Ah, election years. Anything to get the vote. And anything to keep the other guy from getting the vote. Dirty politics are nothing new, and The Indictment calls shenanigans way back in 1920, when Ohioan Warren Harding ran for, won, and served as the 29th president of the United States. By all accounts a reluctant candidate, Harding was easily manipulated by political and industrial bosses. There was just one thing that could really get Harding's dander up: any discussion of his ancestry. That is the kernel from which John A. Murphy's The Indictment grows.
A prolific author, professor of political science and dedicated Democrat named William Estabrook Chancellor dug a little into then-presidential candidate William Harding's background. He found Black blood in Harding's family tree -- quite a scandal in the 1920s, but apparently a common occurrence in Harding's neck of the Ohio woods. Chancellor's findings wound up in the hands of Democratic party authorities; some of his research found its way into the clutches of Klannish racists. Apparently without the good professor's consent, Democrats used the information to fight the Republican Harding; the racists used it against the "nig" Harding. The Republicans, on the other hand, exploited their candidate's background to win the Black vote; the other delegates needed for a Harding win were matter-of-factly bought (campaign reformers today would choke on such bald-faced antics). Harding himself steadfastly refused to deny, confirm, or even discuss the subject, saying he had no interest in the matter.
Chancellor had already published a history of the US presidents when Harding was elected. He decided to commence updating that work (which still lacked information on Harding's predecessor Woodrow Wilson). He also intended to publish a biography of the man he saw as the most ineffectual president (even the most worthless national politician) the country had ever seen. And that's when Warren Harding really got mad. Chancellor's first manuscript for the Harding biography was burned by a postal inspector in Chancellor's own furnace; his book was banned. His mail was monitored by the Postal Service, he was followed by Secret Service agents, and his professorship was taken from him in a grossly unfair manner by the College of Wooster. Chancellor eventually fled for Canada in fear for his life and well-being, communicating with his family in code. Chancellor's discoveries about Harding's ancestry, even the authority of his name, had been printed on thousands upon thousands of flyers (or roorbacks) during the election. They continued to be used scurrilously by the president's racist enemies in an unauthorized biography attributed to the ex-professor but not of his own hand.
Harding died while campaigning, followed shortly by his wife Florence. The country would learn of the scandals (including free-flowing White House liquor during prohibition and a string of love affairs) in his administration after his death. The mistreatment of William Estabrook Chancellor, however, has been largely dismissed or played down by Harding historians in the time since. Murphy's book is likely the most thoroughly researched and in-depth examination of this historical "footnote," as the author calls it. The Indictment, unfortunately, often lacks focus, jumping from topic to topic and looping back and forth through time from paragraph to paragraph. In reference to the Harding biography attributed to but not actually authored by Chancellor, Murphy says "Flow of the book is erratic, repetitive at times and lacking continuity." Those same problems often plague The Indictment. Some readers, too, may disagree with the author's frowning views of American copyright law. Nonetheless, amateur Harding scholars will find a fuller portrait of the oft-maligned Chancellor here than in any other source.