HETHER WARREN G. HARDING WILL GO DOWN IN HISTORY as a great President will depend, first, upon appreciation of the homelier virtues, urged Review and Herald associate editor C. A. Holt in a column three weeks after the Republican president’s sudden death in August 1923, and second, upon the ability of men who write the record to estimate the times and their needs.”1
If Holt’s lines sounded defensive of a U.S. president now routinely ranked as the worst in the country’s history, they were.2 For the previous three years Review and Herald columns had offered glowing praise of the personal and professional characteristics of the only U.S. president to have close Seventh-day Adventist ties and relatives. Holt and his fellow editors--all keen observers of both American and international politics—had undoubtedly begun to hear the chorus of reassessment and revision that seemed to follow the dead president’s funeral cortege to his final resting place.
Adventist leaders already had reason to be dismayed at what was happening to the Harding legacy about which they had said so much, and to fear the assessment of future historians. Presidential appointee Charles R. Forbes, head of the Veterans Bureau, had resigned his post in February of that year and fled to Europe when details of his corrupt dealings with government contractors came to light and a primary attorney in his agency committed suicide. His public friendship with the president’s Adventist sister, Carolyn, and her minister husband, Heber, had occasioned much criticism in the popular press.3 Interior secretary’s Albert B. Fall’s leasing of government oil reserves to large oil corporations was already under investigation by a Senate committee.4 Attorney general Harry Daugherty’s questionable connections to both government contractors and bootleggers were prompting calls for congressional investigations.5
Holt could write safely only of Harding’s “homelier virtues,” memorialized one week earlier in a black-bordered column on the masthead page of the Review. There the dead president had been lauded for his “honesty and integrity,” his “loyalty of purpose and sincerity of endeavor.” According to the unsigned column, Harding “sought faithfully and conscientiously to discharge the duties of his high office.” He was “a man of noble, generous impulses.” He had, the column continued, a “kindly, courteous bearing” that “endeared him to all classes.” “In marked contrast to the tinsel and show, the hypocrisy and cant, of much of present-day living,” Harding had clung to “simplicity of life.”6
Choosing to discount the persistent stories of extramarital affairs that had dogged Harding’s political career for more than 20 years, the Review had proclaimed him “a loving husband, a kind neighbor, a wise counselor.”7
In a highly unusual tribute to the deceased leader, the Review editors placed a picture of Harding surrounded by funereal emblems on the front cover of the August 16, 1923, edition of the church?s general paper with the headline “A Nation Mourns Its Fallen Chief.” Never before—and never since—have any of the seven other American presidents who died in office been so honored.
All in the Family
On one level, the effusive praise for President Harding was the understandable reaction of an editorial team that, like the rest of the nation, was shocked at the news of the leader’s sudden death in San Francisco on August 2. But Review editors had dealt with very bad news for the nation at other moments in the journal’s 74-year history. The other American presidents—Republicans all—who had died in office since the founding of the magazine [Lincoln (1865), Garfield (1881), and McKinley (1901)] had all been victims of assassination, unquestionably a more devastating blow to the national psyche. Harding’s health problems, moreover, had been a matter of some concern for months to his physicians and family members, with high blood pressure and cardiac strain topping the list.8
It was the dead president’s close family ties to the Seventh-day Adventist Church, both in his native Midwest and in the nation’s capital, however, that made the loss seem doubly dear, for the church’s informal access to the seat of American political power would inevitably now be greatly diminished. At the time of his death the president’s younger sister, Carolyn Harding Votaw, ran a police program for unwed mothers in the District of Columbia, a job that she had gotten as a direct result of her brother’s intervention when he was a U.S. senator. Carolyn’s husband, Heber H. Votaw, an Adventist minister who had served with her in mission work in Burma from 1905 to 1914, was currently serving as director of the Federal Prison System, though he had no professional training or experience in such work. He had originally left church employ in 1917 to serve as his brother-in-law’s primary Senate office clerk. The president’s brother, George, Jr., had followed in his parents’ professional footsteps as a physician and was now a prominent Adventist doctor operating a mental health sanitarium in suburban Columbus, Ohio. Presidential nephews George III and Charles attended nearby Washington Missionary College in Takoma Park, Maryland, just one mile from the church’s world headquarters on Eastern Avenue. President Harding and his wife, Florence, had attended nephew George?s graduation at the college on May 20, 1923, a visit duly noted and lauded in the Review.
Gripped by the Right Arm
Warren Harding’s personal knowledge of the beliefs and practices of Seventh-day Adventism was more thorough than that of any American president before or since. Born into a devout Baptist family in Blooming Grove, Ohio, just after the close of the Civil War, Harding was a teenager away at Ohio Central College when his mother, Phoebe, and his aunt, Sarah Priscilla Flack, joined the Adventist Church in 1879. The youngest of Harding’s siblings, George, Jr., and Carolyn--13 and 14 years younger than he, respectively—had been raised in the new faith, though some accounts suggest that his sisters (Abigail, Mary, and Charity), also embraced Adventism. As a young adult, Harding himself had shown little interest in the Adventist Church, preferring instead a more carefree lifestyle than that recommended for Adventist young men. On five separate occasions over a 14-year span, however (1889, twice in 1894, 1897, and 1903), Harding had traveled from central Ohio to Dr. John Harvey Kellogg’s famed Battle Creek Sanitarium for treatment of depression, anxiety, or nervous breakdown, the last visit coming after he had already made his entry into Ohio Republican politics. All told, Harding spent a total of nearly a year at the Adventist health center, where, in the words of
one none-too-friendly observer, “reverent attention was given to stool samples, vegetarian concoctions, electric baths, and laughing as therapy.”9
Both of Harding’s parents were homeopathic physicians, and throughout his life the future president remained interested in homeopathic remedies. From 1903 onward he turned for medical counsel and advice to Dr. Charles Sawyer, who operated a sanitarium near Harding’s boyhood home in Marion. Sawyer’s long association with both Warren and Florence Harding brought him increased prominence as the president’s personal physician when the Hardings moved into the White House. Sawyer’s untraditional methods and close guarding of the president’s medical condition and history may have contributed, however, to Harding’s deterioration during what is now recognized as a cardiac event that afflicted the president in August 1923.
Eyes on the Prize
Warren Harding’s rise to political prominence in his native Ohio was propelled by his successful role as editor and publisher of the Marion Star, a once-struggling local newspaper that he developed into a strong regional voice for Republican Party politics. Though he lost his first bid for elective office (county auditor) in 1895, he succeeded in winning a seat as a state senator in 1899. Some biographers point to his “modest, self-effacing manner” as the reason for his success: others underline the role played by his determined wife, Florence, in pushing him into politics.10 In 1904 Harding won statewide office as Ohio’s lieutenant governor, but retired from the position in 1905 when his wife?s health took a serious turn. Always a preacher of party unity who made himself available to all Republican factions, Harding was tapped by fellow Ohioan President William Howard Taft to place Taft’s name in nomination at the 1912 Republican National Convention. The turn on the national stage certainly did Harding no harm, even though his candidate, Taft, lost the fall election to Democrat Woodrow Wilson, and even trailed former President Theodore Roosevelt, who ran as an independent.
Two years later Harding was urged to run for the U.S. Senate seat in Ohio in the first direct election for the U.S. Senate the state had seen.11 Though his campaign speeches were described by even a friend as “a rambling, high-sounding mixture of platitudes, patriotism, and pure nonsense,” Harding proved a popular candidate on the stump, and won the 1914 Senate election, taking his seat when the Sixty-fourth Congress convened in 1915. Numerous politicians on the national level were beginning to speculate on the amiable politician?s chances for the presidency. Six other Ohioans in Harding’s lifetime—all Republicans—had succeeded in capturing the White House, and the state’s pivotal role in national elections gave its politicians a “leg up” at nominating conventions.
By the time of the 1916 Republican Convention, Harding’s credentials were burnished enough for party elders to tap him as the keynote speaker. Harding used the national platform to attack then-president Woodrow Wilson, and to push for “Americanism” (versus Wilson’s perceived “internationalism”) and Republican Party unity.
Harding’s five-year career in the U.S. Senate was undistinguished by almost all accounts. Records show that he failed to attend at least 46 percent of all the roll call votes, especially those on controversial issues.12 He gave his vote, if not his enthusiastic support, to the Eighteenth Amendment, which banned the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcohol—long an objective of the Adventist Church—even though he continued to serve and use alcohol, and to the Nineteenth Amendment, which extended to American women the right to vote, an objective particularly dear to his wife, Florence.
On the National Stage
America’s reluctant entry into World War I and the massive changes the war effort caused in American life provided Harding with a “bully pulpit” for advancing his agenda of “Americanism” and probusiness philosophy. Exhausted by the terrors and sacrifices of the “foreign war,” and eager to preserve American sovereignty from “foreign entanglements” such as Woodrow Wilson’s cherished League of Nations, Americans seemed more than ready for a man known to have “the common touch.” When former president and expected presidential candidate Theodore Roosevelt died suddenly in 1919, Harding’s window to national office opened. In December of that year he announced his candidacy for the Republican nomination.
The June 1920 Republican Convention deadlocked for two days before settling on “dark horse” candidate Harding, whose partisans had astutely been preparing for just such a possibility. Nominated on the tenth ballot on Sabbath, June 12, Harding described his delight in a metaphor that neatly captured his card-playing and risk-taking lifestyle: “I feel like a man who goes in with a pair of eights and comes out with aces full.”
The Review and Herald took note of Harding’s nomination in language that hinted at the church’s interest in his candidacy: “Senator Harding is referred to by some editors as the ideal type of President,” the journal reported, “although Americans generally seem to have very little intimate knowledge concerning his character, abilities, or achievements.” According to the editors, “he has been compared to McKinley” (the twice-elected Republican president, also from Ohio)—“safe, sound, courageous, and always ready to listen to counsel.”13
Preaching an ambiguous “return to normalcy” in a campaign largely conducted from his front porch in Marion, Harding swept to the presidency on his fifty-fifth birthday with the largest popular vote majority in the history of the nation to that point—more than 60 percent. Most Adventists no doubt voted for the senator with the close Adventist connections: their preference for Republican politics stemmed from the church’s early abolitionist stance and advocacy for alcoholic Prohibition, another social goal mostly identified with Republican politics.
Front and Center
Two weeks after the November 1920 presidential election, Review and Herald editors seemed to no longer need to be cautious about the president-elect. “Mr. Harding has been before the country for many years as one of its leading statesmen,” the journal opined, contradicting its assertion of three months earlier that he was generally not well known by the electorate.14 Where the editors had previously concluded that little was known by the public about his character and abilities, they now professed direct knowledge: “He is a man of unblemished character and of sterling integrity.” He had conducted his campaign for the presidency, they wrote, “on a dignified plan, befitting the character of a Christian gentleman.”15
When Harding was sworn in as the nation?s twenty-ninth president on March 4, 1921, the Review editors did what they had never done before—put a president-elect on the front cover of the magazine. Harding’s predecessor, Woodrow Wilson, had twice been pictured on the cover—once in connection with a call for Bible study, and a second time when he h
eaded the American delegation to the peace conference after World War I.His written messages to the nation during the war had several times appeared there. But the magazine had never entered so daringly into the political world of its host city as when Francis Wilcox and his editorial team signaled the special relationship between the new president and the church by giving him the front cover of the church’s flagship periodical the day before his inauguration.
Full Court Press
The favorable press in the church’s main journal continued throughout the Harding presidency. In December 1921 he was commended—in a full-page open letter signed by General Conference president A. G. Daniells, treasurer W. T. Knox, and secretary J. L. Shaw—for his efforts “in behalf of international peace and tranquillity.”16 Harding and his secretary of state, former Supreme Court Associate Justice Charles Evans Hughes, had convened an international conference to discuss the limitation of armaments during the winter of 1921-1922. The church’s Annual Council, which voted the unusual document, applauded “the wise statesmanship and humane sentiment which prompt this laudable action.”17 A delegation of church leaders, including Review editor Wilcox, presented the document to Harding personally at a November 25 White House event after introductions by Elder Heber Votaw, the president’s brother-in-law.
When the president sent a public letter to the Jewish Jubilee Dinner in February 1923 that praised “the Hebrew conception of a personal God and of the individual accountability of men and women,” a Review editorial underscored Harding’s profile as a man of faith: “It is refreshing in these days of doubt and uncertainty and widespread departure from fundamental religion, to see the head of a great nation express his abiding faith in a personal God and in experimental Christianity.”18 Ten weeks before his death Harding was similarly praised in conjunction with his graduation visit to Washington Missionary College: “His loyalty to the Holy Scriptures in these days of subtle skepticism, and his interest in Christian service are well known by all who have made note of his public utterances.”19
Review editors were certainly well aware of the nature of presidential declarations on all manner of topics intended primarily for political consumption. They had complained repeatedly when former president Wilson, whose electoral victories had been aided by Democratic and Catholic votes, attended a Catholic Mass on Thanksgiving Day, and when Wilson had signed a Sunday observance declaration for the armed forces during wartime at the request of evangelical groups. But for Warren Harding, they appeared to act as if there were and could be no difference between the public man and the private one, as though each presidential posturing represented the actual views or habits of the occupant of the Oval Office.
Behind the Curtain
If Warren G. Harding had not been intimately connected with Seventh-day Adventists through blood and history, it is doubtful that church leaders would have found much to praise in the nation’s twenty-ninth president. Though the Review had identified him as a deacon in his local Trinity Baptist Church during the presidential campaign, biographers have never suggested that Harding was anything but perfunctory in his religious habits.20 Unlike his predecessor, Wilson, who had trained for the Presbyterian ministry, and had also served as president of Princeton University, Harding was not known as either a Bible student or a deep thinker.
At a time when most Baptists advocated abstinence from alcohol, and when federal law made the possession of alcohol for other than medicinal purposes illegal, Harding drank whiskey or brandy daily, and even served it to guests and visitors at his poker games in the White House. He was known to smoke an average of two cigars a day, in addition to using chewing tobacco whenever his wife was not around. His poker games, mostly with political cronies and friends also originally from Ohio, were legendary: stories circulating around the capital had it that the president had actually gambled away an entire set of the White House china during one late-night session. On the golf course, to which he resorted at least twice a week, the president was known to make so many bets that he sometimes inadvertently ended up betting against himself.21
Harding and his wife had also introduced elements of popular culture into the White House that must have caused Adventist leaders no end of private discomfort. The Hardings were the first presidential couple to openly embrace jazz music and modern dancing. They also welcomed Hollywood stars to campaign with them, and later, to visit them at the White House. Florence Harding regularly consulted a D.C. astrologer, Madame Marcia, to discern the most favorable moments for planning major events of the presidential calendar. Any or all of these practices would have occasioned disciplinary action in a local congregation if an avowed Adventist had been involved: these were, for good or ill, markers of “character” in the world of Adventism, but apparently not for the famous relative of Adventists.
After the Fall
For all the financial scandal that ultimately attached to the two and a half years of the Harding presidency, chiefly symbolized in the infamous Teapot Dome affair, most historians do not accuse the president personally of corruption or even of tolerating the antics of his political associates. He certainly also does not bear responsibility for the ways in which Adventist writers and leaders lionized him, frequently beyond the bounds of good judgment. He was, by all accounts, diligent in doing the people’s business, even though he keenly felt his inadequacies for a job whose complexities frequently bewildered him. Indeed, his overwork during 1923 was deemed a probable cause, both popularly and medically, for the heart attack that claimed his life on August 2, 1923.
The initial outpouring of public grief for the first president to die of natural causes in more than 80 years was quickly tempered by the drumbeat of scandalous revelations about the men with whom he had surrounded himself during his political and presidential career. His great mistake, according to most historians, was that he trusted those who proved unworthy of his confidence.
As the Harding legacy began to crumble, the Review and Herald grew silent about the president it had once so publicly admired. Occasional and brief references to the nearly Adventist president replaced the superlatives that had once been so much used.
Brother-in-law Heber Votaw returned to church employ in 1925 after unproved allegations that he had allowed an illegal drug-smuggling operation to exist within the Atlanta Federal penitentiary.22 He served briefly as service manager at the church’s Washington Sanitarium, and then joined the headquarters’ Religious Liberty Department, where he worked for the next 28 years, including 13 as editor of Liberty magazine.23
Harding’s brother, George, Jr., established a successful psychiatric hospital in Columbus, which he operated for many years. His son, George III, directed the Harding Hospital from 1934 to 1973, and additionally served as president of the College of Medical Evangelists (now Loma Linda Uni
versity) from 1948-1951. Four generations of Hardings (and a total of 27 individuals) have now served the church and the nation as physicians, 13 of them as psychiatrists. President Harding has the distinction of being the only Harding male in the first three generations to not work as a physician.
The tale of the nearly Adventist president is a cautionary one, for it underscores the temptations to which a religious movement is subject when it is granted access to politically powerful personalities. Any minority religious group, especially one whose distinctive beliefs put it frequently at variance with majority culture regarding the appropriate day of worship, Christian lifestyle, and the bearing of arms in wartime, is liable to find the magnetic pull of increased respectability and public approbation nearly irresistible.
The painful reality is, however, that though church leaders and members naturally enough crave public acceptance, believing that the increased public notice will bring the church’s message to a larger audience, the price of consorting with political leaders is usually higher than the church can afford to pay. From a dozen entanglements through the decades with dictators, presidents, prime ministers, and politburos, Adventists have learned that the seeming luster of association with the politically powerful is fleeting at best, and too often damages the cause itself by alienating other political forces or aligning the church with one faction within a nation or region. A regime change, a revolution, even an orderly and democratic election, can so change the political landscape that the church is left isolated and vulnerable to its critics, and must spend years rebuilding its reputation as being chiefly committed to a kingdom not of this world.
The apostle Paul, who also stood before councils, kings, and emperors, provided the church with timeless counsel: “Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God” (1 Cor. 1:26-29, NRSV).
1 C. A. Holt, “Comment on Current Events,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, Aug. 23, 1923, p. 2.
2 See, for example, poll results from historian Arthur M. Schlesinger?s 1948 and 1962 surveys of 55 and 75 prominent historians, respectively, and the 1982 Chicago Tribune poll of 49 historians in which Harding?s dubious notoriety is eclipsed only by William H. Harrison, who caught cold on his inauguration day and died a month later.
3 Forbes was indicted for looting more than $200 million from the government, and tried in 1925 for bribery and corruption. He served two years in the Federal Penitentiary at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
4 Fall?s subsequent indictment for bribery, conviction, and prison term marked him as the first Cabinet member to go to jail in the history of the country.
5 Twice indicted, but never convicted, presidential confidante and campaign manager Daugherty is believed by many historians to have had a hand in several of the scandals that plagued the Harding administration.
6 Unsigned column, ?President Harding,? The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald (Aug. 16, 1923).
7 Conclusive evidence of Harding?s liaisons with other women did not emerge until years after his death, when Nan Britton published a ?tell-all? volume in 1927 entitled The President?s Daughter, and in the mid-1960s, when correspondence between Harding and his Marion, Ohio, neighbor, Carrie Phillips, revealed the significance of their 15-year affair. Biographers point to as many as four other women with whom Harding was involved.
8 John Whitcomb and Claire Whitcomb, Real Life at the White House: Two Hundred Years of Daily Life at America?s Most Famous Residence (New York: Routledge, 2000), p. 271.
9 Carl Sferrazza Anthony, Florence Harding: The First Lady, the Jazz Age, and the Death of America?s Most Scandalous President (New York: Quill, 1998), p. 49.
10 John W. Dean, Warren G. Harding (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2004), p. 23; Carl Sferrazza Anthony, Florence Harding: The First Lady, the Jazz Age, and the Death of America?s Most Scandalous President (New York: Quill, 1998), pp. 71-80.
11 Until the ratification of the Seventeenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in April 1913 United States senators were chosen by many different methods, according to each state?s laws. The resulting conflicts drove the movement toward direct popular election of senators called for in the amendment.
12 Eugene P. Trani and David L. Wilson, The Presidency of Warren G. Harding (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1977), p. 35.
13 Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, July 15, 1920, p. 27.
14 Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, Nov. 18, 1920, p. 16.
16 “Address to President Harding,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, Dec. 8, 1921, p. 2.
17 Ibid. The document clearly and forcefully articulated the church?s interest in limiting armaments and thus diminishing the prospects for international conflicts. It further identified the church?s historic position of noncombatancy, and stated unequivocally that ?Seventh-day Adventists, therefore, are noncombatant in faith and practice.?
18 Francis M. Wilcox,“President Harding and Religion” (editorial), Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, Feb. 22, 1923, pp. 8, 9.
19 Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, May 31, 1923, p. 24.
20 Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, Oct. 14, 1920, p. 30; Carl Sferrazza Anthony, Florence Harding, p. 65.
21 John Whitcomb and Claire Whitcomb, Real Life at the White House, p. 268.
22 Carl Sferrazza Anthony, Florence Harding, pp. 512, 513.
23 Review and Herald, Dec. 6, 1962, p. 25.
Bill Knott is an associate editor of the Adventist Review and Adventist World, and recently defended his doctoral dissertation in American religious history at George Washington University.