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Warren G. Harding's newest sex scandal, explained

President Warren G Harding (1865–1923) and First Lady Florence Harding, leaving Pier 14, the US Army Port of Debarkation at Hoboken, New Jersey, after a memorial service held on the return of more than 5,000 American war dead from France.
President Warren G Harding (1865–1923) and First Lady Florence Harding, leaving Pier 14, the US Army Port of Debarkation at Hoboken, New Jersey, after a memorial service held on the return of more than 5,000 American war dead from France.
FPG/Keystone View Company/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Nearly a century passed before genetic testing caught up with President Warren G. Harding, who hid a six-year relationship with Nan Britton that produced a child, an affair his family denied after his death, as Peter Baker described in the New York Times:

She was consumed with Harding, who was married but had no children and was seen by women of the time as attractive. ... For six and a half years they maintained their affair, meeting wherever possible, including in Harding’s Senate office, where Ms. Britton wrote that they conceived Elizabeth Ann, born in October 1919 ...

Ms. Britton was devastated when he died in office in 1923 at the age of 57 and more so when she discovered there was no provision to support their daughter. In need of money and shut out by Harding’s family, she wrote "The President’s Daughter" in 1927, inciting a fierce backlash from his supporters.

Don't make the mistake of thinking that their relationship, humorously described by Scott Bixby as a "nerdy sex scandal," is just another amuse bouche for dinner party banter. Parts of this story do bring to mind some funny stereotypes and the question of what-value-is-this-news so many years after the scandal happened. And Harding had many good qualities worth exploring that have no connection to sex.

We can laugh about Harding's reputation, though, and simultaneously address his full range of humanity, without sacrificing objectivity in reviewing how his actions changed the lives of those around him, for better and for worse.

When contesting a love child turns into child neglect and sexism

This is a photograph of Britton and her child with Harding, Elizabeth Ann. There are kids out there today who, as children born out of affairs, face similar challenges as Elizabeth Ann did after her father died:

We can't fairly judge the choices of Harding's family on the basis of what we know now. In Harding's day, there were no paternity tests. However, genetic data does not replace the role that trust and fairness have always played in a healthy society; it is a tragedy that Harding died before he could secure financial support for his daughter. It is a tragedy that his family never took the time to know Britton.

Unsurprisingly, the internet reacted to the top-trending Harding family story with tasteless, sexist commentary. In a search of Facebook and Twitter, the phrases "player" and "gangster" are commonly used, a celebration of passion without social responsibility.

If one prefers to turn a blind eye to the Brittons' welfare, they might consider taking a path of only remembering the good things that Harding did. As James Robenalt, author of The Harding Affair: Love and Espionage During the Great War, argued in a new essay in the Washington Post, "Perhaps the blessing of [the children] being recognized and joined with their family will move the question of sex to the background, where it belongs." I'm not convinced sex belongs in the background of history, although pushing it aside is an easy way to avoid addressing the sometimes uncomfortable topic.

Overprioritizing the importance of sex is counterproductive, but ignoring its importance — and its social repercussions — altogether is as ridiculous a suggestion. Is a president's legacy fairly written if it is only a collection of his successes? No, and the recording of history must be an objective process if we are to make any use of it. If any affair, passionate or otherwise, results in the real neglect of any child, it's the very kind of thing we should care about, along with anything else that is fair game to discuss.

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