How Some Were Burned…


The war ended and a decade and more passed, but the Harding papers remained closed to all researchers, and the prospects of their coming to the Library of Congress remained dim. In 1958, Fred Shelley, head of the presidential papers section of the Library’s manuscript division, found nine pieces from the Harding papers which had been misfiled in the Coolidge papers. These were sent to the Association in the hope of reopening negotiations. In 1961, Daniel Reed, Martin’s able successor, spent a day with Dr. Sawyer, who hinted that his task of arranging and numbering the Harding correspondence was progressing well and that the Association might turn it over to the Library soon.

It was at this juncture that the Ohio Historical Society entered actively into an attempt to acquire the papers. Although the Society had expressed an interest as early as 1924, acquisition was not seriously considered until after 1960. From this date the Society began a concerted effort to collect the papers of Harding’s contemporaries, and on October 4, 1963, Dr. Sawyer formally gave the Memorial Association’s collection to the Society.

Or so the Society thought. When the formal gift agreement was concluded, its wording was so ambiguous that the Association released only the presidential letters; the Society, on the other hand, assumed that it had acquired title to the entire collection. The awakening did not come until October 10, 1963, when the papers were to be moved from Marion to Columbus, headquarters of the Historical Society.

The day dawned bright and clear. The Society staff, in elaborate rehearsals with the moving company, had set up a split-second timetable. To reassure Dr. Sawyer, who had feared a possible hijack by “those Teapot Dome people”—and not unmindful of publicity values—the Society’s public relations officer had enlisted the state highway patrol to escort the moving van.

But when the moving van and the five-man crew arrived in Marion that morning they found that the “hijack” had already occurred: what the Association termed “the senatorial papers” had been removed the day before from the vault under the Harding home and taken to the Sawyer sanatorium. The Association had also held back the so-called Marion Star correspondence, comprising Harding’s political and personal as well as business files for the period 1895–1914. Having previously examined these papers where they were stored, in the Harding attic, the Society staff had decided that they had not been screened by anyone and that the estimated ten thousand pieces represented potentially the richest source in the surviving papers.

Operating on the assumption that the presidential papers alone were still better than none, the Society staff supervising the move accepted the withholding of the two early files as gracefully as possible. The moving van arrived in Columbus that afternoon surrounded by TV cameramen, newsreel photographers, wire-service men, and reporters. It was too late to change the prepared press release. The news was out that the Society had acquired all the Harding papers and that they would be opened to researchers within six months.

The weeks passed swiftly while the Society’s manuscript department marked time, unable to begin final processing and arrangement of all the Harding papers—estimated at three hundred thousand pieces—as long as the Association held the early files. Meanwhile, the news of the transfer of the main body of papers brought in to the Society other groups of papers, including the Carrie Phillips correspondence, adding new dimension to the Harding sources.

In mid-March of 1964 the Association finally released the early files, and the Society began a frantic rush to have all the Harding sources ready for the official opening of the Warren G. Harding papers at its annual meeting, scheduled for April 26.

To the dozens of researchers who made use of the collection the first weeks after the opening, it became apparent that that portion of it called the senatorial papers was woefully incomplete. Missing were the letters from 1915, when Harding entered the Senate, through the first part of 1920. Some months later, on July 3, Dr. Sawyer, who had found the missing correspondence stored in his home among his father’s papers, turned one box of two over to the Society. At this writing, he still holds the other.

Over the almost forty years that the Harding Memorial Association held the papers closed, historians have speculated as to whether it might have continued in the tradition established by Mrs. Harding. To hear Dr. Sawyer talk of his mission to preserve Harding’s reputation, one might easily believe it.

While it is known that Dr. Sawyer did return some of Harding’s family correspondence to his descendants, most of the scholars who have used the Harding papers in the months since they were opened have concluded that there is little evidence to indicate that the Association destroyed, censored, or suppressed letters from the Harding papers. There are occasional empty file folders in them, for example one with the title “HeartThrob Letters,” but it must be assumed that the contents of these were disposed of years ago. What weeding and destruction they underwent probably occurred before they came into the Association’s possession.