.
Walters’s The Jazz Age President is a welcome ray of sunlight for the scholars, students, and history buffs still in the dark about the Harding legacy. The author endeavors to improve Harding’s profile by enumerating his many accomplishments during his 882 days in office. When Harding assumed the reins of the presidency, the nation was on the brink of economic collapse largely due to the $50 billion that his predecessor President Woodrow Wilson had spent on World War I. American debt was $1.2 billion in 1916 and skyrocketed to $26 billion in 1919, with most of the increase coming from Liberty bonds sold to finance the war.
In his efforts to return the nation to “normalcy,” Harding immediately implemented programs to save the cratering economy. He imposed tariffs on agricultural imports to protect the nation’s farmers. He dramatically reduced the progressive income taxes of the Wilson administration by slashing the top marginal tax rate from 77 percent to 32 percent. Harding’s astute Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon successfully persuaded the Federal Reserve to refinance its debt at a lower interest rate which facilitated reducing the national debt from $50 billion to $22.3 billion within two years. Gross domestic product, which had fallen to $69.6 billion in 1921, rebounded to $85.1 billion in 1923. The stock market also rallied 37 percent from 1920 to 1923.
Walters additionally credits Harding with championing an America First foreign policy which was evidenced by his rejection of Wilson’s League of Nations proposal in his March 4, 1921, inaugural address: “America can be a party to no permanent military alliance. It can enter into no political commitments, nor assume any economic obligations which will subject our decisions to any other than our own authority.” While Harding clearly opposed the globalist perspective of his predecessor, he still saw the value of international collaboration on certain matters such as the deployment of justice. Consequently, he entreated the Senate to encourage American membership in the Permanent Court of International Justice at The Hague.
Harding had other significant accomplishments. He created the Budget Bureau, the precursor to today’s Office of Management and Budget, and established the Veterans Bureau. He appointed four justices to the Supreme Court and was the first president to advocate for equal rights for black Americans. Moreover, he was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for initiating the Washington Conference on Limitation of Armaments which led to a reduced production of large naval vessels.
The author argues that history has over-dramatized the Harding scandals of which the Teapot Dome is the most famous. Harding’s Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall persuaded the Secretary of the Navy Edward Denby to transfer control of the oil wells to his department. Fall, who was experiencing personal financial hardship at the time, leased the Teapot Dome and Elk Hills oil wells to private oilmen Harry Sinclair and Edward Doheny respectively and pocketed bribes from them totaling $400,000. The scandal, which did not hit the press until after Harding’s death, was litigated until 1929 when Fall became the first cabinet secretary to receive a jail sentence. Walters maintains that Fall, who was unanimously confirmed as secretary of the interior, presented no past behavioral evidence that he would be susceptible to bribery. He further asserts that Harding had no knowledge of Fall’s actions and that his reputation suffered because he was not alive to defend himself when the scandal broke. (READ MORE: Letter to the Editor: The Most Corrupt President in American History Was Not Warren Harding)
Although Walters allows that Harding had at least two extramarital affairs before he became president, including a liaison with Nan Britton, which produced a child as DNA evidence has corroborated, he argues that elaborate fabrications about this liaison were created to further impugn Harding’s reputation. The source of these allegations was often Britton herself, who self-published a book to cash in on Harding’s celebrity.
Walters takes issue with historians using Harding’s self-effacing manner against him. When considering running for presidential office in 1919, Harding confided to a friend in a letter: “I have such a sure understanding of my own inefficiency that I should be ashamed to presume myself fitted to reach out for a place of such responsibility.” Scholars took that to mean that even Harding himself knew he was unqualified to be president. Walters posits that this statement was not an acknowledgment of Harding’s inadequacy but an “admirable display of humility.”
Harding also came under fire for his so-called “lack of vision.” Walter counters with the argument that a “conservative vision” for the American presidency is “almost an oxymoron” because conservatives believe in “a restrained government that remains within its constitutional bounds and a presidency that resides within its clearly defined limitations.”
The Jazz Age President: Defending Warren G. Harding is a highly engaging book that reexamines the Harding presidency by highlighting its concrete accomplishments which history has obscured. Walters is to be commended for presenting Harding as a flawed individual but effective leader who took tangible steps to return America to normalcy during his brief moment at its helm.