When historians are asked to grade the men who have served as America’s presidents, they usually give high marks to the so-called “activist” ones—those who expanded the frontiers of the central government, pushed taxes and spending higher, and left a mark on the country by foisting vast new bureaucracies on future generations.
I prefer activist presidents, too, though of a different variety. I give high marks to those presidents who actively sought to uphold the Constitution, and who worked to expand the frontiers of freedom. I’ll take a president who leaves us alone over one who can’t keep his hands out of other people’s pockets any day of the week. Honesty, frugality, candor, and a love for liberty are premium qualities in my kind of president.
The one man among post-war presidents (post-Civil War, that is) who exemplified those qualities best was Grover Cleveland, who remains the only man ever to serve two nonconsecutive terms in the White House. This month marks the 159th anniversary of his birth in Caldwell, New Jersey.
When Grover Cleveland was elected mayor of Buffalo in 1881, few people outside of western New York had ever heard of him. A year later, he was elected Governor of the state. Two years after that, in 1884, Americans made him their 22nd president. They did it again in 1892. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography Grover Cleveland: A Study in Courage, Allan Nevins described the traits that explain such a meteoric political career:
In Grover Cleveland the greatness lies in typical rather than unusual qualities. . . . He possessed honesty, courage, firmness, independence, and common sense. But he possessed them in a degree that others did not. His honesty was of the undeviating type which never compromised an inch; his courage was immense, rugged, unconquerable; his independence was elemental and self-assertive. . . . Under storms that would have bent any man of lesser strength he ploughed straight forward, never flinching, always following the path that his conscience approved to the end.
Cleveland said what he meant and meant what he said. He did not lust for political office and never felt he had to cut corners or equivocate or connive in order to get elected. A man who knew where he stood, he was so forthright and plain-spoken that he makes Harry Truman seem like an indecisive waffler by comparison.
Cleveland took a firm stand against a nascent welfare state. Frequent warnings against the redistributive nature of government were characteristic of his tenure. He regarded as a “serious danger” the notion that government should dispense favors and advantages to individuals or their businesses.
In vetoing a bill in 1887 that would have appropriated a mere $10,000 in aid for drought-stricken Texas farmers, Cleveland noted that “though the people support the Government, the Government should not support the people.” For relief of citizens in misfortune, the president felt it was important to rely upon “the friendliness and charity of our countrymen.”
That veto was one of many. In fact, Cleveland in his first term refused to sign twice as many bills as did all previous 21 presidents combined. Most of those bills were nothing more than cynical attempts by somebody to get something from somebody else by the force of the government’s gun.
He struck down one river or harbor improvement bill after another. Disdainful of pork barrel politics, he felt that those who would use and gain from such projects should pay for them.
Cleveland broke with the common practice of presidents’ bloating the federal bureaucracy with their cronies. As the first Democrat to win the White House since James Buchanan in 1856, he was expected by many in his party to pass out the plush government jobs they longed for. But those who longed for patronage underestimated Cleveland’s commitment to good, clean, and limited government. He maintained the highest standards, making appointments when necessary and then, only of those whose character and qualifications were beyond reproach.
Close political advisers strongly urged Cleveland in 1887 to avoid pushing for lower tariffs until after the following year’s election. Too risky, they told him. But the president’s mind was made up and in characteristic fashion he said so. “I did not wish to be re-elected without having the people understand just where I stood . . . and then spring the question on them after my re-election,” he later declared. He rightly argued that tariffs stifle competition, raise prices, and violate the people’s freedom to patronize the sellers of their choice.
On the matter of a sound currency, Cleveland stood firm as a mountain. It was, in fact, the paramount issue of his second term. Debtor farmers, silver mining interests, and inflationist quacks—during the terms of other presidents—had secured passage of laws that belched out depreciated silver currency and ballooned the nation’s paper money supply. With the country’s financial system reeling from Congress’s monetary mismanagement, Cleveland defended the gold standard as a matter of honesty and integrity.
Even in foreign policy, Cleveland’s instincts were principled and sound. He was a noninterventionist who thought that other nations should keep to their own legitimate business too. He invoked the Monroe Doctrine and suppressed Great Britain’s territorial ambitions in this hemisphere, particularly its phony claims against Venezuela. He canceled President Harrison’s proposal to the Senate for annexing Hawaii, arguing that America had no right to acquire the islands by engineering the overthrow of Queen Liliuokalani.
Grover Cleveland wasn’t perfect. Under the illusion that reasonable regulation would undo the harm that railroads had done with the subsidies and privileges that previous administrations had given them, he signed into law the bill that created the Interstate Commerce Commission. He did not anticipate the anti-competitive force the ICC eventually became.
Cleveland was also persuaded to take an obscure bureau from within the government and make it the new Department of Agriculture in his first term. In his second term, however, he whacked away at its budget and canceled programs that bestowed free seeds and other handouts on farmers.
This year marks the one hundredth anniversary of Grover Cleveland’s last full year in office. As Americans prepare to choose another president, they would do well to ponder the reasons why their ancestors picked this one twice.