The Presidencies of Grover Cleveland
Richard Welch, 1988

Benjamin Harrison
Charles Calhoun, 2005

In the 1880s, there weren't a lot of swing states in presidential elections. The states where slavery had been legal in 1860 all voted Democratic; in 1884 this added up to 153 electoral votes, with 201 needed to win. Nearly all the others voted Republican, and the Republican nominee started off with 171 electoral votes in the bag. One of the few states that was up for grabs was New York. It was a must-have for the Democrats, for its 36 electoral votes were more than enough to give the Republicans a winning total. Thus, in 1876 the Democrats nominated the governor of New York, Samuel Tilden, for president — and in their view, he won. Tilden beat Republican Rutherford Hayes by a full 3% in the popular vote and only lost the electoral vote after an ad hoc electoral commission accepted the counts of the Reconstruction governments in three Southern states. In 1884, with Reconstruction over, the Democrats decided to try the same strategy and once again ran the governor of New York. This would be a pretty stupid introduction if that were not Grover Cleveland.

— 1 —

Three years prior to his election as president, Stephen Grover Cleveland, a.k.a. "Big Steve," a.k.a. "Uncle Jumbo," had just been a lawyer in Buffalo. A grind, Cleveland made up for what he lacked in natural brilliance by putting in long hours researching his cases, then writing out and memorizing the speeches he would deliver in court, not trusting his ability to improvise. Over time he gained a reputation for honesty and hard work, and was known to be a Democrat. Thinking he might therefore be a good candidate to put up against the crooked Republican establishment in Buffalo, in 1881 local Democratic leaders contacted him pretty much out of the blue to see whether he might be interested in running for mayor. He was, and won election. A year later, after quickly gaining a reputation for fighting corruption, Cleveland was elected governor of New York, where he found new targets in the Tammany Hall machine. When the national Republican Party nominated the scandal-tainted James Blaine for president in 1884, the stage was set for the Democrats to try to draw a contrast with "Grover the Good."

As it turned out, the scandal of Blaine's past influence-peddling paled in comparison to that which erupted when a Buffalo newspaper reported that Cleveland had knocked up a woman named Maria Halpin ten years earlier and sent their child to an orphanage. Cleveland and his team did their best to spin this revelation in their favor. Step one, leak a telegram in which Cleveland instructed his people to "tell the truth" in response to the news. Step two, submit the following as the truth: Maria Halpin was a loose woman who had also had liaisons with several other men of Cleveland's acquaintance, any one of whom might be the boy's real father, but Cleveland had manfully taken responsibility for the child because he was the one bachelor among them. Step three, connect the dots: if Cleveland had a sordid private life and a spotless public record, and Blaine had a sordid public record and a spotless private life, then the obvious course for the public to take was to play to each man's strength by electing Cleveland to high office and sending Blaine home.

As it turned out, Cleveland won the all-important state of New York, and thus the election, by a margin of 0.1%. A victory that narrow can be attributed to any number of factors. For instance, Cleveland did unexpectedly well in the home district of former New York senator Roscoe Conkling — perhaps Conkling had taken steps to undermine his old enemy Blaine? Perhaps third- and fourth-party candidates John St. John (Prohibition Party) and Benjamin Butler, who each secured many times the winning margin, deserve the blame? Many point to a speech by a Presbyterian minister named Samuel Burchard, who slammed the Democrats as the party of "rum, Romanism, and rebellion" — could that line have inspired enough of New York City's Catholics to go to the polls and furnish Cleveland the thousand votes he won by? In any case, Cleveland became the first Democrat elected president since before the Civil War.

Cleveland approached the presidency in much the same way as his legal career. A workaholic micromanager, he stayed up late into the night personally investigating post office appropriations and verifying the credentials of potential appointees to minor offices. He wrote his own letters in longhand and answered the White House phone himself. He considered this level of attention to detail his public duty, and this was the core of his identity as a public figure and his claim to the highest office in the land. He had no chance of passing himself off as a brilliant formulator of policy, orator, or handler of people, but he could spend every day in office proving himself the country's most honest and dutiful public servant.

And to Cleveland, this primarily meant keeping the government from doing much of anything. To him, Congress was an assembly of local representatives, each trying to grab a piece of the common wealth for the folks back home; the job of the president, the one man elected by all the people, was to quash these attempts. For instance, congressmen throughout the North made a practice of passing large batches of bills bestowing pensions upon individual Union veterans from their districts who found themselves in need. Cleveland took it upon himself to investigate these pension claims personally and vetoed hundreds of them. Another example: in the aftermath of a crop failure brought on by drought, Congress passed a bill to provide Texas grain farmers with $10,000 in seed for the 1887 planting. Cleveland vetoed it, thundering that "the lesson should be constantly enforced" that "the government should not support the people." Why not? The reasons fell mainly into two categories:

First, Cleveland contended in his veto message, any sort of governmental relief in times of suffering "encourages the expectation of paternal care on the part of the government and weakens the sturdiness of our national character." These sorts of appropriations were a type of almsgiving that would best be left to the consciences of private citizens, so that "the donors would experience the satisfaction attending deeds of charity." Cleveland's repeated denunciations of "paternalism" are interesting in that, to more recent thinking, they're directed at the wrong metaphorical parent. It's the "nurturing mother" model of government that calls for using public funds to help the less fortunate. Leaving people to fend for themselves in order to build character is more in keeping with the "strict father" model. So in endlessly lecturing the public about the virtues of thrift and self-reliance, wasn't Cleveland the one who was really being paternalistic?

Second, Cleveland argued that governmental expenditures inherently carried with them a sort of "favoritism" — or, to use the phrase beloved by today's right-wingers, "picking winners and losers." Who were a bunch of politicians in Washington to decide that these farmers over here should get a bailout and those farmers over there shouldn't? The bizarre thing about this sort of argument is that the answer is obvious: those politicians were our elected representatives. The point of a republic is that we select such representatives to conduct an intelligent analysis of what would improve the welfare of the nation's citizens, draw up plans to do so, and carry them out. Deciding how best to distribute public money isn't "playing favorites" — it's governing.

The thing is, Cleveland wasn't just a shill for the robber barons. When he had the chance, he vetoed subsidies to corporations, and his rhetoric often sounded like something out of an Occupy rally. From his 1888 State of the Union message:

The gulf between employers and the employed is constantly widening, and classes are rapidly forming, one comprising the very rich and powerful, while in another are found the toiling poor. As we view the achievements of aggregated capital, we discover the existence of trusts, combinations, and monopolies, while the citizen is struggling far in the rear or is trampled to death beneath an iron heel. Corporations, which should be the carefully-restrained creatures of the law and the servants of the people, are fast becoming the people's masters.

Yet even as Cleveland, in surveying the labor strife that marked his terms in office, offered up the opinion that "the discontent of the employed is due in a large degree to the grasping and needless exactions of employers," the only action he could imagine to remedy the situation was negative — i.e., he thought the solution was for the government to do less. For decades the U.S. economy had been run along protectionist lines, and duties on imported goods were high. The theory was that by raising the price of imports, domestic producers could keep their own prices reasonably high and still undersell their foreign competitors, which in turn allowed them to pay their workers the highest wages in the world. And those who insisted on buying imports would keep the government's coffers full — it was win-win. Only, to Cleveland, it sounded more like lose-lose. Keeping the government's coffers full — and the government ran a large surplus — could only tempt office holders to spend that money on something. And what right did the government have to play favorites? Who were government officials to decide that American workers should get high wages while American consumers, not all of whom benefited from those wages, had to pay high prices? For that matter, what guarantee was there that American workers would continue to share in their employers' profits even to the limited extent that they did? Weren't high tariffs just an excuse for corporations to raise their prices up to the level of the taxed imports and then pocket the difference?

This was the message that Cleveland took into the 1888 campaign against Benjamin Harrison.

— 2 —

Benjamin Harrison was very much like Grover Cleveland in a lot of ways. He too was a workaholic micromanager who kept long hours and personally vetted appointments to minor offices. He too was not much of a people person, and like Cleveland alienated powerful factions of his own party by refusing to rubber-stamp their patronage preferences. Harrison too married a woman many decades his junior — Cleveland's wife was his best friend's daughter, whom he had known since she was a newborn, while Harrison's second wife was his first wife's young niece. Really, they were quite similar except for the entirety of their political philosophies.

Harrison grew up in an extremely religious family, and it took. In college he chose law over the ministry, but urged his classmates who chose the same future profession to "remember that you are to do all to the glory of God." Upon graduating, he chose to settle in Indianapolis after his cousin reported that in that city "Most of the members of the Bar are moral, and some of them are pious men." As a colonel in the Civil War he actively proselytized to his men, hoping that "the religious influence I attempt to exert" would instill a "sense of Christian patriotism" among them and "bring some sinners to a knowledge" of God. But this was the 19th century, and like another presidential descendant turned president, John Quincy Adams, Harrison was a member of the religious left. He argued that women's rights were a good measure of the worth of a society, condemned the "grossness and deformity" of the British free-trade system that condemned workers to starvation wages, and raged against the South's "midnight assaults of barbarion Democrats" upon freed slaves.

Harrison went on to lose a number of elections in Indiana and win one, garnering a single term in the U.S. Senate. That, plus his name, gave him enough national standing to be seriously considered for the Republican presidential nomination in 1888. In many ways he seemed like an ideal candidate: distinguished service in the Union army (inherently important to Republicans, and a good way to draw a contrast with Grover Cleveland, who had hired a substitute to serve for him); residence in a swing state (Indiana was the second most important swing state after New York); and firm commitment to protectionism, in an election that Cleveland wanted to turn into a referendum on the tariff. It helped that he was a dynamic speaker: campaigning by presidential candidates was still considered a bit unseemly, but Harrison gave daily speeches from his front porch in Indianapolis and thereby kept his name and message in the news. Once again, everything came down to New York and particularly the Catholic vote in New York City. This time the last-minute gaffe worked in the Republicans' favor, as a prankster named George Osgoodby wrote to the British ambassador, Lionel Sackville-West, and asked how naturalized U.S. citizens who still felt loyalty to Britain should vote. Sackville-West blithely responded that Cleveland would be more likely to "manifest a spirit of conciliation" towards "the mother country." This not only failed to endear Cleveland to New York's Irish-American population, but it also served indirectly to tie Cleveland's proposed tariff revisions to Britain's reviled free-trade policy. Though Harrison lost the popular vote nationwide, he won New York by 1.1%, and thereby took the White House.

The real action of Benjamin Harrison's presidency began nine months after his inauguration, when Congress finally convened. Both houses were controlled by the Republicans, and while House Democrats tried various obstructionist tricks — refusing to answer roll call, making nuisance motions — House Speaker Thomas Reed firmly shut them down. Democrats cried tyranny. Reed replied that "if the tyranny of the majority is hard, the tyranny of the minority is simply unendurable." "Ever since the slavery question came to trouble the peace of the country," he asserted, his predecessors had buckled to "a small but loud minority in the wrong" and acceded to parliamentary rules "framed with the view of rendering legislation difficult." As a result, the will of the people had repeatedly been thwarted. Not this time. He had learned one of the key lessons of American history: "The danger in a free country is not that power will be exercised too freely, but that it will be exercised too sparingly." This time the government would deliver the progress the people had voted for. 1890 would be a hell of a year.

The first item on Harrison's agenda was the tariff schedule. Cleveland had lost; protectionism had won; duties, accordingly, should be raised rather than lowered. Indeed, Harrison intended to raise them so high that the surplus would actually decrease, because some classes of imports would be so prohibitively expensive that virtually no one would buy them and the government would collect no revenue. Previously duty-free agricultural products would have tariffs placed on them in order to protect Western farmers. Sugar, by contrast, would go on the duty-free list, which would really knock down the surplus. What about protection for sugar planters? They would receive a subsidy. Harrison left it to House Ways and Means chairman William McKinley to work out the details. After much wrangling, the McKinley Tariff finally passed in October.

Even more important to Harrison was a bill to restore voting rights to Southern blacks who lived in terror of the atavistic "Redeemers." He had watched in horror as the rebels, "just as wily, mean, impudent, and devilish as they ever were," reimposed in all but name the slave society he had fought to unravel. During Cleveland's first term he reminded white audiences that, even if they didn't care about blacks, they had to recognize what the suppression of the black vote in the South had cost them — in the abstract, it meant that they weren't actually living in a democracy in which national policy was set by "a free and fair tribunal"; more concretely, it meant that the Republicans lacked the votes to override Cleveland's vetoes. But Harrison's commitment to the black franchise wasn't merely a product of political calculation. Quite simply, Benjamin Harrison wasn't a racist. Grover Cleveland was — perhaps no more so than the typical Northerner of his time, but certainly no less. As late as 1903, Cleveland declared that blacks were imbued by nature with "a grievous amount of ignorance, a sad amount of viciousness, and a tremendous amount of laziness and thriftlessness." This reads as a pretty obvious case of despising a victimized group in order to rationalize their victimization as deserved. Harrison wasn't having any of it. "We entered into an obligation solemn as a covenant with our God to save these people from the dastardly outrages that their rebel masters are committing upon them in the South," he averred, and the lynchings endemic in the South "shame our Christian civilization." Frederick Douglass judged that "we never had a greater president" than Harrison. Yet the black voting rights bill, which Harrison delegated to Rep. Henry Cabot Lodge, didn't advance as fast as other pieces of legislation.

As noted, Cleveland had vetoed hundreds of individual pension bills for Union veterans; Harrison committed $144 million annually to those who "served so gallantly and so unselfishly" on the side of right. The Dependent Pension Act passed in June. What about the corporate trusts Cleveland had railed against but done nothing about? Harrison declared that when big business set out "to crush out all healthy competition and to monopolize the production or sale of an article of commerce and general necessity, they are dangerous conspiracies against the public good, and should be made the subject of prohibitory and even penal legislation." This effort he placed in the hands of Sen. John Sherman, and the result was the Sherman Antitrust Act, which passed in July. Sherman and Harrison then turned to the currency question. Western farmers had been clamoring for the government to remove the limits on the coinage of silver, hoping that the increase in the money supply would spark inflation and thereby lighten the farmers' debts. Silver miners were obviously all for the plan as well. Harrison chose a more moderate course, stepping up silver purchases with the passage of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act later that July. As summer turned to fall, Harrison was alarmed to find that economic turmoil in Britain had started to create a credit crunch closer to home. He and the Treasury Department quickly threw together a $50 million stimulus package of bond purchases and increased pension payments. Within a week, the crisis had been averted; there was no Panic of 1890 in the United States.

The black voting rights bill remained stalled. Harrison had been concerned about the argument that, the 15th Amendment notwithstanding, the vast majority of blacks lacked the education to be able to exercise the vote responsibly; his response was not that blacks should therefore be kept from the polls, but that they should be educated. The result was a second Morrill Land-Grant Colleges Act that mandated that Southern states either integrate their colleges and universities or else build new ones for black students. (Naturally, those states chose the latter course.) But this groundwork didn't win any new votes for the Lodge bill. Southern Democrats started voting for the Western Republicans' key issue, free silver, and Western Republicans reciprocated by voting for the Southern Democrats' key issue, the continued subjugation of the African-American population.

But even without the piece Harrison considered the keystone of his legislative package, 1890 was a year of astonishing progress. Throw in the nation's first meat inspection act, the banning of lotteries, the purchase of several $6 million battleships, and the future Mrs. Harrison's assessment that 1890 saw "more work done in Congress and by the President and Cabinet than for twenty years" looks like an understatement. But it was on this very fact that Democrats hoped to capitalize, wagering that American voters were temperamentally conservative enough to be shocked by this kind of activity even by a government they had chosen less than two years earlier. Running against the "Billion-Dollar Congress," the Democrats routed the Republicans in the midterm elections. The result was a return to gridlock, and in 1892 an uneventful campaign saw Grover Cleveland returned to the White House.

— 3 —

In 1887, the National Cordage Company was formed; it sought to corner the market in hemp and thereby become the dominant player in the rope industry. It quickly became the most actively traded stock in the U.S. Two months after Cleveland's second inauguration, it ran out of money and collapsed. Several railroads followed, along with hundreds of banks and thousands of other companies. Unemployment shot up to 18%. The Panic of 1893 was underway.

Cleveland blamed the panic on the Harrison administration's monetary policy. The Sherman Silver Purchase Act decreed that silver would be paid for with notes that could then be exchanged for gold; according to Cleveland, the consequent drop in U.S. gold reserves had led to a drop in confidence that the government could back its paper, and that was what had instigated the panic. He therefore called Congress into a special session to repeal the Act. Now Cleveland had two problems. One, free silver was not a single-party issue, and in fact most sentiment against the monometallic gold standard was to be found amongst the Democrats. Cleveland would have to twist arms despite his own party controlling both houses of Congress. Cleveland's second problem was that he had developed oral cancer. He secretly boarded a yacht on which a group of surgeons removed large portions of the inside of his mouth, replacing them with vulcanized rubber molds. A reporter who published the story was slammed by the administration as a liar, and the details of Cleveland's operations would not be revealed to the public until 1917. But the procedures were successful and Cleveland was able to return to direct the repeal effort, making it clear to his Democratic colleagues that they would receive no patronage until the Silver Purchase Act was repealed. This made Cleveland a lot of enemies, and gold reserves continued to drop. At one point the situation was sufficiently dire that the Treasury had to take out an emergency loan from J.P. Morgan, undermining the Democratic argument that the Republicans were the party in bed with Wall Street. (Even that loan didn't keep the depression from deepening.)

Cleveland further cemented his growing reputation as a corporate stooge during the Pullman strike of 1894. Railroad magnate George Pullman had taken advantage of the Panic of 1893 by cutting his employees' wages by 25%, while not dropping rents in the company town in Illinois in which they lived. The American Railway Union, led by Eugene Debs, responded by refusing to handle Pullman cars. Claiming that the strikers were interfering with mail delivery and violating the Sherman Antitrust Act (O irony!), Cleveland set in federal troops — over the objections of the Democratic governor of Illinois, John Altgeld. This move did as much as anything to split the Democratic Party in two, with its populist wing viewing Cleveland as a defender of, in Paola Coletta's words, "capital against labor, corporations against consumers, bankers against borrowers, entrenched political and judicial power against the common man." Welch attempts to defend Cleveland by noting that "The president who broke the Pullman strike was the same man who denounced the lobbyists." The problem is that when you denounce people on one side and shoot people on the other, that isn't actually evidence of evenhanded treatment.

Cleveland's standing within his own party tanked even further as a result of his efforts to overturn the McKinley Tariff. The Democrats cobbled together a replacement, the Wilson-Gorman Tariff, that Cleveland decried as falling "far short of the consummation for which we have long labored." Though he let the bill become law without his signature, Cleveland attacked his colleagues in the Capitol for "party perfidy and party dishonor." This turned out to be a poor way to make allies. But, as Welch states, Cleveland's "temperament was essentially authoritarian, and he had never enjoyed currying favor or asking for advice." Again, his self-image was of a man unflinchingly honest, dutiful, and virtuous, who worked harder than anyone in the country. So after he put in long hours day after day doing research and formulating a policy… well, those who disagreed with it must not be honest, dutiful, or virtuous, so to hell with them. By 1896, the political landscape of the U.S. had divided into three factions. The Democrats had turned populist; the Republicans remained protectionist. And then you had Grover Cleveland, the "Bourbon Democrat" whose constellation of views was rapidly becoming a thing of the past.

Of course, we do still see them today. Look at the platform of the Bourbon Democrats as embodied by Grover Cleveland:

1) The government should do as little as possible. The job of the president, as one of Cleveland's obituaries put it, is to "speak the everlasting No."
2) To keep the government from being tempted to do anything, whether it be bailing out struggling farmers or buying battleships, taxes should be slashed.
3) The U.S. should avoid overseas adventures. (Cleveland was not an expansionist, and when he returned to office to find that the Harrison administration had left him a treaty to annex Hawaii, he tore it up.)
4) Absolute fidelity to the gold standard is essential.
5) 95% of blacks are semi-criminal or entirely criminal.

Where have we seen those positions before? Isn't that basically a capsule summary of your typical Ron Paul newsletter? It's close enough that I started to wonder why Paul's fanbase hadn't adopted Grover Cleveland as a folk hero. But on second thought, I suppose that question answers itself. Look at either of his administrations, and it's not a very pretty picture.

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