Ohio History Journal

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Was There a "New" Harding?

Warren G. Harding and the

World Court Issue, 1920-1923





In the past ten years a revised, more flattering image of Warren G. Harding and

his administration has appeared in historical writing.1 Although many historians

still hold the Harding presidency in low esteem, a group of revisionists has sought

to upgrade its reputation. These revisionists do not agree in all respects about

either Harding or his administration, but they have produced more positive evalu-

ations than previous interpretations. Their writings indicate that the adminis-

tration, while not without its glaring defects, had its fair share of accomplish-

ments and originated domestic and foreign policies which persisted well into the

1920s. Harding himself, once judged a flat failure and the worst chief executive

in the nation's history, is depicted as an earnest, hardworking, politically shrewd

President of modest talent and moderate views-one of the lesser men to occupy

the White House, but not necessarily the worst.

Refusing to dismiss Harding as an incompetent, do-nothing President, a num-

ber of writers have contended that he became increasingly more confident, inde-

pendent, and assertive during his abbreviated stay in office, and that he signifi-

cantly altered his style of leadership and his conception of the presidency. They

have argued that upon entering office he intended to govern in close cooperation

with Congress, his cabinet, and party leaders, acting as a counselor and concili-

ator rather than as a dynamic chief executive in the tradition of Theodore Roose-

velt or Woodrow Wilson. His Whiggish conception of the presidential office and

of executive-congressional relations, his own personal insecurity and easy-going

nature, and his affinity for harmony inclined him towards a non-aggressive po-

litical style suited for achieving consensus and reducing friction. As a result,

however, of a heightened sense of the responsibilities of his office, greater po-

litical maturity, and the frustration of coping with a divided and often hostile

Congress, he shifted to a more forthright posture and came to display greater

initiative and determination in advancing his domestic and foreign program. By

late 1922 he had become bolder and more hard-hitting--a "new" Harding had

taken command in the White House.2


1. Louis W. Potts, "Who Was Warren G. Harding?" The Historian, XXXVI (August 1974), 621-

645, is an excellent survey of perspectives on Harding since his death. Also helpful for recent apprais-

als is Eric F. Goldman, "A Sort of Rehabilitation of Warren G. Harding," The New York Times Mag-

azine, March 26, 1972, pp. 42-43, 80-88.

2. Robert K. Murray, The Harding Era: Warren G. Harding and His Administration (Minneapolis,

1969), 127-128, 376, 422, 533-534; Robert K. Murray, The Politics of Normalcy: Governmental Theory

and Practice in the Harding-Coolidge Era (New York, 1973), 22-23, 41-43, 70-73; 75-78, 86-87, 93,

98-99; Andrew Sinclair, The Available Man: The Life Behind the Masks of Warren G. Harding (Chi-

cago, 1965), 208-211, 240, 245; Francis Russell, The Shadow of Blooming Grove: Warren G. Harding

in His Times (New York, 1968), 552-553. In spite of a generally sensationalistic and sour treatment of

Harding, Russell does concede that the President tried to break from his past in his last months in



Dr. Accinelli is Professor of History at the University of Toronto.