Monday, February 20, 2017

President's Day: What's the Deal with Grover Cleveland?

This is Grover Cleveland.  It is not a picture of me taken from the year 2045.

So, every President's Day (here in the U.S.) I try to write up a President of the United States, and some years I base my post on having had read a book or two.  But years like this year - I do some Googling and try to quickly educate myself about a President I don't know much about.

Grover Cleveland is one of those Presidents you could probably pick out of a line-up thanks to the mustache and glaring eyes, but other than that - you may not have the slightest inkling of what he was about.  I know I didn't.

Interesting factoid:

Grover Cleveland was both the 22nd and 24th President of the United States.  And, if anyone should have an opinion on the Electoral College, it's Cleveland, who won the popular vote in three consecutive elections, but lost the electoral vote in 1888 to Benjamin Harrison, so Cleveland did not serve two consecutive terms.  But he was no quitter.

Born in New Jersey in 1837, Cleveland became an attorney around the age of 22.  He soon found himself the Assistant District Attorney of Erie County in New York.

One thing you'll note in current political discourse is that there's an absolute bit of historical amnesia or self-delusion about how the course of the political parties has changed over the years.  Today's GOP is hardly the GOP of the late 19th Century, any more than the Democrats of the era would find much in common with today's Dems.

Grover Cleveland was definitely a Democrat of his time when it came to policy and beliefs.  Very supportive of big business, very supportive of fiscal responsibility in tones that would make Paul Ryan all fuzzy inside.  But he was reform-minded when it came to the graft and corruption commonplace in New York politics.  This stance meant that in an exceeedingly short time he moved from Sheriff of Erie County (1871-873) to Mayor of Buffalo (1882) and then Governor of New York State (1883 - 1885).  He simply didn't play ball with the spoils system the way Tammany Hall was used to, and thus he didn't think government should either allow spoils contracts to friends nor break contracts for political expediency.

Nominated to the Presidency in 1885, Cleveland ran on his clean record and bashed Blaine for an older scandal.  But you may remember that Cleveland was the father of an illegitimate child, which was used against him (this is the 1880's, an age of propriety), but he owned up to it when the issue was raised and all was forgiven.

Carrying all four swing states in the election, Cleveland took office in 1885.  His New York background a firm lesson in how spoils systems worked and the moral high hand being a reform politician would give him, in the White House, he did not immediately swap out effective Republican employees, keeping many on while he reduced other positions, reflecting his desire to reduce the number of political hangers-on and cut bloat of political appointees.

His collision with his Republican congress and an interest in limited government meant he vetoed early and often.  He was a strong proponent of the Gold Standard (one of the huge issues of the era and something that makes me want to pound my head against a desk because the issue was so intractable for so long) and understood a reduced tariff would improve international commerce - pushing back against the Republican belief in a protectionist tariff (well, some things never change), but he was unable to convince the industrial powers change was a good idea and tariff reform dies on the vine.

While in office, Cleveland married the young Frances Folsom, the daughter of family friends.  She became quite popular as First Lady during both of Cleveland's terms.

Harrison was defeated in 1892, and the Clevelands returned to the White House.

Cleveland's second term began to see the forces at work that would form how we think of the Rooseveltian Progressive era.  1893 saw an economic depression, labor unrest (including a march on Washington by Western workers) and the Democrats' inability to deal with the changing forces led directly to years of Republican presidencies from McKinley to TR to Taft.

There's a whole lot more online about Cleveland, but he serves as a fascinating bridge from the mid-19th Century manner of government and right into the world of the Progressives.  It's not entirely surprising anyone was having a hard time changing with the convulsive impact of labor movements, industrialization, massive corporatization, and the US emerging (reluctantly) as a force on the global stage.

Here's to Grover, our 22nd AND 24th President, who looks like a stern neighbor who would instruct you not to play ball so close to his azaleas.

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