Harding was born November 2, 1865, in Blooming Grove, Ohio. He was the eldest of eight children born to Dr. George Tryon Harding, Sr. and Phoebe Elizabeth (Dickerson) Harding. It was rumored in Blooming Grove that one of Harding's great-grandmothers might have been African American. Harding's great-great grandfather Amos claimed that the rumor was falsely began a thief, who had been caught in the act by a member of the Harding family.
Harding became an accomplished public speaker in college, and graduated in 1882 at the age of 17 with a Bachelor of Science degree. As a youth he was an accomplished cornet player and played in various bands. In 1884 his Citizens' Cornet Band won the third-place $200 prize at the highly competitive Ohio State Band Festival in Findlay.
On July 8, 1891, Harding married Florence Kling DeWolfe, the daughter of his rival Amos Hall Kling. Florence was a divorcée, five years Harding's senior, and the mother of a young son. Her first marriage, to an alcoholic, had led to her being disowned by her father.
Harding was newspaper publisher in Ohio. In 1893, his newspaper the Marion Star, replaced the Independent as the official paper for Marion's governmental notices, after Harding exposed the rival paper for overcharging the city. In 1896, the Independent ceased doing business and its owner was his father-in-law, Amos Kling wasted no time in financing and launching another rival paper, the Republican Transcript. In 1900, a political opponent, J.F. McNeal, with the help of Kling, secretly bought up $20,000 in loans owed by Harding, and immediately called them due in full. Harding just barely succeeded in securing the funds to pay off the debt.
Harding served in the Ohio Senate, as the 28th Lieutenant Governor of Ohio and as a U.S. Senator from 1915–1921. He was the first incumbent United States Senator and the first newspaper publisher to be elected President. He was selected as a compromise choice at the 1920 Republican National Convention. During his presidential campaign, in the aftermath of World War I, he promised a return of the nation to "normalcy". In the 1920 election, he and his running mate, Calvin Coolidge, defeated Democrat and fellow Ohioan James M. Cox in the largest presidential popular vote landslide (60.36% to 34.19%) since popular vote totals were first recorded in 1824.
Harding rewarded loyal friends and supporters, but scandals and corruption, including the notorious Teapot Dome scandal, eventually pervaded his administration. His Attorney-General Harry Daugherty was later tried, convicted, and sent to prison for bribery or defrauding the federal government.
In foreign affairs, Harding rejected Woodrow Wilson's League of Nations, and signed a separate peace treaty with Germany and Austria, formally ending World War I. He also strongly promoted world Naval disarmament at the Washington Naval Conference, and urged U.S. participation in a proposed International Court. Domestically, Harding signed the first child welfare program in the United States and dealt with striking workers in the mining and railroad industries. The nation's unemployment rate dropped by half during Harding's administration. In a show of political courage, he made a prominent speech in the heart of the south, in Birmingham, Alabama, condemning racial discrimination.
In the summer of 1923, Harding boarded a naval transport ship, the USS Henderson, and became the first President to travel to Alaska. Rumors of corruption in his administration were beginning to circulate in Washington. While in Alaska, Harding was profoundly shocked by a long message he received detailing illegal activities previously unknown to him. The purposes for Harding's visit to Alaska was to encourage colonization of the state. He hoped that with the completion of the Alaska Railroad, World War I veterans would return to their home territory and any impoverished workers in the lower states could come to Alaska and make or find their own employment. President Harding brought along with him to the territory the Secretary of Interior Hubert Work, Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, and Secretary of Agriculture Henry C. Wallace.
Harding arrived in Alaska on the USS Henderson on July 7, 1923. He visited Metlakatla, and Ketchikan on July 8, Wrangell on July 9, Juneau on July 10, Skagway and Glacier Bay on July 11, Seward, Snow River on the Kenai Peninsula, and Anchorage on July 13, Chickaloon, Sarah Palin's home of Wasilla and Willow on July 14, Montana Station and Curry on July 14, Cantwell, McKinley Park and Nenana on July 15. On July 15, 1923, President Harding drove in the golden spike on the north side of the steel Mears Memorial Bridge that completed the Alaska Railroad. The trip continued to Fairbanks on July 15. The President and his wife returned to Seward and they took the Henderson to Valdez (July 19), Cordova (July 20) and Sitka (July 22).
On July 26, 1923, having departed Alaska on the USS Henderson, President Harding toured Vancouver, British Columbia; the first sitting U.S. President ever to visit Canada. President Harding played a round of golf at the Shaughnessy Heights Golf Club, after which he complained of nausea and upper abdominal pain. His doctor, Charles E. Sawyer, believed Harding's illness to be a severe case of food poisoning. Harding's pulse and breathing rate were rapid and he was given digitalis. President Harding met with British Columbia Premier John Oliver and Mayor of Vancouver Charles Tisdall at the Hotel Vancouver. Harding spoke in front of 50,000 people at Stanley Park. He inspected The Vancouver Regiment honor guard accompanied by Canadian Brigadier General V.W. Odlum.
Coming into Seattle, Washington, President Harding's transport ship, USS Henderson, accidentally rammed into a U.S. naval destroyer due to fog. While in port, Harding reviewed the U.S. naval fleet and visited the Bell Street Pier. In Seattle, Harding greeted children and led 50,000 Boy Scouts in the Pledge of Allegiance. President Harding gave his final speech to a large crowd of 25,000 people at the University of Washington stadium in Seattle. Harding had rushed through his speech not waiting for applause by the audience. He then traveled by train from Seattle to Portland, Oregon. Harding's scheduled speech in Portland was canceled because he was not feeling well.
The President's train continued south to San Francisco. Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover sent a telegram from Dunsmuir, California, to his friend Dr. Ray L. Wilbur, asking Wilbur to meet and to personally examine the President. Arriving at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco, Harding developed a respiratory illness believed to be pneumonia. A severely exhausted Harding was given digitalis and caffeine that momentarily helped relieve his heart condition and sleeplessness.
On Thursday, Harding's health appeared to be improving, so his doctors went to dinner. His pulse was normal and his lung infection had subsided. Unexpectedly, during the evening, Harding shuddered and died suddenly in the middle of conversation with his wife in the hotel's presidential suite, at 7:35 p.m. on August 2, 1923.
Immediately after President Harding died, word quickly spread to the San Francisco streets that the President was dead. People rushed into the Palace Hotel and rapidly crowded into the hallways. The San Francisco chief of police, Daniel J. O'Brian, finally was able to clear the hotel of the unruly mob and members of Harding's official party could come see him.
After some discussion, the doctors issued a release indicating the cause of death to be "some brain evolvement, probably an apoplexy". Mrs. Harding refused to allow an autopsy. Naval medical consultants who examined the president in San Francisco concluded he had suffered a heart attack.
Harding was succeeded as President by Vice President Calvin Coolidge, who was sworn in while vacationing at Plymouth Notch, Vermont, by his father, a Vermont notary public.
Historians have been unkind to Harding due to the multiple scandals during his administration and as a result, Harding has received low rankings as President. This year's recent release of more of Harding's "love letters" to his mistress Carrie Phillips haven't helped. But his reputation has increased among some historians, who give him credit for his conservative financial policies, fiscal responsibility, and his endorsement of African American civil rights. Harding's creation of the Budget Bureau was a major economic accomplishment that reformed and streamlined wasteful federal spending. President Harding contended with racial problems on a national level, rather than sectional, and openly advocated African American political, educational, and economic equality inside the Solid South.
Author James David Rosenalt has a more complimentary assessment of Harding in his 2009 book The Harding Affair (reviewed in this community here). It's one I tend to agree with. Robenalt writes at pages 3-4:
He had a rare political attribute: courage. In his first address to Congress, he asked for the passage of an anti-lynching law. Six months after taking office, he was the first sitting president to travel into the deep south to make a bold civil rights speech. Democracy was a lie if blacks were denied political equality, he told an enormous crowd separated by color and a chain-link fence in Birmingham, Alabama. A few months later, on his first Christmas in the White House, he pardoned Socialist leader Eugene Debs, who was rotting away in an Atlanta prison. Debs's crime? He spoke out against the draft and the war after America entered the conflict.