In many ways, the election of 2016 looks similar to the election of 1892 with a primary difference: a man was running that you’d be proud to vote for, Grover Cleveland. One of the lesser known Presidents in our history and one that is treated like a footnote in many school curriculums, has plenty of relevant wisdom to impart during this turbulent campaign season. Grover Cleveland was a president with strong principles and a distinct understanding of his place in the government.
Grover Cleveland earned the nickname The Guardian President because of his unprecedented use of the veto; Cleveland, over his two terms would use the veto more than twice as often as all of his predecessors combined. Cleveland didn’t view his job, as the president, as one that should advocate for specific legislation but, to protect the American people from bad legislation. This conviction caused a significant amount of controversy over the course of his presidency during which he vetoed legislation such as several pension bills for Civil War Veterans. His most famous veto however, was exercised on the Texas Seed Bill. During the drought of 1887, legislation was sent to Cleveland’s desk to approve the purchase of seed grain to be distributed to farmers as relief. He vetoed this bill and offered the following observation:
I can find no warrant for such an appropriation 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. A prevalent tendency to disregard the limited mission of this power and duty should, I think, be steadily resisted, to the end that the lesson should be constantly enforced that, though the people support the Government, the Government should not support the people.
Grover Cleveland was one of the last president’s to display, through his actions as the executive, a real disdain and suspicion for a powerful central government. At a time when our candidates are promising everything from free child care to free college; from expanded nationalized health care to jobs sponsored by government it would be prudent to look to the Guardian and remember his restraint. His preference for Constitutionally limited government over the easy, and politically expedient, answer of using the government to solve problems that it was never designed to address, seems to speak directly to our time where we don’t have a single candidate willing to acknowledge the true and intended scope of the federal government. We have, for many decades, eschewed the kind of restraint practiced by Grover Cleveland, and many of his forebears; we should be considering the lessons of their actions, and begin to take measured actions to reign in our out of control government spending and priorities.
As in matters of domestic policy Grover Cleveland was equally reserved in foreign matters. In his foreign policy, Grover Cleveland was a non-interventionist and is duly credited for reestablishing the Monroe doctrine during the boundary dispute between Britain and Venezuela.
Two events dominate the portrait of Cleveland’s foreign policy during his time as President: the annexation of Hawaii and boundary dispute between Great Britain and Venezuela. These two events standout prominently against the backdrop of our current election and the foreign policy being offered by every single one of the major candidates in 2016. From Grover Cleveland’s perspective, territorial expansion was a relic of a bygone era and he supported free trade with the nation of Hawaii. However, in the four years during which Cleveland was out of office, unrest grew among the sugar growers on the islands and, without the approval of the Commander in Chief, marines stormed the island and overthrew Queen Liliuokalani. Immediately after returning to office for his second term, Cleveland withdrew a treaty for annexation that had been sent to the Senate by his predecessor. Later in the same year, Cleveland would address the Congress with his thoughts on the annexation:
I suppose that right and justice should determine the path to be followed in treating this subject. If national honesty is to be disregarded and a desire for territorial expansion or dissatisfaction with a form of government not our own ought to regulate our conduct, I have entirely misapprehended the mission and character of our government and the behavior which the conscience of the people demands of their public servants.
Although this is a battle that Cleveland would ultimately lose, his wisdom is prescient in a time when regime change and humanitarian wars are not only norm but, the expectation of our leaders. Of the three candidates that will be on the ballot in all 50 states in November they all believe in some adulteration of our military forces, whether it be: humanitarian wars, regime change, or simply aggressive displays of America’s military might where our interests aren’t explicitly served; we are being offered three bad options when it comes to the future of the United States military.
On the other side of the military coin: Grover Cleveland was not against a show of force where, as defined by the Monroe Doctrine, it was critical to our national interest. When Britain and Venezuela fell into dispute over the boundary between Venezuela and British Guiana, Cleveland asserted the United States right to intervene and cited the Monroe Doctrine as justification. Although Britain was resistant to US involvement, Venezuela had long been imploring the US government for assistance in the dispute. While Venezuela had been referencing the Monroe Doctrine as justification for US involvement, Britain did not recognize its legitimacy, and they made their position clearly known. However, Cleveland acted with strength and purpose and would ultimately go on to win this battle. The arbitration played out primarily in favor of British Guiana but, American arbitration of the dispute established the United States as a world power. In the time between then and the election of 2016, we have strayed far and wide from the Monroe Doctrine’s limited and specific scope of American interest. It seems, there is no dispute too petty, too uninteresting, or too expensive that in which the United States is currently unwilling to involve itself. We fight the wars of other countries and have established ourselves as the policemen of the world. If we were to, instead, reassign our predominately offensive military strategies to defensive ends, we would be better served financially, as well as defensively.
Grover Cleveland rose to prominence in a time of great change in our nation. There were those, many of whom were in his own party, that would have like to see him take on a more activist role in government. There were also many that found his adherence to the Constitution and his restraint in use of government to be antiquated and damaging. In a time when we find ourselves electing politicians who promise to fix all of our problems; ensure our happiness; and guarantee our safety, at the expense of our liberty, we would be well advised to look to the example of The Guardian President, one of the last men to occupy the office and faithfully execute the oath in which he swore to uphold the Constitution. Cleveland’s Presidency was marked by an admirable restraint and an appreciation for the limited power of the federal government and, specifically the executive branch. Grover Cleveland was far from a perfect man, but he was a man that is all too often overlooked in history as an “also ran” when he has a great deal of wisdom to impart today.
By Nicholas James