For many ordinary Americans, politics has become an unpalatable pastime, too distasteful to digest or follow. It seems incredible that in a country of 330 million, the foremost political leaders are Joe Biden and Donald Trump, two men of low character and of lower, if any, principles.
That may explain why Troy Senik’s biography of Grover Cleveland, A Man of Iron, arrives as such an unalloyed joy. Turning from cable news to Senik’s work is like emerging from a fetid swamp to find oneself alongside a pristine brook.
Many see in Cleveland our first and perhaps only outright libertarian president. He was a firm exponent of laissez faire economics, federalism, the gold standard, and anti-imperialism. Granted, to describe him as a libertarian runs the risk of over-simplification. His politics were more nuanced than that. For example, years before Teddy Roosevelt made conservation popular, Cleveland was setting aside forest land in Wyoming’s Grand Tetons, Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, and South Dakota’s Black Hills.
Still, the libertarian label is more accurate than not.
Underlying his libertarian principles was an extreme devotion to fiscal austerity. As Mayor of Buffalo, he announced his creed in an inaugural address so objectionable to the members of the politics-as-usual city council that midway through its reading, one member made a motion to stop the clerk from finishing it. “There is, or there should be, no reason why the affairs of our city should not be managed with the same care and the same economy as private interests,” he announced in his address. He inveighed against any unnecessary spending: “We believe in the principle of the economy of people’s money, and that when a man in office lays out a dollar in extravagance, he acts immorally by the people.”
Mayor Cleveland practiced what he preached. He vetoed any and all inappropriate spending measures, even one as popular and innocuous as an appropriation for the Fourth of July festivities of the Grand Army of the Republic: “The money should be a free gift of the citizens and taxpayers, and should not be extorted from them by taxation,” a very libertarian Cleveland explained.
What he practiced in Buffalo, he continued to practice in Albany. As Governor of New York, he vetoed a bill allowing county commissioners to erect soldiers’ monuments because it wasn’t “for a purpose connected with the safety and substantial welfare of the public.”
Aside from an extreme sense of fiscal austerity, Cleveland was a fervent strict constructionist in constitutional law. A bill crossed his desk lowering by half the fare for the New York City Elevated Railroad. The railway was owned and run by the robber baron Jay Gould, and the bill was immensely popular. Yet Cleveland vetoed it anyway, observing that the the fare had been set by contract between the State of New York and Gould, and Article I of the Constitution barred the states from “impairing the obligations of contract.” A young progressive Republican state legislator named Theodore Roosevelt who, like nearly all his colleagues, had voted for the bill, later admitted that Cleveland was right to veto it. He acknowledged “with shame” that he had voted for the bill “partly to a vindictive spirit toward those infernal thieves who have the Elevated Railroad in charge, and partly in answer to the popular voice in New York.”
Cleveland’s stubborn adherence to principle followed him from Buffalo to Albany to the White House. To get there, he had to survive one of the dirtiest campaigns in American history. Cleveland was accused of being a baby-stealing rapist. None of that was true, but it was true that he had fathered a child out of wedlock by a thirty-something widow, both participants being single, adult, and willing. In fact, Cleveland assumed financial responsibility for the child, and provided money for the mother to start a new life. He made no attempt to conceal any of this. His candor provided a vivid contrast to his opponent, James Blaine of Maine. To counter the assaults of Cleveland’s moral character, Democratic partisans spread the word that Blaine’s first child was born only three months after his wedding. It was hardly the stuff of scandals. By the time of the election, Mr. and Mrs. Blaine had been married for three decades and had raised half a dozen children, all but the first of whom had gestated for the requisite nine months. Yet Blaine, unlike Cleveland, could not allow the facts to stand for themselves. Instead, he tried to explain away his supposed indiscretion by asserting the silly and palpably false explanation that he and his wife had secretly married several months before the official ceremony. The contrast in candor worked to Cleveland’s advantage.
Once elected in 1884, Cleveland set out to prove himself to be, as Senik writes, “an administrator rather than a prime minister.” “The rights of government to exact tribute from the citizens is limited to its actual necessities,” he announced, “and every cent taken from the people beyond that required for their protection by the government is no better than robbery.”
In his personal life, he was as good as his word. He declined President Arthur’s invitation to stay at the White House before his inauguration, choosing a local hotel instead. He paid his own train fare for the trip from Albany to the nation’s capital.
President Cleveland followed the example set by Sheriff, Mayor, and Governor Cleveland in his work habits. In those days before construction of the Oval Office, he “lived above the store,” working out of an office in the living quarters. His typical workday began at 8 am and continued until 3 am. One reason for his grueling schedule was his insistence upon reading and evaluating each and every bill passed by Congress. Many of them were private bills awarding financial support to Civil War veterans who had failed to qualify for such aid from the Pension Bureau, often for good reason. For example, one private bill was for a veteran who claimed his sore eyes resulted from a Civil War case of diarrhea. The President audited them all, just as he did the bills awarding special favors to the railroads. As a result of his intense scrutiny, President Cleveland vetoed 414 congressional bills in his first term, twice as many as all of his predecessors combined.
Grover Cleveland won the popular vote for a second time in 1888, but he narrowly lost in the electoral college. There were conspiratorial rumors about a stolen election. Setting an example that would not always be followed by his successors, Cleveland accepted his loss with equanimity. When asked by journalists about the reason for his defeat, Cleveland responded: “It was mainly because the other party had the most votes.” (Perhaps, he should have said “the most votes where it mattered,” since Cleveland had the highest tally nationwide.)
By the time Cleveland returned to office after winning the popular vote for a third time, the nation’s economic situation had changed, and not for the better. The United States was in the midst of what we today call “the Panic of 1893.” In 1893, people called it “the Great Depression.”
Under Republican control of Congress, the prior administration had raised tariffs, causing businesses to stockpile foreign goods in anticipation of higher prices. This led to a trade deficit and a draw down of gold reserves. The so-called “Billion Dollar Congress” had increased spending, causing the budget surplus under Cleveland to dive into deficit territory. British banks raised interest rates, causing even more capital overseas.
Regardless of who was to blame for the Panic, a second laissez faire Cleveland administration, unwilling to expand government power to provide assistance, was fated to unpopularity. But Cleveland was steadfast. He remained convinced that public relief for the unemployed would do more harm than good. Instead, help would have to come from the private sector. “The friendliness and charity of our countrymen can always be relied upon to relieve their fellow citizens in misfortune,” he declared. “Federal aid in such cases encourages the expectation of paternal care on the part of the government and weakens the sturdiness of our national characters.”
Grover Cleveland, while still personally popular, was now out of step with his Party. In the midterm elections, the Democrats suffered what one leader called “the greatest slaughter of the innocents since the days of King Herod.” Their congressional presence shrank from 218 to 93. Of the 44 states in the Union, 24 did not have a single Democratic representative.
The Party that emerged from the shellacking was a different organization than the one that had nominated Cleveland three times. It was the Party of William Jennings Bryan, on its way to becoming the Party of Woodrow Wilson. Where Grover Cleveland saw a limited federal government constrained by an inviolable Constitution, the new leaders advocated an activist federal government deriving new and expansive powers from a living, breathing “waxen” Constitution.
Yet Cleveland’s reputation for honesty and principle remained untarnished. Senik believes he could have had his Party’s presidential nomination a fourth time in 1904 had he wanted it. But he did not.
Much of the reason for his continued prestige was, ironically, his unwillingness to pursue popularity. There were many avenues open to boosting Cleveland’s favorability ratings during his second term. He could have acquired Hawaii and Cuba; he could have taken the nation off the gold standard; he could have begun construction of a canal through Nicaragua. “Cleveland didn’t miss those opportunities because he was an inept president,” Senik notes. “He refused them because he thought they were wrong.”
This principled steadfastness endeared Cleveland to observers not known for their charity. H.L Mencken, for example, said upon the passing of Franklin Roosevelt: “He had every quality that morons esteem in their heroes.” But when Cleveland died, Mencken was kinder, noting: “We have had more brilliant Presidents than Cleveland … but we have never had one, at least since Washington, whose fundamental character was solider and more admirable.”
Mark Twain compared Cleveland favorably to then President Theodore Roosevelt, noting that the difference between them was “the contrast between an archangel and the Missing Link.”
Troy Senik, a former speechwriter for George W.Bush, admires his subject and clearly relishes telling his story. The book is rife with witticisms, some better than others, but all worth at least a grin. For example, we read that a young and impoverished Cleveland “was in such desperate need of a gift horse at that particular moment that it makes it all the more remarkable that he looked it in the mouth.” Describing New York state politics, we learn that “Tammany men, having grown appropriately porcine, were led to the slaughter at the next election.” During the interregnum between Cleveland’s two presidential terms, Mrs. Cleveland “may have been confident that her husband’s absence from power was merely a sabbatical, but word had yet to reach the other side of the marital bed.”
Grover Cleveland died in 1908. Fittingly, his last recorded words were: “I have tried so hard to do right.” In Troy Senik, our first apparently libertarian president has found a biographer who has tried so hard to do right by him.