Warren G. Harding: Life Before the Presidency

Warren G. Harding: Life Before the Presidency

Warren G. Harding, called “Winnie” by his mother, was born on November 2, 1865, in Blooming Grove, Ohio. When he was ten, his family moved to the small Ohio village of Caledonia where he was raised. Both his parents were doctors—an unusual distinction for Phoebe Harding, who was granted a medical license based upon her experience as a midwife and in assisting her husband, George Harding. Warren cherished his childhood memories that painted a wholesome and perfect picture-book boyhood. An upbringing filled with farm chores, swimming in the local creek, and playing in the village band were the basis of his down-home appeal later in life. Like so many small-town boys in post-Civil War Ohio, Harding, along with his five younger siblings (four sisters and a brother) attended a one room schoolhouse where he learned to read, write, and spell from the McGuffey's Readers. At age fourteen, he entered Ohio Central College, from which he graduated with a B.S. degree in 1882, having achieved some distinction for editing the campus newspaper.

After college, Harding taught in a country school outside Marion, Ohio, for one term before trying his hand at law, insurance sales, and journalism for the local newspaper. In 1884, he raised $300 to purchase with two friends the nearly defunct Marion Star newspaper. They achieved moderate success over the next five years. In 1891, Warren, aged twenty-five, married a local divorcée, Florence "Flossie" Mabel Kling DeWolf, five years his senior. She had a ten-year-old son by her former husband and a sizable fortune from her wealthy family. She pursued Warren relentlessly, and he finally gave in, even though her father once stopped Warren on the street and threatened to kill him if he married his daughter. It was a match that her father objected to because of the rumor that Warren's family had black ancestors.

Publishing and Politics

For the next ten years, Harding's business prospered, in part due to Florence Harding's keen business eye, but principally to Harding's good-natured manner. His paper became a favorite with Ohio politicians of both parties because of his evenhanded reporting. He never ran a critical story if he could avoid it. His employees also loved and respected him for his willingness to share company profits with them. In his entire career, he never fired a single employee. In 1899, Harding won the first of two terms to the Ohio State Senate, serving as majority leader before his bid for the lieutenant governorship in 1903. After leaving office in 1905, he returned to his newspaper for five years, venturing again into state politics in a losing bid for governor in 1910.

So popular had he become with party regulars that he was given the honor of placing President William Howard Taft's name in nomination at the party convention in 1912. When the pro-Theodore Roosevelt delegates shouted him down, Harding went away from this experience offended by the display of loud and rude behavior. In 1914, Harding won the Ohio Republican primary for senator and beat Attorney General Timothy Hogan in the general election. Harding's supporters viciously attacked Hogan for being a Catholic intent on delivering Ohio to the pope. The religion issue dominated the election and gave Harding an overwhelming victory, though he never personally mentioned religion in his speeches. Still, the dirty election campaign was a smudged mark on his political record that never set easy with him.

Harding's undistinguished senate career made him few enemies and many friends. Always the "good fellow," he missed more sessions than he attended—being absent for key debates on the prohibition and suffrage amendments to the U.S. Constitution. As the man acceptable to almost all party regulars, Harding served as the keynote speaker and chairman of the 1916 Republican national convention. On the League of Nations, he stood solidly with Senator Henry Cabot Lodge in opposing President Woodrow Wilson's version of the League. (Interestingly, when Harding was President, his position was not as clear.)