Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Argument for Grover Cleveland

When I mentioned Grover Cleveland as one of my favorite presidents during the new round of my silly Facebook quote game (still ongoing), someone asked me to explain why I included him. To do this, I found this old Facebook note I wrote way back on February 22, 2007.

When asked to name those presidents who I would consider to be among the greatest to ever serve this country, most of my listeners are not initially surprised by the names that appear on this list: Franklin Roosevelt, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Andrew Jackson, Harry Truman, Woodrow Wilson. But then when the litany of great and familiar monikers finally reaches the name of Grover Cleveland, the subsequent reaction is usually one of either confusion or shock. Grover Cleveland? You mean that obscure Victorian commander-in-chief? The one whose foremost distinction is having been the only president to serve two nonconsecutive terms? Yes, Grover Cleveland, I would reply. Requests for an explanation would soon ensue, followed in turn by an analytical discussion on the man who coined the phrase “a public office is a public trust”.

So frequently did this happen that soon the aforementioned lectures transpire that eventually I grew to know them by heart, and determined that at the very least, I should place onto paper that which was already so well-formed in my head. The fruits of that decision are what can be read below.

Grover Cleveland was one of the great pioneers of the modern presidency. It is true that the two Roosevelts and Wilson would subsequently make great contributions of their own to the development of presidential power, but prior to Grover Cleveland, the office of the Chief Executive had been relegated to primarily ceremonial and symbolic status as a result of the increasing concentration of power in the legislative branch. Indeed, with the brief exception of Lincoln's presidency, the entire period of American federal political history from 1850 to 1885 was defined by the central fact of legislative dominance on the federal level (for more information on this subject, read Woodrow Wilson’s classic, “Congressional Government). Even the one president during this period who did tried to centralize power in the White House, Andrew Johnson, found his efforts met with such unbridled hostility that he was eventually impeached on trumped-up charges.

Taking into consideration this factor, Grover Cleveland's primary legacy is thus six-fold:

1) He vetoed more legislation than every other preceding president combined. Many historians today either overlook or deprecate the significance of that achievement, but what they fail to understand is that in those days Congress would waste millions of dollars in pork-barrel bills and other personal projects. By vetoing those bills, Cleveland did more than create a more stable economic infrastructure and help halt then-widespread congressional corruption; he also asserted executive prerogative over the legislative branch, something that was revolutionary in its impact on the nation’s political infrastructure.

2) Cleveland was the first president to use both his and our nation's clout to make America a world power. Prior to the mid-1890s, America had asserted its independence via the Monroe Doctrine, but was also strictly isolationist. Grover Cleveland certainly was not of the inclination to break this precedent, but he still recognized that the thrusting imperialist ambitions of the British Empire might create a situation in which America would need to flex its muscle, to protect both itself and weaker nations; what's more, he further understood that this power - should it be used - would have to be exercised by the president, not an unusually power-hungry legislature. Thus was the situation when, in 1895, Great Britain attempted to annex land that was legitimately the property of the Venezuelan Government and people (which had been in dispute, despite Venezuelan efforts to bring about peaceful resolution, for more than half a century). After numerous diplomatic overtures failed (culminating in Britain openly challenging the legitimacy of the Monroe Doctrine), Cleveland threatened to declare war on the British Empire unless they respected the rights of a weaker state. That single act marked the first time in American history that our increasing military and industrial might was actually used to give us real weight in the geopolitical arena. Great Britain backed down almost immediately, and thus in one fell swoop Cleveland established America as an international power to be reckoned with – and had done so, more significantly, under the auspices of a just cause. A commission was soon established to determine the proper location of the boundary between Venezuela and British Guiana, and by the end of the decade, a matter that had been causing countless headaches since 1841 was at last resolved.

It is also worth noting that Cleveland knew how to flex his foreign policy muscle in a very different way. The case in point this time is Hawaii. By 1893, Sanford B. Dole and the sugar plantation nabobs on the small Polynesian nation had set out to capitalize on the American spirit of exploration and expansion for the advancement of their business interests. A desire to lower tariffs on their own product, as well as a simultaneous frustration with the desire of that nation's Queen Liliuokalani to reassert both her rights and the rights of her people against the tyranny of Dole's economic pressures and self-imposed "Bayonet Constitution", prompted them to overthrow the royal government in the hope of annexing the province into the American system and thereby transform an imported product into an American product. Most of this had occurred while Cleveland wasn't in power, but when the annexation treaty came to him, Cleveland took it upon himself to make sure that justice was done to the Hawaiian people, even going so far as to commission James Henderson Blount, a former congressman from Georgia, to visit Hawaii and investigate the circumstances surrounding the revolution.Upon discovering that his worst fears had been correct, he immediately made the politically unpopular decision of offering Queen Liliuokalani her throne, rejecting the treaty of Hawaiian annexation, and expressing his abject disgust at the entire situation in a special address to Congress. Thus he showed that America was the best type of world power - the kind that knew how to use its strength when either its interests or the causes of liberty and justice were at risk, but was loathe to abuse that same power, no matter how great the profit.

3) Cleveland's third contribution was his strengthening of the presidency in the realm of electoral politics, a matter connected to but not synonymous with the power he gave it in the federal government. He was inaugurated on March 4, 1885, and between that time and December 1887, he had marked himself as one of America's most popular presidents. Had he opted to run for reelection on the sole basis of both his record and that of the Democratic Party, he would have had a substantial chance of winning. However, there was an issue that bothered Cleveland immensely - the issue of tariff reform. He felt that high tariffs imposed in order to stimulate domestic economic production were damaging the overall economy, and was determined to bring the troubles associated with a high tariff to the American people. Thus he made a bold and unusual decision – when he submitted the State of the Union Address to Congress on December 6, 1887, he devoted his entire speech to the single issue of tariff reform. The political shockwaves this sent off were unprecedented; soon it was clear that the presidential election of 1888 would be decided upon that one issue, with Republicans favoring high tariffs and the Democrats advocating for lower rates. Ironically, Cleveland wound up winning the popular vote but losing in the electoral college; in a very real sense, however, this (as well as the fact that Cleveland's low-tariff position was the economically and morally correct one) is of tertiary significance. The real importance is that this was the first presidential election since 1864 to revolve not around the various issues and images chosen by legislative bigwigs and party apparatuses, but rather around the philosophies, policies, and character of the President of the United States. With the exception of Lincoln, every president of the previous generation had been a representative of the wills of the parties they represented, rather than a central figure within them; as such (as mentioned before), they generally followed in lockstep with legislative leaders and political power-brokers, rather than becoming sources of power figures in their own right. By single-handedly defining the presidential election of 1888, Grover Cleveland played an instrumental role in changing all of that.

4) Prior to Cleveland’s administration, American politics was often dominated by the continuance of issues from the Civil War period. Republicans were still smeared with the crimes of Reconstruction; Democrats were accused of being rebels or copperheads. In many presidential elections, the constant reference to the Civil War – not merely in ideology, but in imagery, candidature, and various other accoutrements from that bloody conflict. When Grover Cleveland became president, he almost immediately dispensed with all such discussion of those issues, and focused on the three matters that were of primary importance at the time – purging corruption from the government, redressing the balance of power between the executive and legislative branches, and attempting to further the cause of economic justice (primarily through the lowering of tariffs in his first term, and assertion of the gold standard in his second). Thus he played an integral role in taking America out of the doldrums of Civil War politics.

5) As a man he was incorruptable. For sixteen long years before him, the American government had been ruled by shady characters: Ulysses S. Grant had run what was undoubtedly the most corrupt administration of the nineteenth-century; Rutherford B. Hayes had flagrantly stolen the presidential election of 1876 from his opponent, the sagacious Samuel J. Tilden; the charming James A. Garfield, though not personally corrupt, was assassinated six months into his presidency by a product of the spoils system; Chester A. Arthur, though a reformer in the White House, had so sullied his name with financial improprieties that had occurred prior to his presidency that people's respect for his presidential achievements could not translate into respect for him as a human being. Cleveland, on the other hand, lived a scandal free life; he never took a dime that wasn't his, never lied to the American people (but with one exception), and never behaved in any way except according to the strict dictates of his conscience.

6) Cleveland did tell one lie that might have very well saved the nation. Just before his second term as president began, a massive depression occurred, plunging the whole nation into its worst economic straits up to that point in its history. Thus the great depression of 1893-1897 was blamed on President Cleveland. His plan for getting us out of that calamity may not have been the most effective one – he theorized that by taking America off its recently-established bi-metallic system and place it back on a gold standard, he could stabilize the country’s currency system and stimulate international trade. Regardless of the widespread opposition to this idea, he called a special session of Congress, assuming that the emergency which had recently occurred called for special actions to be undertaken. But before the legislative session had even gotten underway, Cleveland found himself faced with a different and far less anticipated problem – cancer.

Less than four months into his second term – and shortly before Congress would meet at the very session he had called - doctors discovered a malignant growth on his upper jaw. Upon realizing the serious metastasization of the cancer, they determined that it needed to be removed immediately. Cleveland deferred to their better medical judgment, but he likewise knew that if the public found out about his condition, it could make economic matters worse. So it was that, on July 1, 1893, he snuck onto a yacht in New York harbor, and for several hours allowed doctors perform extensive mandibular surgery on him with nothing but sleeping gas to anesthetize him (he recognized that maintaining his lucidity hours after the surgery would be crucial to concealing what had happened from the press). The surgery went well, and people remained unaware of what had happened until one of the surgeons wrote about it more than a decade after Cleveland’s death.

I would not be truly objective here, however, if I didn't mention the major faults that can be attributed to Grover Cleveland:

1) He brutally oppressed the Pullman labor strike in 1894. His argument was that, by striking, the underpaid and mistreated railcar workers were impairing necessary government functions by impeding the delivery of United States mail, but rather than attempt to arbitrate the strike and thus come to an equitable resolution for all parties, he used the military to force the cars to move, thus siding with the Pullman company over their workers. When the dust had settled, lives were taken and the policies of a brutal corporation enforced for the ostensible purpose of delivering the mail. While President Cleveland's need to resolve the crisis might have been understandable, his lack of sympathy for labor rights was not.

2) After his presidency, he became a vocal opponent of women's suffrage, even going so far as to say that "Sensible and responsible women do not want to vote. The relative positions to be assumed by men and women in the working out of our civilization were assigned long ago by a higher intelligence."

3) He married a woman who was twenty-six years younger than him, one whom he had chosen to be his bride on the day she was born. While such an action does not necessarily impair one’s legacy as a president, it certainly does interfere with even the most objective historian’s ability to hold his lunch.

Despite these major flaws - two of them ideological and one character-based - I nevertheless assert that Grover Cleveland's name belongs in the litany of our nation's greatest presidents. This is unfortunate, for the values embodied in the life and accomplishments of Grover Cleveland are ones that are desperately needed in our own times, and by our own political figures.

"But the best results in the operation of a government wherein every citizen has a share largely depend upon a proper limitation of purely partisan zeal and effort and a correct appreciation of the time when the heat of the partisan should be merged in the patriotism of the citizen."
- From his First Inaugural (March 4, 1885)

"It will not do to neglect this situation because its dangers are not now palpably imminent and apparent. They exist none the less certainly, and await the unforeseen and unexpected occasion when suddenly they will be precipitated upon us...Our progress toward a wise conclusion will not be improved by... bandying epithets...It is a condition which confronts us, not a theory."
- From his State of the Union address on lowering tariffs (December 6, 1887)

"My little man, I am making a strange wish for you. It is that you may never be President of the United States."
- From a private conversation with a five-year old boy named Franklin Delano Roosevelt (December 1887)

"While every American citizen must contemplate with the utmost pride and enthusiasm the growth and expansion of our country, the sufficiency of our institutions to stand against the rudest shocks of violence, the wonderful thrift and enterprise of our people, and the demonstrated superiority of our free government, it behooves us to constantly watch for every symptom of insidious infirmity that threatens our national vigor."
- From his Second Inaugural (March 4, 1893)

"If national honesty is to be disregarded and a desire for territorial extension, or dissatisfaction with a form of government not our own, ought to regulate our conduct, I have entirely misapprehended the mission and character of our Government and the behavior which the conscience of our people demands of their public servants."
- From his special message to Congress on rejecting the treaty of Hawaiian annexation, and condemning Sanford Dole and the sugar plantation interests (December 18, 1893)

"There is no calamity which a great nation can invite which equals that which follows a supine submission to wrong and injustice and the consequent loss of national self-respect and honor, beneath which are shielded and defended a people's safety and greatness."
- From his special message to Congress on defending the nation of Venezuela from the imperialist ambitions of the British Empire (December 17, 1895)

"There is no better illustration of the truth that nations and individuals are affected in the same manner by like causes than is often furnished by the beginning, progress, and results of a national boundary dispute. We all know that among individuals, when neighbors have entered upon a quarrel concerning their division-line or location of a line fence, they will litigate until all account of cost and all regard for the merits of the contention give place to a ruthless and all-dominating determination, by fair means or foul, to win; and if fisticuffs and forcible possession are resorted to, the big, strong neighbor rejoices in his strength as he mauls and disfigures his small and weak antagonist.It will be found that nations behave in like fashion. One or the other of two national neighbors claims that their dividing-line should be defined or rectified in a certain manner. If this is questioned, a season of diplomatic untruthfulness and finesse sometimes intervenes for the sake of appearances. Developments soon follow, however, that expose a grim determination behind fine phrases of diplomacy; and in the end the weaker nation frequently awakens to the fact that it must either accede to an ultimatum dictated by its stronger adversary, or look in the face of war and a spoliation of its territory..."
- From his memoirs, when reflecting on the lessons he learned from the Venezuelan boundary crisis (1904)

"I have tried so hard to do right."
- His final words (June 24, 1908)

For further reading on Grover Cleveland and his era:
“Presidential Problems” by Grover Cleveland (his presidential memoirs)
"The Writings and Speeches of Grover Cleveland" by Grover Cleveland
"The Cleveland Era" by Henry Ford (not the industrial entrepreneur)
“Grover Cleveland: A Study in Friendship” by Richard Watson Gilder (the personal reminiscences of one of President Cleveland’s closest friends)
“Grover Cleveland” by Henry Graff (a concise primer into Cleveland’s biography, as written by a Columbia University professor in a series on the American Presidents)
“Grover Cleveland: A Study in Courage” by Allan Nevins (a Pulitzer-Prize winning biography by one of America’s greatest twentieth-century historians)
"Letters of Grover Cleveland: 1850-1908" by Allan Nevins
"Recollections of Grover Cleveland" by George F. Parker“Grover Cleveland” by Rexford G. Tugwell (a fascinating exploration of life and times as written by one of the key members of Franklin Roosevelt’s acclaimed Brains Trust)
“Mr. Cleveland as President” by Woodrow Wilson (a great article in the Atlantic Monthly, written by the future president sixteen years before his own inauguration, that helps modern readers understand the impact of Cleveland’s legacy, as observed by one of his own more perceptive contemporaries)


Anonymous said...

What evidence do you have that Grover desired to marry Frances from the day she was born?

viagra online said...

In principle, a good happen, support the views of the author