Monday, November 4, 2013

The Elections of Grover Cleveland

Heather Cox Richardson

Grover Cleveland, by Anders Zorn, 1899.
On November 4, 1884, voters elected Grover Cleveland, the reform-minded governor of New York, to the White House. Today, people remember Cleveland primarily because he is the only president who served two non-consecutive terms. In fact, there was much more to Cleveland. He was a remarkably progressive and principled president, who tried to stop late 19th-century America from falling under the control of big business. Indeed, his opposition to the growing power of money in politics is the reason his terms were non-consecutive.

While we tend to forget it, Grover Cleveland actually captured the majority of the popular vote in 1884, 1892, and in 1888, the year he lost the election. In that year, despite a majority of about 100,000 votes, he lost to Benjamin Harrison in the Electoral College. This loss was not a random quirk of the American electoral system. Harrison’s men had been gunning for Cleveland from the day the 1884 election had been decided. Well aware that they could not win the popular vote, they focused on the Electoral College.

Their problem with Cleveland was that he was the first Democrat elected to the White House since the Civil War. That boded ill for Republican economic policies. Cleveland was very popular, not just among Democrats, but also among Republicans disillusioned with the drift of their party toward the service of the big businessmen who would soon be known as “robber barons”: J. D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, Jay Gould, and their ilk. The Republican Party promoted the interests of industrialists primarily by maintaining a high protective tariff. High tariff rates on imported goods—running close to 50% of a good’s value—meant that American manufacturers could collude to monopolize domestic markets. They did, in pools and, by the 1880s, in trusts, which carved up markets and set prices.

Republicans argued that the government must protect business because a strong industrial sector created jobs and drove the economy, but plenty of Americans disagreed. The government must not privilege any economic sector, they believed, especially when that protection enabled industrialists to drive wages to rock bottom while hiking consumer prices. As Americans watched the growing contrast between the mansions at Newport and the impoverished children in coal mines, they called for government to stop promoting the interests of the wealthy and instead to level the economic playing field. Democrats took up the standard of those opposed to the trusts, but so did a number of reform Republicans.

In 1884 this combination put Cleveland into the White House after he promised to make the government more responsive to regular Americans. The key piece of his platform was a tariff reduction that would protect industry but lower the walls around industrialists so they could no longer set the prices that enabled them to amass fortunes.

Cleveland’s victory horrified big business Republicans, and they immediately began to push back against the new president’s plans by spreading pro-tariff pamphlets and editorials across the country. And yet anti-tariff sentiment grew. By 1888 Republicans were so desperate to protect the tariff that they bypassed for president the party’s leading senator, John Sherman—who was so certain of the nomination he had begun to campaign—because he had recently suggested that the tariff should be lowered in industries where it permitted the formation of monopolies. Instead of tapping Sherman, the 1888 Republican convention turned to Benjamin Harrison, who was an unremarkable politician, but was firm on the tariff.

To guarantee Harrison’s election, Republicans blanketed the nation with pro-tariff propaganda. Perhaps more to the point, they pioneered new campaign funding, which gave them the cash to swing New York, and therefore the Electoral College, to the Republican column. When Harrison piously told his campaign manager that Providence had given him the White House, the manager grumbled: “Providence hadn’t a damn thing to do with it. [A] number of men were compelled to approach the penitentiary to make him President.”

Despite winning the ballots of most Americans in 1888, President Cleveland had to pack up and move out of the White House. Before he went, he gave what he thought would be his final message to Congress on the state of the Union, warning that “corporations . . . are fast becoming the people’s masters.” Government was transferring wealth from the people to “a small but powerful minority.” Devotion to the nation and to its people had been replaced by the assumption that the government was not a device for assuring equality for all, but rather a tool to be used by the wealthy to garner economic advantage for themselves. This “arrogance” undermined the integrity of American democracy, he warned, and if it were not addressed, there would be hell to pay when regular Americans fought back.

Republicans dismissed Cleveland’s fury as sour grapes, but he was right. In 1890, voters swept Republicans out of power in the House of Representatives, and in 1892, they handed Congress and the White House to the Democrats for the first time since the Civil War.

And Cleveland moved back into the White House, the first president to serve two non-consecutive terms.


Lisa Clark Diller said...

Thank you for this clear history. It strikes me that without giving any commentary, just telling this story, you have done what is in the best tradition of historians--made your audience think about their own life and times through this lens. I wonder if the issues were more clear and on target, less cluttered with cultural war trappings than is our own political context. Do you think the voters were really focused on those particular issues so completely that they were able to overcome the (what today seems like) dominance of loyalty to the incumbent? Was there just more clear communication?

hcr said...

The issues were far clearer, then, because the laws were so much simpler and the spin less sophisticated. If you read Cleveland's 1889 message, it's astonishing how he calls out the problem of money in government, and why it threatens the very concept of democracy. Similarly, when the Harrison men pushed back by buying Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper and putting Harrison's son in charge of it, they were unabashed about their defense of big business and their attacks on everyone else as lazy jerks eager for government handouts.

It's really great stuff, because every argument cuts right to the heart of the struggle of what America is really supposed to be about.

Anonymous said...

This is an overly simplified (and perhaps distorted) version of Cleveland. What about the denial of aid to farmers? Or his positions on free trade stemming from a very conservative position? What about his weighing the possibility of a third term in 1896 and his own party's repudiation of his "goldbug" views? In focusing on the elections, you missed a good deal of the conservative Cleveland:

Anonymous said...

2This is an overly simplified (and perhaps distorted) version of Cleveland. What about the denial of aid to farmers? Or his positions on free trade stemming from a very conservative position? What about his weighing the possibility of a third term in 1896 and his own party's repudiation of his "goldbug" views? In focusing on the elections, you missed a good deal of the conservative Cleveland:

Randall said...

This is fascinating. I never knew this about Cleveland. Reminds me a little bit of Ike's fare7 well address and warning about the military industrial complex.