Remember an Underappreciated Honest Politician

A Man of Iron, a biography of Grover Cleveland by Troy Senik, has just been published. With the midterm elections so close, anyone who has studied Cleveland’s views, can’t help but recognize the abyss between that “honest, principled, and plain-spoken president” and the current occupant of the White House. 

Cleveland was indeed unique in many ways. He was the first Democratic President after the Civil War, and the only President to serve two non-consecutive terms (also winning the popular vote in the intervening election), to be single when elected and marry in the White House, and to have a candy bar named after his daughter (Baby Ruth).

His character, however, was his most important attribute. For him, “honest politician” was not an oxymoron. His reputation was so stellar that he was elected Governor of New York without having to make a single campaign speech. Accused of fathering an illegitimate child in one campaign, his instructions to his staff were “Tell the truth.” But most important for America, rather than ignoring the Constitution’s limitations on federal government power, he took seriously his oath to defend it. 

Cleveland realized that “Officeholders are the agents of the people, not their masters.” In consequence, he saw that “loyalty to the principles upon which our Government rests positively demands that the equality before the law which it guarantees to every citizen should be justly and in good faith conceded in all parts of the land,” because our government “pledged to do equal and exact justice to all men.” Further, he promised “a patriotic disregard of such local and selfish claims as are unreasonable and reckless of the welfare of the entire country,” and was wise enough to see that “we will be wise if we temper our confidence and faith in our national strength and resources with the frank concession that even these will not permit us to defy with impunity the inexorable laws of finance and trade.”     

Cleveland opposed paternalistic government policies financed by imposing tax burdens on others, since “the theory of our institutions guarantees to every citizen the full enjoyment of all the fruits of his industry and enterprise, with only such deduction as may be his share toward the careful and economical maintenance of the Government which protects him…exaction of more than this is indefensible extortion and culpable betrayal of American fairness and justice. This wrong inflicted upon those who bear the burden of national taxation…multiplies a brood of evil consequences.”   

As Cleveland summarized the job of our federal government, “The simple and plain duty which we owe the people is to reduce taxation to the necessary expenses of an economical operation of the Government and to restore to the business of the country the money which we hold in the Treasury through the perversion of governmental powers….unnecessary and extravagant appropriations…not in the least consistent with the mission of our people or of the high and beneficent purposes of our Government.”     

Cleveland laid out his approach as very different from what Americans are witnessing today. “In the discharge of my official duty I shall endeavor to be guided by a just and unstrained construction of the Constitution,” he wrote, “a careful observance of the distinction between the powers granted to the Federal Government and those reserved to the states or to the people, and by a cautious appreciation of those functions which by the Constitution and laws have been especially assigned to the executive branch.”     

Cleveland fought to eliminate government waste throughout his public career, since “waste of public money is a crime against the citizen.” He pushed to restore honesty and impartiality to government, particularly by cutting government favors (including for his own party), because “danger confronts us…[in] popular disposition to expect from the operation of the Government especial and direct individual advantages.”  

Cleveland recognized that “The public Treasury…should only exist as a conduit conveying the people’s tribute to its legitimate objects of expenditure,” and so studied every bill Congress passed. He vetoed over 300 of them, more than double the 132 vetoes of all the Presidents before him, combined. As part of that due diligence, he was the first President to veto bogus pension claims and pension pork (from the Civil War). One veto message, of a bill to provide federal aid to drought-stricken Texas farmers, reveals a central reason: “I can find no warrant for such an appropriation in the Constitution.” Instead, he insisted that “the lessons of paternalism ought to be unlearned and the better lesson taught that while the people should patriotically and cheerfully support their Government, its functions do not include the support of the people.”

Cleveland viewed his approach as common sense. “When we proclaim that the necessity for revenue to support the Government furnishes the only justification for taxing the people, we announce a truth [that is] plain…And when we seek to reinstate the self-confidence and business enterprise of our citizens by discrediting an abject dependence upon government favor, we strive to stimulate those elements of American character which support the hope of American achievement.”

Cleveland tried, though unsuccessfully, to eliminate burdensome and inefficient tariffs, “the vicious, inequitable, and illogical source of unnecessary taxation.” He even devoted his entire annual message to Congress one year to attacking protective tariffs.

He also resisted political pressures to inflate, even when facing a serious recession, since “nothing is more vital to…the beneficient purposes of our Government than a sound and stable currency.”

Unlike modern politicians’ attempts to evade accountability, Cleveland insisted that everyone in government be carefully monitored. “Every citizen owes to the country a vigilant watch and close scrutiny of its public servants and affairs…[as] the price of our liberty,” because “our citizens have the right to protection from the incompetency of public employees.”

Grover Cleveland’s last words were “I have tried so hard to do right.” But unlike so many today, he checked his desire to do good with the tool of government. He did so out of a deep respect for the Constitution and the limitations it imposed on the legitimate activities of government, an attitude that many today view as archaic. Consequently, he didn’t find “government” to be the answer to every question, because “I am honest and sincere in my desire to do well, but the question is whether I know enough to accomplish what I desire,” and he had the honesty to answer in the negative. We would do well to recall that answer.  

Fittingly, Grover Cleveland dedicated the Statue of Liberty, because he truly aspired to its dedication: “We will not forget that Liberty has made her home here…A stream of light shall pierce the darkness of ignorance and man’s oppression until Liberty enlightens the world.” We could use a man like Stephen Grover Cleveland again.

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