President Warren G. Harding, a native Ohioan, is known mostly for his campaign slogan “Return to Normalcy,” and the Teapot Dome Scandal during his presidency. However, a part of Harding’s legacy has been missing from the pages of history. More than 75 years after his death, an unlikly source is shedding a new light on the former president.
Cleveland lawyer and author James D. Robenalt has written a book called “The Harding Affair: Love and Espionage During the Great War,” which gives an inside look at Harding and his affair with Marion, Ohio, native Carrie Fulton Phillips. Robenalt’s book hinges on his exclusive access to love letters from Harding to Phillips that have never been accessible outside the Harding family.
The Ohio Historical Society will host Robenalt on Oct. 11 at the Ohio Historical Center, located at 1892 Velma Rd. in Columbus. The event will begin at 2 p.m. and is $8 for adults, $4 for children and free for members.
The affair between Harding, then-lieutenant governor of Ohio, and Phillips, the wife of a Marion businessman and family friend of the Hardings, began in 1905 and lasted until 1917. During that time, Harding wrote Phillips love letters which she saved. Those letters did not surface again until after her death in 1960.
The Harding family went to court to keep the letters from being published, and they were sealed by an Ohio judge on behalf of the family until 2014 for the purpose of protecting Harding’s reputation.
Although the letters are currently held in the Library of Congress and are supposed to be sealed, Robenalt was given a bootleg microfilm copy of the letter that had been housed in the Western Reserve Historical Society. Robenalt thought the story should be told and contacted Warren G. Harding III, great nephew of Harding, who consented to let Robenalt use the letters.
“While he is not going to be out there endorsing the book and going on book tours with me, he has been very supportive of the whole thing,” Robenalt said.
It has been documented that Harding had affairs while married to wife Florence Harding, and his reputation has been plagued by claims of a love child with Nan Britton. But these letters give a first-hand view of the passion Harding felt for Phillips.
“His [Harding’s] life was tragic in the sense that the woman he really loved he could not be married to,” Robenalt said. “You can see it in these letters.”
The letters between Harding and Phillips provided Robenalt with more than just a love story to write about. Harding represented Ohio in the Senate from 1914-1920 and, like the rest of the world, was affected by World War I. Phillips was a passionate supporter of Germany’s cause, and Robenalt concludes she was a German spy. This proved to be a point of contention in her relationship with Harding.
Harding’s decision not to run for President in 1916 is one of Robenalt’s focal points in the book. This decision was influenced greatly by Phillips.
Harding carried a different policy stance than Wilson did, especially in foreign affairs. Harding disagreed with going to war to spread democracy, Wilson’s justification for entering World War I.
Robenalt believes this is one issue that is relevant today. Robenalt asks, “Is it the United States’ role to go around the world trying to make everybody a democracy? The same is true in Iraq.”
The reputation of Warren G. Harding and his presidency is almost unequivocally negative; as of 2009, Harding is ranked 38 out of 42 in C-SPAN’s Historians Presidential Leadership Survey. Scandals during his presidency overshadowed his accomplishments, but letters documenting his affair might just improve his historical image.
“Harding is seen as one of the worst presidents in U.S. history, and in fact, that is just not true,” Robenalt said.
He hopes to show that there was much more to Harding’s political
reputation than rumors and scandals.