The Magazine

Recounting Cleveland

Our underrated 22nd -- and 24th -- president

Dec 4, 2000, Vol. 6, No. 12 • By ALVIN S. FELZENBERG
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Cleveland opposed tariffs because they provided politicians with the means of dispensing favors. He saw surpluses as temptations to bribe voters, reward friendly constituencies, and, worst of all, spend public moneys for the benefit of only some. Funds taken in by the government in excess of its costs were an "indefensible extortion and a culpable betrayal of American fairness and justice."

Even when he deviated from his principles, it was for the sake of a greater good. Cleveland sent 4,000 federal troops to Chicago to break the Pullman strike in 1894. A believer in arbitration, he had asserted that the federal government should not weigh in on such matters. He justified this intervention, though, on the need to keep interstate commerce and mail deliveries flowing.

Cleveland showed an enlightened attitude toward Native Americans. He favored dispersing reservation lands as private property to Indian families, improving education, and extending citizenship. Unlike his Republican opponents, however, he was unwilling to enforce the voting rights awarded emancipated slaves. During his second term, the Supreme Court handed down Plessy v. Ferguson ("separate but equal"), which he supported.

Throughout his public life, Cleveland displayed an integrity rare in the annals of the presidency. He confided to a friend after losing in 1888 that he did not want to be reelected without -- as some had urged -- letting the public know where he stood on the tariff question. "Perhaps I made a mistake, from the party standpoint," he said, "but, damn it, it was right."

Speaking to a gathering of students at the University of Michigan, Cleveland distilled his philosophy of government:

Interest yourself in public affairs as a duty of citizenship, but do not surrender your faith to those who discredit and debase politics by scoffing at sentiment and principle, and whose political activity consists in attempts to gain popular support by cunning devices and shrewd manipulation.

This remains good advice for anyone following the machinations that have been going on in Florida weeks after Election Day.

Alvin S. Felzenberg, a visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation, writes, comments, and lectures on the American presidency.