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The Wisdom of Grover Cleveland

January 2, 2003

I can remember when, many years ago, my father saw his first episode of "All in the Family."  As Edith's theme song reached the verse that said "Mister, we could use a man like Herbert Hoover again," he bolted up from his easy chair, pointed at the TV set, and yelled "We could not." 

Unfortunately, my father's Depression-inspired reaction would remain an appropriate response if Hoover's name was replaced with many of America's presidents.  However, one too-little studied President who took his pledge "to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States" seriously was Grover Cleveland. 

Grover Cleveland was unique in many ways. He was the only President to serve two non-consecutive terms as President (while winning the popular vote in three consecutive elections); to be elected when single and marry in the White House; to have a candy bar named after his daughter (Baby Ruth); or (endearing him to me) to have won a governorship (New York) without ever making a campaign speech.

More important than the Trivial Pursuit aspects of Grover Cleveland's Presidencies, however, was his fight to live up to his oath of office, respecting both the intent of the General Welfare clause and the Constitution's bounds on government power. 

He fought to restore honesty and impartiality to government, particularly by eliminating government favors.  He tried, though unsuccessfully, to eliminate protective tariffs (he even devoted his entire annual message to Congress one year to attacking high protective tariffs).

He resisted political pressures to inflate, even in the face of a serious recession.  He was the first president to veto bogus pension claims and pension pork (from the Civil War).  Further, he was known as a veto President, who studied every bill Congress passed and vetoed more than 300 of them—more than twice as many than the 132 vetoes cast by all the Presidents before him.

Fortunately, Grover Cleveland did leave us the valuable legacy of his words, particularly those dealing with the limited federal role under the Constitution, taxation, and waste in government.  In the aftermath of an election with more than the usual share of political chicanery, it worth remembering what a President for whom "honest politician" was not an oxymoron had to say:

  • Officeholders are the agents of the people, not their masters.     
  • In the discharge of my official duty I shall endeavor to be guided by a just and unstrained construction of the Constitution, 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.     
  • I shall to the best of my ability and within my sphere of duty preserve the Constitution by loyally protecting every grant of Federal power it contains, by defending all its restraints when attacked by impatience and restlessness, and by enforcing its limitations and reservations in favor of the States and of the people.     
  • 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.     
  • [The U.S. is] a government pledged to do equal and exact justice to all men...     
  • [Constitutional government requires] a patriotic disregard of such local and selfish claims as are unreasonable and reckless of the welfare of the entire country.     
  • Manifestly nothing is more vital to...the beneficient purposes of our Government than a sound and stable currency.     
  • If [adhering to the Constitution] involves the surrender of postponement of private interests and the abandonment of local advantages, compensation will be found in the assurance that the common interest is subserved and the general welfare is advanced.     
  • ...the lesson should be constantly enforced that though the people support the Government, Government should not support the people...     
  • ...danger confronts us...the prevalence of a popular disposition to expect from the operation of the Government especial and direct individual advantages.     
  • ...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.     
  • The public Treasury...should only exist as conduit conveying the people's tribute to its legitimate objects of expenditure...     
  • I can find no warrant for such an appropriation [federal aid to drought-stricken Texas farmers] in the Constitution, and I do not believe that the power and duty of the General Government ought to be extended to the relief of individual suffering which is in no manner properly related to the public service or benefit...The friendliness and charity of our countrymen can always be relied upon to relieve their fellow-citizens in misfortune...Federal aid in such cases encourages the expectation of paternal care on the part of the government and weakens the sturdiness of our national character, while it prevents the indulgence among our people of that kindly sentiment and conduct which strengthen the bond of a common brotherhood.     
  • 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. The acceptance of this principle leads to refusal of bounties and subsidies, which burden the labor and thrift of a portion of our citizens to aid ill-advised or languishing enterprises in which they have no concern.  It also leads to a challenge of wild and reckless pension expenditure, which...prostitutes to vicious uses the people's prompt and generous impulse to aid those disabled in their country's defense.     
  • Under our scheme of government the waste of public money is a crime against the citizen...     
  • When we consider that 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, It is plain that the 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, like other wrongs, multiplies a brood of evil consequences.     
  • 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... besides the demoralization of all just conceptions of public duty which it entails, stimulates a habit of reckless improvidence not in the least consistent with the mission of our people or of the high and beneficent purposes of our Government.     
  • When more of the people's sustenance is exacted through the form of taxation than is necessary to meet the just obligations of government and expenses of its economical administration, such exaction becomes ruthless extortion and a violation of the fundamental principles of a free government.     
  • It is a plain dictate of honesty and good government that public expenditures should be limited by public necessity, and that this should be measured by the rules of strict economy...     
  • Our citizens have the right to protection from the incompetency of public employees...     
  • Every citizen owes to the country a vigilant watch and close scrutiny of its public servants and affairs and a reasonable estimate of their fidelity and usefulness...this is the price of our liberty and the inspiration of our faith in the Republic.     
  • It is the responsibility of the citizens to support their government.  It is not the responsibility of the government to support its citizens.     
  • Once the coffers of the general government are opened to the public, there will be no shutting them again.     
  • It is the duty of those serving the people in public place to closely limit public expenditures to the actual needs of the Government economically administered, because this bounds the right of the Government to exact tribute from the earnings of labor or the property of the citizen...     
  • A due regard for the interests and prosperity of all the people demands that...our system of revenue shall be so adjusted as to relieve the people of unnecessary taxation...     
  • But our present tariff laws, the vicious, inequitable, and illogical source of unnecessary taxation, ought to be at once revised and amended.     
  • ...the injustice of maintaining protection for protection's sake enjoins upon the people's servants the duty of exposing and destroying the brood of kindred evils which are the unwholesome progeny of paternalism.  This is the bane of republican institutions and the constant peril of our government by the people.  It degrades to the purposes of wily craft the plan of rule our fathers established and bequeathed to us as an object of our love and veneration.  It perverts the patriotic sentiments of our countrymen and tempts them to pitiful calculation of the sordid gain to be derived from their Government's maintenance.  It undermines the self-reliance of our people and substitutes in its place dependence upon government favoritism. It stifles the spirit of true Americanism and stupefies every ennobling trait of American citizenship.     
  • While there should be no surrender of principle...if in lifting burdens from the daily life of our people we reduce inordinate and unequal advantages too long enjoyed, this is but a necessary incident of our return to right and justice.  If we exact from unwilling minds acquiescence in the theory of an honest distribution of the fund of the governmental beneficence treasured up for all, we but insist upon a principle which underlies our free institutions.  When we tear aside the delusions and misconceptions which have blinded our countrymen to their condition under vicious tariff laws, we but show them how far they have been led away from the paths of contentment and prosperity.  When we proclaim that the necessity for revenue to support the Government furnishes the only justification for taxing the people, we announce a truth so plain that its denial would seem to indicate the extent to which judgment may be influenced by familiarity with perversions of the taxing power. 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.

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 through the government.  He did so because 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.  But he also did so because he had the wisdom to know the answer to his self-reflection that "I am honest and sincere in my desire to do well, but the question is whether I know enough to accomplish what I desire."  That answer was "no."  We would do well to remember that answer, and the dangers of a government that ignores it.

It is perhaps fitting that Grover Cleveland had the honor of dedicating the Statue of Liberty, because he was a President who truly tried to live up to that dedication: "We will not forget that Liberty has made her home here, nor shall her chosen altar be neglected...A stream of light shall pierce the darkness of ignorance and man's oppression until Liberty enlightens the world."  We could certainly use a man like Grover Cleveland again.

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Gary M. Galles is a professor of economics at Pepperdine University. Send him MAIL, and see his Mises.org Daily Articles Archive. See the book Reassessing the Presidency.


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