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Pres. Harding's love letters a tease in the history of legislating morality

Michael Carey
Library of Congress photo

Writing in the July 5 Washington Post, reporter Michael E. Ruane does a wonderful job of exploring the love letters Warren Harding wrote to his mistress, Carrie Phillips. Harding, a future president, carried on an affair with his married Ohio neighbor for years while he was a lieutenant governor of Ohio and a U.S. senator.

Scholars have long known about the relationship between Harding and Phillips and been aware of the content of the letters in recent years. Cleveland's Western Reserve Historical Society has a microfilmed copy of the correspondence but the originals, in the possession of the Library of Congress, were closed by a court order sought by Harding descendants in 1964. That order expires this summer, and the letters will become available to the public July 29.

H.L. Mencken, who never saw the letters, was familiar with Harding's political prose and called him "the worst writer of English I have ever encountered," piling up metaphors to make his case against Harding's composition: "It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line ... of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights."

At least when writing to Phillips, Harding apparently could compose vivid, compelling sentences that emphasized his "aching hunger" and his "mad, tender, devoted, ardent ... love." His letters not only demonstrate his intoxication with Phillips but more importantly reveal he was not the cardboard cutout of popular history -- the failed president who died amid scandal after visiting Alaska in 1923. Warren Harding may not have possessed an intellect greater than Sinclair Lewis' bourgeois boob George Babbitt but he was a man of deep passion whose desire inflamed his imagination.

The Post's Ruane says Harding and Phillips enjoyed each other's company in different cities and several countries. Then and now, middle-class morality condemns their intimacy as immoral. But, as a student of the laws regulating morals in 20th century America, I found myself wondering, "Was their conduct illegal, a crime?"

The answer is not self-evident given that the relationship continued for so long in so many jurisdictions. But statutes criminalizing adultery existed during the couple's lifetime and survive in some states today. The first territorial Alaska Legislature (1913) passed a statute saying, "That whoever, being married, shall voluntarily have sex with a person other than the offender's husband or wife is guilty of adultery, and shall be fined not more than two hundred dollars and imprisoned in the county jail not more than three months."

Alaskans were arrested on the basis of this statute and earlier versions of the statute. Tom Marquam, a prominent Fairbanks lawyer, was one, although the case was dropped. The arrest did not prevent Tom from becoming mayor of the Golden Heart City and Harding's host when the president visited Fairbanks.

Harding and Phillips also may have violated the Mann Act (1910), a stern measure designed to eradicate so-called "white slavery" -- the transportation of women across state lines for immoral purposes. Prosecutors were imaginative when defining "transportation." For example, married male New Yorkers who took unmarried women to the Jersey shore for the weekend were sometimes arrested.

American lawmakers have had a genius for criminalizing behavior they find offensive to the health of the republic. Early Alaska criminalized a man's use of profanity in the presence of a woman. Prizefighting was criminalized in most states during much of Warren Harding's life because legislators believed it inflamed the lower orders' base emotions. The great heavyweight champion John L. Sullivan engaged in numerous illegal bouts -- yet was one of America's first national celebrities.

Statutes setting out penalties for adultery may seem both quaint and ridiculous to the modern eye. But in looking back on the past, we should not look down on the past. American law is always evolving. At one point in history, adultery was punished by churches -- hence Nathaniel Hawthorne's scarlet letter.

The men and women of Harding and Phillips' generation faced morals laws that were not uniformly enforced. Prosecutors fielding a complaint could just shrug -- or go after the offenders. In small towns, prosecution might hinge on how the marshal or other members of the community felt about the offenders or the individual bringing the complaint.

The regulation of morals through adultery laws and other statutes like the vagrancy law, another measure open to capricious enforcement, did not end simply because American society became more tolerant with the passage of time. The widespread recognition that these laws were arbitrarily imposed and gave law enforcement exceptional power over everyone, not just so-called undesirables, contributed to their demise.

Warren Harding and Carrie Phillips were fortunate. Their relationship never became a judicial matter and reached the court of public opinion only after their death.

Michael Carey is a columnist for Alaska Dispatch News. He can be reached at mcarey@adn.com.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.