U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Truth and Significance

In this post, I want to use this week’s news about President Warren G. Harding to consider the question of what is (or is not) historically significant.

First, the news: it seems that Harding did, in fact, father a child out of wedlock with his mistress Nan Britton. This is the scientific consensus based on DNA tests recently conducted on a niece and nephew of Harding and on Nan Britton’s grandson, James Blaesing. Test results proved that James’s mother, Elizabeth Ann Blaesing, was indeed Harding’s daughter.

The results offered both closure for Blaesing and a vindication of sorts for his mother, and especially for his grandmother. As news reports have noted, in the years following Harding’s death, Nan Britton wrote a book about her relationship with Harding and the child they shared, selling her story in order to provide for herself and her daughter.

Whatever she earned from her story, Britton paid a high price for it socially – she was publicly shamed for even telling the story at all, and then gaslighted on top of that. As the AP story notes, “Harding’s family long maintained Britton’s book was a lie or a childhood fantasy or was perhaps dreamed up by Democratic opponents of the Republican president. Some maintained that Harding was sterile because he had mumps as a child.”

So, while some Harding family members – grand-nieces and grand-nephews, for Harding had no children with his wife – were glad to resolve the mystery for themselves and for Blaesing, the AP report suggests that other family members haven’t quite come to terms with the discovery. For them, the test results were unpleasant and unwelcome news.

For the general public, I suspect, this news is mostly just entertaining – a tabloid scandal from a bygone time, a glimpse into the private life of a public figure, complete with some salacious details about naughty deeds committed behind closet doors in the White House.

This news is doubtless of great interest to many historians, whether we have spent much time pondering Harding’s love life or not. No matter our field or period, we all come across puzzles in our work, questions we can’t answer, dots we can’t quite connect with absolute certainty. But now, thanks to DNA testing, a disputed factual claim about the past has, it seems, been resolved. So from a purely professional standpoint, it’s gratifying to be able to cross an item off of our collective list of Unsettled Questions, even if the key (though not the sole) piece of evidence didn’t come from archival research.

While the resolution of this unsettled question about Harding’s love life is historically satisfying, it is less clear that it is historically significant.

James Robenalt, who has written an archivally-sourced account of Harding’s relationship with his mistress Carrie Fulton Phillips, thinks that the finding is significant, if only because it “will move the question of sex to the background” and allow for a more measured (and, Robenalt hopes, more favorable) assessment of Harding’s presidency. Robenalt believes that Harding has been treated unfairly in the court of public opinion and in the annals of historical judgment. He points to the fact that the publication of Britton’s book coincided with Congressional hearings about the Teapot Dome scandal. “The tale of Harding’s descent to the bottom of the presidential rankings is more complicated than  Britton’s book and the Teapot Dome scandal, to be sure, but these two events were, to use a pun, seminal. Harding’s administration was attacked for scandals he had nothing to do with.”

Robenalt’s argument – summed up in the headline of his WaPo opinion piece, “If we weren’t so obsessed with Warren G. Harding’s sex life, we’d realize he was a pretty good president” – is probably not going to fly with most professional historians. Heather Cox Richardson and Kevin Kruse both said as much in interviews with Russell Berman for a piece that ran at the Atlantic website, “Warren G. Harding’s Terrible Tenure.” In the piece, Richardson and Kruse address – and, in my reading at least, satisfactorily refute — the particular claims that Robenalt makes about Harding’s supposed executive virtues. The article concludes, “The titillating revelations about Harding’s personal life might paint a fuller, more fascinating picture of him as a man, in other words, but that’s no reason to revise his legacy as a forgettable president.”

I think that’s right. Confirmation that Harding fathered a child with one of his mistresses is a biographical detail that is not historically significant.

But would I say the same thing about the confirmation that Thomas Jefferson fathered children by his slave Sally Hemings? Is that just a biographical detail?

The AP story about the Harding findings leads with the Jefferson-Hemings DNA results: “DNA testing all but confirmed Thomas Jefferson slept with his slave Sally Hemings. Now it’s rewriting another lurid chapter in presidential history, this one from the Roaring ’20s.” That lede effectively equates the two situations: here is just another “lurid chapter” in the long history of presidential philandering, where DNA proves once again that a U.S. president “slept with” someone besides his wife.

But that strikes me as badly minimizing the nature of Jefferson’s relationship with Hemings – though I am hesitant to use the word “relationship,” because that word as we commonly use it connotes some degree of mutuality that would not have been possible between Jefferson and Hemings. Theirs was a relationship of absolutely unequal power – at its simplest, a slaveowner exercising his legal rights upon the body of his slave.

What Jefferson did to Hemings was not at all uncommon. Indeed, it is precisely that commonality that is so historically significant, because the fact that male slaveowners were fathering children by their female slaves – a fact seized upon by abolitionists as evidence of the moral depravity of slavery as a system — was a fact that apologists for the South’s slave society, both before and after the Civil War, had to willfully ignore, or suppress, or flat out deny. Conclusively demonstrating that Thomas Jefferson — author of the Declaration of Independence, champion of Enlightenment, promoter of learning, herald of liberty, one of America’s greatest presidents, one of the four faces carved upon Mt. Rushmore, shining example of genteel Southern heritage – was intimately implicated in that whole sordid system helped make the raw, rotten underpinnings of Southern slave society as a whole (including a whole structure of culture-wide denial) dramatically and undeniably visible.

There’s just not as much to see in Harding’s story. It matters a great deal to his family – especially to Blaesing, who has seen his grandmother and mother vindicated and acknowledged at last. It matters to historians in the sense that establishing any once-disputed factual claim about the past is aesthetically and intellectually satisfying. But what’s at stake in finally proving something about Harding that almost everybody (save his nieces and nephews) was already willing enough to believe? Not much – not nearly as much as there was at stake in proving something about Thomas Jefferson that nobody would really want to believe.

The lie protecting Harding’s reputation was idiosyncratic, defending the honor of one man and deeply hurtful to one woman and her family. But the lie protecting Jefferson’s reputation was systematic, defending the honor of a whole culture that relied upon that very lie, that very denial, to continue to crush the bodies and spirits of women, and men, and children for generations.

Those who imagine that the great task facing historians now is to arrive at a more appreciative appraisal of the presidency of Warren G. Harding should thank their lucky stars that no truth nor any lie about him could ever be so awfully significant.

7 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I believe the reporting also says that the DNA tests showed that Harding did not have black ancestry, contrary to rumors at the time. Would you consider this significant, more so than his fatherhood but less so than the Jefferson-Hemings? What significance do rumors about political figures have, when they’re proved to be untrue?

  2. Another way you can tell the difference: it’s unlikely that the Harding news is going to produce the kind of “truther/birther” backlash that we’ve seen in the Hemmings case.

  3. Bill, thanks for the question.

    Well, there’s clearly no absolute abstract standard of historical significance (and if my post implied that, I should have maybe done some editing) — but I would say that the rumors of Harding’s purported Black ancestry are more historically significant than the actual findings, because the rumors point to widespread cultural assumptions about what was and wasn’t “shameful,” and also — and here is a connection to Jefferson/Hemings — the widespread awareness that the master/slave system was one of sexual predation and subjugation. So if you set the phenomenon of “rumors of black ancestry as a way of seeking to discredit politicians” alongside the phenomenon of “indignant denial that our noblest leaders would ever have fathered children by their own slaves,” you have an interesting picture of the ideational landscape at the time. And of course, rumors of infidelity, rumors of “sex scandal” in general, say something about cultural values and expectations, standards and double-standards. The public shaming of Britton certainly says a lot about sex and gender. So it’s not that there’s nothing here in this story for historians to sift through — I just think there’s nothing about settling the question of Harding’s unacknowledged child that could possibly unsettle the question of whether he was really such a bad president. Does that make sense?

    • Yes, in answer to your ending question.

      Of interest, Peter Baker in today’s NYTimes has a piece on the black ancestry rumor. http://nyti.ms/1PjQU8Y Interesting congruence: Harding’s enemies and father-in-law pushed the rumor, but so did some black authors (60’s and after).

  4. While Harding was not a great President, I believe that he was underrated. He had an especially strong record on civil liberties and civil rights. It was Harding who pardoned Eugene Debs. It was also Harding who gave a strong civil rights speech in Birmingham and supported anti-lynching legislation and eliminating the poll tax. Harding had a much stronger record on civil liberties and civil rights than the overrated Woodrow Wilson.

    In addition, Harding (at the urging of Herbert Hoover) convinced the steel industry to end the 12 hour day.

    The best book out there on Warren G Harding is still Robert K. Murray’s who offered a more nuanced view of his Presidency than the simplistic portrayal of Frederick Lewis Allen. He was not a great President but far better than Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, and Andrew Johnson.

  5. Thanks for the comments / recs, Jason. I’m not at all averse to the idea that historians might reach different conclusions about Harding if they take a second look. I’m just zeroing in on this issue (which I think we all have to face) of distinguishing the interesting but trivial from the interesting and important.

    Jonathan, I think this article from a few days ago at HNN gets at what you are suggesting above:

    http://historynewsnetwork.org/article/160131

    Historical significance is, of course, a function of the present, of what people believe to be at stake about the past. So here’s someone fighting tooth and nail to discredit the conclusion that Jefferson did in all likelihood father children by Sally Hemings. Indeed, I think there’s a whole cottage industry of Jefferson vindicationists — the level / extent of the fight to clear Jefferson’s name, as it were, points to the historical significance of the matter. ISTM that this is what you were getting at above.

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