How Some Were Burned…

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Of all this destruction—at the White House itself, at the McLean estate, now at the Marion Star with the “personal effects” papers—the outside world knew nothing. The Harding administration scandals had not yet become widely known. When the last of his fires grew cold, Baldinger turned to assist the newly formed Harding Memorial Association in collecting money to build the late President’s tomb. Meanwhile, a few days after the New Year, in January, 1924, Mrs. Harding paid a visit to Washington, where she granted an interview to Dr. Charles Moore, representing the Library of Congress. Moore had written her in October, while she was in Marion, to request that she turn her husband’s papers over to the Library. Rather surprisingly, she told him she had burned them all. It was the same answer she gave, about the same time, to the publisher Frank N. Doubleday when he called at her Washington apartment. She had done it, she told him, because she “feared some of it would be misconstrued and would harm [Harding’s] memory.”

One may imagine the reaction of both men. One may object to the ethics of Mrs. Harding’s actions, and to her dishonest, or at least exaggerated, account of her disposal of the papers—not to mention the taint she has left on those that survive. But there was no question of her legal right to dispose of her husband’s papers as she saw fit. She was only following the precedent established by George Washington himself when he took his private and official files with him upon leaving office. From that date presidential papers were considered private property. While the great bulk of them eventually found their way to the Library of Congress, and some to other research libraries, far too much has been destroyed. Van Buren burned most of his own papers, as did Pierce. Grant is thought to have set a match to some of his; others he returned to the senders. Lincoln’s son sorted his father’s papers and is reported to have destroyed some family correspondence, but scholars think he left the official files nearly intact. Fillmore’s son left instructions in his will to destroy the family papers, including his father’s. Most of the fdes were burned, but the executor luckily overlooked seventy volumes stored in an attic.

Secure in her own mind that she had done what was best for her husband, Mrs. Harding came back to Marion after her Washington visit and settled in again at White Oaks. There she died, on November 21, 1924, willing her husband’s papers to the Harding Memorial Association. Allied Donithen, whom his friends called “Hoke,” secretary of the Association and a long-time friend of Harding’s, now revealed that there were indeed still some Harding papers unburned. Immediately he reopened negotiations with Doubleday with a view to publishing some selected Harding correspondence. Judson Welliver, formerly a secretary to Harding, was chosen to assist in the selection and to write the official biography.

A young editor from Doubleday, Page and Company, John Van Bibber, came to Marion and had over five thousand pages of typed copies prepared from Harding’s papers, largely selected from the letters marked PPF (Private and Personal File) which Mrs. Harding had weeded out and kept. Had Harding’s reputation rested on this selection, along with an authorized biography by Welliver, Florence Harding’s purpose would have been achieved. As it was, what appears to have been the jealous rivalry of one of the President’s friends, and the need of another to protect himself, thwarted that purpose.

Of the men who had surrounded Harding none felt closer to his chief than George Christian, and none thought more highly of his own ability. He would have been out of character had he not resented Donithen’s choice of Welliver to edit the correspondence and to write the proposed biography. First he tried to discourage Donithen, but when he continued to press for the project, Christian wrote to Harry M. Daugherty, Harding’s Attorney General and early political sponsor, who had resigned from Coolidge’s Cabinet when a congressional investigation uncovered evidence of fraud in his department. Daugherty, fearful that a federal grand jury was preparing a criminal indictment against him, probably was not anxious that any of the administration’s papers be published.

Whether it was Christian’s jealousy or Daugherty’s instinct for self-preservation, the two men—for reasons that can only be surmised from the meager evidence in the Association’s files—forced the president of the Association, ex-Senator Joseph S. Frelinghuysen of New Jersey, to call a meeting in the fall of 1925 to discuss the project. Harding’s Secretary of Commerce, Herbert Hoover, along with Donithen, Frelinghuysen, and others, favored publication but they allowed Christian and Daugherty to override them. Publication was abandoned, and the papers in the Association’s control were ordered closed until 1975.