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Wednesday, May 22, 2013
John Pafford offers an apology for the life of President Grover Cleveland in his new book, “The Forgotten Conservative.” In this case, the word “apology” is not used to describe an expression of regret. In this case, “apology” means a formal defense.
Pafford’s treatment of Cleveland is among a number of books recently written by professional conservatives exalting past presidents. This book is different from the others because it does not attempt to lionize Grover Cleveland by making all of his activities fit a conservative agenda.
To his credit, Pafford does not try to mask his conservative leanings or hide the fact that he admires Cleveland for his actions (or inactions) that may be consistent with today’s conservative political agenda.
He also does not hide his enthusiastic support for Cleveland, and the book is an attempt to convince others that Grover Cleveland in his role as president of the United States deserves a high ranking from the historians who dole out such honors.
There does seem to be a bit of president envy, too, as evidenced by a comparison of Cleveland and Theodore Roosevelt early in the book:
“Cleveland’s reluctance for the government to meddle in private enterprise put him at odds with [Theodore] Roosevelt over a bill to limit the workday of streetcar drivers and conductors to twelve hours a day.” Governor Cleveland vetoed the bill, saying that such disputes should be worked out between the parties (music to the ears of trade unionists, no doubt).
He and Roosevelt retained a mutual respect, but Pafford notes that while “it is Roosevelt who is remembered for his environmental concern, Cleveland set aside land near Niagara Falls as park land … and he protected large stretches of the Adirondacks to keep river water clean and to maintain our natural heritage for those yet unborn.”
So, Roosevelt gets credit as a conservationist because he founded the National Parks system, and Cleveland is overlooked because the former mayor of Buffalo set aside park land at nearby Niagara Falls, and he protected land in the Adirondacks where he vacationed, fished and socialized with the wealthy people whose “summer camps” dominated the mountains in the 19th century.
One of Cleveland’s many vetoes probably would not be well-received by the conservative modern governors of four states: Louisiana, Texas, New Jersey and Virginia, where federal money has helped residents recover from natural disasters.
In 1887, Congress passed a minor appropriations bill called the Texas Seed Bill. The purpose of the bill was to provide funds to purchase seed for farmers in some Texas counties where crops had been lost to drought.
Cleveland’s justification for the veto is included. Here is a part of that justification:
“A prevalent tendency to disregard the limited mission of the power [of the ‘General Government’] and duty should, I think, be steadily resisted, to the end that the lesson should be constantly enforced that, though the people support the Government, the Government should not support the people.”
In the 19th century, Americans did not so much understand that they were the government. Cleveland’s opinion, while a paradigm for “conservatives and libertarians” is, in Pafford’s word, “nearly incomprehensible to modern Americans.”
Cleveland’s belief in a limited government may be why he doesn’t achieve his status when ranked with other presidents.
This from the Miller Center at the University of Virginia:
“In the final analysis, Cleveland thought more in terms of command than leadership. As the nation’s chief executive, he had no real vision for the future, nor was he interested in articulating one, suggesting that his was still a pre-modern presidency. … In his mind, it was enough for him to be hard working, honest and independent. These are virtues in a small town mayor, perhaps, and necessary attributes in a President in time of political corruption — but no real basis for greatness in an era of severe economic depression, populist insurgency, and increasing prominence on the world scene.”
So, is Pafford’s quest to raise the status of Grover Cleveland quixotic? Perhaps it is, but in the process of telling Cleveland’s story, Pafford has provided a refreshingly short yet fact-filled biography of a little-known and often overlooked American president.
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