Grover Cleveland: Maybe the Last Great President

By Jerry Kohn

Obsessed with the study of wars and other disasters, and fascinated by the exercise of raw power, historians typically glorify megalomaniacs like Lincoln and FDR. These historians generally overlook or ignore the wiser and humbler men who occupied the White House during more tranquil times. They fail to recognize that maintaining or restoring peace and prosperity requires just as much, if not more, wisdom and courage than holding office during time of war or other disaster. With this in mind, we examine the presidency of Grover Cleveland (1885-1889 and 1893-1897).

Grover Cleveland was first elected to the presidency in 1884, defeating the notoriously corrupt Republican nominee James G. Blaine. Since the War Between the States, the Republican Party had dominated national politics, using its power to line the pockets of the big railroad owners and other corporate interests that controlled the party. Upon assuming office, Cleveland tore into these special interests by vetoing more spending bills than all of his predecessors combined. Unlike most of today’s politicians, Cleveland had great respect for the Constitution and the limits it placed on both the President and on the federal government. In vetoing a bill to provide federal aid to drought-stricken Texan farmers, Cleveland explained, “I can find no warrant for such an appropriation in the Constitution.”[1] Today, such principled adherence to the Constitution would be considered archaic.

A staunch defender of hard money and free trade, Cleveland also fought hard to reduce tariffs and maintain the integrity of the gold standard. In taking these positions, Cleveland was fighting powerful lobbies including big corporations, farmers, and silver miners. Cleveland’s courageous and principled stands likely cost him reelection when in 1888, he was narrowly defeated by Benjamin Harrison. Harrison, unlike Cleveland, caved to the “easy money” interests by signing the Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890. The resulting inflationary boom would later lead to bust with the severe depression of 1893. Harrison also oversaw the passage of the McKinley Tariff Act that contributed to the economic misery by stifling trade and raising prices.

After defeating Harrison in 1892, Cleveland set about repairing the damage Harrison had done. He refused to countenance further inflation or corporate bailouts in the face of recession, and he successfully lobbied congress to repeal both the Sherman Silver Purchase Act and the McKinley Tariff. In his second term, Cleveland also rejected demands by imperialists for the annexation of Hawaii, and he later became a prominent member of the Anti-Imperial League opposing American imperialism and militarism, not only in Hawaii but in the Philippines and other conquests taken during the 1898 Spanish-American War.

Cleveland chose not to seek a third term, and at the 1896 convention, the Democratic Party was taken over by the populist forces of William Jennings Bryan. Thomas Jefferson’s sound money, small government Democratic Party was dead and would never again nominate the likes of Grover Cleveland. Republican William McKinley defeated William Jennings Bryan that fall, but it made little difference who won. From that day forward, both major political parties were set on a course of expanding both government and empire. Grover Cleveland died on June 24, 1908. His final words: “I have tried so hard to do what is right.”[2]
Jerry Kohn is a Policy Analyst for the Illinois Taxpayer Education Foundation.

[1] Veto of the Texas Seed Bill – Grover Cleveland – Mises Daily
[2] Jeffers, H. Paul, An Honest President: The Life and Presidencies of Grover Cleveland, HarperCollins 2002, New York, 304.

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3 Responses

  1. David Jenkins says:

    Very enlightening. I had no idea.

  2. J.P. says:

    Thanks for your excellent email updates. I really enjoyed the one on Cleveland and will be sharing it with friends.

  3. Felix Derzinsky says:

    They should name a city after him; oh, never mind, they did.

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