Question of the Month
Was Warren G. Harding America's First Black President?
Q: There is a lot of talk about Mr. Obama becoming the first black president. I don't think he would be the first. President Warren G. Harding had black ancestors, so based on the definition of race during his time he should rightly be considered a black man. Harding was no less a black man than Homer Plessy, Adam Clayton Powell, Walter White, or Charles Drew.
-- Keith Samuels - New York, New York
A: Racial and national identities have a long, complex, and often unfortunate, association. The current discussions about Barack Obama's chances to become the first black president of "post-racial America" mark the latest attempt to define race as it relates to the presidency. The current incarnation of this debate has created an unlikely link between former president Warren G. Harding and Barack Obama as pundits and bloggers search for a historical precedent. Since the time of George Washington the president has stood as the symbolic head of state, as the embodiment of what it meant to be an American at a given point in time. We celebrate presidential birthplaces, log cabins, and graves as sacred ground in our civic identity. This is why the racial identity of men who have held the office is important and the source of the significance attached to the intersection of the race and the presidency. Whether interrogating the slave-holding status of the Founding Fathers or examining the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, the presidency is one of the places we debate America's "original sin." To earlier generations of voters, the idea that anyone other than a white man might fill that symbolic role was unthinkable. Some see the Obama candidacy as providing an opportunity to move beyond this debate and absolve ourselves of the sin of racism. This is a far cry from what the race debate meant for Warren G. Harding.
In short, there are two elements to the issue of whether or not Harding (or one of the other four or five possible candidates) was the first black president. The two are linked but one is significantly more important than the other. The first is whether or not Harding had a black ancestor. The second, and the more important, boils down to whether or not there is a racial qualification to be president. Although it seems obvious that all of our presidents have been white, some Americans believe that a few presidents had black ancestors, thereby making them black under the outdated and racist "one-drop rule."
Harding is at the top of the list of presidents who have been categorized as black. This line of thought goes back to the obsession that many 19th and early 20th century Americans had with "blood lines" during what is a time when the "one drop rule" was used to define race. Segregationists and Social Darwinists found it important to be able to define race and so argued that any person with a black ancestor was black. In today's world, overt racism is frowned upon in the public sphere, people can self-select from a range of ethnicities and races on the census, and intellectuals discuss race as a social construction. Current discussions of "post-racialism" are a near inversion of the understanding of race that prevailed a century ago. Obama's responses to racially charged issues have been measured and stand in a clear contrast to the role that race played in Harding's campaign for the presidency in 1920.
The issue of race was injected into the 1920 presidential campaign as part of an effort to sink the campaign of Harding, the Republican nominee. William Estabrook Chancellor, a professor at the College of Wooster, attempted to destroy Harding's candidacy by charging that he was a "hybrid," an "octoroon" descended from "Negro" ancestors. Chancellor was a devoted scientific racist. He was also an avid Democrat who worshipped outgoing president Woodrow Wilson. In short, Chancellor argued that Harding's supposed mixed racial ancestry disqualified him for the presidency. He believed that the American public would agree with him, warning Americans that electing Harding could endanger white supremacy.
What did Chancellor offer as evidence of Harding's ancestry? Chancellor found people in central and northern Ohio who were willing to testify that members of the Harding family were black. They offered a variety of stories with little consistency and no hard evidence; indeed, Chancellor and many of those he interviewed dealt in the worst stereotypes of black promiscuity or vague descriptions of physical appearance. Perhaps the only thing more confusing and inconclusive than Chancellor's evidence was the genealogy that the Republicans created to counter Chancellor's charges in an attempt to document Harding's "blue-eyed stock." Rather famously, Harding refused to comment on the "scandal," privately noting that for all he knew one of his ancestors might have "jumped the fence."
Harding's era was one of the lowest points in American history for race relations. In reaction against the Great Migration, whites rioted against blacks throughout northern communities (including Harding's own hometown of Marion, Ohio) and the recently-revived Ku Klux Klan rose in popularity after the release of Birth of a Nation. As president, Harding spoke out against the Klan and gave a speech in Birmingham that was surprisingly thoughtful for a man who was not supposed to be thoughtful. By modern standards, the speech was not particularly progressive, but he did call for qualified blacks to vote. Of course, they probably would have voted Republican but nonetheless it took courage in 1920 to stand in Alabama and say that. He set America's racial difficulties in a national and global context, noting that racial and ethnic tensions plagued the world in the wake of the Great War. Some academic historians have argued that Harding's address was the most significant speech on race given by any president since Grant. Indeed, a critical charge against Harding, according to Chancellor, was that Harding was sympathetic to the plight of black Americans. Despite the promise of his speech, African Americans were disappointed with Harding's record; in his short administration (two years and five months) Harding did little that benefited African Americans.
Was Harding the first black president? Only by the dubious standards of the one-drop rule used by Chancellor might Harding have been considered black and even this is not certain. Chancellor's research was biased, to say the least. Harding did not identify himself as black. His comment about not knowing if an ancestor had "jumped the fence" can hardly be considered a confession of mixed racial ancestry, although it is sometimes seen that way. The racist attacks of men like Chancellor and of some residents of Harding's hometown might have made him sensitive about race, but they hardly make him black. Indeed, the vagaries of these charges can be seen in Harding's relationship with his father-in-law. Amos Kling opposed his daughter's engagement to Warren Harding and, in a pattern that others would follow, tried to destroy him by spreading stories that Harding was a "nigger." When Harding later became successful, Kling came to accept him. Chancellor and others argued that Harding looked black, that he was "dark complected," but more frequently, observers noted that Harding looked senatorial, presidential, or Romanesque. These comparisons make it clear that the discussion of Harding's race took place within an arena marked by stereotypes and shifting standards.
Chancellor failed in his efforts to prevent Harding's election, but he succeeded in making the story about Harding's supposed racial ancestry an enduring part of Harding's legacy. The story became relevant during the 1960s in reaction to the Civil Rights Movement and the racial tensions of the time. In the Shadow of Blooming Grove (1968), his biography of Harding, Francis Russell drew upon Chancellor's work to make the possibility of African-American ancestry the "dark shadow" that haunted Harding in his professional and political life. J.A. Rogers's book, The Five Negro Presidents (1965), raised the idea embraced by some African-Americans that several presidents had black ancestry, Harding among them. Rogers's very brief book is best read as a critique of racial politics or a proclamation of racial pride but also relies on familiar sources. The most recent example of a black person claiming Harding as a black president is Marsha Stewart's Warren Harding U.S. President 29: Death by Blackness (2005). Stewart is a black woman who claims to be a distant relative of the president; the evidence of her claim is taken from Russell, Chancellor, and family lore.
Clearly, biography is important in selecting and selling a president. In 1920 Harding ran a front porch campaign that emphasized his Ohio boyhood and small-town background. It was, in a sense, an updating of the log cabin campaign complete with the cliche that any boy could grow up to be president. Clearly, however, the debate over race and the presidency shows that most Americans believed the myth was limited to what most white boys could do.
It is impossible to establish clear genealogies for every president. This is the case with Harding. While some black advocates might take pride in finding a "black president," if we have actually had any black presidents they assumed the office only by passing for white. Therefore, if Stewart's claim was substantiated it might prove interesting to historians and biographers, but it would not change the fact that in 1920 Americans did not believe they were electing a black man or even a man of mixed racial ancestry. In 1920 Chancellor's claims were seen as dangerous, even explosive, and he was fired from his job and had to flee the country as his book was suppressed by federal agents because of its content.
Today, Harding is best known as a failed president who lacked the intellectual energy to be president and who succumbed to his desire for pleasures of the flesh. This is the aspect of Harding's story that Francis Russell and other biographers found so compelling and that flowed from Russell's reliance on Chancellor's work. Russell implied that a link existed between Harding's personal weaknesses of character that led him to fail as president, and his "dark shadow." Chancellor had explicitly made this argument with the assumption that weak character and blackness went hand in hand.
In the end, it is better to examine what we can learn from the history of Harding's era than it is to speculate about the race of one of his ancestors. Beyond the obvious irony of Americans embracing claims that were originally intended to destroy Harding's political career, an additional irony is that the idea of the one drop rule once meant to ensure a clear definition of race now serves to undermine the idea of racial clarity.
Clearly, America has not become the Promised Land, but it is a measure of the progress that America has made since the 1920s that part of Barack Obama's appeal as a candidate is based upon the idea that he could become the first "black president," and that he is not running away from this aspect of his identity. Some have charged that he is not "black enough" because he lacks the historical and cultural experiences of most American blacks. Unlike the debates that swirled, and continue to swirl, around Harding, Obama's physical appearance and his personal biography make it clear that he is a black candidate even as he tries to transcend race. We should not consider Warren Harding to be the first black president. To do so would only diminish the importance of Americans knowingly electing a black person as president.
November 2008 response by Phillip Payne, courtesy of George Mason University's History News Network.