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The Forgotten Conservative By John M. Pafford

John M. Pafford

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On October 21, 2014
Last modified:October 21, 2014


At least eight biographies of Grover Cleveland have been written, most far more extensive than this one. However, for the reader whose knowledge of Cleveland is limited, as was this reviewer’s, it is sufficient. Or it could promote a desire to know more.



The Forgotten Conservative
John M. Pafford

At least eight biographies of Grover Cleveland have been written, most far more extensive than this one. However, for the reader whose knowledge of Cleveland is limited, as was this reviewer’s, it is sufficient. Or it could promote a desire to know more.

The author sketches Cleveland’s early years but, as the title indicates, his focus is on Cleveland’s political life. Cleveland was the Democrat nominee elected sheriff of Erie County (NY) in 1870. In 1881 party leaders in Buffalo looked for an honest candidate to support for mayor. Corruption was endemic in both political parties and Democrats took the opportunity to use the widespread discontent to elect one of their own. They nominated Cleveland and he won with the support of reform-minded Republicans. He endeavored to clean up municipal government, the task he was elected to perform.

In the 1882 race for governor, a fractured Republican Party worked in the Democrats’ favor. They nominated Cleveland who won again with votes from reform-minded Republicans.

Cleveland had barely settled into his new office when he became his party’s nominee for president in 1884. A number of prominent reform Republicans, unable to approve of the ethically challenged Republican ticket of Blaine and Logan, supported Cleveland. It is unfortunate that Cleveland is remembered, if he is remembered at all, for the sex scandal that erupted during the campaign. He deserves better.

Cleveland did not deny his affair with Maria Halprin. But that he promised to marry her and refused after she became pregnant was disputed. Halprin was no innocent and Cleveland was not alone in partaking of her favors.

Cleveland’s Republican opponent had problems of his own. The New York Herald mirrored the prevailing attitude:

We are told that Mr. Blaine has been delinquent in office but blameless in private life, while Mr. Cleveland has been the model of official integrity, but culpable in his personal relations. We should therefore elect Mr. Cleveland to the public office which he is so well qualified to fill, and remand Mr. Blaine to the private station which he is admirably suited to adorn.

On November 4, Cleveland was elected president. It was the first time in twenty-eight years, that a Democrat was president. The author comments on Cleveland’s meteoric rise from relative obscurity to chief executive. But it occurs to this reviewer that, unlike the current occupant of the office, Cleveland had an accessible past and a record of public service to commend him. The author spends several paragraphs extolling Cleveland’s stalwart Christian faith, and his commitment to individual liberty and free markets.

But the most telling accolade came from the seconding speech delivered by Edward Stuyvesant Bragg at the nominating convention. Bragg declared that people respected Cleveland “not only for himself, for his integrity and judgment and iron will, but they love him most of all for the enemies he has made.” And he made them in abundance.

Cleveland was dedicated to civil service reform at a time when political patronage was the order of the day. He supported the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act, passed by the Republicans in 1883. He retained capable Republicans not protected by the Pendleton Act. Office-hungry Democrats “in the wilderness for almost a generation” were not pleased. He battled with Congress over pensions for Union military who had suffered war injuries. The pension system had become corrupt with the number making claims soaring 500%. Cleveland signed more pensions bills than he vetoed, but he was adamant about refusing fraudulent claims, making some powerful political enemies.

Cleveland had to contend with a divided Congress. Republicans controlled the House and held a 41 to 34 majority in the Senate. Without a cooperative Congress, Cleveland saw fit to exercise his veto power four hundred and fourteen times – more than twice the total of all his predecessors combined – making enemies within both parties.

Among the bills Cleveland vetoed was one that would have provided ten thousand dollars to purchase seed grain for Texas farmers who had lost crops in a drought. The president used the occasion to articulate his commitment to limited government, concluding that he could find no warrant for such an appropriation in the Constitution:

A prevalent tendency to disregard the limited mission of this power and duty should, I think, be steadily resisted, to the end the lesson should be constantly enforced that, though the people support the government, the government should not support the people.

The exigencies of office did not prevent Cleveland from courting and marrying Francis Folsum, the daughter of his former law partner. When Oscar Folsum was killed in an accident in 1875, he left a widow and an 11-year-old daughter, but no will. The court appointed Cleveland administrator of the estate.

During the intervening years the daughter grew up and Cleveland’s role as family friend changed to suitor. They were married the year after Frances graduated from Wells College. At twenty-one she was the youngest first lady in history and a very popular one. Pafford describes her as pretty, skillful, charming and witty.

The most contentious issue of Cleveland’s first term and especially of his second, was the increase in the money supply due to the Bland-Allison Act passed over Rutherford Hayes’s veto in 1878. The act required the U.S. government to purchase and mint between two and four million dollars’ worth of silver each month, increasing the money supply regardless of economic growth and lowering the value of the dollar, producing inflationary pressures.

As is now the case, increasing the money supply seemed a way to pump up a deflating economy and repay debts with depreciated dollars. Cleveland disagreed, but tried unsuccessfully to get Congress to repeal the bill.

By 1888, the economy and a waning constituency worked against Cleveland. He opposed high tariffs, free silver, inflation, and subsidies to businesses, farmers and veterans. These principled positions proved politically costly.

William Harrison, the Republican nominee, supported veterans and advocates of high tariffs. Harrison was from Indiana, an important swing state. Cleveland’s home state of New York, with its 36 electoral votes, would be the key to victory. But New York Governor David Hill thought otherwise. Cleveland had refused to support Hill’s reelection because he considered him “lacking in honor and integrity.” Hill returned the favor.

Harrison carried 20 states with 233 electoral votes. Cleveland carried 18 states with 168 electoral votes. A shift of 14,000 votes would have returned him to the White House.

Refusing to engage in ‘what ifs’ Cleveland got on with what remained of his term.
His fourth annual message to Congress was generally up beat about the state of the nation, but he expressed some concerns. Cleveland’s first term had been a period of dynamic growth and industrialization. But it was also a period of exploitation and hardship for many.

The gulf between employers and employees is constantly widening, and classes are rapidly forming, one comprising the very rich and powerful, well in another other toiling poor… We discover the existence of trusts, combinations, and monopolies, while the citizen is struggling far in the rear or is trampled to death beneath an iron heel.

No one can doubt Cleveland’s dedication to limited government, but he clearly understood that a free market requires a foundation of moral principles. “He was coming to recognize the growing threat to justice and freedom from concentrated wealth unrestrained by integrity.” Though a staunch believer in free markets, “he became convinced of the need for the federal government’s intervention in economic matters in order to preserve the freedom of the market.”

Cleveland’s return to private life lasted only until the next presidential election. With Republicans in control of the executive and both houses of Congress, pension spending had increased rapidly. A high tariff was enacted followed by a sharp increase in consumer prices. Surplus revenues from higher tariffs provided the wherewithal for increased federal spending, which reached one billion dollars for the first time in the nation’s history.

The Sherman Silver Purchase Act dramatically increased the amount of silver bought by the government. It was paid for with paper currency redeemable in either gold or silver. Many chose gold rather than the depreciating silver and those who held silver exchanged it for gold, seriously depleting government gold holdings.

Cleveland was nominated on the first ballot at the 1892 Democrat National Convention. His running mate was Adlai Stevenson of Illinois, grandfather of the Adlai Stevenson who lost the 1952 and 1956 elections to Dwight Eisenhower. Stevenson was nominated to placate the free silver wing of the party.

Tammany Hall political operatives attempt to exchange Tammany machine support for patronage and muted attacks from pro-Cleveland newspapers indicated ignorance of Cleveland’s character. His response was not what was expected:

I will issue a declaration to the electors of the state telling them the proposition you have made to me and the reasons why I’m not able to accept it. I will ask them to choose between us. Such is my confidence in the people that before the weekends, I believe that your machine will be in revolution against you.

Tammany Hall backed down and supported the Democrat ticket.

Cleveland’s second term coincided with the Panic of 1893 and a severe national depression. Rather than responding with government programs, Cleveland stuck to his belief that paternalism was damaging to the national character and that state governments and private charities were the constitutional sources for assistance. He concentrated on stabilizing the economy by returning to the gold standard and preventing inflation. William Jennings Bryan pulled the Democrat Party to the left pushing conservatives toward the Republican Party. The political realignment that resulted launched the progressive era from which the nation has yet to recover. Cleveland’s second term is too full of significant events, national and personal, to discuss in the detail they require in this review. It was a tumultuous four years of both domestic and foreign challenges.

In 1896 progressives controlled the Democrat Convention and nominated Bryan. Bryan refused to make any concessions to party conservatives, an attitude that would cost him the general election. This reader was reminded of the 1972 Democrat Convention that nominated George McGovern. As in 1896, party radicals controlled key convention positions at the expense of elected officials and core constituencies. Like the Bryan progressives of 1896; McGovern radicals alienated voters, paving the way for a Republican victory.

Pafford reminds readers that Cleveland won the popular vote in three consecutive presidential elections. He was the only one other than Franklin Delano Roosevelt to do so. (Cleveland lost the electoral college in 1888, one of only three men in history to win the popular vote and lose the presidency.)

The author concludes with an Epilogue– recapping the lives of Cleveland’s widow and their four children– and an Afterword in which he discusses Cleveland’s ranking among American presidents. Pafford and others rank Cleveland in the “near great category” somewhere between 8 and 12. But a highlight of the book is the Appendix that contains “The Independence of the Executive,” a lecture Cleveland gave at Princeton College in 1896. The former president demonstrated that not only had he read the Constitution, but that he had an astute grasp of its content and applications.

On balance this is an interesting and politically insightful book, although an abbreviated one. Fourteen pages of pictures, including colorful political cartoons, are a bonus. It is unfortunate, however, that Pafford’s repeated interjections extolling Cleveland’s honesty, integrity and character cross into hagiography. It would have been preferable, at least in this reviewer’s opinion, had Pafford allowed the historical record to speak for itself, for it does so admirably without need of affirmations.


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