What We Now Know About The Harding Quote

Bradley J. Fikes Bradley J. Fikes 17 Comments


In my previous post, I raised the question of how authentic Harding’s quote was about being unfit for the presidency – a quote widely repeated without any sourcing and time element.

Harding quote

Harding quote provided by ace Internet sleuth Dave Maass. Click on link for full text

I could find just one possible source, which I described thusly:

“The closest I’ve been able to find as a source is Wikiquote, which cites a 1939 book by Nicholas Murray Butler (1939) Across the Busy Years vol. 1. That’s not exactly a plenitude of confirmation, although it’s better than nothing. I would have thought such a startling quote would have been written about more extensively. . .

And toward the end of my post I wrote:

“But perhaps there is such an authoritative source for this quote, specifying its date and circumstances. I’ve not had much success so far.”

The info-savvy Dave Maas has provided the text of that quote (shown above), thanks to the power of Archive.org.  Thanks, Dave.

And the circumstances explain why it was not widely quoted at the time: Butler heard it in private from Harding. There were no witnesses.

So we have the actual source text, and considerable detail about its circumstances. The question is, how reliable is it? Here’s my evaluation of the pros and cons:


*The quote was made in private. Since Harding was long dead, he was not around to dispute it.

*The quote was in a book published 16 years after Harding’s death, when Butler was in his late 70s.

*No time element. Butler writes that Harding said those words “on one occasion,” after 6 p.m. during his presidency. A lack of a specific date and time is one of the red flags of a potentially spurious quote.

*Lack of contemporaneous verification, such as letters or notes. As far as I can tell, no such material exists. Butler kept that quote to himself all those years until the book was published.

*Lack of any record that Harding made any similar admission to anyone else. (I’m assuming here that if Harding had confessed his unfitness to anyone else and it had been recorded, it would have been published).

*The quote’s startling nature. For a president to outright confess his unfitness for the job is extraordinary. And the more extraordinary the claim, the more extraordinary the evidence needed to confirm it.

*Butler had been a political rival to Harding. Both ran for president in 1920. A derogatory quote about a rival demands more verification than a quote from a friend. Perhaps Butler and Harding reconciled after the election; Butler represents himself as being on the most intimate terms with Harding. But Butler’s word is not enough; we need independent sources to show that the two had become friends.

*Memories are often unreliable. Even if we assume Butler remembered the quote, did he remember it accurately? Or did he imagine he remembered it? That’s why contemporaneous records are so critical. If Butler had written down the quote at the time in a diary, it would be most supportive. That he gave no date for the quote — except that it happened during Harding’s presidency one evening after 6 p.m.  — strongly suggests he was recalling it from memory long after the fact.

*Lack of reference in Harding biographies. Rostrafarian Jim Sills said he couldn’t find any reference to this most amazing quote in several Harding biographies. This quote is often represented as a one-sentence verdict on Harding. So why is it not in any of the biographies Sills skimmed?


Butler has  sterling credentials as an educator and public servant. Among his honors, Butler was president of Columbia University and a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Would such a man lie, or be mistaken about such a notable statement? There is no certain answer, but Butler was certainly regarded as trustworthy by his peers. He had a high sense of honor, although he struck some people as a little stuffy and pompous. Great men often are perceived that way.

Also, Butler’s description of his visits to Harding are richly detailed, which could indicate his powers of observation and memory were very great. That would not be startling in a man of his high capacity. (Or, that he was quite imaginative).

That’s about it for the pro side.

Another argument mentioned by Dave, that  the eminent historian Arthur Schlesinger cites the quote, means nothing. Schlesinger is not a primary source. He simply repeats what Butler wrote. He gives no information to corroborate Butler.

The (disappointing) Verdict

When I add them up, I can’t dismiss the quote as spurious. I also can’t regard it as established fact.

This quote is well into an uncomfortable gray area where a positive resolution one way or the other doesn’t seem likely. In my opinion, the Harding quote should not be presented as definitive fact, but as a statement of indeterminate veracity.

If I mentioned the quote in a news article, I’d describe it as thinly sourced and of questionable reliability. It was presented by an eminently respectable man, a onetime rival to Harding, in his late 70s, without a date, 16 years after the fact, without contemporaneous verification.

The larger point  is that all quotes and statements should be given such an authenticity test. Quotes or historical references should provide a specific source, and indicate when the quote was uttered, and to whom, and where. Quotes missing even one of these attributes are suspect.

I’ll close by repeating my earlier post’s citation of a Wikipedia contributor to the Harding article, KarlFrei, who argued against the quote’s reliability on March 13, 2008.:

“As a bare minimum, we should be able to establish exactly *when* he said this and to whom, and perhaps also in what circumstances. None of the sources I found provide any background, they simply repeat the quote verbatim. As long as we cannot even pin a date on this quote, I do not believe it should be in this encyclopedia.”


(DISCLAIMER: This post by Bradley J. Fikes does not necessarily represent the opinion of the North County Times, his employer.)


Comments 17

  1. Excellent summing up of the pros and cons on this
    matter. Thank you.

    Earlier, you asked what Harding thought of Butler.
    After his 1920 election victory, Harding asked Butler
    to visit him in his hometown of Marion, Ohio.

    In an attempt to put the past rivalry aside, Harding
    offered Dr. Butler the positon of Secretary of State.
    Surprisingly, Dr. Butler refused the offer. He was
    much the best-qualified candidate — so it speaks
    well for Harding that he acknowledged that fact
    and quickly forgave the previous competition. It
    may have been harder for Butler to do the same.

    Source: “The Shadow of Blooming Grove”, a fine
    Harding biography by the respected writer and
    historian, Francis Russell (McGraw-Hill, 1968).

  2. Jim,

    I believe it was Abraham Lincoln, a Republican who has been treated much better in the history books than President Harding, who first coined the phrase “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” The lesson was not lost on President Harding nor on President Obama who also offered cabinet positions to his primary challengers.

  3. Maybe Fikes and Sills could do a research primer on who actually first uttered the quote to which Alger refers. We know the answer.

    Lincoln? Sun Tsu? Machiavelli? Or, Michael Corleone? Or, was Michael quoting his father?

    Or, was it all of them?

  4. I think Bradley wins the Harding quote argument because he’s determined to have the last word. Unfortunately, he also loses for beating a horse that was already dead and fully decomposed a few days ago.

  5. Whoever first said it, the use in this context is entirely appropriate to the subject. Well played by Alger.

    BTW, I’m not a major fan of Preident Harding on many issues. The Naval Treaty of 1922, limiting the size of the US Navy vis a vis Japan, was a Fatal step leading
    directly toward Pearl Harbor …

    The US honored that Treaty, but later Japanese governments (led by the fascist General Tojo) secretly violated its terms and enlarged their surface fleet.

  6. No, DCrab, the dead horse did not utter the quote about holding your enemies close. Good guess!

  7. Post

    Wikiquote says there’s no published sources of the “Keep your friends… ” quote before it was used in The Godfather, Part II. So that’s a start.

    Here is the Wikiquote reference to the quote in the movie.

  8. Post
  9. Regardless of who actually said it first (at this point, it will probably be difficult to find a verifiable first-hand witness if it was Sun-tzu), Lincoln clearly believed in the principle and Harding and Obama apparently learned from Lincoln’s example.

  10. Wikiquote says, “This has sometimes been attributed to Machiavelli, but more often to Sun Tzu, though there are no published sources yet found which predate its use by ‘Michael Corleone’ in The Godfather Part II (1974)”…

    Some sources note that Sun-tzu said, “Know your enemy and know yourself and you will always be victorious.” Close, but no cigar.

    To be clear, when Michael Corleone uses it in the film, he is noting one of the things his father, Vito, taught him. The scene…

  11. Excellent post, Brad. Thank you so much for writing it.

    When I mentioned Shlesinger, it wasn’t so much an argument, but an explanation of why I used it. Your previous blog post seemed to indicate that you believed I hadn’t made an effort to authenticate the quote. I did–and when I saw Shlesinger and Edwards Park used it, I thought the quote was credible enough to include in a snarky blog comment. Not a journalistic work or academic essay, mind you, but a snarky comment on a blog. I had no idea this was going to turn into an epic discussion over three blog posts.

    I’m glad your bullshit detector was turned on and forced me to dig into the quote. Knowing what I know now about it’s origin, I wouldn’t have used it or I would’ve used it by citing and contextualizing the source. I think I said as much earlier.

    I’d like to add to the pro-side that Butler’s use of that quote, at least on the face of it, wasn’t meant to disparage Harding, but to applaud him for expressing a feeling that many presidents may have felt. Based on my research, there seems to be quite a collection of letters between Harding and Butler exchanged over a significant period of time, including the presidency. Perhaps one day those will be online for us to inspect.

    I think you might consider writing up your analysis and submitting it to a historical or scholarly journal.

  12. There seems to be great division among scholars on this quote. Since it had to be translated from Chinese, this makes me a bit suspicious that scholars would take poetic license. I found a Chinese to English translation on line at this link: http://www.chinapage.com/sunzi-e.html

    It supports the theory that the actual quote is this from the end of section #3: “Hence the saying: If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”

    Some think it’s Machiavelli, but most of the modern versions are heavily abridged from the original Gutenberg translation from the Italian, which was apparently heavily embellished. I found a source that says the most direct translation would actually read “The new Prince must strive to hold close his allies, but it is of more importance to hold close his enemies.”

    Shakespeare uses a version of this quote, and so does Homer before him.

    Michael Corleone uses the saying (although not EXACTLY since he uses the conjunction “but”), quoting his father Vito.

    Former President Lyndon B. Johnson, speaking of his political enemies, was quoted as saying, “Better to have them inside the tent pissin’ out than outside pissin’ in.”

    I gotta go with Michael/Vito. Love it.

  13. Post

    Thanks so much for the kind words, Dave. And I also take your point about Butler meaning to praise Harding for honesty about his failings. I certainly hope the letters go online, otherwise I may have to make a trip to see the letters.

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