Warren G Harding

Warren Gamaliel Harding was the 29th President of the United States, from 4 March 1921 until his death on 2 August 1923. While he was one of the most popular sitting presidents, after his death, a number of scandals, such as the Teapot Dome and his extramarital affair, tarnished and diminished his reputation. 

Warren G Harding Warren G Harding

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Table of contents

    How did a President that promoted ‘normalcy’ come to run an office fraught with scandal?

    Warren G Harding’s biography

    Warren G Harding was born in Ohio on 2 November 1865 and became a successful newspaper publisher of The Marion Star. This was in part due to the efforts of his wife, Florence, who he married in 1901. He joined the Republican party and went on to serve in the Ohio legislature and the US Senate before he became president in 1921.

    Warren G Harding President Harding's former home in Marion Ohio StudySmarterFig. 1 - President Harding's former home in Marion, Ohio. It was from this porch that Harding conducted his 'front porch' campaign in 1920.

    Harding became the first in a sequence of three conservative presidents. Republican conservatism favoured a free economy, private ownership, a limited federal government, and maintaining traditional social ideas, and dominated the politics of the 1920s. Harding was generally considered a conciliator who took few strong stands, but key pieces of legislation were passed during his tenure.

    His presidency was, however, tainted by scandals in his administration, which overshadowed his achievements.

    Warren G. Harding Warren G. Harding StudySmarterFig. 2 - Warren G. Harding

    Warren G Harding’s election

    Harding ran as the Republican candidate in the 1920 election against the Democratic nominee, James Cox. He won the election with a huge landslide victory, winning 61% of the popular vote.

    Warren G Harding Election results for Harding's run for President StudySmarterFig. 2 - Election results for Harding's run for President.

    He appealed to voters by campaigning with the quote he is best known for: the promise of a ‘return to normalcy’ after the First World War and the reform-heavy Progressive Era before that. Harding rejected past activism and idealism, saying:

    America’s present need is not heroics but healing; not nostrums but normalcy; not revolution but restoration.

    This stance appealed to the American public, who were tired after the difficulties of the First World War. Harding’s ‘normalcy’ promised limited government intervention as well as protectionist tariffs on foreign goods. This enabled the American people to look inwards and focus on growing their own businesses.

    Harding’s campaign itself was also instrumental in his success. It was led by Albert Asker and used modern advertising techniques to promote Harding’s policies. Thousands of speakers were trained to speak for Harding across the country, telemarketers promoted him, and photos of him and his wife were sent to people around the nation. Specific groups of society were also targeted for votes. The Republicans sent literature to farmers which revealed the alleged abuses of Democratic agricultural policies, as well as targeting African-Americans and women. Harding himself spoke for his home, and thousands from all across the country travelled to hear him.

    What was Warren G Harding best known for?

    Having secured a landslide victory, Harding was tasked with reducing government spending, which had increased tenfold between 1910 and 1920. His administration focused on economic policies to achieve this, as well as restricting immigration and engaging in international disarmament.

    The Harding administration

    As President, Harding relied heavily on his advisors, the appointments of which were integral to government policy. Pro-business multimillionaire Andrew Mellon was appointed as his Secretary of the Treasury, and he would remain in this post for the remainder of the century under two other conservative presidents. Mellon believed that the government should be run exactly like a business and reduced the national debt by nearly $10 billion by 1929.

    Another important appointment was Herbert Hoover as Secretary of Commerce, who had built his fortune as a mechanical engineer and a miner. Hoover, like Mellon, sought to make government more efficient and eventually became president in 1929.

    Economic policies

    When Harding assumed office, the country was experiencing a post-War economic depression, so as well as reducing government spending, Harding was faced with a discontent population in economic difficulty. Instead of giving unemployment benefits, Harding believed that the economy would become prosperous by raising tariffs on foreign goods and reducing government interference in it. Harding’s economic policies were guided by laissez-faire capitalism: the idea that minimum governmental interference in economic affairs would produce the best outcome.

    Harding set about tackling the budget as soon as he took office. In 1921, he passed the Budget and Accounting Act, which necessitated presidential approval for the budgets of government departments. This Act involved the formation of the General Accounting Office to audit expenditures, and by 1922 these had fallen by over $1 billion. The decline in government spending meant taxes could be reduced, and Harding passed the Revenue Act in 1921, which greatly reduced taxes for the wealthiest in society. Harding’s government reduced taxes for all Americans thanks to a decline in spending.

    Agricultural policies

    Another key issue that Harding needed to tackle was declining farm profits. American agriculture had experienced a boom during the First World War due to a rise in international demand, but after the War, European markets closed due to high tariffs, and crop prices dropped. American farms were also left with a surplus due to overproduction. President Harding opposed buying surplus produce due to conservative principles, but he did introduce the Emergency Tariff in 1921. This increased rates on imported agricultural goods in order to protect US farms from foreign competition.

    In 1922, Harding went further by introducing the Fordney-McCumber Tariff, which raised rates on farm products, as well as other imported goods, to protect American business. However, this tariff made it more difficult for Europeans to pay their war debts back to the US. Whilst it was intended to help farmers, it actually meant they paid more for machinery made in Europe, making the tariff detrimental in the long term.

    The government made other efforts to aid the agricultural industry. Harding established the Joint Commission on Agricultural Industry to advise on farm policy. He also passed the Capper-Volstead Act of 1922 to protect farm cooperatives from anti-trust legislation.

    Social policies

    Harding’s administration also changed the US policy towards immigration. The 1921 Emergency Quota Act was the first policy to impose numerical limits on immigration and use a quota system based on origin. It was introduced in response to an influx of Southern and Eastern Europeans, who were deemed ‘undesirable’.

    The Act set the maximum number of immigrants annually at around 350,000 and reduced the number of immigrants to 3% of a country’s population in the US, according to the 1910 census. This restriction based on place of origin became known as the National Origins Formula.

    After the end of the First World War, veterans returned to the US, many in need of medical assistance and employment. In August 1921, Harding signed the Sweet Bill, which established the Veterans Bureau in order to manage veteran affairs. Despite this measure of assistance, Harding rejected a proposal from the soldiers to receive a bonus to make up for the loss in their earnings due to the low wages in the army.

    Foreign policy

    In terms of foreign affairs, Harding focused on international cooperation and reducing armament. The First World War had recently ended when Harding took over the presidency, and securing international peace and avoiding another war were the key aims of his foreign policy. American conservatism favoured isolationism, but the post-War era necessitated some engagement with international policy.


    A government policy that focuses on dealing with internal affairs and playing no role in the affairs of other nations.

    Key achievements of the Harding administration included the 1922 Five-Power Naval Limitation Treaty and the Nine-Power Treaty. The Five-Power Treaty was signed by the US, the UK, Japan, France, and Italy and significantly restricted the navies of these countries. The Nine Power Treaty was an agreement to respect the territorial integrity of China and support the Open-door policy, which allowed China to trade equally with all countries.

    Harding generally gave his Secretary of State, Charles Hughes, freedom in foreign affairs. Hughes pursued policies that restricted the US stake in international relations but enabled participation in the world economy. This was ideal for the conservative agenda, boosting the economy yet maintaining a semi-isolationist stance.


    Harding died unexpectedly in 1923. His Vice-President, Calvin Coolidge, took over the presidency and continued the conservative agenda.

    Despite the achievements of Harding’s presidency, the friends he appointed to prominent political positions exploited government money and resources for personal gain. Most of these scandals came to light after Harding’s death, with the most famous being the Teapot Dome Scandal.

    At the time, this was considered the biggest scandal in American political history: Harding’s Secretary of the Interior, Albert Bacon Fall, leased Navy oil reserves to private oil companies at low rates. He was convicted of accepting bribes and was sent to prison.

    His reputation was further damaged by rumours of extramarital affairs and heavy drinking during the Prohibition era.

    Warren G Harding - Key takeaways

    • Warren Harding won a landslide victory in the 1920 election on the campaign basis of a ‘return to normalcy.’
    • Harding was the first of three conservative presidents in the 1920s and focused on limiting government intervention in the economy and reducing government spending.
    • He introduced a number of important policies including the Budget and Accounting Act in 1921 which audited government expenditure, and the Fordney-McCumber Tariff in 1922 which raised tariffs on foreign goods to protect US farming and industry.
    • Harding’s administration also focused on restricting immigration and promoting disarmament after the First World War.


    1. Fig. 1 - President Harding's former home in Marion, Ohio (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Home_of_Warren_G._Harding_2011.jpg) by Todd Petrie (https://www.flickr.com/people/58869428@N05) Licensed by CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en)
    2. Fig. 3 - Election results for Harding's run for President (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:ElectoralCollege1920.svg) by Mrmariokartguy (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Mrmariokartguy) Licensed by CC BY-SA 34.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/)
    Frequently Asked Questions about Warren G Harding

    When did Warren G Harding die?

    Warren G Harding died unexpectedly of a heart attack on 2 August 1923.

    What was Warren G Harding known for?

    He was known for his promise of a ‘return to normalcy’ and the conservative policies he implemented during his presidency, but after his death became known for the scandals in his administration.

    What did Warren G Harding do in his presidency?

    He tackled government expenditure and introduced high tariffs to protect American businesses from foreign competition. Harding also restricted immigration and entered into international disarmament treaties.

    What act did Warren G Harding accomplish?

    Notable policies introduced by Harding are the Budget and Accounting Act and the Fordney-McCumber Tariff.

    What economic changes did Warren G Harding make as president?

    Harding reduced government spending, reduced taxes, and increased tariffs on foreign goods.

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