WASHINGTON — The Library of Congress opened a collection of approximately 1,000 pages of correspondence between 29th U.S. President Warren G. Harding and his mistress, Carrie Fulton Phillips.
The letters, which have been locked in a vault in the library’s manuscript division since their donation in 1972, can be viewed here.
The letters were written between 1910 and 1920 during an affair that began in 1905 between then-Ohio Lt. Gov. Warren Harding and family friend Carrie Fulton Phillips.
The vast majority of the letters were written by Harding, many while he served in the U.S. Senate (1915-1921). Phillips is represented mainly by drafts and notes.
The library has recently obtained additional material from the Phillips/Mathee family, which is also now available here.
Taken as a whole, the correspondence sheds light on a man in love on the eve of his presidency and a country on the brink of World War I.
Examples include: Harding to Phillips, on the back of his portrait photo, Dec. 24, 1910: “My Darling, There are no words, at my command, sufficient to say the full extent of my love for you …”
Harding to Phillips, Jan. 26, 1915, from San Francisco’s Palace Hotel (where Harding died in 1923), regarding their correspondence: “Won’t you please destroy? You are not always careful with letters, and if you destroy, you won’t need to be careful.”
Harding to Phillips, Jan. 11, 1917, on prohibition for the District of Columbia. Harding votes “no” believing that the citizens of the District should decide for themselves: “Just now I am catching the very devil by mail for my attitude on prohibition in the district. I hope you do not wholly disapprove. I voted as I said I would when asking for my election and have kept the faith.”
Harding to Phillips, March 25, 1917, about the looming war vote: “I have pondered the situation with soberness and solemnity ever mindful of the great responsibility. How unthinking and unfair you are when you accuse me of playing politics! I represent a state with hundreds of thousands of German Republicans. Nobody knows better than I do that I seal my political fate by displeasing them. I know it makes me a one-term official to oppose their desires, but I prefer to perform a duty in good conscience even though I know it means the end of my public service.”
Harding to Phillips, April 1917, concerning their arguments about the war: “You quote that silly lie about my having said ‘a little scrap might be a good thing’ Can you think me so dumb-headed as to say a thing like that to a pacifist delegation, even if I thought it? In my address I refuted that statement in Cincinnati where some unthinking or unintelligent liar originated it. Clearly it was a fair sample of the easy lying in these hysterical or inconsiderate times.”
Phillips’ notes in response to the previous letter, May 1917: “The ‘silly lie’ denied made in Cin. Speech — you said it to me. I didn’t know it was said by you till then. I only speak of the thing you said to me.”. . . “What is it we’re fighting for, democratic principals? Yes, that’s it — and liberty! — and humanity! We had a Negro equality man under democracy lynched yesterday — Great pretexts, these, of ours!”
Harding to Phillips, Feb. 17, 1918: “Let me lecture you a bit. It is quite all right for you to express yourself freely on war matters to me. This does not say you are right, but there is no harm in free expression to me. I can understand. But do, please, I beg you, be prudent in talking to others. . . . Remember your country is in war, and things are not normal, and toleration is not universal, and justice is not always discriminating.”
Harding to Phillips, Feb. 2 1920: “We have blundered. We will not talk about the blame. I accept my full share of it. We did blunder. I give you the most tribute that a man can. There was no cheating. We both understood. We were both married. No lies were told. We felt the sense of family obligations. Happily there has been no irreparable damage.”
Phillips kept the letters hidden in a box in her home in Marion, Ohio, where they remained unseen for nearly 40 years. Upon Phillips’ illness and subsequent death in 1960, the correspondence was discovered by a court-appointed lawyer, who made the collection available to a potential Harding biographer in 1963.
The use of the letters by the biographer was thwarted by a lawsuit brought by the president’s nephew, Dr. George Harding. An Ohio judge closed the papers on July 29, 1964, and after extended litigation, the Harding-Phillips letters were purchased by Dr. Harding from Phillips’ heirs.
In 1972, Dr. Harding donated the letters to the Library of Congress for safekeeping, with the stipulation that the library keep the papers closed until July 29, 2014, — 50 years from the day the Ohio judge first closed them.
The library held a symposium July 22 to discuss the Harding-Phillips correspondence and what it reveals about Harding’s character and political views; his relationship with his wife; and implications for national security during World War I, given Phillips’ German partisanship.
Moderated by Manuscript Division Chief James Hutson, the panel included library archivist Karen Linn Femia, who processed the correspondence; Dr. Richard Harding, a grandnephew of the president, who described the family’s reaction to the opening of the president’s personal correspondence; and James Robenalt, author of The Harding Affair: Love and Espionage During the Great War.
Members of the Mathee family provided a written statement that was read at the event.
A webcast of the program can be viewed here.