The Harding Memorial

It is difficult to imagine a President falling from grace quite as rapidly as Warren G. Harding. Elected by the largest popular majority up to that time, and assuming the presidency in 1920 at a time when the affairs of the government were in a disastrous shambles following the illness-ridden final years of Woodrow Wilson’s tenure, Harding had pledged to return the operations of government, and the affairs of the nation, to a state of normalcy. While his administration was superior in accomplishments to a sizable portion of those in the nation’s history, as his biographer Robert K. Murray states, the record is overshadowed by the scandals that began to unravel at the time of Harding’s death. Although the president himself was never remotely thought culpable, his judgment especially in matters of appointments, must be severely questioned, even if the mythical proportions that tales of wrongdoing and easy living in the Harding White House have been and continue to be vastly overstated. Polls of presidential greatness have constantly placed Harding at or near the bottom, testimony to the power of historians and journalists to perpetuate myth over reality.

Shortly after his death, with the oratory from his eulogies still in the air, the Harding Memorial Association was formed with the objective of raising money for a suitable presidential tomband monument. President Coolidge accepted the honorary chairmanship and many top government official, including all cabinet members, were on the association’s executive board.

President Coolidge chairs meeting of the Harding Memorial Association Executive Board, looking appropriately glum

In mid-1924 Coolidge appointed a committee made up of Charles Schwab and Secretaries Mellon and Weeks to determine the location, plans, and allotment of funds for the memorial; they selected Harding’s hometown of Marion, Ohio, and ground for the memorial, a circle of 46 Tuscan and Ionic columns in white Georgia marble, was broken in 1926. By that time, Republicans were not eager to associate themselves with the Harding name, and on the occasion of the laying of the cornerstone, the only Republican official who was willing to attend and deliver an endorsement of his former boss was Vice-President Dawes.

(read on after the cut)

When the time came for the formal dedication, scheduled for July 4, 1927 it was obvious that no less a personage than the current president could deliver this address. But Coolidge was “too busy” (that date being his birthday and all) and to the end of his term, according to Hoover’s memoir, “expressed a furious distaste” at any mention of dedicating the memorial. Not that Hoover was much better – when contacted by the association shortly after his inauguration in March 0f 1929, his office replied that the president could not “suggest any date for the dedication when he might be present,” hinting strongly that Hoover would not be displeased if the dedication went ahead without his participation.

So the memorial stood for 5 years and remained undedicated. As biographer Murray puts it, this was “an embarrassment, more a monument to Republican political cowardice than a tribute to a dead president.” Finally, in January 1931, Hoover relented and indicated that he would dedicate the memorial after all. At the gathering, held on June 16, Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes spoke first, saying little. Coolidge, at the time the only living ex-president, accepting the memorial on behalf of the American people, was characteristically brief and not effusive. Hoover, who had accompanied Harding on the fateful trip during which he died, managed to find the right tone. While describing Harding as “a man of delicate sense of honor, of sympathetic heart, of transcendent greatness of soul”, he also bluntly stated, “Here was a man whose soul was seared by a great disillusionment. Harding had a dim realization that he had been betrayed by a few of the men whom he had trusted, by men who he believed were his devoted friends. (…) That was the tragedy of the life of Warren Harding.”

Incidentally, the Harding Memorial remains the last presidential memorial to be erected.

The Harding Memorial in Marion, Ohio, today

2 thoughts on “The Harding Memorial

  1. In Calvin Coolidge: More Than Two Words the president repeats a story that I am certain he knew but very doubtful that he ever told. Harding, though, often told the story on himself. It goes like this: Father said to me, Warren, we are damned lucky you weren’t born a girl; you would always be in the family-way: You just can’t say, “No!”

    Coolidge’s Memorial to President Harding is contained in his 1929 Autobiography where there is nary a word of criticism but considerable acknowledgment of Harding’s accomplishments.

    In March of 1923 –
    “We left President and Mrs. Harding in Washington. I do not know what had impaired his health. Later it was disclosed that he had discovered that some whom he had trusted had betrayed him and he had been forced to call them to account. It is known that this discovery was a very heavy grief to him, perhaps more than he could bear. I never saw him again. In June he started for Alaska and—eternity.”

    • Jim, thank you for those illuminating comments. I suppose I should have used more sources than I did! But I expect I’ll be returning to the subject of Harding who, even more than Coolidge, has been treated unfairly by history (or, rather, by historians).

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