The Presidency of Warren Harding

Although his presidency was marred by scandal after his death, Warren Harding was a popular president in his day. Even as a young boy Harding avoided conflict in order to please his peers. That habit caught up with him when he became president.

Before he got into politics Harding was a successful businessman who bought a bankrupt newspaper and made it profitable. His wife Florence served as his business partner. He called her “The Duchess” and feared rather than loved her. Their complex relationship pushed him into politics. His new profession allowed him to be away for long periods. It also enabled him to have affairs with other women. He had a magnetic personality and a great speaking voice.

Wharding

Official Presidential Portrait of Warren Harding

During the Republican national convention in 1920, the party could not decide on a candidate. Party leaders looked for a compromise, so they asked Harding if there was any reason they shouldn’t nominate him. Though he didn’t actually want to be president, Harding told them there was nothing in his past that would prevent him from running. In the first presidential election in which women could vote, Harding won.

Harding promised voters that his presidency would mark a return to “normalcy,” or to the days before World War I. Fortunately the country didn’t face any major crisis during his presidency.

Unlike President Wilson who always thought his opinion was the right one, Harding was indecisive. After listening to both sides of an issue he often thought that each side was just as right as the other. Even Harding admitted that he was in over his head as president. Later historians would agree with him when he remarked, “I never should have been here.” Still, Harding remained a popular president until he died of food poisoning during his third year in office.

After his death rumors about his private life and corruption in his cabinet came out. Harding had always been a womanizer, and one woman claimed he had fathered an illegitimate son. His desire to be popular had caused him to cover up rather than publicize the scandals that plagued his administration.

An illegal oil-rigging scheme led to the eventual arrest of his former secretary of the interior. It was the first time a cabinet member had been convicted of a crime. Ironically, the president who wanted to be loved by everyone became one of the country’s least respected presidents.

Frequently Forgotten U.S. President Chester Arthur

As President Garfield lay dying, his vice-president Chester Arthur tried to avoid being seen in public. Arthur was initially blamed for Garfield’s death. Of course it didn’t help that Garfield’s killer wrote to congratulate him on becoming president!

In addition, Arthur and Garfield had a strained relationship. As vice-president he opposed Garfield’s defiance of Roscoe Conkling. Conkling had helped Arthur get a post as New York’s Customs Collector during the Grant administration. While Arthur was never charged with corruption, he cheerfully allowed it. When he was fired from his post by the reform minded President Hayes, Arthur became the president of New York’s Republican committee.

256px-Carthur

Official Presidential Portrait of Chester A. Arthur, 1885

Despite the rumors Arthur didn’t want to become president. He genuinely wept when Garfield died. The job bored him so much that he lived for fishing and vacations.

Yet Arthur was determined to clean up his image. He decided to break with his old cronies and actually expanded civil service reform. He also took an interest in preserving the country’s natural resources and was especially concerned with deforestation in the West.

One of the few things Garfield enjoyed about being president was entertaining. He sold almost anything in the White House in order to pay for redecorating projects and hired Tiffany’s to help. Once he thought the place was presentable, the president held black tie dinners every week. The dinners included up to 14 courses and various wines. He had no hostess, though. His wife died before he became president.

Arthur could not run for re-election because he had contracted Bright’s disease. He died soon after leaving office.

Frequently Forgotten President James A. Garfield

James Garfield was raised by a single mother in Ohio (his father died when he was two years old). He managed to save enough money to get through school. After college Garfield had various jobs as a preacher, professor, and college president. Garfield was never satisfied with any of these occupations or with having just one girlfriend. He courted his future wife Lucretia for so long that she was ready to give him up, but he finally grew into a devoted family man.

When the Civil War began Garfield served as the country’s youngest major general. President Lincoln convinced him to resign his commission, however, when his home state elected him to Congress. Garfield never lost an election and served for nearly two decades.

256px-Jgarfield

Official presidential portrait of James Garfield

During the 1880 Republican convention Garfield’s name was put forward, though he tried to object. In a crowded field that included former President Grant, Garfield won the nomination. With the help of powerful Republican Senator Roscoe Conkling he narrowly won the presidency, too.

Ironically, Garfield and Conkling were soon pitted against each other in an argument over federal appointments. Though Garfield had nominated some of Conkling’s friends for other positions, he appointed one of Conkling’s rivals to the New York Customs House.

Garfield surprised Conkling and almost everyone else when he refused to back down. “This…will settle the question whether the President is registering clerk of the Senate or the Executive of the United States,” he said. It seemed that the country had finally found a strong chief executive.

Only a few month into his presidency, a young man who had unsuccessfully sought a position in the government shot Garfield. Garfield lingered for months. An early air conditioning unit was installed in the White House to keep Garfield cool in the summer. Alexander Graham Bell even tried to find the location of the bullet, which remained inside the president, with a new electrical invention. After being moved to the Jersey shore, however, Garfield died.

Lincoln’s Former General: The Presidency of Ulysses S. Grant

As a young man Grant hated working in his father’s leather business. He didn’t especially want to go to West Point either but thought it a better alternative to manufacturing. The “S.” in his name was a typo made on his application to West Point. Grant kept the initial and was affectionately known as U.S. Grant during the Civil War.

Although West Point graduates were in demand, Grant had a tough time getting a position in the army due to his heavy drinking. His talents outweighed his faults, however. Grant was the first man since George Washington to earn the permanent rank of lieutenant general. That rank gave him the responsibility for the Union’s strategy.

Though he was a hero to Northerners at the end of the war, Grant still had to earn a living. With a family to support, he reluctantly went to work for the family leather business. In 1868 Republicans and Democrats both wanted the hero of the Civil War to run for president. He ran as a Republican. Though he was a great leader during the war, Grant had no political experience. It’s one thing to fight a war with a clear enemy–quite another to determine who one’s enemies are in the game of politics.

Ugrant

Official Presidential Portrait of President Grant

Grant’s greatest problem as president was his trusting nature. Though honest himself, he surrounded himself with others who were not. He also felt inferior to intellectuals and tended to follow Congress’ lead. As a result his presidency was marked by multiple scandals. For example, his secretary of war was accused of accepting bribes from merchants who traded at army posts with Native Americans.

After two terms in office the administration’s scandals prevented him from trying for a third term. His trusting nature failed him again when he became a victim of Wall Street fraud.

Knowing that Grant was broke, his friend Mark Twain suggested that he write his memoirs in order to make money. Grant had just started writing when he developed throat cancer. He was determined to finish his memoirs before he died, however, and they are still selling today. Unsurprisingly, they focus on the time period that brought Grant the most success: the Civil War.

 

US Presidents in the News: President Warren G. Harding

I was planning to do my series of blog posts on the presidents in chronological order, but as President Harding’s personal affairs have been making headlines lately I decided to move him up.

Although his presidency was marred by scandal after his death, Warren Harding was a popular president in his day. Even as a young boy Harding avoided conflict in order to please his peers. That habit caught up with him when he became president.

Warren G. Harding, circa 1920

Warren G. Harding, circa 1920

Before he got into politics Harding was a successful businessman who bought a bankrupt newspaper and made it profitable. His wife Florence served as his business partner. He called her “The Duchess” and feared rather than loved her. Their complex relationship pushed him into politics. His new profession allowed him to be away for long periods; it also enabled him to have affairs with other women. Perhaps the photographs don’t do him justice because women seemed to think he was very attractive. He did possess a magnetic personality and a great speaking voice.

During the Republican national convention in 1920, the party could not decide on a candidate. Party leaders looked for a compromise, so they asked Harding if there was any reason they shouldn’t nominate him. Though he didn’t actually want to be president, Harding told them there was nothing in his past that would prevent him from running. In the first presidential election in which women could vote, Harding won.

Harding promised voters that his presidency would mark a return to “normalcy,” or to the days before the war. Fortunately the country didn’t face any major crisis during his presidency. Unlike President Wilson who always thought his opinion was the right one, Harding was indecisive. After listening to both sides of an issue he often thought that each side was just as right as the other. Even Harding admitted that he was in over his head as president. Later historians would agree with him when he remarked, “I never should have been here.” Still, Harding remained a popular president until he died of food poisoning during his third year in office.

After his death rumors about his private life and corruption in his cabinet came out. Harding had always been a womanizer, and one woman claimed he had fathered an illegitimate son. Recent DNA evidence revealed he had an illegitimate daughter named Elizabeth Ann with his mistress Nan Britton.

His desire to be popular had caused him to cover up rather than publicize the scandals that plagued his administration. An illegal oil-rigging scheme led to the eventual arrest of his former secretary of the interior. It was the first time a cabinet member had been convicted of a crime. Ironically, the president who wanted to be loved by everyone became one of the country’s least respected presidents.