[This book review was published in the Winter 2013 issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, pp. 491-500.]


Book Review


The Forgotten Conservative: Rediscovering Grover Cleveland

John M. Pafford

Regnery History, 2013


          The domination of the opinion-making culture in the United States for several decades has been such that most all of the men and women who are celebrated as “heroes” in modern America, other than sports and some entertainment personalities, are people of the Left.  There is a national holiday for Martin Luther King, Jr., despite all that is known (by those who care to know) about him; the celebrity of John F. Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline continues to burn brightly in the media even though there has for several years been a growing literature showing a darker side; as a racial leader, Cesar Chavez is an icon in the American southwest; and T-shirts and wall posters displaying the romantic visage of Che Guevara are chic in college environments.

By contrast, the diminishing mainstream of American life – the so-called “silent majority” – have few if any heroes, except perhaps Ronald Reagan.  (There are no T-shirts, say, with Bob Taft’s or Barry Goldwater’s pictures on them.)  That this is so makes it intellectually and culturally significant that an attempt is now being made to rectify the situation.  Reagan himself awakened an interest in President Calvin Coolidge, and now we see books calling attention to President Grover Cleveland.  We are told that this reflects a “new interest by conservative and libertarian scholars.”  Two recent books along these lines are the book reviewed here, John Pafford’s The Forgotten Conservative: Rediscovering Grover Cleveland (not surprisingly issued by Regnery, for many years a leading publisher on the American Right), and Ryan S. Walters’ The Last Jeffersonian: Grover Cleveland and the Path to Restoring the Republic (2012).  There are a number of other biographies of Cleveland, but the two just mentioned are those that see his life through the prism of limited government, free market philosophy. 

We should mention that “conservative” has long had a different meaning in the United States than in virtually any other place.  The word’s applications around the world are so varied that the context must always be taken into account.  In the United States today, the term has become almost meaningless because the philosophies or policies a given speaker may wish to denote when using it often conflict sharply with those that other users have in mind.  American “conservatives” are not now a unitary body, but include adherents to a variety of ideals such as religion (evangelical or Catholic), opposition to abortion, classical liberalism, libertarianism, and, for some, support for a gold standard – all united only by opposition to what they see as excessive governmental control in their respective areas of interest.   When Pafford writes of Cleveland as a “rediscovered conservative,” he has a distinctively American usage in mind, referring especially to Cleveland’s support for the gold standard, a reduction of tariffs, and a laissez-faire position on the role of government. 

It is worth noticing the abundance of books about Cleveland, because it seems that how Cleveland’s career and two terms as president of the United States are perceived today is largely a matter of the ideological predilections of any given author.  Henry Graff’s 2002 book, Grover Cleveland, in The American Presidents Series, for example, tells the basic account of Cleveland’s life just as Pafford’s does, but voices an occasional judgment from a twenty-first century social-democratic point of view.  Now we see Pafford also expressing an occasional judgment, but this time from the perspective just mentioned.   Rediscovering, as the title says, Cleveland as “the forgotten conservative,” Pafford differs from Graff, say, by seeing considerable merit in Cleveland’s veto of a small appropriation for the national government to provide seed grain to Texas farmers hit by a drought.  In his veto message, Cleveland famously articulated a premise basic to limited government ideology, very much at odds with the intimately interventionist philosophy of government that became prevalent in the twentieth century: “Though the people support the Government, the Government should not support the people.”  From the difference between Graff and Pafford, we see that though Cleveland has been dead for over a hundred years (he died in 1908), the meaning of his views and actions as president as seen today is very little dependent on him, but rather depends on the lens through which he is viewed.

It is significant that Pafford does not dig deeply into the far-reaching implications of the point made in Cleveland’s veto message.  Instead, he presumes that his book’s readers, having been attracted by the book’s title, share a consensus on what “conservatism” or “limited government” actually entail.  This is a presumption that can hardly withstand examination.  This reviewer gave a talk at Berea College many years ago on “the varieties of conservative thought,” and described the contradictory strands of thinking that went together to form what was called “conservatism.”  At that time, with the Cold War in progress, those clashing elements shared common ground in their opposition to Communism internationally and to what they saw as pressure toward socialism at home.  When the Soviet Union exploded, however, the cement disappeared and the lid was taken off, releasing the various philosophies to go their separate ways.  Now we see that the lack of philosophical consensus on the American Right is masked over by a reliance on broad generalities without specifics.  This is especially apparent even at the more superficial level of day-to-day politics and policy, where “regulation” is decried  many times over without pointing to any regulations in particular, government is “too big” without detailing what is to be done away with, and a federal government commandeering of the health care system is opposed with no attempt to educate the electorate about a preferred alternative.   When Pafford says something in Cleveland’s career was “conservative” without expounding on how, he is fully in line with this convenient gloss.  It allows his readers to bring to the book whatever they understand conservatism to be, or simply to accept the characterization without thinking. 

Given the reading habits of the American public, it is possible that the author and his publisher were aware that few of his readers would welcome historical or philosophical depth.  Such a readership will accept, tragically, only engaging vacuity.  For those who might wish a deeper examination, however, we will do well to give some attention in this review to at least some of the things in Grover Cleveland’s story that provoke thought.  If the book is perchance made the subject of a book club’s conversation, such issues can make good “discussion points.”  But before we examine things of that sort, it will be helpful to review in at least in brief what Cleveland’s life and presidencies involved.

Cleveland is best known, of course, as the only man to serve two non-consecutive terms as president of the United States.  He was first elected in 1884, becoming the first Democratic president since before the Civil War.  He won the popular vote nationally, but for him to win in the all-important electoral college,[1] he had to carry New York State.  He managed to do this when a third party (the Prohibition Party) took enough votes away from the Republican candidate, James Blaine, to deprive Blaine of the state’s votes in the electoral college.  Cleveland ran for reelection in 1884, and again won the popular vote, but this time lost New York State, and thus in the electoral college, succumbed to Republican Benjamin Harrison.  In 1892, he ran a third time, winning his second four-year term as president.

Cleveland’s rise in politics had been remarkably rapid.  In his early adult life, he served as an assistant district attorney in Buffalo, New York; lost an election in 1865 to become the district attorney; and thereafter was elected sheriff in 1870.   His meteoric ascendancy began in 1881 when he was elected mayor of Buffalo.  He served in that job for only a year before winning election to the New York State governorship in 1882.  We have just seen that he was elected president just two years later.

His position on issues.  We obtain an instructive overview of the issues that burned brightly in the United States in the late nineteenth-century when we note the positions taken by Cleveland:

A point that is emphasized by Pafford is Cleveland’s reputation for integrity and for holding steadfastly to principle.  An example is his position on the “spoils system” that had long prevailed under which the winning party replaced the existing officeholders with its own people.  Cleveland opposed that system, declaring that “public office is a public trust.”  He was among the leading advocates of “civil service reform.”  When in his second term he removed a number of carry-overs from the Harrison administration because of what he said was their respective incompetency, partisan activity or corruption, and the U.S. Senate, under Republican leadership, tried to bait him into shifting his rationale to one that would base his actions on the spoils system (thus embarrassing him as a hypocrite), Cleveland wouldn’t budge.  One of the highlights of the Pafford book is an appendix that contains a lecture Cleveland gave at Princeton University years later on “the independence of the executive.”  It is a masterful historical and legal defense of his removal of the Harrison holdovers and of the president’s Constitutional right to remove appointees without the concurrence of the Senate.  Not only does this writing display a spirited defense of a merit-based selection of officeholders that is consistent with Cleveland’s philosophy of non-partisan public service; it offers an intimate insight into Cleveland’s acuity and grasp of the Constitution.  It shows him to have been a highly intelligent man.

Various positions are among those that earn him the appellation “conservative” in keeping with Pafford’s variety of conservatism (which, we remind ourselves again, is very different from the European use of “conservative” or the highly disparate applications of the word in other world contexts).   Cleveland’s two principal issues were adamant support for the gold standard, which pitted him against the populist and silver-coinage faction in his own party; and reduction of the tariff to one that would be “for revenue only, not for protection.” 

We have already noted Cleveland’s veto of a bill to give emergency seed to Texas farmers, and in that there are at least three points relevant to conservatism: that the role of the federal government should be strictly confined to the powers enumerated for it in the Constitution; that government’s adoption of a paternalistic relation to the citizens will be damaging to the national character by breeding dependency and discouraging private charity; and that the federal government ought not to displace state governments, which should themselves address local needs if those are to be addressed at all. 

Respect for the role of the states in the U.S. federal system also applied to what was perhaps the principal racial issue of Cleveland’s day.  When the Supreme Court ruled that a state law calling for “equal but separate” facilities for the races was Constitutional, Cleveland kept the federal government out of it, believing segregation to be a state matter.  (His position on this did not reflect a personal animus toward blacks; indeed, he incurred “fierce reproaches” from some members of his own party for having the black leader Frederick Douglass among the guests at White House receptions.  Nor did he harbor an animus against women, even though “he never supported female suffrage.”)

One of the major concepts endorsed by the U.S. Supreme Court in the late nineteenth century in keeping with laissez-faire precepts was the “freedom of contract” doctrine.  Cleveland’s appointments to the Court reinforced that position, and he employed the freedom-of-contract rationale when as governor of New York he vetoed a bill that would limit the workday of streetcar personnel.

It is significant that when the economic Panic of 1893 struck early in Cleveland’s second term he did not institute a New Deal-type governmental response to bail out the economy.  He persisted with shifting from bimetallism to the gold standard even in the midst of the panic, and thought that the most important thing was to “protect sound money” rather than to welcome inflation.

He looked with favor upon immigration – provided it was consistent with assimilation not just into America’s overall culture but also into Christianity.  He vetoed a bill that would have banned adult immigrants if they were illiterate, considering it “too harsh”; but he favored limiting more Chinese immigration because he doubted the Chinese would assimilate. 

His policy toward American Indians signaled a reversal of a process that had gone on for three centuries in which, reflecting the pressure of a growing and spreading population, adventurers and settlers encroached on lands that had been vouchsafed to the Indians and then sought and obtained protection against Indian violence.  With the frontier at an end, there was no longer as much pressure on white politicians to step in (although there was some, as we see when Pafford tells us that “ranchers, land speculators, settlers, and anyone who had suffered from Indian raids protested”).  Cleveland put his foot down; when in 1885 General Sheridan reported to him “that two tribes had been cheated,” he ordered the encroaching ranchers out of Indian Territory, giving them forty days.  At the same time, he was not akin to our present-day multiculturalists, who consider it an affront to the dignity of minorities if they are not encouraged to continue their existing cultures: he wanted the assimilation of the Indian and “supported English as the medium of instruction in Indian schools.”

Cleveland is counted among the “anti-imperialists,” who resisted the impulse that became ascendant in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries for the United States to involve itself in problems throughout the world.  As president, he reversed President Harrison’s move toward annexing Hawaii.  He restored the queen to her throne after she had been removed from power by American intervention.  After William McKinley became president, Cleveland voiced his opposition to McKinley’s decision to annex the islands.  As things boiled over in Cuba, Cleveland opposed going to war with Spain, wanting the U.S. to remain neutral even amidst American anger over the sinking of the Maine, which public outcry blamed on Spain.  And yet, his views weren’t totally consistent with an opposition to foreign involvement.  He warned Germany not to take over Samoa, despite its great distance from the United States (although it may be somewhat relevant that Americans had a coaling station there, and so weren’t devoid of some interest).  In his last annual message to Congress, Cleveland expressed a rationale toward Spain and Cuba that was pregnant with possibilities for the sort of world meliorism that has captivated a good many Americans since the late nineteenth century.  Pafford tells us that the message warned Spain that if it did not install reforms in Cuba, “the time would come ‘in which our obligations to the sovereignty of Spain will be superseded by higher obligations.’”   Many years before, President John Quincy Adams had declared that America “would not go abroad in search of demons to destroy,” but Cleveland’s “higher obligations” were conceptually consistent with doing precisely that.

Additional items that merit discussion.  A book club can find much to discuss in each of the items just mentioned .  Additional points come to mind, though, that can provoke thought.

Cleveland demonstrated his much-vaunted integrity abundantly while he was president, such as when he “won substantial support for his courage in halting scams” such as fraudulent claims to Civil War pensions.  But Pafford and other authors praise, also, his reputation for ability and honesty during his early years in Buffalo as assistant district attorney and sheriff.  (It would have been good for Pafford to cite specifics about those qualities, but he doesn’t.)  Readers will tend to accept such a generalization, but experience in life would seem to indicate that they shouldn’t.  The problems are two-fold: first, many people are able and honest, but are never recognized as such, since there is no one who points out those qualities to the community at large.  What was it in the social or political milieu of Buffalo that elevated Cleveland into the public eye?  Second, what was it about the human qualities extant in Buffalo that caused him not to be chewed up and spit out by the less able and honest?   We are told that “corruption was prevalent in both parties.”  What commonly happens under those circumstances is that those who are corrupt come together, as if tribalistically, to repudiate the outsider; that they are supported by many who, though not corrupt themselves, are indifferent to it; and that the corruption isn’t thought of as corruption by those who engage in it, because they have long-since rationalized it to themselves (such as with the excuse that “everybody’s doing it”).  The stellar individual isn’t seen as stellar, but is detested as someone who is stupidly naïve and disloyal.  A discussion of “human nature” in such a context by a book club’s members would be most interesting, drawing out everything from idealistic optimism to the cynicism bred by experience.

Another area for invigorating discussion can examine black/white race relations in the late nineteenth century.  Pafford says Cleveland’s efforts toward “racial progress… were limited.”  We have already seen his acceptance of segregation as a state matter, and that his Supreme Court appointments culminated in the Plessy v. Ferguson decision allowing “equal but separate” accommodations for the two races.  Pafford calls that decision “notorious,” which indeed it is in today’s perception.  It would be interesting to see whether a book discussion would produce unanimous agreement condemning the Plessy doctrine, or whether anyone would seek to place it in historical context.  Doing the latter would involve asking whether the majority population had a moral obligation to welcome close contact with a people very different from themselves who had recently been emancipated from slavery.   The “Radical Republicans” who instigated the harsh realities of the Reconstruction era immediately following the Civil War thought so, and Americans since the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s have, for the most part, thought so, too.  It is easy today to believe that the generations of white Americans who never entertained the notion of social equality between the races were morally perverse.  It is doubtful whether anyone in a discussion club would dare say otherwise today – and that’s a pity, since it deserves a more serious consideration.

Another item that merits discussion is the “aggregate impact theory” by which the United States Supreme Court in 1942 overrode a decision laid down by the Court during Cleveland’s presidency.  Pafford tells of that earlier decision, which had held that manufacturing, agriculture, horticulture, mining and other productive processes were not themselves “commerce,” but rather preceded it, and were therefore not under the jurisdiction of the federal government under the “Interstate Commerce Clause.”  The Court in 1942 held that acts, such as the raising of wheat by a farmer to feed his own cattle, that appear local are not really local when millions of such acts are seen in the aggregate.  This ruling greatly expanded the powers of the federal government, giving it jurisdiction not just over the shipment of goods, but over the entire economy.  (By way of intellectual background, it’s worth noting that statistical analysis, bringing many individual items together to be seen as a whole, became central to social science starting in the German universities in the last quarter of the nineteenth century.  Statistical aggregation has provided the conceptual basis for much of the social legislation since that time, and has been a major contributor to modern social thought.)   If a discussion club grappled with what appropriately should be considered “local” and what should not, it would be coming to grips with one of the central issues that divide those who want decentralized government as against those who celebrate the shift of power to the national government.

There are other issues suggested by The Forgotten Conservative, but we will leave them for readers of this easily readable book to discover.  There is an historical tidbit about Cleveland, however, that is too precious to leave unmentioned (even though Pafford oddly passes over it).  It is to be supposed that most Americans have long shared with this reviewer the presumption that the “Baby Ruth” candy bar was named after Babe Ruth, the famous baseball star.  Not so.  Cleveland and his wife Frances had several children, among whom was a Ruth who died of diphtheria in 1904 when she was 12.  An affectionate press called her “Baby Ruth.”  Henry Graff, in his own book on Cleveland, tells us that “in 1921 the Curtiss [candy] Company decided to assign [the name] to a candy bar, still popular today.”


                                                                                             Dwight D. Murphey




[1]   For readers who are unfamiliar with the United States’ “electoral college,” it should be explained that the election of an American president is actually effected by a college of electors, whose members have been selected on a state-by-state basis.  Historically, the practice has been that a candidate who wins a plurality of the vote in a given state will win all that state’s electors.  The result is that even the barest plurality in a populous state like New York will swing a large number of electors to the candidate receiving that plurality.  The national popular vote is much-noted, but isn’t what determines the election’s outcome.