A President Visits Montana
"In 1923, the people of Butte appreciated a President who didn’t try to buy votes with other people’s money, who cut government spending and balanced the budget."
Nearly a century ago—on June 29, 1923—President Warren G. Harding visited Butte, Montana on his way to Alaska. The hearty welcome that the citizens of Butte gave him was a highlight of his ill-fated “Voyage of Understanding.” Sadly, the trip ended with his unexpected death from a sudden heart attack in California less than five weeks later.
Butte’s population peaked at about 100,000 in 1920, the year Harding was elected in a landslide. “The Richest Hill in the World” was briefly the biggest town between Chicago and San Francisco, thanks to a mining boom that Harding saw first-hand. Among the many tributes that Butte bestowed upon the President was the naming of a nearby scenic route (Highway 2), known to this day as “Harding Way.”
A typical head of state craves pomp and circumstance, especially if he’s at the center of it. If others (such as taxpayers) are picking up the tab, it takes principled character to opt instead for quiet simplicity. The majesty of ceremonies and the adoration of crowds—replete with bands and uniforms and soaring rhetoric—can be heady stuff.
By all accounts, Harding appreciated the adulation of the crowds in Butte but he wasn’t the kind of man who ever let adulation go to his head. In fact, he was famous for choosing thrift over excess at his own inauguration.
In November 1920, voters saw in the affable and unpretentious Harding an opportunity for “normalcy” after eight years of Woodrow Wilson, a pompous, arrogant, high-taxing and big-spending “progressive.” They weren’t interested in a new president celebrating himself at great expense, and they deeply appreciated Harding’s example.
With two months to go before Inauguration Day on March 4, Harding expressed displeasure with plans for the big day. On January 10, 1921, he ordered the committees in charge of the ceremonies, according to The New York Times, “to abandon all features of the program that would make his induction into office an affair of extravagance or pomp.” That meant no parade, no ball, and “nothing savoring of ostentation or money squandering.”
That Harding would opt for a humble event came as no surprise to those who knew him or who had listened to his promises during the campaign. Nor did it surprise anybody that he dramatically cut federal spending on just about everything before his untimely death on August 2, 1923.
Routinely dismissed as a bad chief executive, Harding’s reputation is undergoing a long overdue renovation. The latest contribution in that regard is a recent, must-read biography by Ryan S. Walters titled The Jazz Age President.
Walters notes that Warren Harding didn’t just tell audiences what they wanted to hear. He sometimes told them what they did not want to hear. He went to Birmingham, Alabama to condemn racism and Jim Crow laws, for example.
Conventional historians praise Presidents for the bills they signed into law but often it requires more courage and conviction to veto them. One that Harding nixed concerned a bonus for veterans of World War I. It stirred up quite a fuss. As the bill worked its way through the House and Senate, Harding gave ample warning that he wouldn’t even consider a bonus that wasn’t paid for. Congress ignored him and sent the bill to his desk. He killed it.
This was the same man who declared at his modest, unembellished inauguration that “Our most dangerous tendency is to expect too much of government.” He had expressed a desire to put “our public household in order.” He said he wanted “sanity” in economic policy, combined with “individual prudence and thrift.”
In 1923, the people of Butte appreciated a President who didn’t try to buy votes with other people’s money, who cut government spending and balanced the budget.
We’ve come a long way since then and it’s not up.
Lawrence W. Reed writes a monthly column for the Frontier Institute in Helena, on whose board he serves. He is president emeritus of the Foundation for Economic Education and blogs at www.lawrencewreed.com.