Grover Cleveland was undoubtedly the most classical liberal President the United States has ever had, but even he still committed many blunders.

Stephen Davies is a program officer at the Institute for Humane Studies and the education director at the Institute for Economic Affairs in London.

Editor’s Note

“Everything Wrong with the Presidents” series focuses on, as the title suggests, everything each president did wrong while in office. While many presidents enacted worthwhile, and even occasionally beneficial, policies, that’s not what these essays are about. Thus, silence regarding the good actions should not be taken as denial of their existence.

At first sight writing about what was wrong with Grover Cleveland from a classical liberal perspective may seem an impossible task. Personally honourable and forthright, he was the leading ‘Bourbon Democrat’ and so in favour of free trade, hard money and low government spending and against corruption and the spoils system, imperialism, and militarism. He was undoubtedly the most classical liberal President the United States has ever had. So, what’s not to like? Quite a lot actually. If we look at his record during his two non‐​consecutive terms and think about what this reveals about the nature of his politics (and those of his fellow Bourbon Democrats plus the Mugwump Republicans) we should realise that he personally embodied the limitations of the liberalism of his times. This explains why that politics ultimately failed and was supplanted by both the collectivist nationalism of the Republicans and the Progressive collectivism that captured the Democratic Party after 1896.

The great problem with Cleveland as President was that although his principles were sound his actual politics was almost entirely negative. It lacked a positive agenda. To draw a sporting analogy, it was all about playing defense rather than offense. As football fans will tell you a good defense is needed to stop the other team winning but to win yourself you need to have an offense that can score. The kind of politics and policies that Cleveland followed had some success in slowing down the agenda of his opponents but they did not shift the discourse or centre of political gravity. This was bad enough in his first term but his second proved to be a disaster for classical liberalism in the United States, when his kind of politics was found wanting in the aftermath of the Crisis of 1893, because of its lack of a positive element.

After a distinguished career in state level politics in New York, including a successful term as Governor, in 1884 he became the first Democrat to win the presidency since before the Civil War, largely because of significant numbers of Republicans refusing to support their party’s controversial nominee James G. Blaine. As President during his first term he did indeed show a significant shift from his Republican predecessors. In terms of appointments he resisted the workings of the ‘spoils’ system, a central part of American politics at that time. Instead of following the usual practice of replacing all of the public appointees made by the opposition party by loyalists of his own party he chose to appoint people mainly on the basis of competence and retained many Republican appointees. Later on as terms expired and retirements took their toll he did indeed tend to appoint more Democrats but again this was done on the basis of competence rather than party loyalty. In foreign policy he pulled back from the more expansionist approach of the Republicans, withdrawing from the Berlin Conference Treaty, which would have given the US guaranteed access to the Congo. In monetary policy he blocked moves to authorise the minting of silver which would have inflated the dollar (which at that time was gently deflating, in line with most other currencies). Most notably he used the veto power more frequently than any previous President, blocking many attempts to give handouts to special interests such as Civil War veterans and, famously, Texas farmers.

However, all of this was negative. It was a matter of resisting bad policies rather than strongly advocating positive reforms and good policy. There was no attempt for example to fundamentally attack the spoils system as opposed to simply not implementing it. The vetoing of special interest bills was not accompanied by a positive programme of shrinking the admittedly small US government of the time or of creating alternatives to government action. The one positive policy was modernisation of the US military and coastal defences. The limitations of Cleveland’s approach were most obvious in the area of trade. While resisting moves to increase tariffs he did not advocate their repeal: rather he argued for a revenue only tariff. After a great deal of effort he and the Congress were able to reduce the tariff – from 47% to 40%. Truly a case of labouring to bring forth a mountain and delivering a mouse.

The obvious response is to point out that he was faced by a Congressional majority that was hostile to his agenda. That however misses the point. The way to advance a political philosophy in politics and public debate is not merely to resist the bad ideas of the other side, necessary though that is, but to also advocate positive change and alteration of the way things are and to put forward the positive case for that philosophy. This has to be done in an effective way and it may not succeed in the short term. However, it is the way to shift the terms of debate and to bring things that were once unthinkable into the realms of the controversial but possible. What Cleveland’s first term revealed, given that he was indeed a thoroughgoing classical liberal for the time, was the degree to which that philosophy had lost the initiative in politics and had become purely negative and defensive.

All this became even more apparent in his second term, which was a turning point for classical liberalism in American politics and in a very bad way. Cleveland was narrowly defeated by Benjamin Harrison in his 1888 reelection bid. Four years later he comfortably regained office, so becoming the only President so far to serve two non‐​consecutuve terms and therefore have two Presidential numbers. His victory was partly due to a reaction against the increase in the Tarriff that had been put through under Harrison but also because of the rise of the Populist Party, which damaged the Republicans in Western States. This upsurge for the populists was a harbinger.

Almost as soon as Cleveland took office the Panic of 1893 struck and the US economy was plunged into a severe recession. This was almost certainly due to the monetary policy of the Harrison administration with significant minting of silver expanding the money supply dramatically and provoking a boom. It was Cleveland however who was left to clean up. His response, while principled, revealed even more dramatically than his first term had the limitations of classical liberal politics at that point in US history. He was able, after a monumental political struggle, to roll back the monetisation of silver and restore sound money but he was unable and unwilling to even float the idea of a radical reform of the monetary system to prevent the kinds of booms that had produced the Panic. More importantly his attempt to make some rollback of the tariff policy was completely gutted in the Senate at the behest of vested interests, most notably the US sugar industry. He refused to sign the law but did not veto it. In foreign policy he sought to block the overthrow of the monarchy in Hawaii but again was forced to back down. All of this and continuing labour unrest over the effects of the recession, with a series of major strikes, culminated in the Republican landslide in the midterm elections. Even more significantly the classical liberal element of the Democratic Party lost control of the Party in state after state.

What though could he have done? The answer is that he could have advocated a radical classical liberal policy. This would have involved, inter alia, systematic reform of the monetary system, a full throated attack on the protectionist policy, and firm opposition to the overseas expansionist policy of the Republicans. Above all it would have involved taking the side of labour and small producers against the politically connected large businesses that were the backbone of the Republican Party. In other words a programme of genuine radical and popular liberalism. It would not have succeeded in Congress but it would have presented a clear and positive alternative to the corrupt big state policy of the Republicans, which could have born fruit down the line.

However he did not do this and only sought to try and hold back the tide and preserve parts of the status quo. This revealed the degree to which classical liberalism at this point had become a status quo, conservative doctrine, that had lost the political initiative. That role, of advocating radical reform, now passed to the Populists and subsequently the Progressives. The results are well known. In 1896 William Jennings Bryan and the Populists gained control of the Democratic Party. The remaining classical liberals ran on a separate ticket but were crushed. (They managed to capture the nomination in 1904 but went down to a record defeat). The result of the 1896 election was a decisive one for McKinley and the Republicans who went on to take the US down the road of imperialism, active government, and favouritism to big business. Cleveland was a personally admirable man but his administration was the point where the kind of liberalism he embodied and articulated was tried and found wanting.

Further Reading

Beito, David T. & Beito, Linda Royster “Gold Democrats and the Decline of Classical Liberalism, 1896 – 1900” Independent Review 4 (2000) 555 – 575.

Brodsky, Alyn Grover Cleveland: A Study in Character . (Truman Talley Books, 2000).

DeSantis, Vincent P. “Grover Cleveland: Another Look” Hayes Historical Journal 3 (1980) 41 – 50.

Hoffman, Charles The Depression of the Nineties: An Economic History (Praeger, 1970).

Kelley, Robert Lloyd The Transatlantic Persuasion: The Liberal Democratic Mind in the Age of Gladstone (Knopf, 1969).

Nevins, Alan Grover Cleveland, A Study in Courage (Ishi Press, 2018)

Sturgis, Amy H. Presidents from Hayes Through McKinley: Debating the Issues in Pro and Con Primary Documents (Greenwood, 2003)