If I had to name the most underrated president in American history,
Warren Harding would be at or near the top of my list. Harding is
routinely ranked at or near the bottom in presidential ratings by
historians and other experts.
In Sunday's New York Times, Yale historian Beverly Gage has an
interesting article suggesting that Harding may have been the first
"black" president in the sense that it is possible that he had a
remote black ancestor. Unfortunately, Gage's article about Harding and
race relations completely ignores the fact that Harding made a
well-known speech advocating full legal equality for southern blacks
in 1921, in Birmingham, Alabama. As W.E.B. DuBois pointed out at
the time, Harding went farther in advocating equal rights for blacks
than any other post-Reconstruction Republican president (the
Democrats, at that time the party of southern whites, were even
worse). Indeed, no president went as far as Harding in advocating
equal rights for southern blacks for several decades thereafter.
Harding also lobbied hard for a federal anti-lynching bill to curb
the rampant lynching of blacks by whites in the South - again, the
first post-Reconstruction president to do so. As DuBois pointed out in
the linked article, Harding was not wholly free of the racism shared
by most white political elites at the time. But he was a lot better
than the vast majority of his contemporaries.
Nor were these Harding's only achievements. As Gene Healy discusses in
his interesting recent book, The Cult of the Presidency, Harding is
also notable for reversing the severe violations of civil and economic
liberties that had proliferated under his predecessor Woodrow Wilson.
It's easy to belittle Harding's campaign slogan - "Return to
Normalcy." But Harding's notion of "normalcy" included an end to the
imprisonment of political dissenters (such as Wilson's notorious
"Palmer Raids"), abolition of wage and price controls, and the
reversal of Wilson's numerous illegal seizures of private property. As
David Bernstein and I briefly discuss in this article, Wilson's
administration was also highly racist and segregationist even by the
standards of the day; here too, Harding was a sharp contrast.
I'm not arguing that Harding was a great president. His administration
included some serious corruption (such as the famous Tea Pot Dome
Scandal), and his intellectual and political skills were not
especially impressive. However, Harding's achievements in ending
Wilson's harmful policies and his laudable efforts on behalf of civil
rights greatly outweigh the relatively limited harm caused by his
corrupt underlings. Indeed, the harm caused by corrupt embezzlement of
federal funds had very limited impact in part because federal spending
itself was only a small part of the economy at the time - thanks in
part to Harding's own efforts at reversing the growth of government
that had exploded (by contemporary standards) under Wilson. And, by
all, accounts, Harding himself was clean (though many of his
appointees definitely weren't).
Harding will never be ranked among the top few presidents. But he
deserves much greater respect than he gets.