Scandals of the Harding Administration Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Warren G. Harding’s presidential administration experienced some of the worst instances of corruption at that level of government in U.S. history.

Summary of Event

On August 2, 1923, the twenty-ninth president of the United States, Warren G. Harding, died in San Francisco. The cause of death was listed as “cerebral embolism,” but perhaps journalist William Allen White, Harding’s friend and biographer, was more correct when he asked, “How could the doctors diagnose an illness that was part terror, part shame, and part utter confusion?” Harding had suspected, even before leaving Washington to journey to the West Coast, that there was widespread corruption in his administration, and that this corruption was the work of his cronies. “My God, this is a hell of a job,” he told White shortly before embarking on his journey. “I have no trouble with my enemies. . . . But my friends, my God-damn friends, White, they’re the ones that keep me walking the floor nights!” Presidency, U.S.;Warren G. Harding[Harding] [kw]Scandals of the Harding Administration (1921-1923) [kw]Harding Administration, Scandals of the (1921-1923) Presidency, U.S.;Warren G. Harding[Harding] [g]United States;1921-1923: Scandals of the Harding Administration[05350] [c]Government and politics;1921-1923: Scandals of the Harding Administration[05350] [c]Crime and scandal;1921-1923: Scandals of the Harding Administration[05350] Harding, Warren G. Coolidge, Calvin Daugherty, Harry M. Doheny, Edward L. Fall, Albert B. Forbes, Charles R. Sinclair, Harry F. Walsh, Thomas J.

Already, graft in the Veterans Bureau had come to light. The head of the bureau, Charles R. Forbes, had millions of dollars in contracts and supplies at his disposal, and he proceeded to use them with a callous disregard for the veterans he was supposed to be helping. He made a fortune by declaring vast quantities of hospital supplies worthless and selling them to friends, who in turn resold them to the bureau at staggering prices. For bribes and other favors, Forbes also awarded contracts for hospital sites and construction. In one instance, John W. Thompson of the privately owned Thompson-Black Company paid Forbes $5,000 for preferential treatment in bidding for government contracts. Upon learning of Forbes’s activities, Harding demanded his resignation. Several days later, the legal adviser to the bureau, Charles F. Cramer, committed suicide. After a nine-week trial in 1924, Forbes was found guilty of conspiracy to defraud the federal government, fined $10,000, and sentenced to two years at Leavenworth penitentiary.

The Veterans Bureau scandal was merely the beginning. Being an extraordinarily poor judge of men, Harding had surrounded himself with peddlers of corruption. Most of these individuals were members of the “Ohio Gang” Ohio Gang —friends from Marion, Ohio, Harding’s home, and from state politics in Columbus. Harding’s attorney general was an Ohio friend, Harry M. Daugherty, who, according to one writer, was “a tinhorn gambler and a cheat.” Harding appointed the former sheriff of Pickaway County, Ohio, to the directorship of the U.S. Mint. His brother-in-law became superintendent of federal prisons. Harding installed as comptroller of the currency and then governor of the Federal Reserve system a Marion friend whose only experience in banking had been a few months as head of a small bank. Jesse Smith, Smith, Jesse a friend of Daugherty, was the liaison man between the Justice Department and various lawbreakers who were eager to purchase pardons, paroles, government appointments, liquor withdrawal permits, and immunity from prosecution. “My God, how the money rolls in,” Smith was reported to sing. On May 23, 1923, however, when rumors about Smith’s corrupt acts were circulating, he committed suicide in Daugherty’s apartment.

It was a non-Ohioan, however, Secretary of the Interior Albert B. Fall, who provided the most notorious of the Harding scandals. Conservationists were outraged by the appointment of Fall, who had revealed himself to be an enemy of conservation both as a U.S. senator from New Mexico and as a rancher whose sheep grazed over the range of the Alamo National Forest in violation of the law. Before becoming a member of Harding’s cabinet, Fall had been almost bankrupt. Soon afterward, however, he began to build a new ranch house and to stock his herd with blooded cattle. That this sudden wealth did not correspond with his yearly salary of $12,000 was obvious. One explanation was uncovered by a subcommittee of the Senate Public Lands Committee chaired by Senator Thomas J. Walsh, a Democrat from Montana. Prodded by Fall, Harding in 1921 had transferred control of the naval oil reserves at Elk Hills, California, and Teapot Dome, Teapot Dome scandal Wyoming, from the U.S. Navy to the Department of the Interior. Then Fall had leased Teapot Dome to the Mammoth Oil Company, owned by Harry F. Sinclair, and Elk Hills to the Pan-American Petroleum and Transport Company of Edward L. Doheny. The Walsh investigations revealed that Sinclair had given Fall $85,000 in cash, a herd of cattle, and $233,000 in liberty bonds at the time of the secret leasing of Teapot Dome, and Doheny’s son had given Fall $100,000 in “a little black bag” for the Elk Hills lease. Although Fall, Sinclair, and Doheny were acquitted of trying to defraud the government, Sinclair later served a jail term for jury tampering, and Fall, convicted of bribery on October 25, 1929, was fined $100,000 and imprisoned for a year.

In addition, Harding’s alien property custodian, Thomas Miller, had received $50,000 for seeing that valuable German chemical patents were sold to private parties. Miller was convicted and imprisoned. Jesse Smith, however, also had received a similar slice of the bribery money. Attorney General Daugherty refused to testify before a Senate committee inquiring into this scandal, contending that he could not do so because of his personal relations with the Hardings. Harding’s successor, Calvin Coolidge, then forced Smith to resign. Later, Daugherty was tried and acquitted.

Significance

Seldom if ever has the U.S. federal government witnessed such corruption as took place during the Harding administration. Ironically, however, many Americans were more outraged by the conduct of Senator Walsh and the other men who uncovered the scandals than they were by the conduct of Fall and the Ohio Gang. In the end, the Democrats reaped only meager political fruits from the scandals, because Coolidge, the symbol of Puritan virtue, could by no stretch of the imagination be identified with the crimes of the Harding administration. Presidency, U.S.;Warren G. Harding[Harding]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bates, J. Leonard. The Origins of Teapot Dome: Progressives, Parties, and Petroleum, 1909-1921. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1963. Scholarly examination of the years of conflict among conservationists, oil companies, and politicians that led to the leasing of navy oil reserves during the Harding administration. Asserts that previously existing conditions, not merely poor judgment on Harding’s part, contributed to the Teapot Dome scandal.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dean, John. Warren G. Harding. New York: Times Books, 2004. Volume in a series on American presidents focuses on Harding’s years in office and discusses his accomplishments apart from the scandals that plagued his administration.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mee, Charles L. The Ohio Gang: The World of Warren G. Harding. New York: M. Evans, 1981. Discusses the people involved in the Harding administration’s scandals. Sometimes sensationalized but nevertheless informative. Includes numerous illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Murray, Robert K. The Harding Era: Warren G. Harding and His Administration. 1969. Reprint. Newtown, Conn.: American Political Biography Press, 2000. Places Harding’s administration in a larger perspective in relation to previous and following administrations. Shows that the scandals did not occur in isolation, but were, in part, products of their time.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Noggle, Burl. Teapot Dome: Oil and Politics in the 1920’s. 1965. Reprint. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1980. The first scholarly study to rely primarily on the involved individuals’ papers rather than on popular information and media accounts. Asserts that there is insufficient evidence to conclude that Fall was guilty of everything of which he was accused.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Russell, Francis. The Shadow of Blooming Grove: Warren G. Harding in His Times. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968. Popular biography relies heavily on Harding’s own papers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sinclair, Andrew. The Available Man: The Life Behind the Masks of Warren Gamaliel Harding. New York: Macmillan, 1965. One of the first studies to use Harding’s papers (made available in 1964) to explore the man behind the mythic construction. Provides evidence that Harding was not merely a puppet president; rather, he was an active participant in his political career, as both senator and president.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stratton, David H. Tempest over Teapot Dome: The Story of Albert B. Fall. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998. Biography places the Teapot Dome scandal within the context of Fall’s life and times. Includes illustrations and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Trani, Eugene P., and David L. Wilson. The Presidency of Warren G. Harding. Lawrence: Regents Press of Kansas, 1977. Puts the scandals of Harding’s administration in context with other events.

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