[In honor of Warren Harding’s 150th birthday on November 2nd, a series AmericanStudying the lives and deaths of presidents who passed away while in office. Leading up to a special weekend post on a very different anniversary—my blog’s fifth birthday!]
On one thing we know about the 29th president, and the mysteries we’ll never know for sure.
Warren G. Harding represents one of the longest shots ever to win the presidency, particularly since he was far down the roster of possible nominees at the outset of the 1920 Republic National Convention in Chicago. But through nine ballots, none of the party’s favorites (including General Leonard Wood, Illinois Governor Frank Lowden, California Senator Hiram Johnson, and Massachusetts Governor Calvin Coolidge) had been able to win the necessarity majority of delegates to secure the nomination, and Ohio Senator Harding’s name was thrown into the ring by his friend and the state’s former Governor Frank Willis. The infamous “smoke-filled room” that eventually settled on Harding as the party’s nominee might well be apocryphal (and is almost certainly exaggerated), as might be the narrative that Harding was chosen because his good looks would appeal to female voters; but there’s no doubt that his nomination was a rare and genuine surprise in the usually predictable field of presidential campaigns, and thus his win and presidency even more so.
Surprising and potentially mythic as Harding’s nomination and victory were, however, they pale in comparison to a couple other prominent mysteries attached to our 29th president. For one thing, Harding was the subject of persistent gossip and rumors, not only about such familiar themes as adultery (which, as those recently released love letters reveal, was much more than just a rumor) but also and much more strikingly about the possibility that he had African Americans among his ancestors. To American historians and anyone familiar with our cross-cultural community, mixed-race backgrounds are a common trope—but nevertheless, Harding is the only white president to my knowledge for whom historians have found any evidence of possible African American heritage, making this a striking element of a presidency otherwise tainted by scandal and failure. Indeed, as W.E.B. Du Bois wrote in a well-known piece, Harding’s potential African American connections made his failure to address the nation’s racial injustices, oppressions, and violence all the more frustrating to Du Bois and other African American political and social leaders.
And then there’s Harding’s death, by far the greatest mystery attached to the man and his presidency. On the one hand, his death seems logical enough: he had long suffered from health problems, and they had increased markedly by the summer of 1923, when he decided to set out on a cross-country and multi-national train and boat trip and speaking tour; in the course of that tour, while in San Francisco, he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died. Yet as traced at length in Robert Ferrell’s book The Strange Deaths of President Harding (1996), there are various abnormalities and gaps that have led to multiple, unprovable and unlikely but not impossible allegations: that Harding’s wife poisoned him; that he was incapacitated far earlier on the train journey than reported and that his wife was effectively running the country during that period; and so on. To be clear, Ferrell does not support any of these allegations, arguing instead for a more straightforward and even celebratory take on Harding and his presidency. But while interpretations may and will vary, to at least a degree they will always remain just that, responses to the historical mysteries about one of our more unlikely and unique presidents.
Next dead president tomorrow,
PS. Thoughts on Harding? Other presidents you’d particularly want to AmericanStudy?
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