President Warren G. Harding faced a wrecked economy in the aftermath of World War I and a period of intense fear and suspicion of foreign threats. Despite a Supreme Court that continued to countenance the suppression of citizens’ speech under the First Amendment, Harding bucked his advisers and commuted the sentence of Socialist activist Eugene V. Debs, eventually freeing numerous other political prisoners to repair the nation’s commitment to the Bill of Rights after the horrors of war had receded. Although his administration was later tainted by the Teapot Dome scandal, Harding’s personal role in the misadventure remains unclear. His legacy was more positive than negative: Harding’s use of the presidential pardon practice helped undo the damage done by a war-frenzied Congress, paved the way for a “return to normalcy,” and helped restore core freedoms under the Constitution.
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