NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE P rinceton University has announced that it plans to remove the name of former president Woodrow Wilson from its public policy school because of his segregationist views. Other institutions with Wilson’s name will likely be pressured to follow suit.
Good riddance, Woodrow. Wilson was one of the most despicable characters in 20th-century American politics: a national embarrassment. The Virginian didn’t merely hold racist “views;” he re-segregated the federal civil service. He didn’t merely involve the United States in a disastrous war in Europe after promising not to do so; he threw political opponents and anti-war activists into prison. Wilson, the first president to show open contempt for the Constitution and the Founding, was a vainglorious man unworthy of honor.
Fortunately, we have the perfect replacement for Wilson: Warren Harding, the most underappreciated president in American history, a joyful champion of civil rights and republicanism. Harding deserves to be reinserted into the nation’s consciousness on the merits of his presidency alone. But considering that he also negated much of Wilson’s calamitous legacy, we have an even better reason to honor him.
Harding was a product of the meritocracy, rising from poverty in Ohio to become editor of his local paper, The Marion Star, and the director of a bank, a lumber interest, and a phone company. Harding would win a Senate seat, and then become one of the most popular presidents in American history. In 1920, Harding captured a huge majority — including 60 percent of the black vote — winning 404–127 in the Electoral College.
Harding, unlike Wilson — and most of today’s political class, for that matter — didn’t believe politics should play an outsized role in the everyday lives of citizens. “America’s present need is not heroics,” he once said, “but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration; not agitation, but adjustment; not surgery, but serenity; not the dramatic, but the dispassionate; not experiment, but equipoise; not submergence in internationality, but sustainment in triumphant nationality.”
Where Wilson was insufferably puritanical and sanctimonious, Harding was genial and self-deprecating. He drank whiskey, chewed tobacco, and ran a poker game out of the White House (among other, less innocent, extracurricular activities), famously quipping, “I am not fit for this office and should never have been here.” The accessible Harding (who often answered the door of the White House himself) was deceptively intelligent, fluent on policy matters, and the first president to hold regular news conferences. No one, alas, is perfect.
Where Wilson had expanded the federal government in historic ways, creating massive new agencies such as the War Industries Board, Harding’s shortened term did not include any big new bureaucracies, or any new wars, or any new takeovers of industry — just lots of peace and prosperity.
Wilson left the country in a terrible recession; Harding turned it around, becoming the last president to end a downturn by cutting taxes, and slashing spending and regulations. Harding cut spending from $6.3 billion in 1920 to $3.3 billion by 1923. The GDP grew from $687 billion to $802 billion during that time. Calvin Coolidge gets a lot of credit for continuing Harding’s policies.
All these reasons make Harding an exceptional president. But the reason he deserves to replace Wilson on the front of buildings — and everywhere else — is that he was a great champion of liberalism.
Against the urging of his attorney general and political advisers, Harding released dozens of political activists who had been jailed by Wilson under the Sedition Act — including socialist presidential candidate Eugene Debs, whom Harding personally viewed as a dangerous extremist.
Wilson, a racist in the purest sense of the word, had re-segregated the federal government, laying off 15 out of 17 black supervisors in the federal service and replacing them with white men. Harding re-desegregated those agencies and put African Americans in several high positions throughout his administration. Wilson made the Birth of a Nation the first movie screened in the White House and never objected when Jim Crow laws began being implemented in Washington, D.C. Harding screened The Covered Wagon and became the first president to agitate for civil rights on Southern soil. In October of 1921, speaking to a huge, segregated crowd in the booming city of Birmingham, Ala., Harding championed “an end of prejudice,” praised the Southern blacks who had migrated north for enriching their communities, and applauded the black soldiers for bravely serving during the Great War. Because of the inequities of the modern South, Harding told the stunned crowd, it took a bloody conflict for the African-American soldier to have his “first real conception of citizenship — the first full realization that the flag was their flag, to fight for, to be protected by them, and also to protect them.”
Harding did not campaign for “equality” but rather equal “opportunity” and a “uniformity of ideals.” In a truly free nation the black man, he told the crowd, could compete with anyone. Success would never be guaranteed for either white or black, because the “Providence that endowed men with widely unequal capacities and capabilities and energies did not intend any such thing.”
The president framed the cause of the African American as a manifestation of the proper constitutional order. “Let the black man vote when he is fit to vote,” he said, and “prohibit the white man voting when he is unfit to vote.”
The black sections of the park cheered wildly. It was probably one of the bravest speeches given by a president in the 20th century. The fact that Harding delivered it in newly minted “Woodrow Wilson Park” made it all the better.
These days, Harding is largely remembered for his alleged depravity and corruption. And he was definitely a flawed president, far too trusting of crooked subordinates, most famously those who participated in the Teapot Dome, a scandal surrounding the leasing of federal oil reserves. (From my perspective, Harding’s views on tariffs and immigration, and his failed effort to poison-pill Prohibition, leave something to be desired, as well. But those are political, not moral or Constitutional, objections.) But there is no evidence that Harding ever benefited, or ever knew, about the corruption that was unfolding around him. By all accounts, he was deeply wounded by the betrayals of his friends — all of it, no doubt, generating the considerable stress that helped contribute to his heart attack in August of 1923. Had he lived, Harding would surely have won reelection.
Also to be counted against him is his long-term affair with Carrie Fulton Phillips, which was made famous by a series of highly energetic and evocative love letters. Yet, most rumors of debauchery in the Harding White House, which were fueled by dozens of tawdry and conspiratorial books in the 1920s and 1930s, were complete fiction. Those, and other revisionist histories, have unjustly destroyed the Harding legacy.
As the historian Paul Johnson once noted:
The deconstruction of the real Harding and his reconstruction as a crook, philanderer, and a sleazy no-good was an exemplary exercise in false historiography. It began in 1924 with a series of articles in the New Republic by its unimaginative and violently anti-business editor, Bruce Bliven. He created the myth that the Ohio Gang, run by [confidant Harry M.] Daugherty, had deliberately recruited Harding in 1912 as a front man as part of a long-term conspiracy to hand over Andrew Mellon and Big Business. It now seems there was no evidence whatsoever for this invention, and it is not surprising that Bliven went on, in the 1930s, to become a credulous propagandist for the Communist-run Popular Front.
When I was a kid, Woodrow Wilson was portrayed as a progressive icon. Little, if anything, was said about his bigotry, his absentee second term, or his attacks on liberalism (much in the same way FDR was celebrated as if he never signed an executive order instituting internment camps or persistently backed failed economic policies). As for Harding? I doubt we spent more than five minutes on the man. In the latest C-SPAN ranking of presidents, Wilson places eleventh overall — ahead of James Madison, John Adams, and Ulysses S. Grant — while Harding is at No. 40. Too many modern historians value technocrats and government expansion over liberalism and peace, making these lists largely useless.
By every genuine measure, Harding was a better president than Wilson. Luckily, we now have a chance to correct a historic injustice.