Warren G. Harding and Millard Fillmore: Fools in the Oval Office

Warren G. Harding and Millard Fillmore:
Pairing Presidents XII

Call this one "Where Fools Dared Tread." The word fool connotes a person prone to consistent silly, imprudent, unwise, and/or rash behavior and it's tailor made for Warren G. Harding (1921-23) and Millard Fillmore (1850-53), two of the biggest idiots ever to disgrace the Oval Office. What about George H. W. Bush, you ask? His foolishness is legendary, but we actually associate Bush with several actions–as dumb as they might have been. Quick: Name one thing either Harding or Fillmore ever did. Thought so! Fillmore is so non-noteworthy that the only list he routinely tops is America's "most obscure" president!

How they are similar:

Neither was a Mensa candidate. Fillmore was poorly educated, though he was probably more intelligent than Harding, a man who reached his intellectual limits when he was an insurance salesman. I mean no disrespect to insurance agents—another measure of foolishness is being coerced into doing things that are beyond you, which pretty much sums up Harding's political career–from Ohio state senator to POTUS. He did contribute to the mangling of the English language, promising a return to normalcy if elected president. There was, at the time, no such word; he meant "normality."

Fillmore's fool act begins with his paranoid beliefs. He believed in conspiracy theories. As a young man he feared Freemasons, whom he believed were a secret cabal plotting to take over America. Then it was Catholics, and after his presidency it was immigrants. The latter, by the way, troubled him at a time in which the consensus view was that America needed more immigrants to settle lands taken from Natives and to work in expanding factories. Fillmore's final run for president, in 1856, was as the Know Nothing candidate. Some would say that was apt.

Harding held a conspiracy theory view toward labor unions and his administration made liberal use of court injunctions to get around the 1914 Clayton Act. The 1932 Norris-La Guardia Act would subsequently outlaw these blanket injunctions. He was also the first president to conclude that World War One vets didn't deserve early bonuses; in fact, he wasn't sure they deserved any payment at all even though the U.S. economy was still reeling from the war and vets could have used a lift. Harding vetoed the War Adjusted Compensation Act, though Congress overrode his veto. (Calvin Coolidge also refused early bonuses, as did Herbert Hoover, with disastrous results when the 1932 Bonus March ended in bloodshed and death.)  

Another definition of a fool is a person who is given information and fails to act upon it–especially when that person claims to know better! Fillmore was vile on the issue of slavery. He took the faithless fool's path of saying one thing and then doing another. He claimed he was opposed to the annexation of Texas as a slave state, but that the Constitution prevented him from doing anything about it. Really? It didn't prevent the man he succeeded, Zachary Taylor, from keeping a slave-owning Texas out of the Union. He also voted "no" on the issue when he was in Congress. He said the opposed expansion of slavery into territory taken in the Mexican War, but then sent troops to New Mexico Territory to dissuade Northern Whigs from enacting the Wilmot Proviso, which would have done exactly that. Although the Compromise of 1850 began to take shape during Taylor's brief time in office, guess whose signature is on the Fugitive Slave Act? Fillmore disapproved of Southern filibusterers (adventurers seeking to expand slavery into Latin American nations via personal conquest). Any actions taken to prevent this? Of course not! Need further proof of his passive aggressive racism? In 1864–during the Civil War–Fillmore supported George B. McClellan against Lincoln. (If there was a more inept fool than McClellan in all of North America, I don't know who it would be.) Fillmore's final waffle: he said he was against secession, but later favored Andrew Johnson's doomed Reconstruction plan, which would healed almost none of the problems that led to war.

Maybe Harding was simply too oblivious to see anything, maybe he chose to look away, or maybe he was too drunk to see things clearly, but officials in his administration stole everything that wasn't nailed down and a few things that were—like government-owned oil reserves. The Teapot Dome scandal is the most horrendous theft of his administration, but there were many others. Harding's Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall has the dubious distinction of being the first Cabinet officer to go to jail. Harding flexed his full fool tools when appointing executive branch officials. He either rubber- stamped hacks suggested by GOP operatives, or appointed drinking and card-playing buddies. He had four SCOTUS nominees, but don't look for any of them among the court's brightest lights, though William Howard Taft is the only man to go from POTUS to SCOTUS. His Secretary of State Charles Evan Hughes and his Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover hated each other and engaged in constant power plays that bogged down decision-making. Bet you can predict what Harding did about this. 

Neither president did much re: the economy except let it roll merrily along. Harding enacted typical GOP tax cuts that had little effect beyond pocket lining. His tariff policy was deemed only slightly less foolish than pressing bankrupt postwar European nations to pay back their loans. (They couldn't. They didn't.)

There are no great foreign policy initiatives in either administration. Fillmore made a few Monroe Doctrine warnings to Europeans re: Latin America and told France to back away from Hawaii but luckily he didn't have to back up his bluster. About all that is remembered of foreign policy is that he did not give his support to Hungarian revolutionary Lajos Kossuth, though his cause was popular in the United States. This scant output exceed the "accomplishments" of the Harding administration. Harding campaigned against the idealism of Woodrow Wilson and, to the degree he had a foreign policy, Harding titled toward isolationism.

Both men were plagued by personal demons and quirks. Fillmore was said to be unnaturally attracted to spiritualism and his niece was a medium. As we have seen, he was also prone to conspiracy theories. Harding was a heavy drinker, a glad-hander, a party boy, and a womanizer. He fathered a child to his mistress Nan Britton while in the White House, but Ms. Britton was not his sole extramarital conquest. It was said that Harding's interests were, in order: poker, women, and booze. Re: the last of these, we should note that Prohibition was passed the year before Harding won the presidency, so let's add a shot of hypocrisy to his list of sins.

How they were different:

Mediocrity of this magnitude is a great leveler, so the differences were largely a matter of time and degree. Both men were disasters, with Fillmore presaging the Civil War and Harding the Great Depression. They were so bad that even the trivia surrounding them is mostly wrong. Fillmore was not the first president to have a bathtub installed in the White House and Harding's wife did not poison him.

Harding's one unexpected act was that he commuted the jail sentence of socialist Eugene Debs. Fillmore probably would have only thought about doing so!


A scholar I know and respect has written a work in which he seeks to exonerate Fillmore. Sorry, but this was wasted effort. The only way Fillmore looks good is to compare him to three of the next four presidents" Franklin Pierce (see George H. W. Bush), James Buchanan (Jamie the Vile), Lincoln, and Andrew Johnson. Scholars currently rank him 38th and I doubt anyone could write a book that successfully elevates him.

Harding's major accomplishment was that he died in office and didn't complete his term. Most scholars rank him dead last. I suppose one could argue that maybe Pierce, Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, or George H. W. Bush was worse–but only if one has a very strong stomach. I can only say that we should all pray never again to see the likes of Fillmore or Harding–though I can easily imagine Donald Trump as the Return of Warren Harding.  

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