Civil Rights

You Wait Right Here, I'll Go Get Warren

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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.