A DNA Test to Determine if Nan Britton and Harding Were Lovers?


Mr. Payne is Associate Professor, Department of History, St. Bonaventure University, NY.

President Warren G. Harding died in office 83 years ago this August. This past November, Elizabeth Ann Blaesing died at the age of 86. Elizabeth Ann Blaesing, who did not seek the historical spotlight, was made famous when her mother, Nan Britton, wrote The President’s Daughter. The book’s appearance in 1927 caused a great deal of controversy. In it, Britton alleged that she had been President Warren G. Harding’s lover and the mother of his only biological child, Elizabeth Ann. That allegation alone was shocking, but Britton went into enough lurid detail that her book was temporarily suppressed as obscene. Nan Britton spent years arguing that Elizabeth Ann was Harding’s heir and his true legacy before retreating from public attention. Harding partisans spent years arguing that Nan Britton’s story was false, even slanderous. Scholars have argued over the validity of her book and her authorship. The rhetoric was vicious in a public debate over the character of the people involved and the validity of considering a President’s private life when evaluating his legacy. In the end, few emerged from the debate without a tarnished reputation.

Bill Sloat’s recent May story in the Cleveland Plain Dealer summarizes the turmoil surrounding Elizabeth Ann’s life, noting that the stories involving Harding and Britton “captivated, baffled or infuriated just about everybody, especially in Marion, where Nan idolized the handsome pol from her hometown.” John Dean, who in addition to his association with the Watergate scandal lived in Marion for a period and is a Harding biographer, said “when you look at Harding, when did his reputation go in the tank? It's when Nan came along and said she had his baby. That's when she takes him right on down.”

Although Britton failed to prove her case in court, she has, by and large, won the contest in the judgment of history and memory. Nan Britton’s account did much to define Warren Harding’s historical and presidential reputation. For decades, Harding has been described as the “worst president” and regularly ranks at the bottom, in the failure category, in every presidential poll. Harding’s poor reputation usually transcends other considerations such as ideology or partisanship. Francis Russell, in The Shadow of Blooming Grove: Warren G. Harding and His Times (the best known of the various Harding biographies), wrote that by “a twist or two of fate Harding has come to be regarded right, left, and center as the worst President this country ever had.” (xv) It is a curious thing that a president who served one incomplete term, dying in office on August 2, 1923, would receive such attention and slip beneath the likes of James Buchanan at the bottom of the presidential pecking order. Much of this has to do with the scandals that were emerging at the time of Harding’s death, including the Teapot Dome scandal, corruption at the Veteran’s Bureau and Justice Department, and the activities of his associates, dubbed the “Ohio Gang,” at the Little Green House on K Street and the Little House on H Street. These types of scandals, however, tend to fade with time. The private Harding scandals have dragged on for decades in the form of tantalizing stories, rumors, and comparisons to sitting presidents whenever a new scandal emerges (think Clinton and Lewinsky). Britton’s account has proven to be a defining scandal not only of the Harding legacy but of the presidency.

The presidency is a mixture of substance and symbolism. In the public memory presidents are often reduced to one or two defining moments. We know that the buck stopped with Truman and Franklin Roosevelt had nothing to fear but fear itself. Reagan asked Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall. Nixon declared I am not a crook. Harding has become an icon of presidential failure. His story stands in contrast to the myths of George Washington who could not lie and Abraham Lincoln who split rails before freeing the slaves. Unfortunately for Harding and Britton stories of potential trysts in a Senate office or a White House closet are defining moments for the Harding presidency. The Harding scandals, with their accusations and innuendo, are painfully relevant to students of modern politics.

The lasting impact of the scandal over Britton’s claims has a deeper significance than the character of a dead president or the latest round of presidential rankings. The 1920s, and Harding’s life and legacy, were steeped in controversial topics similar to those that define our contemporary Culture Wars. As Francis Russell wrote in the 1960s, in many ways Harding’s “life was more interesting than those of more notable Presidents – but because he came at a dividing point in history.” Russell organized his biography around questions that could easily become contemporary Culture Wars debates: “Was Harding a mulatto? Did he have a child by his mistress? Was he murdered? What were the papers his wife so hastily burned after his death?” (xiv, xvi) Much of the contemporary debate over Harding revolves around the state of his marriage, his race, and whether or not he fathered Elizabeth Ann.

As we saw a few years ago with the controversy surrounding Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemmings, in such matters of Presidential paternity DNA tests hold the potential to answer one question but it could open other questions. What would it mean if Britton’s story was true? What would it mean if Britton’s story was false? Would we lose these iconic stories of presidential trysts? Would Harding and Britton be discussed without words like “libido” and “salacious” being used? Neither Tom Blaesing nor Warren G. Harding III expressed much enthusiasm for DNA testing. Harding concluded that the “damage has been done.” The president’s grand-nephew may be correct in his assessment, for it would take a great deal to move President Harding’s reputation. The resolving of at least one of the Harding mysteries, however, could put Harding’s reputation back on the table for debate, leaving only three mysteries to go.

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Daniel Corral - 6/28/2010

i think she was the daughter of one of the many worst president we had. not one president after 1901 till today was any good. they tell us a good story on what they will do if we vote for them. when in the white house we get the same NOTHING. the fatcats in government gets the best pay check and health insurance. the little people do without. let say somthing. we want the same heath insurance they get!!!

Linda Owens - 5/20/2009

In my family history research I found in the NC History Collection a book that talks about President Harding being an Indian and that his ancestry line started in Sampson County, NC. The book talks about correspondence between him and a Brewington man. My grandfather came from the Amos Harding line in Sampson County and one of his granddaughters (per their history) married a Brewington.

Do anyone have any information on the start of his ancestry line. Please share it with me. Thanks.

Alan Edward Gephardt - 10/19/2006

While it has been nearly a year since Elizabeth Ann Britton Blaesing has died, I hope that DNA testing will be done to determine the truth regarding the paternity of Mrs. Blaesing. It may be true, as Warren G. Harding, III states, that President Harding's historical reputation is more or less set. However, if he was unjustly charged with the paternity of Nan Britton's daughter, would it not serve justice to clear him if he was falsely accused? Conversely, if Nan Britton was telling the truth, DNA testing now would confirm the essential truth of her story.

A few years back the remains of Zachary Taylor were exhumed to determine whether he'd been poisoned. It was a theory that carried less weight, perhaps, than the matter of Mr. Harding's supposed daliance with Miss Britton, and had, perhaps, less impact on Taylor's historical reputation.

Given all the scandal that attached itself to Warren Harding's reputation, does he not deserve as much consideration?

samuel D. Martin - 6/15/2006

Dr. Payne:
I read your piece on Nan Britton. I agree that a DNA investigation might bring this particular issue to the level of historical inquiry. It might also stimulate a new scholarly focus on a man who achieved at great deal for this nation but who was disgraced by muckraking journalists such as Allen and White.

Jerry L. Wallace - 6/14/2006

It strikes me that it would be in the best interest of the Blaesing and Harding families to resolved the question of Elizabeth Ann's paternity, once and for all, through DNA testing. Resolution--whatever the outcome--would be a blessing for both families. If there is no DNA testing, the controversy will only continue, detracting attention from story of Harding and his Administration. (By the way, the Associated Press ran an article, on Elizabeth Ann Blaesing on July 17, 1964. It included a photo of her--one that might settle the relationship question for some. For those interested, a visit to the old newspaper archives might be in order.)...I also want to say that for many year, I accepted the conventional attitude towards President Harding, summed up by Alice Roosevelt Longworth: "He was not a bad man, he was just a slob." It was only when I started doing research in the period, actually getting into the records and newspapers of the day, that I began to realize that that the conventional view of the man did not measure up with reality. As our post-Great War President, Warren Harding led the nation successfully through a most difficult and unsettling period, and by the time of his death, the nation was posed for an era of peace and prosperity. From Clio, he deserves more credit and respect.