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Trying to ‘do right’

Grover Cleveland’s efforts to show integrity in stewarding the country’s resources, Part 2

Grover Cleveland in 1888 Associated Press/Library of Congress

Trying to ‘do right’

Editor’s note: Marvin Olasky continues his monthly biographical series on key individuals from late 19th and early 20th century American history. In February and March, we looked at the life of John D. Rockefeller. In April, we presented Part 1 on the life of Grover Cleveland. Here’s the concluding second part.

When President Grover Cleveland arrived in Washington in 1885, residents expected him to attend the famed and fashionable New York Avenue Presbyterian Church that Abraham Lincoln had attended. But Cleveland chose the First Presbyterian Church and its fiery old Pastor Byron Sunderland, who had been his mother’s minister in Batavia, N.Y., many years before. Sunderland, startled, told a reporter he had opposed Cleveland’s election, “and now this man, whom I said was not fit for the White House, heaps coals of fire on my head by coming through the church door. … The President knew well what I had done.”

Cleveland was as unpretentious in decorating as in churchgoing. On his way to interviewing Cleveland, journalist Frank Carpenter observed, “The hall and the stairs that brought us to the President’s offices are covered with an old piece of carpet which was good once, but which has been patched, sewed, and resewed. It would not bring fifty cents at an auction.” At the president’s stables south of the White House, Carpenter noted, “Many a man in Ohio has vehicles just as fine as those of President Cleveland, which show no glint of gold or silver trimming. His horses are just good plain roadsters.”

AS PRESIDENT, CLEVELAND TRIED to steward the nation’s resources as he stewarded his own. He sharply criticized the “vicious paternalism” that would arise if citizens developed “the hope and expectations of direct and especial favors.” Cleveland saw government’s calling as “the enforcement of exact justice and equality” before the law. He fought against undiscerning pension expansion, high tariffs, and other budget items that promoted specific rather than general welfare.

Pensions represented one major threat to the maintenance of small government. Originally, Civil War pensions were granted only to soldiers and sailors (and their widows and children) whose war service left them so disabled they were unable to work. By 1885, however, fraud was rampant and the pension rolls numbered 325,000. Thousands of able-bodied men received pensions. Thousands more gained support because of problems incurred in civilian life. Thousands received funds by lying or faking. Even deserters had pensions.

Beyond pension board laxity stood the problem of special pension bills: Veterans with claims so weak that even lax pension authorities refused them appealed to friendly congressmen or senators. They often received special pension approval in logrolling sessions attended by only a few members. In one six-month period, the House alone passed more than 4,000 pension bills. No president from 1865 to 1885 had ever vetoed one.

Cleveland vetoed special pension bills 108 times between March 10 and August 17, 1886. He noted that a whole lot of lying was going on, and the Bible said such fabrications should be fought. He also gave specific reasons for vetoes. One claimant never actually enlisted but was riding to enlist (he said) when injured. Another claimant had been injured at home by a Fourth of July explosion. A third actually served and contracted diarrhea, which he said led to an eye disease 20 years later. When Cleveland issued vetoes in all such cases, Republican newspapers accused him of mean-spiritedness. The New York Times said he was “sending the destitute, aged mothers of soldiers to the poorhouse, in order that the Democratic party may gain a reputation for economy.”

To show Cleveland’s mean-spiritedness, some newspapers gave examples of pension bills he had vetoed. One of the press favorites was the pension of Sallie Ann Bradley, an Ohio woman who said her husband had died as a result of wounds suffered during the war. Furthermore, she claimed, two of her four sons had been slain in battle, and of the two who survived, an exploding shell had ripped off the arm of one, and the other had lost an eye in battle. They could not earn enough to sustain their aged mother. And President Cleveland, the brute, would not allow Mrs. Bradley to have a pension.

To show Cleveland’s mean-spiritedness, some newspapers gave examples of pension bills he had vetoed.

As the post-veto furor raged, a Wilmington, Ohio, newspaper investigated the claim. It found Mr. Bradley had not died from Civil War wounds. He had “choked to death on a piece of beef when gorging himself while on a drunken spree.” Two of the sons indeed were dead, but one had died during an epidemic after the war and the other had committed suicide while drunk. None of the arms of the two surviving sons had been torn off by a shell. One son, a shoemaker, had lost an eye, but he had lost it “while working at his trade from a piece of heel nail striking it when repairing a pair of boots.” The two surviving sons were able to support their mother, if they wished to do so.

The Clinton County Democrat concluded that perhaps Mrs. Bradley should receive financial help, as perhaps tens of thousands of others should, but if so, the issue should be debated, not handled in a lying fashion. If one widow is to be pensioned just because of her widowhood, the newspaper concluded, “there should be a bill passed to put them all on the list. But it is not from any love of Sallie Ann Bradley that all this bluster is being made, nor because she is any more worthy of a pension, but because it is hoped that by misstating the facts a little political capital may be made.”

Congress was not ready until the next century to pass a widows’ pension bill, but in 1887 it did pass a bill ostensibly to end hypocritical claims, not by tightening rules but by opening the doors wider. Veterans who claimed an inability to work for any reason whatsoever, including old age, could receive pensions under the new legislation. Parents and widows of dead veterans could also receive pensions. Given the breadth of involvement in the Civil War, the dawn of what would amount to almost a national welfare system was at hand.

Not quite. Cleveland vetoed the dependent pension bill, arguing that only those with disabilities incurred because of service should receive pensions. Otherwise, he maintained, the pension program would become a welfare system, and the greatly increased army of claimants would be officered by those who “put a premium on dishonesty and mendacity.” Cleveland believed churches and community groups, not government, should take the lead in fighting poverty, and he did not want federal efforts to loom over the local.

Congress sustained Cleveland’s veto, and The Washington Post applauded his fight against what it considered a reckless piece of legislation. Cleveland also battled to prevent government hiring of inferior candidates for jobs because of their backgrounds. Republican lobbyists were demanding that Union army veterans receive absolute preference, but Cleveland was willing to give preference only when candidates were equally fit, with fitness strictly determined. This was Biblical fairness, and Cleveland won that battle, too.

Cleveland believed churches and community groups, not government, should take the lead in fighting poverty, and he did not want federal efforts to loom over the local.

TARIFF WARS ANIMATED DEBATE throughout Cleveland’s terms. In 1885 the average rate was more than 46 percent, virtually unchanged since the Civil War. Tariffs had been raised then to bring more money to the government and to pay off particular political interests. During the 1860s, Southern opponents of such measures were not around to get in the way of Northern industrialist interests. But in 1886, Cleveland argued publicly that tariffs were not a protection for but a tax on American consumers: A tariff was “paid by them as absolutely … as if it was paid at fixed periods into the hands of the tax-gatherer.” Reduction of tariffs was a poverty-fighting device that would “cheapen the price of the necessaries of life.”

Cleveland also vetoed legislation for internal improvements, particularly notorious pork barrel bills involving rivers or harbors. He argued that those who would gain from such improvements should pay for them. Overall, Cleveland vetoed twice as many bills as did all 21 of his predecessors combined. He took some political heat for supposedly obstructing government processes and standing in the way of progress, but he constantly explained that he was fighting attempts by some people to use government power to confiscate the work of others.

In 1887, Congress voted to send $10,000 of free seed to drought-stricken farmers in west Texas. Cleveland vetoed the bill, arguing that “the lesson should he constantly enforced that though the people support the Government, Government should not support the people.” Cleveland noted that “Federal aid, in such cases, encourages the expectations of paternal care on the part of the Government and weakens the sturdiness of our national character.”

Cleveland argued that Washington help to the needy, however benevolently intended, would “destroy the partitions between proper subjects of Federal and local care and regulation.” Such aid also reduced among Americans “that kindly sentiment and conduct which strengthens the bond of a common brotherhood.” Cleveland challenged volunteers to come forward, and they did. The Dallas News and the The (Louisville, Ky.) Courier-Journal were among the newspapers that promoted relief funds. The Courier-Journal editorialized that “Kentucky alone will send $10,000 in seed or in money … to justify the President’s contention that the people will do what is right.”

Cleveland argued that Washington help to the needy, however benevolently intended, would “destroy the partitions between proper subjects of Federal and local care and regulation.”

Clara Barton, president of the American Red Cross, also called on private sources to do the job: “The counties which have suffered from drought need help, without doubt, but not help from Congress.” Volunteer contributors from across the country responded. West Texas eventually received not $10,000 of federal funding, but more than $100,000 in private aid.

Republicans in 1888 put forward for president a much stronger candidate than they had in 1884, a former Union general unmarred by corruption, Benjamin Harrison. The campaign was intense. Harrison gained support from corporations looking for governmental support and tariff increases. Cleveland demanded that tariffs be cut, and called the law in place a “vicious, inequitable, and illogical-source of unnecessary taxation.” He showed how tariffs, like other taxes, gave politicians power to issue favors and exact bribes. Republicans responded with scare tactics: Cleveland’s proposed reforms would lead to wage reductions, job loss, and even starvation, they proclaimed.

Harrison won a narrow victory. After the election, Cleveland expressed his continued concern: “The fortunes realized by our manufacturers are no longer solely the reward of sturdy industry and enlightened foresight … they result from the discriminating favor of the Government.” Over the next four years Cleveland maintained his opposition to government moving from promotion of the general welfare to support of specific payoffs, whether to politically preferred companies or poor individuals. He complained whenever he saw the government entering “gratuitously into partnership with these favorites, to their advantage and to the injury of a vast majority of our people.”

That’s what happened when Cleveland and his vetoes were sidelined from 1889 through 1892. Congress increased pension payments and other expenditures, passed tariffs so high that imports decreased sharply and government revenues decreased, and reduced the government’s gold stock by requiring government purchases of silver. Those economic errors, along with turmoil in international financial markets, scared businessmen.

IN 1892, CLEVELAND RAN against Harrison again. During the campaign, instead of backing off, Cleveland again called for lower tariffs. He pointed out that high tariffs were not yielding dividends for workers. Cleveland’s case in point was the just-concluded Homestead strike, in which 10 persons died on July 6 as steel workers pushing a strike at a Carnegie plant in Pennsylvania traded shots with 270 well-armed Pinkerton guards.

The guards had been brought in to facilitate the plant’s reopening with new workers, but Homestead employees argued that such strike-breaking was a betrayal of Carnegie’s pledge to Congress that higher tariffs would lead to higher wages. Rep. William McKinley’s tariff of 1890 had indeed reworked tariff schedules so that as lower manufacturing costs in other parts of the world pushed steel prices downward, the U.S. tariff would constantly increase. The result of government’s preferential treatment, Cleveland said, was death at Homestead, the “abiding place of high protection.” He argued that increased government involvement in the economy since the Civil War was creating a “widening rift between rich and poor.”

Cleveland was reflecting here the Biblical emphasis on fairness to the poor as well as rich. Departing from conservatism’s frequent defense of corporate prerogatives, he called Carnegie’s hard line on wages, after soft treatment by Congress, “the tender mercy the workingman receives from those made selfish and sordid by unjust governmental favoritism.” He suggested that Washington governmental halls were not and never would be a friendly place for the poor. Once the door was opened to raids on the U.S. Treasury, Cleveland figured, those with better know-how and lobbying skills would get in first.

Cleveland defeated Harrison in another very close contest, becoming the only president to return to office after a four-year furlough.

But Cleveland’s second term was wrecked by continuing economic depression. Perhaps 20 percent of the industrial labor force was unemployed during the winter of 1893-94. Problems did not melt away with the coming of spring. Farmers also suffered greatly, as commodity prices decreased and foreclosures soared. Politicians made appeals to inflate the currency by having the federal government abandon the gold standard, adopt an inflationary “bimetal” silver and gold standard, and then decree that silver was worth almost twice as much as it had been. This would make farm debts, payable in gold, decrease in real value.

Cleveland, as always, was for long-term satisfaction, not immediate economic gratification. Furthermore, he did not want government fiat to create either winners or losers. He argued that abandonment of the gold standard would impair confidence in the currency and further disrupt business. Above all, for Cleveland a contract was a contract: Those who borrowed money were morally bound to pay it back in real value, and those who saved it should reap benefits. In 1894 he vetoed a bill that would have expanded silver coinage and led to “the cheapening of the dollar.”

Cleveland, as always, was for long-term satisfaction, not immediate economic gratification.

The battle intensified in 1895 as Cleveland attacked critics of the gold standard, insisting that inflation would injure “the poor, as they reckon the loss in their scanty support, and the laborer or workingman, as he sees the money he has received for his toil shrink and shrivel in his hand when he tenders it for the necessities to supply the humble home.” Pro-inflation leaders shot back with personal attacks. In January 1896, Sen. Ben “Pitchfork” Tillman of South Carolina called Cleveland a “besotted tyrant” who was “self-idolatrous … an arrogant and obstinate ruler.” Tillman promised to stick his pitchfork into Cleveland’s “fat ribs.”

The hits kept coming. Gov. John Altgcld of Illinois, a radical Democrat, attacked Cleveland at a Jefferson Day banquet, explaining that “To laud Clevelandism on Jefferson’s birthday is to sing a Te Deum in honor of Judas Iscariot on a Christmas morning.” Support for Cleveland within the Democratic Party plummeted, as proponents of quick fixes gained popularity amid depression. The Democrats endorsed a silver standard and looked to inflate the size of the federal government. They nominated as Cleveland’s successor the silver-tongued silver advocate William Jennings Bryan, a man who also applied Scripture to politics, but in a very different manner than did Cleveland: Bryan spoke of God’s love but never emphasized man’s sinfulness and the need, therefore, to limit the power of sinners in government.

Grover Cleveland retired in 1897 and died in 1908. His last words were, “I have tried so hard to do right.” He had. A prodigal son who fathered a child out of wedlock, he tried to do right in making sure that his son grew up in a strong adoptive family. A rocklike constitutionalist, he fought those who planned to stretch the Constitution’s meaning by transferring tax money to influential individuals and groups. Cleveland provided integrity at a time it was desperately needed, but had trouble holding the allegiance of those who wanted not good government that would feel their pain.

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD and dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has also been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books: His latest is Abortion at the Crossroads. Marvin resides with his wife, Susan, in Austin, Texas.



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Nicolas Burns

Is there a full length biography you would recomend? These two articles were a great appetizer and I am ready for a meal.