Presidential Biographies: Warren G. Harding #29

My quest to read (at least) one biography per President continues with Warren G. Harding, the twenty-ninth President of the United States. My normal selection process for finding a biography (reading reviews online and utilizing and this website- My Journey Through the Best Presidential Biographies) was made difficult by the dearth of biographies written about Harding. You’d think being President would give you a surefire path to having biographies churned out about you every so often, but you’d be wrong. Anyway, I chose The Harding Era by Robert K. Murray. 

Here, I’ll offer my thoughts on that biography, and proceed to present my official ranking for the DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES!!!!!! The full list of the rankings with all the Presidents as well as comments on their careers, updated as I read through this list, may be found here.

Warren G. Harding- The Harding Era by Robert K. Murray

Warren Gamaliel [how’s that for a biblical middle name?] Harding was clearly one of the more corrupt Presidents that our country has ever had. Murray’s biography focuses almost exclusively on his Presidency, so I was left to other sources to research Harding’s early life. Harding ran his town’s newspaper before he got fully into politics, and one almost wonders if this impacted his later life as he almost begged to have sordid headlines written about him later on. 

As President, Harding faced many challenges, both home and abroad. The end of World War I still loomed over the world and many questions raised by the armistice were unresolved by the time Harding was sworn in. Demobilization of the military, social and economic readjustments thereof, Congress was largely floundering with no clear leadership, lack of postwar planning in general, and massive labor issues were among the several challenges Harding faced immediately.

The League of Nations was one of the largest foreign policy challenges, and Harding ran, in part, on a kind of opposition ticket. Oddly, he favored something very similar but wouldn’t name it as a “League of Nations,” opting for looser terms. That’s not all that different from many politicians today who fail to acknowledge by name the policies or policy-makers who make popular decisions, but it doesn’t make it any more frustrating. Harding ultimately managed to convene a naval conference that led to limits on the building of navies worldwide and managed to maintain some semblance of peace for a decade until nations flagrantly violated the treaty. One may fairly ask whether Harding’s own opposition to a stronger League may be to blame for the massive military buildups that then occurred. 

Demobilization had to happen swiftly for Americans to be satisfied. The War was won, so the general consensus was there was no reason to keep soldiers in place. But because of a total lack of planning for what should happen after the war–something the biography Murray blames almost entirely upon Woodrow Wilson–this rapid demobilization led to economic turmoil and collapse. Harding thus tried to navigate these economic problems by supporting farmers and then attempting to give some concessions to labor.

But even as he did this, Harding installed benefactors and friends in important positions in government, resulting in numerous scandals as these people proved to be incompetent or blatantly in violation of U.S. laws. Harding botched his handling of many of these affairs, and may have been involved in scandalous affairs himself. 

Harding also strongly supported the notion and wording of “America First,” a policy that many probably don’t know can be traced back to Harding and beyond. Harding’s notion of America First was quite popular and involved strong anti-immigration sentiment. This was backed by anti-Catholic sentiment as well and notions that people from certain European countries were more to be favored as citizens than those from others. This ethnically charged concept of what it means to be “American” persists to this day, and we can thank the legacy of unfortunately popular policies like those of Harding, in part, for this persistence. 

Overall, Harding’s Presidency did help bring peace back to the world, though, as is unfortunately the case with so many of our Presidents, this peace and attempt to bring forward prosperity was largely directed towards select white elites. 

Warren G. Harding’s Original Ranking in THE DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES (Full and Updated List Here)

Warren Harding (29th President – Original Ranking #25)- Harding tackled some of the major problems that the Wilson administration left behind, and did so with some success at points. His navigation of international waters (in some cases, literally) helped bring peace through mutual agreement over naval treaties and other efforts to maintain lasting peace. Though these ultimately failed, it is hard to lay much of the blame for the failure at Harding’s feet. However, we can blame much ongoing racial tension and white supremacy at Harding’s feet and his promotion of the quite popular (now and then) “America First” policies he favored. Moreover, his Presidency was wracked with scandal and corruption on a scale that impacted domestic policy and wide ranges of people. It seems clear more evaluation of Harding is warranted, and it would be interesting to see more modern takes on his time in office.


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