President Harding Entered Office on a High Note … then Came the Scandals

This matched pair of Warren G. Harding and James M. Cox 1920 campaign buttons sold for $6,875 at a November 2013 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

The Republicans returned to power in the election of 1920 with the victory of Warren G. Harding of Ohio. Isolated even further in the confines of the White House, Woodrow Wilson and family waited out the year and the first two months of 1921. The outgoing president’s condition had stopped improving. He was feeble and mostly occupied with his books and papers, though he now lacked the mental acuity that was key to his greatness.

Late in his term, Wilson was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and his spirits rose. Remorse yielded to genuine gratification, an indulgence he rarely allowed himself even in the good times. However, Edith Wilson found little diversion from this almost oppressive situation. The world was slowly passing the Wilsons by without a second glance.

The 1920 campaign had been dull and lackluster, with Harding remaining in Ohio on his front porch, greeting thousands of well-wishers and speaking to them informally. The Democrats had tried to make the League of Nations a campaign issue, but Harding’s position was too obscure since he was really only interested in preserving the Senate’s constitutional rights regarding foreign treaties. When voters got to the polls, politicians discovered the campaigns had not mattered. The people were so tired of government restrictions and hardships imposed by the war that they sought a complete change in administrations and a return to “America First.”

Harding and running mate Calvin Coolidge drubbed James Cox and Franklin D. Roosevelt in both the popular vote and electoral college (404 to 127).

Between the election and inauguration, Harding chose his cabinet, carefully balancing the membership with close political friends and leaders in the Republican Party. It was a blue-chip group that included Charles Evans Hughes (former governor of New York, Supreme Court Justice and presidential candidate in 1916) as Secretary of State; Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover; and millionaire Pittsburg banker Andrew Mellon as Secretary of Treasury. But there were also a few friends, like Albert Fall (Interior) and Harry Daugherty (Attorney General), who would become infamous for corruption.

Friends of Harding and Daugherty flocked from Ohio to Washington for jobs. Headquarters for the “Ohio Gang” was the “Little Green House” on K Street, where government favors and appointments were bought and sold. Evidence of Harding’s knowledge is sketchy; his friends just assumed he would agree in order to please them. But late in 1922, Harding learned of irregularities at the Veterans’ Bureau, where huge amounts of surplus materials were sold far below market value and in turn new supplies were purchased far above fair value, all without competitive bidding.

The head of the agency, Charles R. Forbes – one of Harding’s poker buddies – was allowed to resign, but the attorney for the Bureau committed suicide. This was soon followed by the death of another close Harding friend, Jess Smith, who shared an apartment with Daugherty and was a member of the “Ohio Gang.” Sensing trouble, Harding had asked him to leave Washington, however Smith shot himself to death. But the biggest surprise surfaced after Harding died of a heart attack in San Francisco in August 1923.

Secretary of Interior Fall had allowed two large federal oil fields in Elk Hills, Calif., and Teapot Dome, Wyo., to be opened to private oil companies. He was convicted of bribery ($400,000) and sent to prison. Attorney General Daugherty was brought to trial in 1924 for conspiracy in much of this, but refused to testify to avoid “incriminating the dead president” and it hung the jury.

How much Harding actually knew about the corruption among his friends will never be known. After his death, Mrs. Harding burned all his papers and correspondence, diligently recovering and destroying even personal letters in the possession of other people. Since she had also refused to have Harding’s corpse autopsied in San Francisco, there have always been rumors he was actually poisoned.

Ah, Washington, D.C. – such a small city, but with so many untold mysteries.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Pocahontas Played Role in Earliest Days of British Empire

A “Baptism of Pocahontas” vignette appeared on $20 National Bank Notes circulated from the 1860s to 1880s. This Proof Back Vignette sold at Heritage Auctions for $2,820 in October 2012.

By Jim O’Neal

After a relatively long period of obscurity, Pocahontas is back in the news. She was one of the many daughters of Chief Powhatan, the Indian chief who tangled with English settlers at Jamestown, Va., in 1607.

Jamestown was the first permanent English settlement in the Americas and was led by English colonist Captain John Smith. Legend has it that Smith was captured while exploring on the Chickahominy River in December 1607 and Pocahontas prevailed on her father to spare his life.

Serious historians credit Jamestown with being the “beginning of the British Empire.” During the Age of Discovery in the 15th and 16th centuries, Spain and Portugal pioneered European exploration of the globe and England became quite envious of the treasures they brought home after numerous voyages. France and the Netherlands were also competing targets.

England and Scotland joined forces to create Great Britain, and after they defeated France and the Netherlands in the 17th and 18th centuries in wars largely waged to secure trade routes, the British Empire became the largest empire in history, despite losing the American colonies.

The British Empire was a vast network of dominions, colonies and protectorates ruled or administrated by the United Kingdom. The British domination was so pervasive that the period from 1815 to 1914 was known as Pax Britannia (British Peace). The Royal Navy was omnipotent, maintaining 458 million people (one-fifth of the world) and 13 million square miles – 25 percent of Earth’s land area.

Pocahontas, after being captured and held for ransom in 1613, converted to Christianity, changed her name to Rebecca and married tobacco planter John Rolfe.

The Rolfes traveled to London, where Rebecca became a celebrity and attended galas at Whitehall Palace. Alas, on their return voyage to Virginia, Rebecca died and was buried in an unmarked grave. She has received lasting fame through art, literature and film. Some of her more diverse descendants include Percival Lowell (who discovered Pluto), Glenn Strange (Sam the bartender on Gunsmoke) and two First Ladies … Edith Wilson and Nancy Reagan.

Sadly, Pocahontas never officially earned the title of Princess.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].