Blond Bigotry, Anti-Semitism & Why a Candidate’s Wife Fabricated Her Family

It may seem hard to imagine now, after a half-century of aspirational advertising and marketing casting those with blond hair in an “All-American” image, but that one physical characteristic was once viewed as the likely mark of being anti-American. 

And the atmosphere about this particular type of anti-American remained so intolerant that the wife of a presidential candidate in 1920, Florence Kling DeWolfe Harding, felt compelled to lie, twist, mislead and fabricate nearly all of facts of her family origin.

Beginning in April of 1917, when the U.S. joined England, France, Italy, Belgium, Russia, Romania, Japan in war against Germany and Austria-Hungary, a rabid hatred of anyone in America even slightly suspected of any Teutonic ties often led to them being victimized by acts of hatred and violence or having their businesses boycotted.

Not unlike the way that some members of the Sikh faith in Michigan were killed last week out of an ignorant presumption they were somehow connected to Islamist terrorists, so too were those with yellow-blond hair assumed to be German during World War I and threatened or harassed – even though they may have come from other nations. And many German immigrants who refused to swear allegiance to the U.S. war were thrown in prison for sedition. In New York, some newspapers even printed the names of residents reported by neighbors to be likely “Enemy Aliens.”

In New Mexico, an hysterical mob seized a German immigrant miner, forced him to his knees and kiss the U.S. flag. In Illinois, a coal miner was lynched.

Berlin, Michigan became Marne. Michigan. Chicago and New Orleans changed the names of its streets that were German in origin. German measles became “liberty measles,” and famously, sauerkraut was called “liberty cabbage.”

Dachshunds were called “liberty pups” if the dogs were lucky – many were stomped to death simply because the breed had come from Germany.

German-language newspapers were forced to close. Fourteen states banned the teaching of Germanic languages in public schools.  Public libraries stacked German-language and German-subject books for burnings. In 1918, a bill was introduced in Congress intended to rid every German name in every one of the 48 states.

Worse than having blond hair, however, was having a distinctly German surname, regardless of how many generations it had been since one’s family had left that land for America. It meant social stigmatization, public derision or being suspected of disloyalty; many quickly Anglicized their surnames.

Among the stories which further fueled the intolerance for German-Americans were those which suggested that cruel, brutal barbarism was simply in their blood. It was illustrated by 

tales of them cutting off the hands of Belgian children and the breasts of Belgian women. Propaganda posters even illustrated such acts of the monstrous barely-human “Huns,” as Germans were classified. The derogatory term “Kraut” also came into widespread use.

The Armistice ended the war, but suspicion and mistrust towards German-Americans, and the fearful self-consciousness of even those several generations away from Germany remained virulent. As government propaganda director VernonKellogg correctly predicted, “Will it be any wonder if, after the war, the people of the world, when they recognize any human being as a German, will shrink aside so that they may not touch him as he passes?”

At that time, over 8 million people in the U.S. were identified as German-Americans. Among them was the wife of the Republican Presidential candidate, nominated nineteen months after the war ended.

With her maiden name of Kling, Florence Harding was of German parentage through her father. Her first married name of DeWolfe  (though there is no marriage certificate and it was likely a common-law marriage when she was a teenager) was French in origin but sounded German.  And she was worried about the matter.

Minute details of race and religion were issues of importance to many Americans at the time. 

In the town of Marion, Ohio, where she had been born, lived and matured, and where her husband, U.S. Senator Warren G. Harding was now conducting his presidential campaign, it was widely known that their marriage had been opposed by her father because of unproven but persistent legends that Harding had African-American ancestry.

She was born Florence Mabel Kling in 1860, the daughter of Marion, Ohio’s wealthiest man, Amos Kling. He owned a thriving hardware store, vast farmlands in the outlaying region, and held interests in banking as well. But he was marked in town as being part of the subtle struggle of “English versus Germans,” the latter group being less educated and doing manual labor, having had to walk from Pennsylvania  into central Ohio whereas the more prosperous English took river transport. There were German newspapers and social clubs in town and when young Florence went with her father or on her own to collect rent from German-American farmers, she picked up some basic German and learned some of their superstitious customs from having lived in the woods.

When one assiduous Kling family genealogist tried to trace the later-First Lady’s paternal line, all she could definitively say was that they originated in Wurttemburg, but that “it is impossible for us to state the Christian name of the ancestor of Amos Kling.” 

The best estimate was that Florence Harding’s great-grandparents had originally immigrated to either Pennsylvania or New York.

With Harding conducting his campaign from the front-porch and property of their home, the national press corps descended on Marion to cover the daily events and speeches. Each day various local residents were interviewed for the “real story” on Warren and Florence Harding.

To combat revelation or gossip about her German heritage, Mrs. Harding played loose with the regional vernacular expression

“Pennsylvania Dutch.”  Most of the rest of the nation assumed the term indicated ancestry from the Netherlands, rather than from Germany, as was the truth. Florence began talking about her fabricated Dutch heritage.

She so widely disseminated this fib that Warren Harding soon received a letter from the Society of Daughters of Holland Dames Descendants of the Families of New Netherlands. The heraldic organization declared to him that, “We are also glad that Mrs. Harding is of the Holland Dutch blood.”

In response to the Dutch descendant organization, Harding responded, “We both rejoice to boast a strain.” He then mentioned his own ancestors’ specific family names that were Dutch – without providing any of his wife’s alleged “Holland Dutch” ancestral surnames. A copy of his  letter was even forwarded to the Queen Wilhelmina of Holland.

Conscious of how the anti-German sentiment could work politically against her husband’s election because of her heritage, Florence Harding sought to further distance herself from her ancestry by touting her father’s mother as being a “French grandmother,” attributing her own fussy tastes to her “French blood.”

France, of course, had been a U.S. ally during World War I, and she sought to further obscure the truth by suggesting the grandmother was Alsatian, a region where the border with Germany was known to shift. When she offhandedly elaborated that this grandmother had come from “southern France,” however, a new concern was raised.

In an era when the Ku Klux Klan was rising to become a powerful force in American politic and making its way into mainstream American culture, the target of their acts of violence against people and property had been expanded beyond African-Americans to now include Catholics and Jews.

In fact, part of Harding’s campaign theme played to nativist – though not racist – elements, focusing on domestic issues to be resolved and a promise to limit U.S. intervention in foreign countries.

As President, Harding would also not protest the strict limitations placed on immigrants from predominantly Catholic and Jewish countries. This theme of “America First,” could easily be twisted by Democrats seeking to undermine the Harding campaign by seeking to exploit questions about his wife’s ancestry.

This gave Florence Harding further reason to worry: her youngest brother Vetallis Kling had married Nona Younkins, niece of the family’s Irish Catholic housekeeper and lived in Marion’s “Catholic section.”

Preventing any such trouble, her brother was discouraged from coming to the Harding home during the campaign and Mrs. Harding further clarified that the grandmother in question was “Hugenot,” a French Protestant. In truth, on her mother‘s side, Mrs. Harding was of English and Hugenot ancestry.

The greatest emphasis, however, was placed on the candidate’s own ancestry, which was invariably described as English, Scotch-Irish and Dutch, of “pioneer stock” and “Colonial stock,” as if Warren Harding were a horse or dog being bred for the presidency.  This was in reaction to Harding himself being made the subject of attacks from racist Democratic Party activist William Chancellor, a professor at Wooster College in Ohio.

Chancellor had begun by handing out handbills at the Republican National Convention telling delegates that Harding had African-American ancestry. Once the campaign was headquartered in Harding’s home-town, he slinked around Marion and began interviewing anyone with a grudge towards Harding or his family, gathering everything from truth to gossip for a book.

The book was a racist rant about Harding’s mixed-racial background and was printed in the first year of his presidency. It would eventually become the only book in American history to be specifically repressed by the government, the printing plates destroyed and every copy that could be found gathered up and brought to “Friendship,” the estate of Mrs. Harding’s confidante, the heiress and Hope Diamond owner Evalyn

McLean. There they were destroyed.

The most important copy, however, which contained Chancellor’s further notes and information written in the margins and intended for a second, expanded edition – was pulled aside by Evalyn McLean. With her sense of history, this copy was preserved in her papers at the Library of Congress. It was in Chancellor’s first edition that it was first stated, “The Klings were Rhinelanders; some believe that they were originally Jewish.” 

With her German ancestors coming from the Wurttemburg region where many towns in the 18th century did have a Jewish population, it was a possibility.He printed this not out of any interest in genealogical integrity, however, but to raise further objections to the Hardings for those voters with anti-Semitic sentiments. Whether some ancient ancestor of her’s had been Jewish seemed moot. Florence Harding’s immediate ancestors had been German Lutheran and Methodist.

Throughout the campaign that summer and fall, Florence Harding always made herself available to the press who worked from a bungalow on the back property. As the manager of her husband’s local newspaper The Marion Star, she was comfortable around reporters – and knew how to handle them. When one finally confronted her with questions about her ancestry, she snapped back, “I am one-hundred percent American. Always remember that.”

And, regardless of where her or anyone’s ancestors had immigrated from or what faith they had practiced – she was right.

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