- Historic Sites
How Some Were Burned…
February 1965 | Volume 16, Issue 2
Controversy, the inevitable result, of secrecy and suppression, still swirls about the life and Presidency of Warren Gamaliel Harding, who came to the White House in 1921 in the bright sunlight of landslide victory and left it in death, shadowed by scandal, less than three years later. Of how all these things happened, of what sort of man Harding really was, historians know much less than they would like to.
Tampering with his papers—even the outright burning of many of them—began almost with Harding’s funeral; the censorship has continued over the decades since. That story is told here by the curator of manuscripts at the Ohio Historical Society, Kenneth W. Duchett. In the article beginning directly below it, our frequent contributor Francis Russell gives his account of the recently publicized Harding-Phillips love letters; he found them in Marion, Ohio, and tried to place them in the custody of the Ohio Historical Society, with explosive results into which this magazine has been drawn.
AMERICAN HERITAGE has neither the desire nor the legal right to publish Harding’s occasionally heated but generally tiresome love letters. The fact is, however, that the correspondence concerns much more than romance. It furnishes insights into Harding’s character, his thoughts and motivations, and provides valuable clues to important actions and events in his public life, including the much-disputed circumstances of his nomination. It is considerations of this kind that make us and our sponsoring societies believe that these letters must he preserved. As part of the record of the Presidency they ought to be placed in a reputable library and, in good time, be available to serious scholars of American history.
The funeral was over. The heavily veiled widow, “bearing up courageously,” had arrived on the early train from Marion, Ohio. The city of Washington, hot and humid that mid-August morning in 1923, watched silently as ihe black limousine moved swiftly through the shaded streets from the station directly to the White House.
In the automobile with Florence Harding rode Dr. Charles E. Sawyer, While House physician, looking uncomfortable, as he always managed to do in his brigadier general’s uniform. Slight, shy, the eternal small-town practitioner, Sawyer had never accustomed himself to the attention attendant upon his appointment as President Harding’s U.S. Surgeon General.
At the widow’s other side sat George B. Christian, Jr., her late husband’s personal secretary, who had joined his staff almost a decade earlier when Harding had been elected to the U.S. Senate. Christian and his wife, Stella, perhaps the Hardings’ oldest and closest friends, had been neighbors on Mt. Vernon Avenue in Marion for a longer time than Mrs. Harding liked to recall.
The fourth passenger, younger than the other two men, sat stiff and sure in his major’s uniform, his red hair and cold blue eyes belied by his easy smile. Major Ora M. Baldinger, military aide to the late President, had first known the Hardings as a newsboy on their paper, the Marion Star. As a United States senator, Harding had secured the young man’s appointment to West Point and four years later had brought him to Washington as his military aide. After Harding’s death the young man shouldered the task of helping to destroy the papers of his late commander in chief. In the months ahead Mrs. Harding was to entrust assignments to “Reddy” Baldinger that she would give to no other.
As the limousine pulled slowly to a stop in front of the White House, Harry Barker, Mrs. Harding’s personal Secret Service agent, stepped forward to open the door. Awaiting her on the steps were President and Mrs. Coolidge. The two women embraced, turned, and walked haltingly into the foyer, where Mrs. Harding’s personal secretary, Laura Harlan, and the other members of the White House staff waited to offer their condolences. Mrs. Harding moved slowly from one to the next, until all had paid their respects. Then, turning to Major Baldinger, who had followed her respectfully at a distance, she pushed up the mourning veils from her lace. “Reddy,” she said, “come along. Bring Laura and Harry and let’s get to work. Everything has to be sorted and packed. The furniture, Warren’s clothes, his papers.” Thus began one of the great stories in American historiography: the censorship, suppression, and destruction of many of the important historical sources material to the Harding administration.
The lights burned late at the White House that evening, August 11, and for the next five evenings as well, while Barker, Baldinger, and Miss Harlan worked with Mrs. Harding. Some clothes Reddy carried to the Smithsonian Institution, others were packed to be shipped to relatives or into storage at Paddock’s Warehouse in Marion. From some of her husband’s coats the widow snipped buttons to be mailed with sentimental notes to young relatives and admirers.
The contents of the Chief Executive’s desk and of his wall safe in the second-floor study were examined by Mrs. Harding. Certain papers she ordered Baldinger to burn, at times trusting him to do the job, at others standing by his side and stirring the ashes in the fireplace. A shipment of personal effects, including many confidential and personal papers from the White House office proper, was gotten together to be sent to the warehouse in Marion. In the Executive office wing of the building, meanwhile, Christian, under the widow’s orders, was also packing busily.