The Last President Worth Voting For?

One of my colleagues, Richard Gamble, calls Grover Cleveland “the last President worth voting for.” I would make a case for Ronald Reagan, Calvin Coolidge, and William Howard Taft, but Cleveland certainly was, as Troy Senik puts it in his A Man of Iron, the last Democrat “to embrace the classical liberal principles of the party’s founder, Thomas Jefferson.”

Senik, a media man and speechwriter for George W. Bush, makes a strong case for the restoration to public memory of the forgotten twenty-second (and twenty-fourth) President. He hits the nail on the head when he argues that we forget Cleveland because he does not meet the expectations that contemporary Americans have for the presidency. By pre-twentieth-century standards, Senik argues, he was great before the progressives established “the pathological way we’ve come to think about the office.”

I often ask my students if they can name any President between Grant and Theodore Roosevelt. If they can’t, I tell them that it’s a good thing that they can’t. The Founders expected that, absent crises, Presidents should carry out the limited executive functions derived from the Constitution. This Cleveland did. Ironically, Woodrow Wilson, one of the promoters of the modern presidency, recognized this. In 1897 he paid Cleveland the backhanded compliment of calling him “the sort of president that the makers of the Constitution had vaguely in mind.”

Senik notes that Cleveland has not been completely neglected. He “has become a minor icon for modern-day libertarians (and sympathetic conservatives).” One thinks here of the first narrative chapter of Robert Higgs’ esteemed Crisis and Leviathan. In the midst of the greatest economic crisis before the Great Depression, and the most severe domestic crisis since the Civil War, Cleveland resisted the temptation to use the emergency to expand federal power. Rather, he protected the gold standard, put down the Pullman strike, and only let a punitive income tax (the price he had to pay for a reduced tariff) become law without his signature.

He also stood athwart late-nineteenth-century American imperialism, preventing the annexation of the Sandwich Isles (Hawaii) while he could. As Higgs put it, “The crisis of the 1890s, the last major battle in which the forces of classical liberalism won a clear victory, serves as an illuminating background against which the crises of the 20th century stand out in bold relief.” Cleveland believed that the Constitution limited the federal government to genuinely national objects and the public good. Senik observes that Cleveland’s view of the “public good bore a remarkable resemblance to the way economists use that term today”—things like national defense, roads, the postal service, that everyone benefits from and which there is no convenient way to apportion costs among users.

Those who do remember Cleveland celebrate his personal honesty and integrity above all. Allan Nevins subtitled his 1932 biography (upon which Senik relies appropriately) A Profile in Courage. Senik scrutinizes and upholds the reputation. In a family that just about had the Presbyterian ministry in its DNA (the New Jersey native and New York adult was fundamentally a New Englander, Senik claims), Cleveland kept “at arm’s length from organized religion.”

But he could be as moralistic as that other deracinated Presbyterian scion, Woodrow Wilson. Senik does not skirt Cleveland’s alleged and real moral lapses. He didn’t dodge the Civil War draft; with a widowed mother and siblings to support, he hired a substitute. Though always a Democrat, he was a loyal Unionist and Lincoln supporter. Cleveland became notorious for having fathered a child out of wedlock (“Ma, ma, where’s my pa? Gone to the White House, ha, ha ha!” the Republicans sang in the 1884 campaign). In a sense, he hired a substitute again, providing financial support for his bastard son. But Senik dispels most of the lurid opposition-research rumors about the affair and concludes (as much as the extant evidence will allow) that Cleveland behaved at least moderately decently. And, while certainly not “woke” by today’s standards, he was remarkably liberal on the race question when “white supremacy” really meant something in American politics, especially in the Democratic party.

But one of the most appealing aspects of Senik’s book is his analysis of the costs of Cleveland’s occasional displays of moral intransigence. The stout Buffalonian often displayed an irresponsible disregard for the circumstances in which he stood or the practical consequences of his stances. In a word, he sometimes lacked prudence, the most important virtue in a statesman. In 1888, for example, he determined to make the tariff the issue in the campaign. He devoted his entire 1887 annual message to Congress to this one topic. (At well over twenty thousand words, it probably would have taken over three hours to deliver—absent any applause interruptions. But in those days Presidents did not address Congress in person—another mark of the pre-imperial presidency.) “What is the use of being elected or re-elected unless you stand for something?” Cleveland told his worried entourage. Senik observes, “There was a great deal of courage in this gambit—and a great deal of foolishness.” It was the first of many missteps in his bungled re-election campaign.

This is a remarkable “crossover” book about Grover Cleveland. It was not written by an academic, or for academics, but it contains much that the professoriate will benefit from.

Cleveland’s electoral campaigning—or lack thereof—also shows an arguably hidebound traditionalism. Even as American politics became more democratized in the 19th century, candidates—especially incumbents—were not supposed to campaign personally. This reflected the Founders’ fear of a “plebiscitary presidency”:  the claim that presidents embodied the sovereign people and were thus sovereign themselves. Andrew Jackson presented this specter of an American Caesar or Bonaparte, but his lieutenant, Martin Van Buren, enabled the candidate to be subordinated to a disciplined party, which managed the campaign.

Though the Jacksonian Democrats embraced a powerful presidential role, the post-Civil War Republicans, descendants of the legislative-supremacist Whigs, began to adopt modern presidential campaign tactics. “The time will not be far distant,” Whig Charles Francis Adams warned in 1841, “when [nominees] will take the field in person, and solicit the people’s votes.” Republican James G. Blaine, defeated by Cleveland in 1884, “adopted a style still novel in that day, barnstorming the country to deliver speeches,” while Cleveland observed “the traditional strictures on a presidential candidate.”

In 1888 the Republicans adopted the “front porch campaign,” usually associated with William McKinley in 1896. Most today regard this tactic as quaint and conservative, but it was actually a bold and effective innovation. Harrison entertained some 300,000 auditors, and the mass media of the day (newspapers) distributed the speeches nationwide. “As for Cleveland,” Senik writes, “he had… nothing.” Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson would take personal campaigning to the next level in 1912. William Howard Taft maintained Cleveland’s reticence (Senik notes the Cleveland-Taft parallels), and the progressives swept the field. Especially in an election as close as that of 1888 (Cleveland won the popular vote), some campaign flexibility could have prevented “the undoing of the legacy of the [first] Cleveland administration.”

It was especially in foreign policy that Cleveland displayed what is today called “virtue signaling.” His attempt to keep Hawaii independent was quixotic; there was almost no chance that this archipelago (like the Philippines later) could survive in the late 19th-century world of predatory European (and Japanese) powers. Likewise, his defense of the rights of Venezuela against the British in 1895 demonstrated “an overly legalistic view of what were, at their core, pure power struggles; a disposition toward moral grandstanding.” Here again, he resembled Woodrow Wilson, though Cleveland sought to preserve the foreign policy of Washington’s Farewell Address, while Wilson took the US toward Kantian global idealism.

Do Cleveland’s personal traits provide enough material for historical greatness? Senik’s conclusion on this point is worth considering: “It has become fashionable in recent years to imagine that character is a superfluous trait in our political leaders…. The theory is not totally unfounded. Indeed, the American system was built to withstand mediocre leadership.” John F. Kennedy was probably the first President with severe personal moral defects, though the media largely covered them up. Bill Clinton began to inure us to the idea that character doesn’t matter. In 2016 we all reaped what liberals, who chided Trump supporters for their support of the character-impaired New Yorker, had sown in 1998. Yes, the Constitution assumed that “enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm,” as Publius put it in Federalist 10. But one can reasonably worry that, while the Founders built on “low but solid ground,” they didn’t build on Clinton-Trump-level lows.

Senik’s accounts of the political battles of the Cleveland era are admirably judicious. Though he pitches to a conservative-libertarian audience, many sincere liberals would find nothing partisan in his conclusions. He is bold enough to suggest that Cleveland’s opposition to the 1890 Lodge “Force Bill,” a measure to protect black voting rights in the South, was not entirely racist or partisan. He admits that the causes of the mayhem of the Pullman Strike, which prompted Cleveland to send in federal troops to break it, remain “contested to this day.” He similarly weighs the pros and cons of the gold standard, where Cleveland’s anti-inflationary commitment to sound money and the sanctity of contract did not consider the injustice of gold-standard deflation.

This is a remarkable “crossover” book. It was not written by an academic, or for academics, but it contains much that the professoriate will benefit from. I do not understand, though, when explanatory footnotes appear on almost every other page, why the endnotes could not be placed there. Senik’s literary style might not be to everyone’s taste. It is lively and puckish. “H. L. Mencken could be a real pain in the ass” is certainly among the most memorable opening sentences in a political biography. (Mencken had little good to say about any American politician but admired Cleveland). But his flamboyance abates as the narrative proceeds and is quite sober by midpoint. He delights in historical details that some might find trivial. (So do I. When Cleveland arrived in Buffalo, it was a boom town, growing rapidly due to the Erie Canal. Its droves of prostitutes produced the song “Buffalo Gals,” making a viewing of It’s a Wonderful Life never the same). But the occasional factual and stylistic errors are not worth mentioning, and hardly mar an admirable work of critical narrative biography. Few works with the potential to reach a popular audience are as attentive to and appreciative of the fundamentals of American constitutionalism.