How Some Were Burned…

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Meanwhile, in the year following Mrs. Harding’s death, Dr. Moore of the Library of Congress had travelled to Marion several times to talk with the officials of the Association about placing the papers, which the widow had willed to the Association, in the Library. His pleas had been shunted aside, and now that the plans for publication had been halted and the papers closed, he attempted to marshal public opinion to force the Association to act. Christmas morning, 1925, readers of the New York Times were treated to an exclusive, a front-page story headlined, HARDING PAPERS BURNED BY WIDOW . In the first public announcement of Mrs. Harding’s action, Moore stated that she had “burned practically all the letters he had left concerning political and national affairs,” and that the Association, which held carbon copies of some of his outgoing correspondence, had refused to turn them over to the Library or to allow photostats to be made.

(Moore noted, oddly enough, that Daugherty was using his influence to see that the copies were released to the Library. In view of Daugherty’s stand against publication a few weeks earlier, this seems doubtful. It seems even more doubtful when it is remembered that during his 1926 trial for fraud in a New York district court it was learned that in August of 1925—a few months before Moore’s announcement—Daugherty had done his bit to whittle down the remaining Harding sources; he had burned a group of records of the Midland National Bank, the Daugherty family institution in his home town of Washington Court House, Ohio. Daugherty pleaded the Fifth Amendment when questioned about the records, but his attorney admitted the destruction. He hinted that his client was not motivated by any desire to protect himself, only by loyalty to the memory of the President. He demonstrated this “loyalty” by leaving the impression, which was the gossip of the day, that Harding had maintained secret accounts at the bank to finance his stock-market speculations and affairs of the heart. One probable indication of Daugherty’s true feelings about the papers can be found in a news item published by the Washington Court House Herald , a local paper close to the former Attorney General. In response to the New York Times account of how some of the Harding papers had been burned, the Herald hinted that the destruction of the papers begun by Mrs. Harding might soon be completed. All of Harding’s correspondence, official or otherwise, said the article, was of a frank, intimate, and personal nature, unlike that of his predecessors, Wilson and Roosevelt, who often wrote their letters with a view to publication. “The present disposition of the Harding trustees is to keep all the letters sealed. Maybe sometime soon they, too, will be destroyed.”)

Soon after Moore’s surprising announcement, Association officials in Marion sought to reassure the public. Donithen declared that Mrs. Harding had destroyed only personal letters, and that no “official” files had ever been sent to Marion from Washington. Van Fleet, the editor of the Star, who recalled the circumstances of the destruction vividly for his readers, hinted of mysterious missing files to which Mrs. Harding had never had access, and, in Washington, George Christian gave a reporter a soothing interview. The personal papers, he said, had been left to the Association by Mrs. Harding, excepting some “unimportant” correspondence not included in the gift; everything official was stored at the White House.

There the official papers remained, largely forgotten, throughout the term of Calvin Coolidge. In July, 1929, when Herbert Hoover was President, they turned up again. Workmen making repairs in the basement of the White House found thirty-nine letterfile cases of Harding correspondence. It is a safe assumption that this was the vast accumulation of papers that George Christian had begun to pack in August, 1923, over in the Executive wing, while Florence Harding and Baldinger were packing things up in the White House proper. In the Executive offices, of course, would be the bulk of the official papers, the correspondence with departments and agencies. If Christian was ordered to send this material to Marion, along with the “personal effects” papers, as Baldinger thinks he was, he disobeyed. It went instead to the cellar, and was used on occasion during the Coolidge era. It seems likely that these files, having more to do with public business than private problems and indiscretions, did not greatly interest or worry Florence Harding. The foreman called the building superintendent, who got in touch with Dr. J. Franklin Jameson, newly installed chief of the manuscript division of the Library of Congress. Jameson, a man who would really come to know frustration over the Harding papers, was delighted. He had already been looking with longing to the Harding papers in Marion. Now he had an estimated one hundred cubic feet of records. He had never heard of them before. How could he keep them legally, in the face of Mrs. Harding’s will?

Hopeful that possession would count the proverbial nine points, Jameson made a hurried examination of the files and then wrote to Charles Schaffner, a Marion attorney who had acted as administrator of President and Mrs. Harding’s estates, notifying him of the find. Schaffner replied by return mail and ordered the papers sent to him in Marion. After they had been “gone over” he promised to confer with Jameson about giving the papers to the Library of Congress.