A typical head of state craves pomp and circumstance, especially if he’s at the center of it. If others (such as taxpayers) are picking up the tab, it takes principled character to opt instead for quiet simplicity. The majesty of ceremonies and the adoration of crowds—replete with bands and uniforms and soaring rhetoric—can be heady stuff.
At least one American President-elect chose old-fashioned thrift over modern excess. The occasion was his inauguration, no less. The man was Warren Harding.
The affable and unpretentious Senator from Ohio was elected President in a landslide in November 1920. Voters saw in Harding an opportunity for “normalcy” after eight years of a pompous, arrogant, high-taxing and big-spending “progressive” named Woodrow Wilson. They weren’t interested in a new president celebrating himself at great expense, and they deeply appreciated Harding’s example.
By early January 1921, with two months to go before Inauguration Day on March 4, Harding’s increasing displeasure with the unfolding plans for the big day boiled over. On January 10, he slammed the brakes. The headline in The New York Times on the following day read,
HARDING VETOES ELABORATE INAUGURAL;
TIME TO SET AN EXAMPLE OF THRIFT;
CEREMONY SIMPLE; BALL ABANDONED
According to the page one story, the President-elect ordered the committees in charge of the inauguration “to abandon all features of the program that would make his induction into office an affair of extravagance or pomp.” That meant no parade, no ball, and “nothing savoring of ostentation or money squandering.” Anything more than “a simple, dignified program would find him an unhappy participant.”
That Harding would opt for a humble event came as no surprise to those who knew him or who had listened to his promises during the campaign. Nor did it surprise anybody that he dramatically cut federal spending on just about everything before his untimely death in August 1923. As economist Dan Mitchell points out, his easing of Wilson’s big government burdens fostered a quick end to the inflation and recession his predecessor’s policies had caused.
Routinely dismissed as a bad chief executive, Harding’s reputation is undergoing a long overdue renovation. The latest contribution in that regard is a new, must-read biography by Ryan S. Walters titled, The Jazz Age President. Read it, and you’ll forever be skeptical of the lazy, biased, conventional historians who worship power and those who wield it.
Warren Harding didn’t just tell audiences what they wanted to hear. He sometimes told them what they did not want to hear. He went to Birmingham, Alabama to condemn racism and Jim Crow laws, for example—a fact I’ve previously pointed out.
Conventional historians praise Presidents for the bills they signed into law but often it requires more courage and conviction to veto them. On that score too, Harding can be judged favorably. He vetoed six bills in the 2-1/2 years he served in the White House. None of the six was overridden. That may not sound like a lot but remember, his party controlled both houses by big majorities; Congress didn’t send him much it thought he wouldn’t sign.
Four bills Harding vetoed concerned minor issues and generated little attention, but one concerned a bonus for veterans of World War I. It stirred up quite a fuss. As the bill worked its way through the House and Senate, Harding gave ample warning that he wouldn’t even consider a bonus that wasn’t paid for. Congress ignored him and sent the bill to his desk. He rejected it, noting as follows:
In legislating for what is called adjusted compensation, Congress fails to provide the revenue from which the bestowal is to be paid. We have been driving in every direction to curtail our expenditures and establish economies without impairing the essentials of governmental activities. It has been a difficult and unpopular task. It is vastly more applauded to expend than to deny.
After the Civil War, Congress paid pensions to veterans of the conflict and their dependents. Sixty years later, in 1923, it sent a bill to Harding to grant pensions to women who married aging Civil War veterans long after the war. It even authorized higher payments to them than what recent widows of veterans in the war with Germany were getting. His veto message included this unassailable objection:
The compensation paid to the widows of World War veterans, those who shared the shock and sorrows of the conflict, amounts to $24 per month. It would be indefensible to insist on that limitation upon actual war widows if we are to pay $50 per month to widows who marry veterans 60 years after the Civil War.
Congress should have known better than to expect Harding to sign such bills. This was the same man who declared at his modest, unembellished inauguration that “Our most dangerous tendency is to expect too much of government.” He had expressed a desire to put “our public household in order.” He said he wanted “sanity” in economic policy, combined with “individual prudence and thrift, which are so essential to this trying hour and reassuring for the future.”
If somebody told me all that, I wouldn’t even think of asking him to approve a check for an able-bodied 30-year-old simply because she married an 80-year-old veteran.
This was the same Warren Harding, remember, who gave the country perhaps the best Treasury Secretary in its history, Andrew Mellon. According to historian Burton Folsom, Mellon slashed government expenses and eliminated an average of one Treasury staffer per day for every single day he held the office. Harding, Mellon and Calvin Coolidge (Harding’s successor), together with a friendly Congress, reduced the federal budget and cut the national debt by more than one-third.
In late summer 1921, President Harding and his wife Florence journeyed to Atlantic City, New Jersey for a weekend vacation. When his hotel figuratively rolled out the red carpet, the President ordered it rolled back. The New York Times reported the incident as analogous to a veto in a story on September 12:
The Presidential veto was exercised here today when Warren G. Harding disapproved elaborate plans that had been made for the entertainment of his party.
Among other things, a solid gold dinner service of 1,000 pieces, gotten out especially for the Presidential meals, was returned unused to the Ritz-Carlton safe…He refused to eat from plates of gold.
…A special suite had been arranged for the President’s party on the fifth floor of the hotel. A fleet of automobiles and Boardwalk rolling chairs had been reserved. But the President wanted none of these. He used his own machine [car] and rejected a propelled chair when strolling on the Boardwalk after a luncheon. The President was here, he said, just like thousands of others—for a weekend—and he expected and wanted no special favors.
If you can’t find anything good to say about Warren Harding, you haven’t looked very far.
For additional information, see:
The Ten Best Presidential Vetoes in American History by Lawrence W. Reed
Andrew Mellon: Unleashing Wealth Creators by Lawrence W. Reed
Andrew Mellon: The Entrepreneur as Politician by Burton W. Folsom
Should a V.P. be One Person’s Choice? by Lawrence W. Reed
The Depression You’ve Never Heard Of by Robert P. Murphy
The Jazz Age President by Ryan S. Walters