Solving the Mystery of Warren G. Harding

Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons

Even before his death in 1923, friends and family of our 29th president, Warren G. Harding, have constantly battled unsavory rumors about him. The one with most impact during his life was that he had African-American ancestors; a deranged College of Wooster professor spent a good part of the 1920 general election campaign trying, allegedly with Democratic backing, to make that claim a campaign issue. Then and later, Harding’s rather exuberant social life led to constant rumors and reports that he was fooling around sexually, especially with “family friend” Carrie Phillips and also with a young woman from Harding’s home town named Nan Britton.

Britton reportedly burned all her letters from Harding at his request, but in 1928, she published a book entitled The President’s Daughter which alleged she had been Harding’s mistress for years and had borne him a child. On a separate track, letters between Harding and Phillips were found that Harding’s family managed to have suppressed by a lawsuit that kept Harding biographer Francis Russell from disclosing them (his fine book, The Shadow of Blooming Grove, which I read shortly after its 1968 publication, was marred by many blank spaces produced by court injunction).

The Phillips letters were finally unsealed last year, and demonstrated without much doubt that Harding indeed had a torrid affair with her. But the Britton mystery remained–until now, per a report from Peter Baker of the New York Times:

[A]ccording to genealogists, new genetic tests confirm for the first time that Ms. Britton’s daughter, Elizabeth Ann Blaesing, was indeed Harding’s biological child. The tests have solved one of the enduring mysteries of presidential history and offer new insights into the secret life of America’s 29th president. At the least, they demonstrate how the march of technology is increasingly rewriting the nation’s history books.

The revelation has also roiled two families that have circled each other warily for 90 years, struggling with issues of rumor, truth and fidelity. Even now, members of the president’s family remain divided over the matter, with some still skeptical after a lifetime of denial and unhappy about cousins who chose to pursue the question. Some descendants of Ms. Britton remain resentful that it has taken this long for evidence to come out and for her credibility to be validated.

But wait, there’s more:

The testing also found that President Harding had no ancestors from sub-Saharan Africa, answering another question that has intrigued historians. When Harding ran for president in 1920, segregationist opponents claimed he had “black blood.”

This may ring a bell with the many people–myself among them–who have registered their DNA with ancestry.com, who did the testing in Harding’s case. So far I haven’t had any such dramatic revelations, other than to find that my genetic background is more polyglot honky–and less Scotch-Irish–than I would have guessed. But I suspect we will eventually make other discoveries about contested characteristics of famous people from the past and present.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.