Last month, the DNA revelation of President Warren G. Harding as the father of Elizabeth Ann Blaesing returned national attention ever so briefly to a persistent historical blind spot.
That is, curiously little is remembered of the American presidents between Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, with the possible exceptions of Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson — two progenitors of American progressivism. It takes a special touch, after all, to become the darling of a public school textbook.
What served as rumor for nearly a century is now, to many Americans, the most relevant fact about poorly-rated Harding: he fathered a child out of wedlock and continued to carry out such affairs within the White House itself. Though not always beautiful, it is good for the truth to come out. Unfortunately, glimpses like these tend to control the entire narrative when it comes to misunderstood people and times.
This is not a veiled apology for Harding’s personal faults, which were numerous. Indeed, following his sudden death in 1923, the 29th President was succeeded by a better man in both public and private life: Calvin Coolidge, whose reputation historians are finally taking a much-needed second look (see Amity Shlaes).
Although “Silent Cal” was right to rise above the scandals of his predecessor and move the country forward, the two men ran on a united ticket for a reason. The national prestige of the United States flourished in many ways following the result of World War I (1914-1918), but “the war to end all wars” took a weary toll on the American people, for whom entrenchment in European affairs meant the death of Jeffersonian diplomacy — along with their beloved sons and brothers. Promising to restore peace and inward focus, Harding campaigned most famously in 1920 with his call for a “return to normalcy.” He stated:
“America’s present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration; not agitation, but adjustment; not surgery, but serenity; not the dramatic, but the dispassionate; not experiment, but equipoise; not submergence in internationality, but sustainment in triumphant nationality.”
Harding — and more significantly, Coolidge — kept these promises for change upon taking the presidency and, at least for a time, America was free to preside over its own fortunes at home. For a legacy so easily dismissed as Harding’s, there can be no idea of greater relevance today while the American people find themselves more and more distrustful of their government’s actions both foreign and domestic — and reasonably so. For the interventionist ambitions of a powerful few, we have suffered militarily, economically, and diplomatically in ways no one ever thought possible for the “last best hope of earth.”
Thus, America’s future depends on a “return to normalcy” for a new age, and that the idea itself will not be swept away on tides of ridicule by its mere association with a crippled presidential legacy — or by the resignation that we are just too set in our ways.
Then perhaps one day, to our children and grandchildren and beyond, the United States will be like a prodigal nation returned, both to its constitutional principles and to its posterity. And the years and years of chaos and strife will seem only like a bad dream, from which we will have long woken up.