As John Pafford, friend and biographer of Russell Kirk, suggests in his title, with the exception of certain libertarian historians at academic centers such as Lew Rockwell’s highly respected Ludwig von Mises Institute, Grover Cleveland is largely forgotten — and if not forgotten, then remembered primarily for a series of unusual firsts and seconds.
Stephen Grover Cleveland (he arbitrarily dropped the Stephen, much as Harry Truman added the S) was both our 22nd and 24th president, the first and only president to serve two full non-consecutive terms (1885-1889, 1893-1897). His victory in 1884, during a period of Republican hegemony, meant that “For the first time in twenty-eight years, the American electorate had placed the mantle of the presidency on the shoulders of a Democrat.”
Running for re-election in 1888 against Benjamin Harrison, Cleveland lost the Electoral College vote but won the popular vote, “making him one of only three other men in American history to win the popular vote while losing in the Electoral College.” (The other two were Samuel Tilden and Al Gore.)
Four years later, he ran again and with his second victory in 1892, writes Mr. Pafford, “Grover Cleveland now had made his mark in American history as the only person to have won the presidency, lost his bid for re-election, and won a rematch.” Also, Mr. Pafford points out, “Cleveland had won the popular vote in three presidential elections, the only man other than Franklin Roosevelt ever to do so.”
Another first: A bachelor when first taking office, he was the first president to be married in the White House. His bride, Frances Folsom Cleveland, the daughter of an old friend and colleague, was at 21 the youngest first lady in history and only the second to have graduated from college.
(And just to top it off, although this is one weighty matter Mr. Pafford doesn’t discuss, after William Howard Taft, Grover Cleveland was our second-heaviest president. Before making his first political mark as mayor of Buffalo, N.Y., Cleveland lived in New Jersey, where he retired. Today, there’s a substantial governor of New Jersey likely gearing up for a heavyweight presidential run. If he makes it, then Grover Cleveland’s second-place presidential ranking may be in jeopardy.)
During his two terms, President Cleveland was considered the leader of the Bourbon Democrats, who championed the gold standard and opposed high tariffs, free silver, government subsidies and foreign entanglements. In his first term, he gained universal praise for his personal integrity and his fight against the considerable and well-entrenched political bosses and machines of the time. In the process, he won the support of the reformist good-government Republican “mugwumps.”
At the beginning of his second term, however, the country was hit with a severe and lingering depression, which in the eyes of many, among them the growing agrarian and free-silver wing of his own party led by William Jennings Bryan, demanded strong federal action. Also adding to the turmoil of the period was Chicago’s Pullman strike, which launched players like Eugene V. Debs onto the national stage and led to troops under the command of Gen. Nelson Miles, the old Indian fighter and foe of Geronimo, being deployed to the streets of Chicago.
Despite the spreading unrest that would soon split the Democratic Party, President Cleveland adhered to the fiscally conservative principles that shaped his philosophy of governance. That philosophy is succinctly summed up in a sentence taken by Mr. Pafford from a presidential veto statement: “[T]he lesson should be constantly enforced that, though the people support the government, the government should not support the people.”
Abroad, there were threats and upheavals in Cuba, Venezuela, Samoa and Hawaii, as the imperialist imperative continued to spread globally. Aside from a near-confrontation with Germany over Samoa, to which “Cleveland reacted strongly,” Mr. Pafford points out, “Like most Americans, Cleveland had little interest in projecting the power of the United States beyond North America” — something that would change dramatically with the dawn of the Progressive Era, just down the road.
In the end, concludes Mr. Pafford in this strongly written and straightforward survey of the Cleveland years, “Cleveland’s greatest achievement was holding the line against the inflationary policies of those who clung to the illusion that inflating the money supply would increase prosperity for those experiencing difficult times. Cleveland won the battle, but the war continues to this day . The dollar was sound in Cleveland’s day and for decades after. It can be done again.”
Although Cleveland’s attributes and accomplishments may not quite reach the Ronald Reagan great-president level, writes Mr. Pafford, “He was a strong-willed man who did not flinch at challenges to his principles and policies . [A]s mayor, as governor, and as president, he mastered his office with a single-minded determination, dedication to duty, and absolute integrity.”
If that’s not enough, there’s this from a seconding speech delivered at the 1884 convention by Civil War Gen. (and former House member) Edward Stuyvesant Bragg, who declared that people respected Cleveland “not only for himself, for his character, for his integrity and judgment and iron will, but they love him most for the enemies he has made.”
John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement” (Wiley, 2007).