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The First 100 Days: Warren Harding

Ohio Senator Warren Harding was selected as his party's compromise candidate at a deadlocked convention. He was reportedly chosen in a "smoke-filled room". He soundly defeated his opponent, fellow Ohioan James Cox, receiving 60.2% of the popular vote, the highest percentage since the development of the two-party system, and he also won 404 electoral votes. Cox received 34% of the national vote and 127 electoral votes. Harding's victory followed two terms of the Presidency of Woodrow Wilson, who had suffered a serious stroke toward the end of his second term, but who refused to yield power to his Vice-President.


Warren Harding was sworn in as president on March 4, 1921. Harding asked for a low-key inauguration, without the customary parade, leaving only the swearing-in ceremony and a brief reception at the White House. In his inaugural address he declared, "Our most dangerous tendency is to expect too much from the government and at the same time do too little for it."

After the election, Harding had announced he was going on vacation, and that no decisions about appointments would be made until he returned to Marion in December. He went to Texas, where he fished and played golf with his friend Frank Scobey. Scobey would be later appointed as Harding's Director of the Mint. Harding then took ship for the Panama Canal Zone. He went to Washington, where he was warmly welcomed when Congress opened in early December, in recognition of the fact that he was the first sitting senator to be elected President.

Harding turned his mind to the selection of a cabinet, stating that he planned to consult the "best minds" of the country on his appointments. When he made his selections, to paraphrase Dickens, it was the best of cabinets and it was the worst of cabinets. Harding chose well-respected former presidential candidate Charles Evans Hughes as his Secretary of State. He offered the position of Treasury Secretary to Charles G. Dawes (who would later serve as Vice-President) but Dawes declined the offer. For that position, Harding chose Pittsburgh banker Andrew W. Mellon, one of the richest men in the country. Harding appointed Herbert Hoover as United States Secretary of Commerce. He also chose RNC Chairman Will Hays as Postmaster General.

Then there were the duds. Two Harding cabinet appointees darkened the reputation of his administration because of their subsequent involvement in scandal. They were Harding's Senate friend, Albert B. Fall of New Mexico, who became the Interior Secretary, and Harding's campaign manager, Harry Daugherty, who became Attorney General. Fall was a Western rancher and former miner, and was pro-development. He was opposed by conservationists such as Gifford Pinchot. Pinchot said of Fall, "it would have been possible to pick a worse man for Secretary of the Interior, but not altogether easy". The New York Times was critical of Daugherty's appointment, stating that instead of selecting one of the best minds, Harding had been content "to choose merely a best friend". It is likely that Harding chose Daugherty for his political acumen, although Daugherty was also seen as a competent lawyer.

One of the contentious issues in the area of foreign affairs was whether or not the United States would join the League of Nations. Wilson had lost his health campaigning for America to join the league, but opposition in the Senate was too great to gain passage of a Treaty in which the nation would agree to the rules of the League. Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts led the anti-League block in the Senate. After taking office, Harding decided that the U.S. would not join even a scaled-down version of the League. This left the Treaty of Versailles unratified by the Senate, which meant that the U.S. remained technically at war with Germany, Austria, and Hungary. Peacemaking began with the Knox–Porter Resolution, declaring the U.S. at peace and reserving any rights granted under Versailles. Treaties with Germany, Austria and Hungary, each containing many of the non-League provisions of the Treaty of Versailles, were ratified later during Harding's first year in office in 1921.

Harding took office as the nation was receiving calls from foreign governments for reduction of the massive war debt owed to the United States. The German government also sought to reduce the reparations that it was required to pay. Harding decided to attempt to have a plan proposed by Mellon adopted, which would give the administration broad authority to reduce war debts in negotiation. But in 1922, faced with constituent anger from those who had gone to war, Congress passed a more restrictive bill. Hughes negotiated an agreement for Britain to pay off its war debt over 62 years at low interest. This agreement was eventually approved by Congress in 1923.

A pressing issue left unresolved by Wilson was the question of how the United States would treat Bolshevik Russia. The U.S. had been among a number of nations that sent troops to Russia after the Russian Revolution. Wilson refused to recognize the new government in Russia. Harding delegated this issue to his Commerce Secretary Hoover, who had considerable experience with Russian business affairs. When famine struck Russia in 1921, Hoover led the American Relief Administration. He negotiated with the Russians to provide aid. Soviet leaders hoped that the agreement would lead to recognition. Hoover supported trade with Russia, but Hughes opposed this, and the matter was not resolved under Harding's presidency.

During the election campaign, Harding had called for disarmament and lower defense costs. He gave a speech to a joint session of Congress in April 1921, in which he set out his legislative priorities. One of the matters he mentioned was disarmament. He told Congress that the government could not "be unmindful of the call for reduced expenditure" on defense. Idaho Senator William Borah had proposed a conference at which the major naval powers, the U.S., Britain, and Japan, would agree to cuts in their fleets. Harding thought that this was a great idea and after some diplomatic discussions, representatives of nine nations convened in Washington later that year, in November 1921. Most of the diplomats first attended Armistice Day ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery, where Harding spoke at the entombment of the Unknown Soldier of World War I. Of this unnamed hero, Harding said, "his identity took flight with his imperishable soul. We know not whence he came, only that his death marks him with the everlasting glory of an American dying for his country".

The conference opened on November 12, 1921. The American proposal was for the U.S to decommission or cancel the building of 30 warships if Great Britain did the same for 19 vessels, and Japan 17 ships. Agreements were later reached on this and other points, including settlements to disputes over islands in the Pacific, and limitations on the use of poison gas. Harding and Hughes were praised in the press for their work. Harding had appointed Senator Henry Cabot Lodge and the Senate Minority Leader, Alabama's Oscar Underwood, to the U.S. delegation, knowing that this bipartisanship would help to ensure that the treaties made it through the Senate, which was mostly what happened.

Harding and Secretary Hughes worked to improve relations with Latin American countries. These nations were wary of the American use of the Monroe Doctrine to justify intervention. At the time of Harding's inauguration, the U.S. had troops in Cuba and Nicaragua. The troops stationed in Cuba to protect American interests were withdrawn later in 1921. U.S. forces remained in Nicaragua through Harding's presidency. In April 1921, Harding gained the ratification of the Thomson–Urrutia Treaty with Colombia, granting that nation $25,000,000 as settlement for the U.S.-provoked Panamanian revolution of 1903. The Latin American nations were not fully satisfied. The had also wanted the U.S. to renounce its interventionism. Harding would not go this far, but Hughes pledged to limit it to nations near the Panama Canal and to make it clear what the U.S. aims were.

The U.S. had intervened repeatedly in Mexico under Wilson, and had withdrawn diplomatic recognition of the Mexican government. Mexican President Álvaro Obregón wanted recognition before negotiations, but Wilson had refused. Harding also opposed recognition. Instead, Secretary Hughes sent a draft treaty to the Mexicans in May 1921, which included pledges to reimburse Americans for losses in Mexico since the 1910 revolution there. Obregón was unwilling to sign a treaty before being recognized. It was not until the end of August of 1923, that the U.S. recognized the Obregón government, less than a month after Harding's death, substantially on the terms proposed by Mexico.

When Harding took office on March 4, 1921, the nation was in the midst of a postwar economic decline. Harding called a special session of Congress to convene on April 11. When Harding addressed the joint session the following day, he urged the reduction of income taxes (which had been raised during the war), an increase in tariffs on agricultural goods to protect the American farmer, as well as other reforms, such as support for highways, aviation, and radio. On May 27, Congress passed an emergency tariff increase on agricultural products. An act authorizing a Bureau of the Budget followed on June 10. Harding appointed Charles Dawes as bureau director with a mandate to cut expenditures.

Treasury Secretary Mellon also recommended to Congress that income tax rates be cut. He asked that the excess profits tax on corporations be abolished. The House Ways and Means Committee endorsed Mellon's proposals, but many in congress wanted to raise tax rates on corporations. Harding could not immediately decide what side to come down on on this issue. He told a friend: "I can't make a damn thing out of this tax problem. I listen to one side, and they seem right, and then—God!—I talk to the other side, and they seem just as right." Eventually Harding decided to compromise. He gained passage of a compromise bill in the House. The bill delayed the end of the excess profits tax by a year. In the Senate, the tax bill became entangled in efforts to vote World War I veterans a soldier's bonus. Frustrated by the delays, on July 12, Harding appeared before the Senate and urged it to pass the tax legislation without the bonus. It was not until November that the revenue bill finally passed, with higher rates than Mellon had proposed.

Harding was opposed to payment of a bonus to veterans. In his Senate address he said that so much was already being done for them by a grateful nation. He said that the bill would "break down our Treasury, from which so much is later on to be expected." The Senate sent the bonus bill back to committee. It came back when Congress reconvened in December 1921. A bill providing a bonus, without a means of funding it, was passed by both houses in September 1922. Harding vetoed it, and the veto was narrowly sustained. The issue of the bonus would later be addressed by President Calvin Coolidge in 1924 and a bonus, not payable in cash, would be voted to be paid to soldiers despite Coolidge's veto in 1924.

In his first annual message to Congress, Harding sought the power to adjust tariff rates. When the Fordney–McCumber Tariff Act was later signed on September 21, 1922, Harding only said that he was grateful that the bill gave him some power to adjust rates. In retrospect, many historians believe that the bill was unwise, because it created problems in international commerce and made the repayment of war debts more difficult.

Harding was swayed buy the argument of his Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon, who had ordered a study on the relationship between tax rates and revenue. The study showed that, as income tax rates were increased, money was driven underground or abroad. Mellon concluded that lower rates would increase tax revenues. Based on his advice, Harding supported a cut in tax rates starting in 1922. The top marginal rate was reduced annually in four stages from 73% in 1921 to 25% in 1925.

The 1920s were a time of technological advancement in America. Use of electricity became increasingly common. Mass production of the motor car created activity in other industries, such as highway construction, rubber and steel. This economic boost helped bring the nation out of the recession. To improve and expand the nation's highway system, Harding signed the Federal Highway Act of 1921. From 1921 to 1923, the federal government spent $162 million on America's highway system, infusing the U.S. economy with a large amount of capital. In 1922, Harding declared that the nation was living "in the age of the motor car", which "reflects our standard of living and gauges the speed of our present-day life."

Harding had urged regulation of radio broadcasting in his April 1921 speech to Congress. Commerce Secretary Hoover took charge of this project, and convened a conference of radio broadcasters in 1922, which led to a voluntary agreement for licensing of radio frequencies through the Commerce Department. Both Harding and Hoover were not entirely satisfied with this arrangement and wanted something more than an agreement, but Congress was slow to act. Radio regulation would not occur until 1927.

On the civil rights front, in Harding's first address to Congress in April of 1921, he called for passage of anti-lynching legislation. He was a strong advocate for promoting the rights of African-Americans. Harding asked his cabinet officers to find places for members of this community in their departments. Later that year, on October 26, 1921, Harding gave a speech in Birmingham, Alabama, to a segregated audience of 20,000 whites and 10,000 blacks. In his address, Harding urged equal political rights for the African American. He said that he was willing to see literacy tests for voting continue, if applied fairly to all races. He told his audience, "Whether you like it or not, unless our democracy is a lie, you must stand for that equality." The white section of the audience listened in silence while those in the African-American section cheered.

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Harding supported Congressman Leonidas Dyer's federal anti-lynching bill, which passed the House of Representatives in January 1922. When it reached the Senate floor in November 1922, it was filibustered by Southern Democrats, and it was withdrawn.

Regrettably, Harding is best remembered for the scandals that occurred on his watch. His fatal flaw was trusting those he delegated power to. When these people were trustworthy, much was accomplished. But when they were dishonest, Harding ultimately had to wear the results of that dishonesty. As can be seen from this summary of the early part of his presidency however, Warren Harding was definitely not a "do-nothing" President.


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