Harding’s Death and Post–mortem Legacy – Government (300 Level Course)
Warren Gamaliel Harding was elected as the twenty-ninth president of the United States of America on March 4, 1921. Simply put by author H. L. Mencken, “no other such a complete and dreadful nitwit is to be found in the pages of American history.” It is been common understanding that the man that was our president for a little over two years was a prime example of incompetence yet feeble good nature.
Having a way with words, Harding coined the phrase “normalcy” which was an error on the word normality, and little else, the time Harding spent in office was largely unsuccessful and notably full of corruption. Therefore his death is a question for debate. Some scholars feel that president Harding died of natural causes. Others feel that perhaps there was more too it than that, that maybe his death was aided. There are two sides of this story and definite reasons supporting each theory. So just what did happen to our president nearly a century ago?
During the summer of 1923, in the middle of his term as president and an oncoming scandal within his administration, Warren Harding decided to set out on a speaking tour. The tour took him all the way from Washington D.C. to Alaska. While in Alaska, he was the first American president to travel there, he took on a lot of heat about the ways and means that Albert Fall his secretary of the Interior was handling things. Just before leaving he received a long, coded message from Washington that clearly upset him, so much so that he appeared near collapse for some three days. On the journey back, he met with then commerce secretary Herbert Hoover and told him that a great controversy was brewing within the administration. He asked Hoover if he should cover it up or expose it to the public. Hoover felt that exposing it would “at least gain integrity for Harding.” After reaching San Francisco, Harding was worn out both in mind and body and was resting comfortably in the Palace Hotel with his wife Flossie. On the evening of August 2, 1923, as his wife sat next to him reading aloud, Harding twitched, shook, and with mouth agape, fell lifeless to his side. His family had a history of heart failure so the doctors simply concluded that he died of a stroke. His wife fervently refused permission for an autopsy.
Here is where the debate begins. Many authors, biographers, and historians leave the death of Harding at that. These are the people who are afraid to make waves in the water and who back away when the questions are being asked. These people believe that the president who was only fifty-seven years of age and in good health would be so stricken by grief in a mere three days that it would lead to his sudden death. While not improbable, there may be merit elsewhere. Robert Murray writes that while traveling to San Francisco, Harding suffered a cardiac malfunction that was later diagnosed as a mild heart attack, which was treated to accordingly. As the president rested, he was apparently responding well to both bed rest and medication. Yet suddenly three days later the end came. But this version of Harding’s death does not coincide with all of the other explanations of his death. Others omit this early diagnosis of a heart attack altogether. Could there be another side of the story?
The other explanation for the death of Warren Harding, while inconclusive yet plausible, was that he was not killed, but assisted in death. Some contemporary scholars feel that his wife with the aid and knowledge of his physician, Charles “Doc” Sawyer, in fact perpetrated this. This theory is based on the assumption that Flossie Harding had poisoned her husband to spare him from public disgrace. While the country was grieving the loss of their leader, which proved to be a severe loss at the time, no one was going to try and blame the president’s wife for his death. Yet Flossie had refused permission for an autopsy to be performed, so the charge could never be disproved. What would be the possible motivation for this theory? It proved to be two fold. First, Harding’s death did in fact help him to immediately avoid being tarnished by the looming scandal. Second, and most importantly, his death was a godsend for the Republican Party. It allowed the party to pass of culpability for all of the scandals, including Teapot Dome onto the dead president and all of his associates. However this forever buried Harding and his reputation. Albert Fall was sentenced to prison time along with trials of Edwin Denby and Harry Daugherty, both of whom narrowly escaped jail time but only further buried their former friend and boss in the muck, even after his death.
In conclusion, while the truth surrounding Warren Harding’s death may never be told, there are simply too many details and inconsistencies to not at least question foul play in his “natural death.” While it is possible that Harding did die from natural causes, his legacy and political usefulness posthumously weave an intricate tale that may lead some to believe that his death was planned and carried out. Warren Harding was a hard worker who had worked his way up from a small time printer to a legislator to the president of the United States. Still he was not the first choice for the Republican Party in 1920 and it soon appeared that he may have been in over his head. Sometimes arguably labeled unfairly as a “bad president” because of a short uneventful tenure in office and a variety of scandals surrounding him, he was in no way a great president. It could be said for Harding that he was just there, nothing more and nothing less. Whatever his legacy while living may have been, it is clear today that Warren Harding was much more useful in death than he ever was in the office of the president. Unfortunately in life there needs to be a scapegoat, someone that blame can be pinned upon. Perhaps if one looked closely they could see the dishonest “friends of Harding” pinning their remaining guilt to his chest as his casket was being closed. Burying the controversy with the man that trusted them.