You Wait Right Here, I'll Go Get Warren

Ilya Somin joins the ranks of Harding revisionists:

In Sunday's New York Times, Yale historian Beverly Gage has an interesting article suggesting that Harding may have been the first "black" president in the sense that it is possible that he had a remote black ancestor. Unfortunately, Gage's article about Harding and race relations completely ignores the fact that Harding made a well-known speech advocating full legal equality for southern blacks in 1921, in Birmingham, Alabama. As W.E.B. DuBois pointed out at the time, Harding went farther in advocating equal rights for blacks than any other post-Reconstruction Republican president (the Democrats, at that time the party of southern whites, were even worse). Indeed, no president went as far as Harding in advocating equal rights for southern blacks for several decades thereafter. Harding also lobbied hard for a federal anti-lynching bill to curb the rampant lynching of blacks by whites in the South - again, the first post-Reconstruction president to do so (the bill passed the House, but died in the Senate due to the threat of Democratic filibusters). As DuBois pointed out in the linked article, Harding was not wholly free of the racism common among whites at the time. But he was a lot better than the vast majority of his contemporaries.

Nor were these Harding's only positive aspects. As Gene Healy discusses in his interesting recent book, The Cult of the Presidency, Harding is also notable for reversing the severe violations of civil and economic liberties that had proliferated under his predecessor Woodrow Wilson. It's easy to belittle Harding's campaign slogan - "Return to Normalcy." But Harding's notion of "normalcy" included an end to the imprisonment of political dissenters (such as Wilson's notorious "Palmer Raids"), abolition of wage and price controls, and the reversal of Wilson's numerous illegal seizures of private property.

I think the most palatable presidents of the 20th century were Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge, and I believe Wilson was the worst chief executive in U.S. history. So I'll nod in general agreement, though I think Somin understates Du Bois' criticisms of Harding.

An aside: Harding's alleged black ancestry is a plot point in one of my favorite novels, Ishmael Reed's Mumbo Jumbo.

Another aside: In the comment thread beneath Somin's post, some readers are talking up the merits of James K. Polk. Me, I don't believe that history can be reduced to simple "turning points," but if I did, I'd say the day everything went to hell came when that landgrabbing bastard beat Van Buren at the 1844 Democratic convention.

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  • ||

    Warren G. Harding was an octoroon gay man... not that there's anything wrong with that!

  • Ska||

    Ah, but did They Might Be Giants write a song about Van Buren?

    That's what I thought.

  • ||

    Awww, I thought this was about me.

  • Hat Pines||

    To put things in perspective, imagine fighting one hundred forty-three Iraq wars for one year.
    That was how bad Wilson was.

  • ||

    Harding did not reverse the segregation in Washington instituted by Woodrow "bad president" Wilson, which applied to both the city's schools and the federal government. Wilson was (obviously) a segregationist, yet the U.S. Army commissioned black officers in World War I, and Major Jim Europe led his famous black army band down Fifth Avenue in a victory parade. (If he had not died of the "Spanish flu," Europe would have been a leader of black music in the 20's.)

  • JimmyChanga||

    Harding may have been good on rights, but boy did we miss a bet by not electing Willkie a few years later -- the first major pres. candidate to address the NAACP national convention and staunch supporter of equal rights.

    Of course, he was also boinking Madame Chiang Kai-shek, who thought the two of them could rule the world together, so maybe it wouldn't have been all roses. But chrysanthemums, at least. OK, petunias.

  • ||

    Awww, I thought this was about me.

    That was my first thought as well.

  • Rimfax||

    Of course, everyone knows that Polk sported the world's first recorded mullet.

  • Colin||

    There are rumors that Harding joined the Klan while in the White House. It's mentioned at wikipedia.

  • ||

    Thanks to H.L. Mencken, I used to dismiss Harding as an utter fool. But the more I've learned about him, the more I like him. Plus, he was an avid poker player, so he couldn't have been all bad.

  • ||

    Warren | April 8, 2008, 3:17pm | #
    Awww, I thought this was about me.


    Me too, I was hoping for some reference to hot libertarian chicks or something.

  • ||

    I was hoping it would have something to do with clown music. Warren, you HAVE to bring that back!

    Anyhoo, we're talking about ranking presidents, and no one has mentioned this?

    http://hnn.us/articles/48916.html

  • ||

    Of course, ..[Willkie] was also boinking Madame Chiang Kai-shek...



    I didn't know that. He didn't say anything about it in One World. :)

  • ||

    Big deal, joe. Everyone knows historians are a bunch of fucking communists. :)

    And I was looking for something about broken glass.

  • SIV||

    I always say Clinton's Presidency was comparable to Hardings. Corruption and scandal marring an otherwise uneventful(that is a good thing) term during boom times. Wilson, FDR, Johnson, Nixon, Carter were all much worse 20th Century Presidents.

    James K Polk was, excluding Washington, perhaps our Greatest President.

    Why does Jesse Walker hate our western States?

  • Jesse Walker||

    Awww, I thought this was about me.

    It's a line from a movie, boys.

    There are rumors that Harding joined the Klan while in the White House.

    I read up on those when I wrote my article on the 1920s KKK. I didn't find any reason to take them seriously.

    Why does Jesse Walker hate our western States?

    I love them so much I wish they could be free of Washington's imperial grasp. :>

  • ||

    The W.E.B. Dubois article made me really wish he were around today. Particularly when he got to talking about the idea that black people should take pride in themselves as a separate race as one of the most vicious ideas in the world; that the goal should be a world without race consciousness at all, not one where his race was ascendant.

  • ||

    "I'd say the day everything went to hell came when that landgrabbing bastard beat Van Buren at the 1844 Democratic convention."

    Why do you believe that this country would be better off if we didn't go to war with Mexico, no matter how wrong we were?
    With all that land and power how do you know Mexico would not wage further war against us to take their border to the Mississippi?
    And do you think Mexico would be bettor off today, or just a bigger toilet? Seriously, think about it. Mexico stinks because of Mexicans and not because we stole their land.

  • grumpy asshole||

    Ranking the worst presidents is such a thankless task because there are so many of them (they're so bad they've gotta be considered equally so), but since we're talking shit anyway here are the worst two:

    1) Lincoln, for killing over 600k of his own citizens in his watch. No other American "leader" will ever be able to top this.

    2) FDR, for turning America into a near fascist state. He was also the most fucking hypocritical adulterer among our oh-so-dear presidents.

    Can't think of any others worse than these two scumbags. Carter and Bush (both father and son) are just schoolboys by fair comparison.

  • Paul||

    joe, of course polled historians are going to have a strong feeling about a presidency they actually lived through...

  • ||

    Awww, I thought this was about me.

    Bro, I frantically scanned the post for some mention of nads and broken glass.

    Oh, Isaac beat me to it.

  • ||

    I agree with grumpy's ranking. My worst this century are Wilson, FDR, LBJ, Nixon, Lil Bush.

    And Carter makes my top five for this century with Harding, Coolidge, Clinton and Teddy. Teddy was a much better president than he was a Secretary of the Navy.

  • ||

    Come on. you Polk-dissers, would you really want a US without Vegas?

  • Syd||

    Anyone who would rank Lincoln and FDR among our worst presidents is a political imbecile of the first order.

  • ||

    If we were to rank presidents for their political skills, then Syd would be correct, they would rank very high. However,as presidents, we must consider their assaults on the constitution, their economic policies and,in Lincoln's case, his responsibility for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of young men in his quest to force the southern slave states to re-join the union.

  • ||

    I agree with Paul. I'm just about ready to consider what historians have to say about the presidency of Bush the Elder, nevermind Clinton, and certainly nevermind Shrub. Still, it is suggestive.

    And also with Syd.

  • Wayfarer||

    Just thought I'd weigh in on the Mexican-American War debate.

    It's a little more complicated than most people make it out to be, To give an inadequately short version of the story, a handful of filibuster malcontents provoked the Mexicans into overreacting and cracking down on Anglo settlers that up until then were not particularly radicalized or inclined to fight for independence.

  • LincolnianApologist||

    his responsibility for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of young men in his quest to force the southern slave states to re-join the union.

    We should have just let them go? Regardless of the slavery issue or the fact that if he had done differently North America would be a bit more like the Balkan Penninsula?

  • Hat Pines||


    Why do you believe that this country would be better off if we didn't go to war with Mexico, no matter how wrong we were?

    It was an illegal war.

    There is no excuse.

    And think of the precedent that illegal war set.

  • CowboyontheBoatofRa||

    Harding, Coolidge, Eisenhower, Clinton, Reagan, Kennedy, Ford, Carter, Nixon, TR, Hoover, Truman, Johnson, FDR, Wilson.

    Most logical list of modern presidents from acceptable to terrible when the power worship of modern historians is taken out of the equation.

    Greatest president in US History, why that would be Grover Cleveland.

    -- (lowercase)alan

  • BakedPenguin||

    54°40' or Fight!

  • SidewinderintheSaloonofFools||

    I left off Bush I! Looks like my attempt to drown out any memory of those bastards with alcohol is actually working.

    Slide him in after Carter. Carter's presidency had many, many faults, but the legacy of deregulation and Paul Volker's squashing inflation were lasting positive outcomes. Plus he is a very distant cousin on me mum's side (look up King Carter if you care to know more).

  • Wikipedia is good enough for t||

    ...if we didn't go to war with Mexico, no matter how wrong we were?
    It was an illegal war.


    Um , no.

    And you know who voted *against* that war? Your #1 19th c public enemy:
    Representative Abraham "Abe" Lincoln.

  • The Truth||

    Syd | April 8, 2008, 9:01pm | #
    Anyone who would rank Lincoln and FDR among our worst presidents is a political imbecile of the first order.


    FDR was one of the worst presidents in the history of these United States. Only a political partisan could examine that record, of Expansion of the Executive, the ham fisted attempt to pack the Supreme Court, the economic ignorance that kept the Depression afloat, the confiscation of private gold reserves (can't have capitalism without capital), the crush he had on Stalin and his vision of a Pax Russo-Americana, his willingness to be a dupe for British intelligence, Henry Wallace, the internment of the Japanese, aggressive policies in the Pacific that made war inevitable (look at the release of files that have been released of the White House and War Department at that time if you don't believe, it is there in their own fucking writing (and take a look at Truman's diary from Spring/Summer of 45 while you are at it).

  • Shall Set You Free||

    And Syd, you are the misinformed imbecile.

  • At Last||

    Only a political partisan could examine that record and find a positive out come.

  • VM||

    Jesse -

    great "Being There" reference!

  • ||

    Only a political partisan

    Or a landslide margin of both the American public and historians.

    The Truth, did you ever read "So Long and Thanks for All the Fish?" There's a nice bit about the guy who furnished the exterior of his cottage like a living room, because HE was the one who was really outside.

  • VeritasforPyros||

    Or a landslide margin of both the American public and historians.

    When your tall, leggy, brunette eighth grade civics teacher Ms McLauren (good gawd what a fox) tells you FDR was the greatest president in American history, you tend to believe it, and stop giving the matter any further consideration.
    Unless you have a mind of steal and discipline and an unquenchable fire for the truth!

  • alan||

    would a mind of steel do instead? Got cajones of steel, but they are more trouble than they are worth and get punchy rattling around down there.

  • GrizzledOldMan||

    Fucking Polk shoulda made a move for Sonora and Baja California, now it's too late!

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