On October 26, 1921, President Warren Gamaliel Harding visited Birmingham, Alabama, for the 50th anniversary of the town's inauguration. Before an audience of black people and white people, segregated by local authorities, Harding did something no American president had done before; he spoke out for civil rights in the South. He said, “Let the black man vote when he is fit to vote; prohibit the white man voting when he is unfit to vote.”
Whites sat in silence in their section. Blacks cheered in theirs.
The Democratic Party would continue to suppress black people for the next four decades, as it held on to the Solid South to maintain power in the Senate, striking down civil rights legislation and anti-lynching initiatives passed whenever Republicans controlled the House of Representatives.
Nevertheless Harding -- a lad who started working at newspapers at age 11 -- was the one of the most popular presidents of all time, carrying 37 of the 48 states -- none in the South -- as he and his running mate, Calvin Coolidge, promised peace and prosperity -- and delivered the same.
Harding turned a post-war a depression into the Roaring Twenties by cutting taxes. He put together a top notch cabinet, cut the budget in half, and reduced the national debt. He kept America out of the doomed League of Nations, an signed legislation protecting native Hawaiians.
Born on November 2, 1865, in Blooming Grove, Ohio, his father was a country doctor and his mother, a midwife. He was the eldest of eight children and when the family moved to Caledonia, Ohio, his father bought the local weekly paper, The Argus. Harding was 11 and learned the newspaper business from the ground up. Eventually, he sold ads, wrote copy, set type, and even delivered newspapers.
At 14, Harding enrolled at Ohio Central College in Iberia, Ohio, graduating four years later. He then became one of the partners who bought the Marion Star, a failing newspaper in a town that had three daily newspapers at the time. Harding went to Chicago to cover the 1884 Republican convention. When he returned, the sheriff had padlocked the newspaper for failing to pay its taxes. He went to work for a rival, the Marion Democratic Mirror. Later Harding and his father bought the Star back, and as publisher, Harding worked hard and made the newspaper a success.
In 1890, Harding asked Florence Kling to marry him, which they did the next year. Her father was a banker. Called The Duchess, she was five years older and a divorcée with a 10-year-old son. But Harding was handsome, she was beautiful, and Marion society embraced the marriage.
As the 19th century gave way to the 20th, Harding entered politics. Elected to the state Senate, he moved on to the lieutenant governorship, and in 1914 won election to the U.S. Senate, where he served one term. At the Chicago Republican convention in 1920, General Leonard Wood was the favorite. Wood was technically Teddy Roosevelt's commander at San Juan Hill, but I doubt anyone could put the rein on him.
Wood led the first 10 ballots, but failed to get enough votes to gain the nomination. Republicans did what they always did in the good old days, and picked the most popular Ohioan they could find. Harding picked Coolidge as his running mate, because Coolidge had stared down a police strike, which pleased the nation. Good policy does that.
Harding's Cabinet included future Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes as Secretary of state, future President Herbert Hoover as Commerce Secretary, and banker extraordinary Andrew Mellon as Treasury Secretary.
President Woodrow Wilson had Socialist Eugene Debs prosecuted for protesting World War I. Harding released Debs and two dozen similar political prisoners, using his power of commutation of sentences.
In July 1923, Harding visited the West Coast. On July 26, 1923, he complained of upper abdomen pain. His doctor dismissed it as a dietary problem. A week later, he died of a cerebral hemorrhage on August 2, 1923, at 57. His wife had read him a flattering profile of him in the Saturday Evening Post. His last words were, "That's good, read some more."
The nation and the world mourned his death, as he was revered. But historians were unkind. They puffed up the Teapot Dome Scandal, a nontroversy. Not one drip of oil went to anyone. They also made a big deal of his mistress, even as they ignored FDR's. The result is a man who cut spending in half, cut taxes, and kicked off a decade of prosperity is treated as poorly by historians as Present Buchanan.
What a shame.
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