I’ve just finished John Dean’s biography of Warren Gamaliel Harding, American president from 1921 to 1923[i], and I am struck by the parallels between that period almost exactly 100 years ago with the political drama playing out today.
(For those of you who haven’t read Dean’s book, I should say here that I am not making the obvious reference to the scandals that plagued Harding’s last year in office and the decade after his death. With the rediscovery of his presidential papers[ii], thought to have been destroyed by his widow, a new image of Harding and his presidency emerges in this biography.)
Warren Harding was, by all accounts, a handsome man who looked presidential — perhaps no parallel here — and who spoke in easy if not profound platitudes. (William McAdoo described his “bloviating” thus: “an army of pompous phrases moving over the landscape in search of an idea. Sometimes these meandering words actually capture a straggling thought and bear it triumphantly, a prisoner in their midst, until it dies of servitude and over work.”[iii])
The intelligentsia were not impressed:
“The New Republic called Harding ‘…without strength of character, without administrative experience, without knowledge of international politics, without any of those moral or intellectual qualities which would qualify him even under ordinary conditions for statesmanlike leadership.’ ” [iv]
Harding was a businessman, having owned and run the Marion, Ohio, Star newspapers for some years, and he was exquisitely aware of the problems plaguing the American economy after the World War – hundreds of thousands of men returning all at once to the work force, threats to agriculture and other sectors from stabilizing European markets, labor unrest, and the burden of emergency war taxation. The League of Nations had been voted down in Congress, and Harding offered voters a chance to turn their focus inward. He said:
“[We must] make sure our own house is in perfect order before we attempt the miracle of Old World stabilization. Call it selfishness or nationality if you will, I think it an inspiration to patriotic devotion — to safeguard America first, to stabilize America first, to prosper America first, to live for and revere America first.”[v]
He might have added, let’s make America great again.
“Harding … talk[ed] about his new favorite subject — Americanism, which had become something of a Republican mantra in 1920. What was Americanism? When asked, Republican senator Boies Penrose of Pennsylvania said, ‘Damned if I know, but you will find it a damn good issue to get votes in an election.”[vi]
His focus on Americanism brought two corollaries with it. Dean describes the first:
“Nativism, that ugly sister of nationalism, had emerged in the aftermath of the war [World War I]. Foreigners were suspect and unwanted. The fact that they were taking jobs during a time of serious unemployment aggravated the nation’s nativistic mood and produced almost universal support … for restricting immigration.” [vii]
The result was Per Centum Law, signed on May 19, 1921, which limited the number of immigrants admitted from any country annually to 3% of the number of residents from that same country living in the United States as of the U.S. Census of 1910.
The second corollary was more complex and had consequences for every American. Harding began his term as a supporter of strong tariffs to protect the interests of American business. As he studied the problem with the help of economist William S. Culbertson, his views became more nuanced and he advocated a tariff policy with restrictions that could be adjusted to respond to changes in American and foreign markets. Dean again:
“By July 1921 the House passed a bill that increased tariffs across the board…. Harding soon found that the new law was not sufficiently flexible to prevent repercussions, and agriculture was first to suffer from the high tariffs, followed soon by other industries in later years…. While in office [Harding] remained favorable to protective tariffs. So too did his successors (Coolidge and Hover), until the American financial system collapsed in 1929, with tariffs playing their own role in the financial market’s crash.” [viii] (Emphasis mine.)
After his election, it was Harding’s desire to bring a business-like management to the federal government. To give credit where it’s due, he established the Office of the Budget and Management and combined three competitive organizations into the new Veteran’s Administration. Both of these actions resulted in savings and increased efficiency.
He was soon to learn, however, that running the government had little in common with running a family business, and the hands-on approach that had worked well in Marion, OH, was less effective in the Oval Office. His determination to master his ever-increasing workload most certainly hastened his death by heart failure three years into his term.
Can we say with Karl Marx,
“History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce”?
[i] John W. Dean, Warren G. Harding (The American President Series, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., General Editor), New York, Henry Holt & Company, 2004.
[ii] These papers are now held by the Ohio History Connection, https://www.ohiohistory.org/learn/archives-library.
[iii] Ibid, 79.
[iv] Ibid, 67.
[v] Warren G. Harding, Our Common Country, Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1921, 64-65.
[vi] Dean, Warren G. Harding, 55.
[vii] Ibid., 101.
[viii] Ibid., 103-105.