Warren Harding’s life began as the Civil War was ending. In the winter of 1864, George Tyron Harding, a Union solider—a fifer who had once shaken President Lincoln’s hand at the White House—was sent home to the Harding family farm near Blooming Grove, Ohio, and his new wife, Phoebe Elizabeth Dickerson, to recover from jaundice. The war was over before Tyron could return to his troops, and much to Phoebe’s relief, for she was carrying their first son, who arrived on November 2, 1865. Phoebe wanted to name him Winfield but her husband preferred a family name: Warren Gamaliel. Warren was Tyron’s grandmother’s maiden name, and Gamaliel an uncle’s name that would prove to be prophetic. In the Bible, Gamaliel was noted for counseling moderation and calmness.
Warren was the eldest of eight children with two dying during childhood. The Harding family, closely knit and loving, was described by one observer as “a splendid state of harmony.” While Winnie was still a baby, Tyron and Phoebe moved to their own small house also located on the Harding family farm property. By age four Harding was reading. Phoebe instructed her son using printed letters and word cards from her Sunday school class. Harding’s precociousness was striking: “A born talker, the boy was encouraged to enter his first oratorical contest at age four. A year later, when he heard bells toll, he piped up, ‘They’re ringing for [George] Washington. Some day they will ring for me.’ Phoebe repeatedly predicted that he would become President.”1 The child also had his father’s musical ear and talent, which could be heard by all the neighboring farmers when he was given a cornet at age nine.
Tyron and Phoebe Harding wanted more for themselves and their children than life on a farm. Both studied and practiced homeopathic medicine. Tyron started reading medicine in the office of a local doctor while his son was an infant. Medical education at the time was commenced by studying with a local physician for about three years before going to medical school.2 After completing his medical training Harding’s father both farmed and practiced medicine until the family moved to the small rural town of Caledonia, where Dr. Harding developed his medical practice. Phoebe, who commenced her studies a few years after her husband, developed an active rural and town practice as a midwife. Throughout his early years, as the eldest boy, Harding worked on the farm, an experience from which he drew understanding for this difficult business, and later, as president, he recognized their special problems.
Dr. Harding was frequently paid by his patients with livestock, farm tools, or land. As a result he became an active trader and an inveterate (although not highly successful) investor. By 1876 the father of a future president had acquired an ownership interest in a local newspaper, the Caledonia Argus. This investment profoundly influenced his son’s life. At the Argus, as an eleven-year-old boy, young Harding was introduced to the newspaper business when his father apprenticed him as a part-time printer’s devil. Given the boy’s facility with words, he quickly learned to set type. After assisting the Argus editor to prepare a difficult outside printing job, needed overnight by a local lawyer, Warren was rewarded with a printer’s ruler—a 13-em makeup ruler—once known in the craft as the tool of a full-fledged printer. It became a prized possession and his good luck charm, which he kept with him the rest of his life.3
Formal education for all the Harding children started in Caledonia’s one-room schoolhouse, where they studied reading, writing, spelling, mathematics, history, and geography. A standard text of the day was the McGuffey’s Readers, described appropriately as “firmly didactic little books that formed the moralistic attitudes of generations of Americans.”4 McGuffey’s Readers (there are seven of them) introduced the Harding children to important writers and thinkers, including Harding’s first heroes, Napoleon Bonaparte and Alexander Hamilton, with Hamilton later becoming a frequent and favorite subject of Harding’s Chautauqua circuit speeches.
School was not a great challenge for young Harding. His father told an interviewer during his son’s 1920 campaign for the White House, “He studied his lessons, I don’t know when. I never caught him at it and it used to worry me, so I asked his teacher what Warren was doing to bring in such decent reports when he didn’t seem to work. ‘Oh, he’s just naturally smart,’ his teacher said.”5 Jack Warwick, a schoolmate and friend of Harding’s, confirms the ease with which he went through his schoolwork.
At fourteen years of age, in the fall of 1879, Warren entered Ohio Central College (no longer in existence), located in Iberia, Ohio. The teenager was a gangling but strong fellow, already six feet tall, with an olive complexion, blue eyes, and wavy black hair. He worked his way through college by painting houses and barns, and, during the summers, doing heavy construction work on railroad gradings. In fact, his sister Charity later claimed that Warren had worked too hard: “During vacation days he helped neighbors thrash their grain and worked with all the men, and did as much as anyone, but he was only fourteen years old. He plowed and looked after much of the orchard work at this time on our farm. He helped with the construction work on the Ohio Central Railroad … . He worked hard every day, in fact too hard for one so young. I have often thought, and so did he, after he was older, that such heavy work (when so young and developing so rapidly) was not conducive to a strong physical foundation for after life.”6
As a college student Harding most enjoyed his courses in literature and philosophy. Frank Harris, his college roommate, remembered he loved reading “the masters of English prose.” Other subjects were easily ignored until the last minute for Harding was good at cramming. Harris says his roommate would “sit down with his face to the wall, head in hands and soak [a subject] up. Then when he was through, he would jump up with a yell and shout, ‘Now, darn it, I’ve got you,’ and slam the book against the wall.”7 Foreshadowing his business career, Harding and Harris launched a college newspaper their last year at Ohio Central College, calling it the Iberia Spectator, addressing it to the entire town of Iberia. Francis Russell, a Harding biographer often critical of his subject, praises the Iberia Spectator: “For the two young editors the little four-page journal was a creditable production, as lively as many a county paper, full of local items and jokes and advertisements, its editorials ranging over such varied topics as the anti-polygamy bill [in the U.S. Congress] and the aurora borealis. It was a popular venture. ‘The Spectator,’ Harding noted editorially, ‘is taken by every family in our city excepting a few stingy old grumblers who take no more interest in home enterprise than a mule takes in a hive of bees.’”8
According to Harris, his handsome roommate knew every pretty girl within five miles of the college, and they “frolicked together as innocently as young pups.” Warren’s mother, not to mention his sisters, had instructed him well on the ways and wiles of women. Warren enjoyed the company of women and they liked this tall, dark, and handsome man who talked and thought so dearly of his mother. Harding visited his mother every Sunday to bring her a bouquet of flowers. When he was later too far away to visit he arranged to have flowers delivered, a practice that continued throughout her lifetime. Childhood friend and later a Federal Reserve Board governor David R. Crissinger recalled the influence Harding’s mother had on her son. “The affection between them was one of the most beautiful things in Mr. Harding’s career. She was an extremely religious soul, and the strong religious and ethical feeling which is so evident in all that President Harding wrote was inherited from her.”9
During his last year at college Harding’s family moved to Marion, Ohio, which was about six miles from Caledonia. Upon his graduation in 1882, at seventeen years of age, he joined his family in Marion. With a population of 4,000, it was a true “city” for the young country lad with its roller-skating rink, pool hall, taverns, and even a couple of brothels. The town, which was served by three railroads, was booming and Dr. Harding’s practice quickly flourished; he was soon earning $500 a month (equivalent to about $8,600 per month today), enabling the purchase of “a fine house” in the center of town. 10
When Warren joined his family in Marion he needed a job, not to mention a career. He had no idea what to do with his life. He later explained, “I did what was very much in practice at the time—turned to teaching, in my abundant fullness of knowledge, having just come out of college.”11 He taught grade-school pupils at a one-room schoolhouse just north of Marion for one term. As he told his aunt in a February 12, 1883, letter, teaching was not going to be his profession: “Next Friday, one week, … forever my career as a pedagogue will close, and—oh, the joy! I believe my calling to be in some other sphere and will follow out the belief. I sincerely hope that my Winter’s labors are not lost but that those with whom I labored are somewhat benefited. How often it is that one’s most arduous toils are without appreciation! I will never teach again without better (a good deal, too) wages, and an advanced school.”12
After his brief teaching stint Harding tried the law. He spent several months reading Blackstone’s Commentaries, which was how legal education was pursued at the time. But he found it slow going and he was anxious to earn a living. To make some money he organized a band while selling casualty insurance. Harding’s Marion Citizens Band gained both local and statewide notoriety, which provided Harding with some money to invest in his future. He learned that the Marion Star, a daily newspaper that had been operating about seven years with only marginal success, was about to be auctioned off at a sheriff’s sale. The idea of owning and running the newspaper appealed greatly to the nineteen-year-old looking for work. But even with the help of his friend Jack Warwick, who was interested in joining him, they didn’t have the $300 necessary to make the acquisition. Warren could invest $100 but Warwick had nothing. With the addition of another partner, John 0. “Jack” Sickle (who loaned Warwick $100), and the willingness of Dr. Harding to cosign the note, they closed the deal. Harding became the editor and publisher, as well as an officer in the newly formed Star Publishing Company.
Of all the acquired assets, the most valuable was an unlimited railroad pass. Harding could travel anywhere on any railroad, and in June 1884, the Star’s rookie editor headed for Chicago and the Republican National Convention. Although he couldn’t vote (for another year and a half), and he knew nothing about nominating conventions, Harding and his partners agreed that the people of Marion had to take their newspaper seriously, and attending the GOP convention was a serious undertaking. It was also an adventure that had to be a transforming if not a defining event in Harding’s life.
Chicago buzzed with the latest transportation and communications technology. The GOP convention was held at the state-of the-art Interstate Industrial Exposition Building. The young, small-town editor had never seen anything as grand. He rubbed shoulders with reporters, writers, and editors from the national wire services and magazines, and elite newsmen from all over the country. The cavernous meeting hall, elaborately festooned with flags and bunting, was packed with excited spectators filling the galleries and determined delegates from all the states filling the convention floor. For his first convention, 1884 was a thriller, no doubt a mesmerizing political experience for Harding with its drama, pageantry, and conflict.
President Chester Arthur was rumored ill but wasn’t standing aside.b The favorite of the convention was Secretary of State James G. Blaine, a former senator from Maine. His leading opponent was the young New York State assemblyman Theodore Roosevelt, who was attending his first GOP convention and determined to block Blaine, because he did not like his financial dealings. Roosevelt was an energetic and sympathetic figure who had lost both his mother and his wife only a few months earlier and, to blunt his personal pain, was burying himself in his passion for politics. In a move to cut off a stampede of the Blaine forces, Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts nominated a black man from Mississippi, John R. Lynch, to be temporary chairman of the convention, with Roosevelt giving an electrifying nominating speech. It worked and temporarily checked the Blaine machine. But not for long.
Robert G. Ingersoll of Illinois, considered by some the foremost orator and political speech maker of his time, delivered the nominating speech that surely captivated young Harding, as it did the assembled delegates. Ingersoll roared: “Like an armed warrior, like a plumed knight, James G. Blaine marched down the halls of the American Congress and threw his shining lance full and fair against the brazen foreheads of the defamers of his country and the maligns of his honor … . Gentlemen of the convention, in the name of the great Republic, the only republic that ever existed upon this earth; in the name of all her defenders and of all her supporters … Illinois, Illinois nominates for the next President of this country, that prince of parliamentarians, that leader of leaders, James G. Blaine.”13 Blaine had the votes and won the nomination. Most delegates were delighted. But many Republicans were so upset that they bolted from the party. Theodore Roosevelt’s decision not to join these disaffected “mugwumps,” as they were derisively called, appears to have impressed young Harding (later an unfailing party stalwart), for it garnered Roosevelt considerable newspaper praise for remaining true to his party.
Harding had been wowed by the “plumed knight,” James Blaine, and hurried back to Marion to “put the whole weight of the Star” behind the GOP presidential candidate.14 When he arrived home, however, he discovered he was no longer an editor and publisher. The Star was back in the hands of the sheriff. Security for the note to purchase the Star had been claimed in an unrelated judgment. So the short-lived deal was canceled. Harding’s newspaper career appeared ended before it had started.
Copyright © 2004 by John W. Dean