Presidential History

The Muddied Racial Histories of Our American Presidents

The lengthy history of applying the one-drop rule to our chief executive

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White House portrait

If we could only stop thinking about Warren G. Harding's sleazy sex life, writes historian James D. Robenalt in The Washington Post, we'd realize that "[t]his man was a pretty good president." But unfortunately for the 29th president's reputation, Robenalt argues, Harding's coat-closet relationship with Nan Britton and his affair with Carrie Phillips (who blackmailed him) have overwhelmed any appreciation of his achievements: his success in stabilizing the country following World War I, his attempts to address civil rights, his arms-control efforts, and so on.

Worse for Harding's rep, the sex continues to be news: This month, DNA tests finally confirmed Nan Britton's assertion that Harding was the father of her daughter, a claim made quite publicly in her notorious 1928 book, The President's Daughter.

Of course, if we didn't remember the sex, we'd remember Teapot Dome, though Robenalt argues that Harding himself had nothing to do with the infamous scandal. And if it's not the sex or the scandals, there's always the juicy (if discredited) claim that Harding was poisoned by his own wife, a story that hasn't helped Harding's stature, either. Robenalt doesn't bother with the poisoning, but the historian does address the persistent rumors about Harding's race. "[I]f you want to really unbundle Harding's negative reputation," writes Robenalt, "you have to understand that he was charged in the 1920 campaign with having an African-American ancestor."

That's a claim that has never gone away, and has figured prominently in Harding biographies, such as the popular 1968 book, The Shadow of Blooming Grove. ("The "shadow," writes Robenalt, "was the persistent rumor that his family from Blooming Grove, Ohio, had black blood.") That claim has also been the main support for a whole branch of underground, often-amateur historical pamphleteering about presidential racial secrets, the most famous example of which is certainly Joel A. Rogers' 1965 booklet, The Five Negro Presidents.

Rogers (1883-1966) was a black author who wrote a lot of books on race, most of them self-published. A recurring theme in his work is that numerous historical figures who are (or once were) widely perceived to have been of European ancestry were really black, or at least not white, according to one-drop rules of whiteness. Frequently, as when he wrote of people like Alexandre Dumas and Alexander Pushkin, he was right. Other times, as in the case of Cleopatra, he wasn't. Much of his writing is founded on a theory of the "Great Black Men of History"; Rogers believed it refuted the widespread bigotry that assumed racial inferiority.

The full title of his booklet about presidents is The Five Negro Presidents: According to What White People Said They Were, thus announcing up front that he's 1) merely compiling what some white people have said about other (purportedly) white people; 2) not offering any primary sources or documentary evidence in support these claims; and implying that 3) he's not responsible for gossip-mongering among whites.

Rogers' cover image is of Warren Harding, inset with a portrait of a black man identified as President Harding's "paternal grand-uncle, Oliver Harding." Rogers' case for Warren Harding's Negritude is drawn from the 1920 campaign material, condensed in a widely-circulated mimeographed sheet, and published full-length as a book entitled Warren G. Harding, President of the United States, by William Estabrook Chancellor, a professor at Wooster College. Chancellor's book featured affidavits from people in Harding's home town of in Marion, Ohio, who swore to have known all their lives that Harding was a member of a black family. One local black journalist is cited as saying that when Harding first ran for office, he himself claimed to be black when speaking to black voters. When Republican leaders demanded that Harding deny the story, he supposedly dodged the question.

That may sound a bit thin, but the other presidential cases are not much more than political name-calling, if that. Rogers' remaining Negro presidents are Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, and one mystery president whom he wouldn't name. He provided a give-away clue, however, noting that the unnamed president's mother came from Virginia. That would make the final example Dwight D. Eisenhower.

The charge involving Jefferson relies on an eccentric 19th century work titled The Johnny-cake Papers, in which Jefferson is described as "the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father." That supposedly echoes claims made during Jefferson's lifetime, but no details are offered. Andrew Jackson was identified in a publication called "The Virginia Magazine of History" as the son of a black father; Jackson's own elder brother was supposedly "sold as a slave in Carolina." Jackson's mother, adds Rogers, went to live on "the Crawford farm" following the death of her Irish husband, and there may have met the enslaved man who would be Andrew's father.

"Lincoln was said to be the illegitimate son of a Negro by Nancy Hanks," writes Rogers. Of course, Lincoln was also "said to be" a drunkard and a failed suicide, among many other things, by his livid political enemies. Rogers makes much of Lincoln's dark complexion and wiry hair, and argues that Lincoln was suspiciously reticent about his family; Rogers thinks that he "had a secret preying on his mind." As for Eisenhower, the case for a black Ike seems to rest entirely on this photograph of his mother. Rogers' pamphlet is padded out with similar material about Lincoln's first vice president, Hannibal Hamlin, and Alexander Hamilton, whose West Indian mother was supposedly of mixed racial heritage.

Henry Louis Gates Jr., the country's most prominent black historian, praises the "ambition and imagination" Rogers displayed during his career, especially in such works as his 3-volume Sex and Race. He also credits Rogers with having had "some sort of miscegenation-meter, which he used to 'out' all sorts of 'white' people as having black ancestry. And while he erred on the side of excess as he peered into the proverbial woodpile, Rogers got it right an impressive amount of the time, especially considering when he was publishing his work." But that applies to Rogers' earlier investigations. "At the other end of his collected works, though, stands The Five Negro Presidents, which, shall we say, would get the "Black History Wishful Thinking Prize," hands down, were there such in existence."

Nevertheless, in the years since Rogers' little booklet first appeared, other writers have incorporated its content into their own work and tried to build on it. A writer named Auset BaKhufu, for example, has written Six Black Presidents: Black Blood : White Masks US, adding Calvin Coolidge to the list of black presidents based on his mother's supposed lineage, while Dr. Leroy Vaughn, in his Rogers-inspired book, Black People and Their Place in World History, has also added Coolidge.

By contrast, author Toni Morrison in 1998 shrugged off both Harding and the Rogers School of genealogical suspicion when she wrote in The New Yorker that the country's real first black president was Bill Clinton, based on cultural affinity. "Clinton displays almost every trope of blackness," she wrote, "single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald's-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas."

As for Barack Obama, he finally pays off the Rogers School argument in at least one unexpected way: not through his Kenyan father, but through his Kansas-born mother.

The Rogers argument posits seemingly white presidents who wouldn't have passed the racist one-drop rule, and who would have been legally categorized in some states as non-white. All Rogers and his acolytes have lacked in their suppositions of "mixed race" branches on presidential family trees was any actual evidence, as opposed to gossip and name-calling politics.

Enter Stanley Ann Dunham, the president's mom. In 2012, Ancestry.com announced its findings that "President Obama is the 11th great-grandson of John Punch, who was the first documented African to be enslaved for life in the American colonies." Genealogist Joseph Shumway said the president's white mother is a direct descendant of the 17th century figure, through a family whose name came to be Bunch. That family, he said, "continued to intermarry with white people and just became white for all intents and purposes." Shumway added that Ancestry.com was "extremely confident in the conclusion that we've reached."

It's the Rogers School of presidential surprises come to life, except of course that it involves not a white president with a non-white ancestor, but a black president whose white mother isn't as white, by Rogers School standards, as anyone–including the president–had previously believed. Rogers and his imitators had always assumed tangled personal histories, but nothing quite like this.

On the other hand, DNA giveth and DNA taketh away. The same genealogical tests that finally established Warren Harding's paternity of Nan Britton's daughter also established something else: In The New York Times' unequivocal phrasing, "President Harding had no ancestors from sub-Saharan Africa."

Thus, just as the Obama case finally provides an actual case history of presidential one-drop racial surprise, the Harding case, whose superficial plausibility had all along undergirded the whole Rogers School train of supposition, collapses. Maybe that shadow has finally lifted from Blooming Grove. 

NEXT: Attn, LA Reasonoids: Happy Hour with Nick Gillespie This Friday!

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  1. Rogers makes much of Lincoln’s dark complexion and wiry hair, and argues that Lincoln was suspiciously reticent about his family…

    You know who else…?

  2. I think I’d prefer to know which Presidents are sociopaths/etc. It’s important to base any ‘lesser of two evils’ votes on reason and facts.

    1. I think I’d prefer to know which Presidents are sociopaths/etc.

      I imagine the number of presidents who aren’t sociopaths would be a lot smaller. Isn’t that one of the hallmarks of sociopathy; i.e., the desire to rule others?

      1. But having the mass media investigate and label them a ‘sociopath’ would make it much easier to counter the ‘well I really want a charismatic President who can lead’

    2. What’s wrong with voting the best out of three parties?

      1. Nothing. Except that currently 99% of voters choose one of two. So that’s where the election takes place.

    3. I think I’d prefer to know which Presidents are sociopaths/etc.

      All of them.

  3. at this point, what difference does it make……

    do we really care?

  4. Obama has a black ancestor?

    1. “Let me be clear.”

  5. If we could only stop thinking about Warren G. Harding’s sleazy sex life…

    What’s Wrong With Bein’ Sexy?

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W3Qn1uHlRIY

  6. Shocker, race isn’t clear-cut in America. Different races like to fuck each other, big surprise.

  7. When it comes to the “race”of a man, there are three possibilities; he can admit he is of mixed race, he can lie, or he can be an ignorant.

    1. How many races are there?

      This conversation is always boring.

  8. Calling someone Black because they had a distant Black relative, followed up by claiming
    that Blacks are not inferior because theycontributed asmal percentage of their genes to a famous White person takes thecake. Want to see how “non-inferior” Blacks are ? Take a look at their IQ scores – which haven’t budged in 100 years and are the lowest of allethnic groups, fully one standard deviation below whites and native Americans. Now lok at this idiots “Black famous people.” Eisenhower obviously has no significant amount of Black geses. Black eye color and hair color are dominent, which means Eisenhower’s light hair and eye color are white on both sides to the familiy. You cannot call a person Balck just because they have a distant Black relative.
    All of the people this racist Black author claims are Black are clearlyWhite, not Black, notwithstanding the fact that Bill Clinton played a saxophone (along with a million otherwhites).
    Thisisn’t history,this is gossip.

    1. Reality is that the ‘one-drop rule’ did play a big role in creating race-based political policy in the US. Mostly in the North before the Civil War (the South based slavery on mother’s slave status) and the South during Jim Crow. And those accusations – or gossip – were absolutely intended to change people’s votes. So it is history.

    2. This is fantastic.

    3. All the available evidence suggests that humanoids originated in Africa so we are all black….and white. Can we move on now?

      1. This. You go far enough back in anyone’s ancestry and eventually you get to Sub-Saharan African ancestors.

        1. or a monkey

          1. Not a monkey, an ape, a Great Ape.

    4. “Black eye color and hair color are dominant”

      LOL, you types are always good for a laugh.

    5. Now that that’s settled, what next? In school, do we not spend extra resources on the special ed kids? Or is the next step beyond arguing that blacks are inferior to you (obviously true given your stunning command of the English language), mere social Darwinism? Let the special ed kids fend for themselves?

      1. Now you are saying black kids should be considered special ed. You racist motherfucker!

        1. A slayer of Tony!

    6. Before slagging an entire races’ intelligence, you might want to first learn how to spell, punctuate properly, and use correct spacing. Until then you’re just the pot calling the kettle …

      1. Using a comma followed by the word “and” is incorrect grammar. Similarly “races’ ” should be “race’s”.

        just sayin’

        1. nigga!

        2. No, it isn’t. It depends on context, actually.

          1. Loki’s was a correct usage of a comma, to put it in blunt terms for your sorry ass.

  9. Without HL Mencken’s review hardly anyone would have read “The President’s Daughter.” Instead it became the hottest book in terms of readers per copy just when Ayn Rand was becoming Americanized. Harding’s policies were more like Cleveland’s than those of the Methodist White Terror dominating Congress in the 1920s. His hepcat pals–especially billionaire morphine addict Evalyn McLean and her newspaper hubbie–the Alaska trip on which only Gamaliel was poisoned by crabs eaten by everyone, and his sudden illness on foreign soil… Nah! It is paranoid nonsense to suspect he was killed by his GOP buddies to contain a scandal.

  10. Observe that at bookstores the one president about whom you see no books is Warren Harding. His papers are not published, but hoarded on microfilm. One girlfriend was pro-German during that extension of the Opium Wars we call “The Balkan Wars” and WWI, and the collapse of the German mark through hyperinflation occurred the month following Harding’s death. Germany was the world’s largest exporter of Heroin? and in the USA, where beer was by law an evil narcotic, folks were eager to cop a buzz. The entire episode surrounding such a convenient death is redolent of mystery and intrigue.

  11. Far as I can tell, there’s just the human race.

    Unfortunately, we keep tripping over the hurdles and falling flat.

    1. yep. simple math. “race” A person interbreeds with “race” B person and produces what? a 3rd race? eventually you wind up with every individual being a distinct race. OR you can agree with above and say generally there is one human race.

      Ethnically speaking, though, you can still hate niggers. /sarc/

      1. This all plays right into my theory of racial entropy.
        Exactamundo!

  12. On the other hand, DNA giveth and DNA taketh away. The same genealogical tests that finally established Warren Harding’s paternity of Nan Britton’s daughter also established something else: In The New York Times’ unequivocal phrasing, “President Harding had no ancestors from sub-Saharan Africa.”

    Not that it really matters, but all we can say is that Harding’s descendants who DNA tested don’t have an ancestor from Sub-Saharan African in the past 5-10 generations probably. That’s the typical reach of autosomal DNA. That would seemingly debunk the claims that he everyone knew that he was from a “black family” or had a black “paternal uncle.” So, good enough.

    But to give an example, if Obama’s mother were still alive and tested her atDNA, there’s a good possibility that Punch’s Sub-Saharan AIMs (ancestry informative markers) would be long-gone from her DNA.

    1. Wait, so Obama is NOT the first black president?

    2. So he’s an…..alien?

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  14. Eventually, everyone has ancestors from a small tribe of proto-humans in africa.

    We’re *all* black.

    1. horseshit. that doesn’t mean anything

    2. Actually, we all go back to Eve, who had a human father and a cylon mother. I saw it on TV so it must be true.

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  16. too bad Obama doesn’t have at least one drop of competence.

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  19. Ironic that as we discuss the scandals of a past President, we are edging ever closer to electing the first woman President who will come with an existing scandal (or two or three) that will put old Warren G. to shame. Hillary Clinton, it has been reported, has for several years been having a hot lesbian affair with Huma Abedin, her closest aide. Huma, you will remember, is the wife of disgraced congressman Anthony Weiner. It has been reported that Huma has ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, but it isn’t clear what the implications are. Given all this, it is little wonder that the Clinton emails have been so closely guarded and so heavily edited before being released. Apparently, the Trump campaign has latched onto the Huma connection as significant. It remains to be seen how far the Donald will go in releasing the more salacious details. I must admit that I have only recently heard this story even though it’s been floating around for months if not years. Hilary is definitely getting a pass from most media outlets.

  20. There was never really a “one drop rule.” Despite what SOME state constitutions might say, whiteness was a matter of phenotype combined with the performance of whiteness. Scholars such as Daniel Sharfstein, Frank W. Sweet and Gary B. Mills proved that families could assimilate into local white communities without any elaborate secrecy. Think of how we today are trained to politely ignore signs of African ancestry in Hispanics and Arabs unless THEY mention them first.

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