Book Review: The Forgotten Conservative: Rediscovering Grover Cleveland by John M. Pafford, Regnery, 2013
Few Presidents of the United States have been so thoroughly self-conscious about applying the Constitution to their calling as Chief Executive, than “Honest Grover.” In the perennial list of great or near great Presidents issued by academic historians, Cleveland usually ranks below the middle. One of the reasons for that seems to be that he did not try to expand the power of the Federal Government, create new runaway bureaucracies, micromanage the economy, take bribes for favors, or sign off on vote-buying government giveaways. Grover Cleveland is the subject of several excellent biographies especially Allen Nevins’ Grover Cleveland: A Study in Courage in 1932, but he remains unknown to most Americans today. Thus, the need to rediscover the 22nd and 24th President of the United States, a need requited in this new political biography.
Raised in a devout Christian family, Stephen Grover learned his Bible and his catechisms, knowledge that would be helpful to him throughout his life. His first elected office was as Sheriff of Buffalo, New York, traditionally considered a den of political corruption and bribery. It also presented daunting challenges that a young lawyer would likely find distasteful. The law said the sheriff was responsible for the execution of malefactors convicted of capitol crimes, and Grover carried out his duty literally. His honesty and diligence led to the governor’s chair, prompted by fellow Democrats and reformist Republicans looking to dismantle corruption in high places, regardless of party.
Elected President of the United States in 1884, Cleveland became the only Democrat between James Buchannan and Woodrow Wilson to lead the nation, and he was probably the most Constitutionally savvy since John Tyler. Cleveland would veto more bills than all his predecessors combined, citing lack of authorization by the Constitution. He advocated the gold standard, tried to protect Hawaii from imperialistic American jingoes, came down hard on organized labor when it turned violent, and fought for fairness to the American Indians. His admonition to the nation that “while the people should patriotically and cheerfully support their government, its functions do not include the support of the people” would today raise outcries of shock, outrage, and ad hominem irrationality galore. Unfortunately, so would his timely reminder of God’s Providence proclaimed in his second inaugural: “Above all, I know there is a Supreme Being who rules the affaires of men and whose goodness and mercy have always followed the American people, and I know He will not turn from us now if we humbly and reverently seek His powerful aid.”
Cleveland, however, was swimming against the tide of Progressivism that was engulfing his party and, though he won his second term in office, a severe economic downturn hit, resulting in his party abandoning sound money and turning to a new leader in William Jennings Bryan. The Republicans won the next four elections. No longer in office, Cleveland retired to live out his life in the quiet and intellectually stimulating environment of Princeton, New Jersey, where he is buried in a modest grave which simply has his name and dates carved on it. He was a modest, honest, forthright, and courageous Conservative man and President, whose example could well bear repeating in our own day.
Originally posted September 8, 2013 at The American History Guild