On September 23rd, 1920 Democratic Vice Presidential candidate Franklin Roosevelt spoke at the Convention Hall. A few weeks later, Roosevelt would be overshadowed by the visit to Rochester by the popular Republican presidential candidate, Ohio Governor Warren G. Harding.
With the Great War over, Harding ran on the slogan “Back to Normalcy.” In November, Harding/Coolidge won in a landslide: 60.3 – 34.2% over Cox/Roosevelt.
The Socialist Party candidate Eugene V. Debs did well, receiving 913,664 popular votes (3.4%) despite being in prison for advocating non-compliance with the draft during World War I.
According to Maurice Isserman, Debs received 9,991 votes in Rochester.
In “Inheritance Lost: Socialism in Rochester, 1917 – 1919” (Rochester History, 1977), Isserman shows that socialist candidates in Rochester — like similar cities such as Milwaukee with sizable German-American populations — did relatively well, even during the the Red Scares of 1919 and 1920. Isserman claims the Rochester socialist movement peaked between 1912 and 1918, and was on the decline by 1920. The D & C was not particularly unsympathetic to socialist candidates. When campaigning in Debs’ absence, Seymor Stedman and Eugene Wood were referred to as stars.
Harding’s campaign exploited the relatively new technologies of motion picture newsreels, audio recordings and the telephone. For example, telemarketers made phone calls with scripted dialogues promoting Harding. In a version of the celebrity selfie, visitors to Harding’s home in Marion, Ohio had their photographs taken with the Senator and Mrs. Harding with copies sent to their hometown newspapers.
Harding also bolstered his candidacy by ensuring women voters he strongly favored the passage 19th Amendment. On July 14th, Harding appealed to legislators in both Tennessee and North Carolina to ratify the 19th Amendment “in time to give the whole body of American women the ballot next November.”
Harding’s opponent Cox strenuously backed women’s suffrage; no doubt Harding not want to be on the wrong side of the electoral fence.
In 1916, the women’s vote helped the Democrat Wilson win. In 1920, the women’s vote swung Harding’s way.
The 1920 campaign was not without the typical ugly race baiting of its day. During the last days of the campaign, Democratic opponents spread rumors that Harding’s great-great-grandfather was a black West Indian and his father a mulatto. Claiming he came from “white pioneer stock,” Harding refused to acknowledge or respond to the allegations.
Having long experienced health problems, Harding died in office on August 3rd, 1923 from a heart attack while visiting San Francisco on an extended western trip. Florence Harding died just 15 months after her husband from kidney disease.
Rochester mourned Harding with a prolonged and general moment of silence and with a giant wreath placed in the lobby of the Central Y.M.C.A.
At the time of his death, Harding was well liked by the general public, but the subsequent exposure of scandals that took place under his administration, such as Teapot Dome, eroded his popular regard.
Over the years, Harding’s reputation suffered further as rumors and information about his extramarital affairs came to light.
Before becoming President, Harding had an affair with Carrie Fulton Phillips, also a friend of Mrs. Florence Harding.
Apparently, the affair ended during the 1920 campaign. At that time, Phillips blackmailed Harding, threatening to make public his love letters to her.
Apparently, the blackmail was successful. In return for Phillips’ silence on the matter, the Republican Party offered to pay her way for an extended tour of Asia and the Pacific Islands, as well as an annual stipend for the remainder of Phillips’ life.
As Mrs. Harding did not separate from her husband over the affair (which she believed was not his first with one of her friends), we can see parallels with Hillary Clinton’s decisions to stay with Bill despite his extramarital affairs.
Harding also had an affair with Nan Britton. Britton claimed Harding had fathered a “love child” with her. Last summer, DNA tests corroborated Britton’s claim.
Historians consistently rank Harding as one of — if not the worst — presidents. In 1948, Arthur Schlesinger Sr. ranked Harding 29th of 29, and then in 1962 at 31st of 31. In 1996, Schlesinger’s son, Arthur Jr., ranked Harding 40th out of 40.
I think Harding’s low rankings overlook his strong positions on African-American civil rights. During the 1920 campaign, he supported the ultimately failed Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill. Harding’s support for the bill motivated attempts to”smear” him by imputing Harding had black ancestry. And, on October 21st, 1921, Harding delivered a speech in Alabama condemning lynchings.Harding’s progressive positions remind of us of the periods in history when the Republican Party often took the lead on civil rights. By contrast, over the course of the New Deal, FDR had numerous opportunities to advance anti-lynching legislation, but consistently shied away for fear of alienating southern whites.
On another Republican president who was also strong on civil rights but also low in the historical rankings, see Memorial Day, 1892, when President Benjamin Harrison dedicated the Soldier’s and Sailor’s Monument in Washington Square Park with Frederick Douglass.
Across North America are some traces of President Harding.
The Harding Tomb, also known as the Harding Memorial in Marion, Ohio is a popular tourist destination. A plaque in New Jersey marks the spot where on July 2, 1921, President Warren Harding officially canceled hostilities between the U.S. and Germany by signing the final peace treaty of the war. According to roadside.com, at that time the spot was inside the mansion of a New Jersey senator, and Harding was reportedly called in from a game of golf to initial the papers. On the Corner of 9th St and St. Joseph St in Rapids City, SD is a bronze Harding statue.
In Stanley Park, Vancouver, British Columbia the Harding International Good Will Memorial was dedicated on September 16th, 1925. Although the United States had not entered the League of Nation, Harding’s administration worked with Japan and England to decommission large numbers of ships built during World War I.
The Memorial is a poignant reminder that in the 1920s the world hoped that the Great War just concluded would truly be the war to end all wars.
According to a history of the Gates Chili Central School District:
By 1827 area residents felt the need for yet another school and District Number 11 was built on what is now Spencerport Road. In 1925 voters approved a proposal to build a new, bigger school on the site. The Warren Harding School went on to serve district students up until 1981-82, after which it was sold. Northstar Christian Academy is currently operated on the site.
Given Harding’s popularity in 1925 — as well as the popularity of his successor Calvin Coolidge — it is not surprising the school was named in Harding’s memory.
The other day I contacted the staff of Northstar who were happy to supply what they could of Harding’s surviving presence. Receptionist & Attendance Clerk Peggy Terry mentioned that very day someone had seen Harding’s engraved name outside the school and wondered if “Harding” was President Warren G. Harding.
Pastor and Yearbook advisor JJ Garwood took pictures of the engraved name and plaque. Head of High School Rob Johnson sent along an article from the 1974 school newspaper. The article, “Harding Writes Again,” notes that somewhere buried on the Northstar grounds — time capsule-like — is an anonymous booklet about the history of the Harding School.
PRESIDENTIAL VISITS SERIES