Resolving Race and Paternity Questions About President Warren G. Harding

Posted in: Other Commentary

Over a decade ago, at the request of historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., I wrote a brief biography of our twenty-ninth president, Warren G. Harding. I knew a good bit about Harding for I spent a part of my youth in Marion, Ohio, which was Harding’s home town, and had started reading about him when I was about eleven years of age—and I never stopping finding him interesting, particularly given his uncalled for maligning by history. Schlesinger was the editor for a series on all, then forty-two, past presidents, and my book, Warren G. Harding (2004), which turned Arthur from anti-Harding to admitting he had been mistaken, for Harding was a far better president than Arthur had realized.

Two issues, which have long been considered of significance in the Harding story and which I addressed in my biography, were resolved last week: Whether Warren Harding was the first African American president (he was not), and whether he had fathered a child out of wedlock with one of his hometown admirers (he did). With time, resolving these issues should lead to a better understanding of the Harding presidency.

Warren Harding Was Not a Black President

Warren Harding was born in 1864 as the Civil War was ending. His father and grandparents favored the abolition of slavery, with his father fighting for the Union Army. As a result of these abolition sympathies, neighbors who disagreed with them sought to discredit the family by starting the rumor they were African. This rumor erupted nationally in the 1920 presidential campaign when a racist professor at the College of Wooster in Ohio, William E. Chancellor, declared presidential candidate Harding unfit to be president because of his African heritage. Chancellor, who had written some thirty books, said he had “researched” the Harding family and based his “genealogy” on sworn affidavits.

Chancellor’s charges spread far and wide during the 1920 presidential campaign, and although Harding’s Democratic opponents—Ohio Governor James Cox and his running mate Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin Roosevelt—stayed away from the charge, others spread the word. A number of Harding biographers bought into Chancellor’s contention as part of the effort to discredit Harding, portraying him as stereotypically lazy and not very bright. For example, Francis Russell, a leading Harding biographer who was educated at Harvard and authored many highly acclaimed books, believed the rumor and sought to prove it with his 1968 best-selling Harding biography, which he wanted to title in a conspicuously racist manner but ended up with The Shadow of Blooming Grove, to convey his message. Russell trashes Harding with his not-so-subtle racist analysis and less than legitimate scholarship. (I took Russell to task in the manuscript of my Harding biography, and Arthur Schlesinger asked if I would remove it because while Russell was dead, Arthur remained friendly with his family and friends. I agreed. Someone still needs to tell the story of how a small group of “progressive” scholars set out and succeeded in ruining Harding’s reputation, inventing a false history that lives to this day.)

Even with Barack Obama as President of the United States, for too many white Americans being black—or even having one drop of African ancestry—is viewed as a negative, as less able than white, a perception that is without any scientific basis whatsoever. It is pure prejudice and racism. On the other hand, many blacks want to believe Harding was one of several black presidents before Obama. This is all based on lore — pure hearsay — rather than fact or science. Google “Black American Presidents” and you will find that most all the lists include Harding among other dubious selections.

It turns out Harding was not of African descent. We know because Harding’s great nephew and newly identified and confirmed great grandson had their DNA tested. While testing to see whether Warren Harding had fathered a child outside his marriage, the test was also done for African ancestry. As reported by the New York Times, while scientists note we all have distant African heritage, it has been “showed for the first time that Harding almost certainly had no recent ancestors with African blood, despite assertions that were spread far and wide a century ago in efforts to sabotage everything from his marriage to his political career.” Dr. Peter Harding, the great-nephew who provided DNA, said with disappointment after learning the results, “I was hoping for black blood.” Peter did find a new cousin, however, James Blaesing, who it was also learned was Warren Harding’s great grandson. Blaesing and his family similarly lacked African blood.

Warren Harding Did Have a Daughter

It has long been known that Warren Harding had a fifteen-year affair with Carrie Phillips, a Marion neighbor, for she saved his love letters. These letters were discovered by Francis Russell in 1963 when working on his Harding biography, and he would surely have sensationalized them—for they are often sexually explicit—had the Harding family not have taken legal action to obtain the letters, and sealed them in the Library of Congress until 2014. As it happened, a friend of mine was given a bootleg copy of the letters by someone not subject to the lawsuit sealing them, and he went to the Harding family for their consent to transcribe and explain the letters, rather than sensationalize them. Jim Robenalt published them in 2009, and I did the forward to his book, The Harding Affair: Love and Espionage during the Great War.

Also it has long been known that Nan Britton, another young woman from Marion, claimed she too had an affair with Harding, which began when the relationship with Carrie was ending and before his run for the presidency. In 1927, four years following Harding’s death in office, a little over half way through his first term, Nan published The President’s Daughter, reporting her affair with Harding and the fact they had a daughter, Elizabeth Ann, whom Harding never saw but whom he had financially supported while he was alive, and president. When the Harding family refused to acknowledge the president’s daughter, Britton published her book, which was a best-seller and enabled her to provide for her daughter.

A number of Harding’s supporters from Marion did their best to discredit Nan, writing a pamphlet titled “The Answer,” claiming Britton had gotten pregnant by someone else and the dead president had become a convenient father. Those attacking Nan claimed her book was only more evidence of her gold digging. Nan filed a defamation lawsuit against “The Answer,” and won. But the jury awarded her no damages. With the passage of time, the issue disappeared, but as I noted in my Harding biography, when Harding’s papers were opened by the Ohio Historical Society, Elizabeth Ann identified herself to a Los Angeles Times reporter. She had married Henry E. Blaesing in 1938 and moved to California.

By 2004, when I wrote my biography, DNA testing had become relatively inexpensive. I tried to find Elizabeth Ann Blaesing, and her family, but they had moved from California. So I added a footnote to my biography suggesting the Harding family and the Blaesing family do DNA testing to resolve this historical question. Nothing happened. I had no response. But following publication of my biography, I did locate Elizabeth Ann and her family in Oregon, only to find she was not interested in being interviewed or providing DNA. Also, following publication of my book, I met several members of the Harding family, none of whom were interested in DNA testing. Elizabeth Ann Blaesing, a widow, died in 2005, survived by two sons: Thomas and James Blaesing.

I passed the DNA idea on to Jim Robenalt, who was deep into the Carrie Phillips letters, where he had discovered many of Nan’s dates in The President’s Daughter uniquely corresponded with the dates in Carrie’s letters. Jim noted this in The Harding Affair, explaining it meant either Nan was telling the truth, or possibly she had seen Carrie’s letters, which would have enabled her to navigate Warren Harding’s schedule during the outset of their relationship where there was some overlap with his letters to Carrie. Nan had destroyed all her letters from Harding at his request, so she had no hard evidence of their relationship.

It was after Peter Harding read Jim’s book, The Harding Affair, and his father’s copy of The President’s Daughter that he became convinced he probably had a long lost cousin in Elizabeth Ann Blaesing and her children. Peter sought out Jim Robenalt, who encouraged him to approach Elizabeth Ann’s children and to do the DNA testing. I joined Jim in talking with Peter as well during one of their many conversations. To make a long story short, we were able to ignite interest in resolving these historical matters and the DNA testing shows Elizabeth Ann and her children have Harding DNA.

The New York Times reported the story on August 8, 2015. Peter Harding, joined by his cousin Abigal, along with Jim Blaesing, provided DNA to AncestryDNA, a division of “We’re looking at the genetic scene to see if Warren Harding and Nan Britton had a baby together and all these signs are pointing to yes,” Stephen Baloglu, an executive at Ancestry, told the New York Times. “The technology that we’re using is at a level of specificity that there’s no need to do more DNA testing. This is the definitive answer.”

What Does It Mean?

Now that we have resolved these historical issues, what does it mean?

When I called for the DNA testing my thought was that resolving these issues could help many people interested in understanding the American presidency get around these questions which seem to deflect attention of those studying Harding’s presidency. Whether he was African American, and had a child with Nan Britton, are really not very important matters in analyzing and understanding how he performed as president—what he did or failed to do for the country as president. (And we have looked beyond these issues with other presidents, just not Harding.) These issues continue to influence the thinking of too many for Harding. As Jim Robenalt told The Washington Post, after the findings were in, if people were not so obsessed with Harding’s sex life, they might realize he was an above-average president. Harding took our nation back to normal after it had been ravaged by World War I; he reversed his much admired predecessor Woodrow Wilson’s refusal to create a Bureau of the Budget (today OMB), and he similarly rejected Wilson’s racism, which had excluded blacks from federal jobs — to mention but a few underappreciated actions by Harding.

Both Jim and I are looking at the larger picture, the long-term impact of resolving these questions, and we hope that legitimate historians will begin to reexamine Harding, as Arthur Schlesinger Jr. did when I provided him information with which he was not familiar. This is not to say that short-term there will be any shortage of small-bore cheap-shot writers who know nothing about Harding; their ignorance about him will not slow them down. For example, Politico gave a platform to Jordon Michael Smith, a peripatetic and less-than-honorable Canadian freelancer—whom Jim Robenalt regrets assisting earlier, for Smith did with the material Jim provided exactly the opposite of what he stated he planned to do.

Short term, the greatest impact of these findings will be on the Harding and Blaesing families. Jim’s wife, Joanna Connors, a real journalist (who does not burn sources) at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, interviewed Peter and Abigail Harding, as well as Jim Blaesing, and found them all pleased with the results of their collective undertaking. Undoubtedly, it will take time for the extended Harding and Blaesing families to take it all in, but I am confident that will occur long before the crackpot journalism and lazy historians further distort a presidency that by any standard of measurement was far better than given credit, and if having affairs in the White House automatically tanks a president, then Harding should be judged with his company.

  • Interesting data about President Harding, but I wonder if some of the support is partisan. Perhaps Mr Dean is longing for the days before the neo-GOP hijacked his political party?

    The problem I have with this defense of Harding is that it seems to skip over the biggest problems. Having the degree, I suppose I can put on my historian’s hat, but what I regarded as the major failing of his administration was Teapot Dome and some other legitimate scandals of the day, not the trumped up ad hominem politics-as-usual stuff. Yes, I acknowledge that Harding himself was never implicated, but I still think he was responsible, and I don’t buy the nice-guy excuse adopted in recent years to explain why the president shouldn’t be accountable. I don’t even think there was a case for plausible deniability, but rather Harding fundamentally failed to to control his subordinates, and therefore his reputation should suffer for their crimes.

  • Bill Pressler

    Excellent points, Mr. Dean. The sound-bite conventional wisdom about Harding, repeated over the decades, is so tired. He did do good things. His biggest problem was that he died so soon–his was the shortest presidency in the twentieth century, even shorter than Ford’s. He’d have almost certainly been reelected had he survived. I find it amazing that Nan Britton lived until 1991! Incidentally, I’ve been through the Harding Home twice in a year and thoroughly enjoyed the tour and staff there. The Harding Tomb is enormous and very impressive too. One last thing–I lived in Greenville, PA during the ’70’s and know that your folks lived there then. Always heard good things about them.

  • terre

    I’m wondering about a few things, related to what makes one a real journalist. Reading this piece, attention would determine that Elizabeth Ann’s children would be Harding’s GRAND children not great. And the act of removing your original comments ‘taking Francis Russell to task’ because Art Schlesinger asked you to because of HIS friendship with some of the deceased Russell’s friends and relatives seems to be pandering at least….if not quid pro quo. I’m no journalist but if you’re going to tell a story, tell it with integrity.