Category: Delightfully Competent
Terms in Office: 22nd and 24th president, 1885-1889, 1893-1897
Political Party: Democratic
Home State: New York
Finally, at long last, we’ve made it into the top ten. Since we got this far together, I would like to reiterate that one of the goals for my project was to demonstrate that there are a great many ways one can be a good president. Viewing the presidency purely as an activist-in-chief, which usually amounts to “how closely does a president resemble Franklin Roosevelt,” is fraught with peril. It neglects presidencies that favored caution, conscientiousness, and competence, even if they sometimes did so at the expense of the greater cause of social justice. In this manner, I am going to make a case for a president I don’t especially like, and sometimes vehemently disagree with. He’s another fellow Buffalonian, a man who rarely shows up in presidential top tens, a figure whose placement in my ranking may be among the most head-scratching. His name is Stephen Grover Cleveland.
I want to make the case today that Cleveland was our most successful conservative president, and there is enough merit to his administration to edge him, by the hairs of his walrus mustache, into spot #10. (Although, “Conservative” is problematic, given that today it is associated with dodgy partnerships with business, invading the Middle East, and the Christian Right, none of which were Cleveland’s bag. You might use “classical liberal,” “libertarian,” or even “paleo-conservative” instead, if you like. In fact, let’s do that.) Now, I do not subscribe to that philosophy; never have been, probably never will be. As a rule, I do not think it works, and is based on both a dearth of compassion and a grave misunderstanding of the human condition. Just the same, classical liberalism is one of the most important intellectual traditions in this country, and is a viable point of view that I am happy to engage with. So, my justification for Cleveland rests on the conclusion that his was as good as a presidency committed to that view could realistically be.
When General Bragg nominated Grover Cleveland in 1884, he memorably intoned that the public would “love him for the enemies he has made.” Personally? I can’t help but be more worried about Cleveland’s defenders. Small-government types have, in the past ten years, turned Grover Cleveland into their exemplar the limited presidency. Typical of this genre is “The Forgotten Conservative: Rediscovering Grover Cleveland,” whose author, John Pafford, extols Cleveland’s minimalism. Or consider Ryan S. Walters’ “The Last Jeffersonian,” another Cleveland hagiography whose blurb on the back starts with: “America is in danger of losing the constitutional republic created by the Founding Fathers. Since the beginning of the Progressive era, the federal government has steadily encroached on the rights of the states and the people.” Yikes! You’ve got to wonder about a man like Cleveland when the only people making the case for him as a great president are self-publishing ciphers, certified cranks like Thomas DiLorenzo, or this guy on youtube. The strategy behind this line of argument is always strikingly similar: paint Lincoln as a tyrant, paint FDR the way a 1920s anti-Semite might paint a Jewish financier, paint Reagan as a faux-conservative imperialist, paint Obama as a communist. If the only people defending Cleveland’s presidency are engaging in this sticky exercise in libertarian bukake, and their work routinely crumbles under the scrutiny of peer review, where does that leave Grover? In the same way that bands like Rush and Kiss are discredited by the knuckleheads who think they are, like, totally righteous, isn’t the same true for historical figures like Cleveland?
Still, it makes complete sense that Cleveland would become the modern libertarian’s presidential talisman: He delivered on promises of anti-imperialism, cutting waste, and ethical government. He defied the trusts and business interests, expansionists, labor, and every other interest out there. He was, to borrow Shirley Chisholm’s slogan, “unbought and unbossed.” At the same time, Cleveland demonstrates the limits of the right-libertarian worldview: he did virtually nothing on the racial question. (In some ways, he did worse than nothing; his 3 Supreme Court picks all ruled with the majority on Plessey vs. Ferguson.) He did nothing to alleviate suffering during the 1893 Depression, and his policies ultimately were of negligible help to those who were not already in a position of privilege and influence. He had a set of beliefs which, without seeming anachronistic, blended nicely into that worldview, and carried those beliefs out in the responsibility of public service.
Cleveland’s rise to the presidency was sudden and meteoric. He started out in my old grad-school city, Buffalo. Although an able learner, he was one of the only presidents of that era to not go to college, but at the same time, he lacked homely “log cabin” origins as well. Similarly, he stands out from other Gilded Age presidents for his disappearing act during the Civil War; he was well-off enough to pay for a substitute, allowing him to keep his lawyering job and support his younger siblings. For a time, he served as sheriff, even performing the duties of a hangman where capital punishment was called for. He moved up to mayor, earning a statewide reputation for his scruples in a historically corrupt office. This, in turn, earned him a short berth as governor of New York, and a nomination for the presidency just two years later.
Cleveland’s race for the White House was one for the ages. He drew a formidable opponent from the Republicans, an eloquent Civil War veteran who was a true Congressional wheel-horse and former Secretary of State: James G. Blaine. The campaign was ugly; Blaine’s unsavory railroad ties were brought up, and Cleveland had to navigate a scandal— it was revealed that in his younger years, he had fathered an illegitimate child with a young widow. Cleveland, to his credit, owned up to the charge and admitted its truth. The scandal that could have sunk his candidacy became instead a monument to his integrity. In the end, Cleveland’s victory was secured when, at a Republican gathering, one speaker derided the Democrats as the party of “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion,” kicking the nativist hornets’ nest. Blaine, in attendance at the gathering, did not immediately repudiate these remarks, and the Catholic population in crucial New York and Connecticut turned overwhelmingly to Cleveland. Democrats savored responding to the Republicans’ jibe, “Ma, Ma, where’s my pa?” with “Gone to the White House, ha ha ha!”
One of the things I really like about Cleveland’s presidency is that, without being difficult or deliberately contrarian, he managed to irritate, anger, or annoy just about everyone in the country. This is perhaps the only true calling card of a good man. His main objectives, coming into office, were to limit American expansion abroad, lower the tariff, and replace the cronyism and back-dealing of previous administrations with honest government. In many respects, Cleveland succeeded. In foreign relations, Cleveland rejected the annexation of Hawaii, correctly realizing that American men-for-hire had overthrown the island’s queen without just cause. He stayed out of the Cuban revolution against Spain, and went out of his way to prevent expeditions of Americans from taking part in the Caribbean insurrection. Cleveland enforced the Monroe Doctrine admirably, and did not use it an excuse to enhance America’s economic sway over the Caribbean and Latin America. I hasten to add that he is just about the only president between Lincoln and Harding who can make this claim.
Cleveland also irritated big business— he saw the Interstate Commerce Act passed during his first term, as a constitutionally legitimate way for the federal government to monitor businesses that crossed state lines, and he reclaimed more than 80 million acres of public lands that had been subsumed by railroads and agra-businesses. At the same time, he irritated labor- most notably by calling out federal troops during the Pullman Strike of 1893, on the grounds that it threatened the federal post service. On other occasions, he vetoed Civil War pensions on the grounds that they created (wait for it…) government dependency, and also cancelled out more than his share of appropriation bills that he considered wasteful. Some of these were indeed wasteful, but at other times, Cleveland put the axe to bills necessary to develop scientific research or improve American infrastructure. All told, Cleveland vetoed a total of 584 bills— that’s more vetoes per year than any other president in U.S. history. Regardless of the rightness or wrongness, Cleveland’s zeal often alienated potential allies in Congress, and was often cold to the press, receiving unfavorable coverage in return. In some ways, Cleveland was so conscientious that he sabotaged himself, always believing that his clean hands would prevail over power, persuasion, or influence.
Cleveland’s second term began under the cloud of economic turmoil. Under shady circumstances I discussed in Benjamin Harrison’s post, Cleveland lost his 1888 re-election, despite having won the popular vote. In 1892, Harrison had proved so unlikeable and difficult that Cleveland roared back into office, becoming the only president to serve non-consecutive terms. Now, the 1893 Panic (I prefer to call it a “Depression”) is no longer in living memory, and thus we tend to understate its severity. This is a mistake; the misfortunes of 1893 are, by any fair measure, the worst economic conditions that United States had endured prior to the Great Depression. The stock market plummeted, over 300 private and state banks failed, and some present-day economists estimate that the unemployment rate was over 12%, eclipsing the 2008 crisis. Cleveland’s solution, in the midst of drastic drops in the gold reserves, was to ask Congress to repeal the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, which had been pumping a degree of that precious metal into the currency. For debtors who owed money, restricting the money supply severely hindered their ability to pay off their debts. As John Hicks puts it in his magisterial 1931 history of the Populist movement, the suffering farmers of the South and the West “saw new evidence of the president’s total disregard for the common man.”
This reached a fever pitch when he vetoed the Texas Seed Bill, which would have provided seed for drought-ridden farmers in the South. The amount was quite miniscule, only $10,000 in 1890s currency, perhaps $200,000 in today’s money. But Cleveland still, rather callously, vetoed the bill. In his message, Cleveland wrote: “I do not believe that the power and duty of the general government ought to be extended to the relief of individual suffering which is in no manner properly related to the public service or benefit. A prevalent tendency to disregard the limited mission of this power and duty should, I think, be steadfastly resisted, to the end that the lesson should be constantly enforced that, though the people support the government, the government should not support the people.” Here, we see, in its embryonic form, the modern-day libertarian arguments: keep government lean, relief measures will only make people dependent on the government. Not surprisingly, modern-day organizations like the Von Mises Institute view this veto message as a salvo, a manifesto. Personally? I see it as a poor policy, but also an ideological attempt to provide a mere pittance to those suffering. How easy it is for 250+ pound Grover Cleveland, who spent the last 15 years on the public payroll, to veto a bill designed for farmers teetering on starvation while claiming “we can’t have you addicted to government aid.”
And you can’t use the argument that “people didn’t want big government back then” because it isn’t true. It might be true if you were so jaundiced as to limit “people” to those who wrote political treatises or wrote diaries that survive, but the broader American public was looking for help from any quarter it could find- including the public commonwealth. How else do you explain the Election of 1892, when in the midst of Cleveland’s re-election, four states went for a poorly funded third-party, called the People’s Party. They promised railroad regulation, coinage of silver to inflate the economy and dial down private debt, and more direct involvement for the ordinary citizen in the affairs of government. How else do you explain Coxey’s Army, a true grassroots movement clamoring for the government to take a greater hand in creating jobs? Maybe a bunch of classical liberal lawyers, or handwringing newspaper editors thought that “doing nothing” was a good idea, but many ordinary Americans thought otherwise.
On the other hand, Cleveland has other characteristics that recommend him. He worked hard at his job, a sharp contrast from his predecessor Chester Arthur. He delegated well, and was able to clean up some chronically corrupt federal departments, particularly the Interior, the Treasury, and the Navy. With regard to the civil service, it would have been very tempting for Cleveland to toss out the Republicans, but he generally chose not to do so. This is especially important when you consider the insane number of backlogged Democrats seeking political appointment. Between 1861 and 1913, Cleveland was the only Democratic president– that’s a span of over 50 years. In many ways, Cleveland lived out his motto that “a public office is a public trust;” and while many have come to the White House promising to “clean up Washington,” Cleveland perhaps came the closest to keeping the promise, at least with respect to offices under his supervision. If you look at other criteria I set out, Cleveland passes the role model test handily, and to a certain extent, he also passes the “Value over Replacement Player” question. I can’t think of a different Democrat from his era who would have done a better job than Cleveland; any alternative I can think of would espouse similar policies, but with less integrity or competence. He stands out in the Gilded Age, perhaps the most unlikeable era of American politics.
In a nutshell, that’s the limit of an ideologically conservative philosophy. It can hold back a tide, but it can’t stop its progress entirely. Cleveland stood for honest dealing and transparency in civil service; eventually it became corrupt again. He attempted to halt imperial expansion in hopes that America could tend to itself without administrating far-flung islands in the Pacific. Within four years of Cleveland leaving office, we were fighting Spain for Cuba, and sending our navy to seize the Philippines. Halting these problematic trends is a very real accomplishment, but in the larger picture, Cleveland could not turn their tide. Cleveland was more worried about preserving the virtues of the past than fortifying the country against the tumults of the present, or investing in its future. Small wonder his own party went in the opposite direction in 1896, rejecting Bourbon Democrats like Cleveland for a windswept prairie prophet (and, dare I say it? ur-McGovern) William Jennings Bryan. So, that’s where eight nonconsecutive years of Cleveland ended— a choice between McKinley, a crony capitalist who was ultimately okay with imperialism, and the Boy Orator of Nebraska shouting that mankind would not be crucified upon a cross of gold.
By his own standards, Cleveland was often successful; he kept government lean and accountable, and he was a good neighbor to the Caribbean and the near Pacific, although he was less successful in his attempt to lower the ruinously high tariff rates left over by Benjamin Harrison. But that’s the thing about the presidency— you don’t get to create your own standards, and ultimately, you are judged by history and by historians. If you look at the eschaton of American history— greater voices for marginalized groups, a proactive government in creating a “level playing field”, Cleveland falls short— not just by the standards of our times, but the standards of his own as well. Nevertheless, he proved that the presidency could be performed with utmost honesty, fairness, and competence, and that the post-industrial United States could be a republic and not an empire (I can’t believe I just quoted Pat Buchanan, but there you have it.) There is plenty of evidence from history and human nature that libertarianism cannot sustain its own claims or fulfill its promises (try arguing with them about pollution sometime.) But Grover Cleveland is perhaps the best example of how it might, just might, be able to work in a real, not theoretical, world. I would not have made many of the same choices Cleveland made, but ultimately, it would be arrogant to penalize Cleveland on those grounds alone. He did a commendable job in a sordid age, and should be in the top ten. Barely.