Monday was the birthday of one of America's most unique and under-appreciated Presidents — Stephen Grover Cleveland.
Grover Cleveland was the first Democratic president after the Civil War, and the only president to serve two non-consecutive terms (also winning the popular vote in the intervening election he lost), to be single when elected and marry in the White House, or to have a candy bar named after his daughter (Baby Ruth).
His character, however, was his most important attribute. For him, "honest politician" was not an oxymoron. His reputation was so stellar that he was elected governor of New York without even having to make a single campaign speech. Further, rather than ignoring the Constitution's limitations on federal government power, he took defending it seriously.
Cleveland realized that, "Officeholders are the agents of the people, not their masters." Therefore, he opposed paternalistic government policies financed by imposing tax burdens on others, since "the theory of our institutions guarantees to every citizen the full enjoyment of all the fruits of his industry and enterprise, with only such deduction as may be his share toward the careful and economical maintenance of the Government which protects him…exaction of more than this is indefensible extortion and culpable betrayal of American fairness and justice."
Cleveland fought to eliminate government waste, since "waste of public money is a crime against the citizen."He pushed to restore honesty and impartiality to government, particularly by eliminating government favors, because "danger confronts us...[in] popular disposition to expect from the operation of the Government especial and direct individual advantages."
Cleveland tried to eliminate burdensome and inefficient tariffs, "the vicious, inequitable, and illogical source of unnecessary taxation." He also resisted political pressures to inflate, even when facing a serious recession, since "nothing is more vital to...the beneficent purposes of our government than a sound and stable currency."
Unlike modern politicians' attempts to evade accountability, Cleveland insisted that everyone in government be carefully monitored, since "Every citizen owes to the country a vigilant watch and close scrutiny of its public servants and affairs...[as] the price of our liberty…"
Cleveland's last words were, "I have tried so hard to do right." By respecting the Constitution's limitations on legitimate federal activities, he didn't find "government" to be every answer, regardless of the question.
Fittingly, Grover Cleveland dedicated the Statue of Liberty, because he truly aspired to its dedication: "We will not forget that Liberty has made her home here, nor shall her chosen altar be neglected...A stream of light shall pierce the darkness of ignorance and man's oppression until Liberty enlightens the world."We could use a man like Grover Cleveland again.
Gary M. Galles is a professor of economics at Pepperdine University.