Thursday, April 30, 2015

Grover Cleveland: the last classical liberal

Grover Cleveland (1837-1908)
President (1885-1889 & 1893-1897)
Grover Cleveland was the last classical liberal, which means that he believed in securing liberties by limiting the size and scope of government.* He was the last president to truly respect the Constitution by not pushing forth legislation for political gain.

Stephen Grover Cleveland was born in Caldwell, New Jersey, 1837, to Reverend Richard Cleveland and his wife.  He and his four brothers grew up in a well-disciplined household, although there was always time to play at the end of each day.  His disciplined and Christian upbringing would later play an integral role during his political career.

Called "Big Steve" when he was little, he would take a job at a law firm in Buffalo, New York, that he would use as a launching platform for a brilliant career.  He spent many hours reading books and studying law.  He also worked hard at the age of 19 to help Democrat James Buchanan become president.  Little did he know at the time that the next democrat president to be elected would be 28 years later, and it would be him.

He entered politics in an era where many politicians tried to use natural disasters and charities for political gain, and where politicians used their positions to advance their own careers and the careers of their friends.  In 1870 he was asked to run for Sheriff in Erie County, and on January 1, 1871, he became Sheriff at the young age of 33.  He used his free time in this position to study law, but he also took his position very seriously.

His secretary would put papers on his desk and he was expected to sign them.  Instead of just signing them as his predecessors would, he read them all over carefully.As noted by Betsy Ochester, "Grover Cleveland: Encyclopedia of Presidents:"
He began examining th record of past sheriffs.  He learned that the companies that supplied food, firewood, and other supplies to the jail were connected to political leaders and that they were cheating on their deliveries.  They billed the county for a large quantity, but delivered only a fraction of that amount.  Cleveland began counting each load of wood and each bag of coats in a delivery to make sure he received as much as he paid for.  If he got shortchanged, he complained publicly, whether the supplier was a Republican or Democrat.  
After a year on this job, the hard working and honest lawyer and politician returned to practice law until he was asked to run for Mayor of Buffalo, New York.  He was nominated on January 1, 1882, at the still young age of 44.  He immediately set out to clean up the city of Buffalo.  Many bills crossed his desk, and when he thought a bill was unfair to the populace, or if he thought it infringed on their natural rights, he vetoed it, thus earning him the nickname "veto mayor."

According to Robert Higgs of the Independent, Cleveland was "A lawyer who lacked a philosophical temperament or education.. (and) derived his devotion to the limited government from his reverence for the U.S. Constitution. An honest man—an extraordinarily honest man for a politician—he took seriously his oath to 'preserve, protect, and defend' that document."

While many people today believe that something must be done to solve problems, Cleveland believed the opposite was true.  And his efforts as an honest, hard-working, natural rights protecting, the mayor made him the ideal candidate to run against the republican candidate for governor of New York in 1882.  He won a landslide election and was nominated on New Year's Day 1883.

As with the city of Buffalo, there was a lot of corruption in the New York City government, and it was hoped that an honest and hard working politician would clean up the mess.  That is exactly what Grover Cleveland did.  He immediately detailed a plan for reform, cutting useless government positions, and cutting unfair taxes.

One story has it, as told by Rochester, that Cleveland opened his office to all...
...People streamed through the door steadily.  Faithful Democrats came expecting government jobs, but Cleveland was determined to fill jobs on the basis of merit, not to reward past service to the party.  If a person suggested he wanted a political reward for a contribution to the campaign, Cleveland would narrow his eyes to slits and say in an icy voice, "I don't know that I understand you."
As when he was mayor of Buffalo, whenever a bill came to him that he believed infringed on personal liberties, he vetoed it, earning him the name "veto governor."

His success as governor earned him national attention, and he was asked to run against republican presidential candidate James G. Blaine in 1884.  Cleveland was thought to be the ideal candidate to run against Blaine because Blaine was suspected of being involved in corrupt dealings during his long career.

In the end, Cleveland won in one of the closest elections in history, gaining only 200,000 more votes than Blaine, although he won the electoral college by a score of 219-182.  He was inaugurated president in March 1885, becoming the first democrat president to be nominated since James Buchanan 28 years earlier.

Higgs said that Cleveland believed "governmental expenditure should be kept at a minimum, and only to carry out essential constitutional functions,  He cut tariffs that had been raised by republicans, and he scaled back 'phony pensions' that had been created for political gains.  He said, 'When a man in office lays out a dollar in extravagance, he acts immorally by the people.'"

During the late 1870s, minors in western states were digging up excess amounts of silver.  Certain members of Congress wanted to allow the U.S. Treasury to purchase some of this surplus.  At the time money was backed only by gold, but the idea was that if they could also back it with silver the supply of money would increase, thus making it easier for individuals and businesses to borrow money.

In 1878 the Bland-Allison Act, which required the U.S. Treasury to buy between $2 million and $4 million of silver each month, passed Congress and was signed by then president Rutherford B. Hayes. Rutherford opposed this action tooth and nail, although, once president, he didn't think it was his role to become involved in such matters, so he stayed out of the debate.

What he did get involved in was trying to fix problems with the pension program for veterans who fought in the Civil War.  Many congressmen were presenting thousands of private bills to Congress asking that the pension is granted, and most were signed based on emotion for political gain without ever having been read.

Cleveland believed this was wrong.  In fact, rather than just sign, he made sure to read each pension closely, refusing to sign any that he thought were dishonest.  In fact, one pension was for a person who broke an ankle prior to the Civil War, and so he vetoed it without question.

He once again became famous for vetoing many bills that he believed violated constitutional restraint, therefore earning him the nickname 'veto president.'  He would end up vetoing 584 bills, and only seven were overridden by Congress.

What he did do, however, was become the first president to acknowledge his respect for the labor force, noting that Congress should have respect for "the welfare of the laboring man."  He would later sign a bill into law making trade unions legal.

His respect for the labor force was made clear in his opposition to high tariffs, or a tax on imported goods. Republicans believed high tariffs were essential to protecting American businesses from foreign competition. They argued that high tariffs were "protective," meaning that they raised the prices of foreign goods to encourage the purchase of American goods.

Democrats such as Cleveland, on the other hand, believed high tariffs only encouraged foreign nations to raise their tariffs, and they also increased the cost of goods for Americans, making it so they couldn't afford to purchase essential items, such as sugar.  So they preferred tariffs to be lower in order to reduce the cost of goods in order to benefit consumers.

This issue was not resolved prior to the election of 1888, and this failure was partly to blame for his loss to Benjamin Harrison in 1888. While he won the popular vote by 100,000, he lost the electoral vote by a score of 233-168.

During the next four years Cleveland enjoyed life in the private sector, but he continued to pay attention to what was going on in Washington.  He was paying attention when Harrison signed the McKinley Tariff Act of 1890, which raised tariffs.  And he was also paying attention when the president signed the Sherman Silver Purchase Act that same year, which required the Treasury to purchase $4.5 million in silver each month.

Also concerning Cleveland was that Congress was trying to pass a bill authorizing unlimited coinage of silver.  Cleveland was advised not to complain publicly about this for fear that it might negatively influence is future political ambitions.  But Cleveland was a man of principle, and instead of staying silent, he dismissed the warnings saying, "I am supposed to be a leader of my party.  If any word of mine can check these dangerous fallacies, it is my duty to give that word, whatever the cost may be to me."

He would send an article that was published in newspapers across the land and became known as the "Silver Letter."  In it, he predicted disaster if "we enter upon the dangerous and reckless experiment of free, unlimited, and independent silver coinage."  Cleveland was happy to hear that the bill failed.

So in 1892 Cleveland was primed for another run against Harrison, thus making the presidential election of 1892 the only time in history between two candidates who had both served as president.

Cleveland would once again win the popular vote, this time by a margin of 500,000.  He won the electorate by 277-145, thus making him the only president to be elected to two non-consecutive terms, and also making him the only president counted twice when the presidents are listed in order.  The victory also allowed democrats to regain control of both chambers of Congress.

Almost as soon as he was nominated for a second term, the Panic of 1893 occurred, leading to the depression of 1893-95.  Despite pressure on Cleveland to take federal action to fix the economy, President of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, at a Senate Committee in 1893, said:
I believe in general that the government is best which governs least, and that interference with trade or manufactures is very undesirable. Yet I recognize the fact that evils may and do exist which require correction by the force of law.
Almost everyone believed the cause of the panic, and ensuing depression was the Sherman Silver Purchase Act.  While it initially created an economic boom, it resulted in an economic downturn and the Panic of 1893.  Also blamed for the economic recession was the McKinley Tariff Act.  Since Cleveland was opposed to both of these from the beginning, he had no problem repealing them.

Despite public pressure to sign legislature that would help the unemployed and reboot the economy, he took no further executive action.  Regarding this inaction, historian Joy Hakim, in her series "A History of Us," said:
President Cleveland didn’t believe it was his job to do anything about the unemployed. Most leaders agreed with him. Employment and working conditions were thought to be the responsibility of business.
In 1894, Ohio Businessman Jacob Coxey arranged an "Industrial Army" that marched into Washington to protest Cleveland's inaction.  He championed for laws protecting the labor force and even recommended a program that would create government jobs for the unemployed.

During the Civil War, Lincoln signed a bill imposing an income tax on individuals to help pay for the war. In 1872, Ulysses S. Grant allowed this tax to expire. By 1894, that national debt had grown so high that Cleveland worked with Congressman William Wilson on a Revenue Act that would reduce tariffs by 15%. The bill made it through Congress.

However, he had trouble getting this bill through the Senate, where democrats held only a slight majority. Arthur Pue Gorman, a Democrat Senator from Maryland, would end up working with James Jones, a Democrat Senator from Arkansas, and introduced a version of the Bill that became known as the Wilson-Gorman Act.

This bill would end up having over 600 amendments. It made it so that only wool and copper were on the free list, meaning there was a tariff on all other imports. It did, however, reduce the McCinley Tariff to 42%, although this was only a 6% reduction. The bill also called for a flat income tax rate of 2% on income greater than $4,000.

Cleveland was an ardent champion of lower tariffs. In fact, this was his campaign pledge, and one of the reasons he was elected by the people to a second term. He was disgusted by changes made in the Senate and read a letter to Congress hoping to get them to reconsider. He said that such opposition was "party perfidy and party dishonor."

Still, Gorman stubbornly resisted making any further changes. Cleveland refused to sign the bill. However, he did not veto it either, because he considered it better than the McKinley Tariff Act that it replaced.

This was considered a triumph for Gorman. It was considered a huge defeat for Cleveland.

However, the bill would ultimately be challenged in a case that was called the Pollock -vs- Farmer's Loan And Trust Company. It made it all the way to the Supreme Court and was ruled unconstitutional in 1895 (which is good, because it was.). At this time, the Federal government did not have the Constitutional right to impose taxes to increase revenue. The only way it could raise revenues was through tariffs.

Even while he was a pro-consumer president, Cleveland believed it was the role of government to help the unemployed and not the government.  And he was not alone, as this was the common perception at the time.  It was mainly for this reason that most of Jacob Coxey's ideas were essentially ignored until FDR was elected president in 1933.

It was also for this reason that the Cleveland depression lingered on, and by 1896 public opinion of Cleveland had soured.  This caused a public riff within the democratic party,  leading to a rejection of Cleveland and the nomination of William Jennings Bryan (at age 36, he was the youngest presidential nominee in history), a leading voice in the populist movement.

While Cleveland left office an unpopular president, history vindicated him somewhat as his popularity rose after his death in 1908, but the overwhelming consensus by most historians is that he was not one of the best presidents.

Yet considering the evidence presented here, historians are not always right. Grover Cleveland was a "veto president" who championed for protecting personal liberties (natural rights) by ardently respecting the Constitution.  For this, we ought to respect Grover Cleveland as one of the great presidents of all time.

Oh, and I must add one more thing. Grover Cleveland's lai zzz-fair approach to government worked. Shortly after William McKinley's inauguration, the economy started to come around again. Yet it was too late to save the classical liberal approach.  No longer did presidents sacrifice their political ambitions for the good of the nation and the protection of personal liberties.

*The term classical liberal is a modern term to describe the movement that championed for securing liberties by limiting the power and scope of government from colonial times until the 1930s.  By the 1930s the term "liberal" remained popular, although the movement (or faction) had ceased to gain hold of any political party, moving aside in favor of the populist and progressive movements.  After the progressive movement started to lose popularity in the 1940s, leaders of the movement adapted the more popular term liberal.  Since the term "liberal" had been absconded, modern "liberal" or "classical liberal" factions were forced to use terms like "conservative" "Tea Party" and "libertarian."So while liberal traditionally means defending freedom through limited government, it now means pretty much the opposite.