Essays, Papers & Addresses

Coolidge and the Harding Scandals

by Robert H. Ferrell

Robert H. Ferrell is professor emeritus of history at Indiana University and the author of numerous books on the 1920’s and Presidents Coolidge, FDR, and Truman. He is one of America’s most deservedly acclaimed presidential historians. His book The Presidency of Calvin Coolidge is available through the Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation bookstore.

When Coolidge came into the presidency upon the death of Warren G. Harding on August 2, 1923, he soon encountered a heritage of the Harding administration that proved embarrassing, and the manner in which he separated himself from the so-called Harding scandals displayed a mastery of American politics.

Let it be said at the outset that the scandals attributed to the Harding administration were vastly overdrawn and indeed were not of large moment. The most criticism focused on the leasing of two naval oil reserves, Teapot Dome and Elk Hills, to two large oil entrepreneurs, this by Harding’s secretary of the interior, Albert B. Fall. Something less than half a million dollars passed to Fall who considered his new wealth a loan rather than bribe, although years later he was convicted and sent to prison. Undoubted scandal in the Veterans Bureau offered opportunity for its head, Charles R. Forbes, to take perhaps $150,000, no large sum even for the 1920s when a dollar was worth perhaps fifteen times what it later would bring in worldly goods. As for malfeasance by Harding’s and Coolidge’s (for a while) attorney general, Harry M. Daugherty, none was ever proved, and when Daugherty’s case went to trial in New York federal court there were two hung juries.

But whether there was fire or, as is now clear, mostly smoke in regard to scandal in the Harding administration, apart from the guilt of Fall and Forbes, Coolidge had to stand away from what the American people thought was Republican scandal, and this the new president managed. Primarily his tactic was to allow time to pass, and meanwhile place the investigation in the hands of two nonpartisan lawyers, a former senator from Ohio and a Philadelphia attorney. By the early summer of 1924 popular attention had turned elsewhere.

All the while the agile Coolidge strengthened his candidacy for the presidency. In the beginning, upon taking office, few observers thought Coolidge had a chance to become president in his own right. An ambitious man, he soon disabused them. He encourages a view of himself that was a caricature but was politically convenient – this was the appearance of a dour Vermonter who was so honest he squeaked and who illustrated his primness by saying little because of the need to carry on the nation’s business. He allowed announcement of his candidacy in December, 1923, and in the next months his supporters gathered up commitments by delegates to the party’s national convention in the summer of 1924. Meanwhile other contenders for the GOP nomination lost their appeal, sometimes with the president’s careful encouragement. Perhaps the most decisive dropout candidate was the automobile magnate Henry Ford, who turned to other projects, of which he possessed a great many. And so, when the Harding scandals virtually dropped from sight just prior to the national convention, and the Democrats that year nominated a weak candidate in the person of the Wall Street lawyer John W. Davis, Coolidge became a shoo-in for a full term as president of the United States.