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Friday, March 03, 2006

Grover Cleveland reconsidered

Other than Lincoln, most of our presidents of the second half of the 19th century have been relegated to historical footnotes. If you asked 100 Americans about Grover Cleveland, of the few who would recognize his name, the main thing they would remember is he is the only president to serve two non-consecutive terms. Besides knowing he was a Democrat from Buffalo, New York, most of what I knew of Cleveland was either negative or trivial. I knew he had an illegitimate child which Republicans made a campaign issue. I knew he had paid someone to take his place when he was drafted by the Union Army (that was legal during the Civil War). After reading more about Cleveland I believe he was a very underrated president. An article today from National Review Online describes Cleveland as the original "Compassionate Conservative." The article discusses Cleveland vetoing an aid bill that was intended to alleviate suffering in Texas from an extended drought.
The year 1887 was a tough year in Texas. Day after day brought hot, dry winds that parched the land. Farmers saw their crops wither and their cattle grow weak from thirst. Spirits faltered as desperate Texans prayed for rain, seemingly to no avail. Eager to help (at least with other people’s money), congressmen pushed through a bill to provide federal aid in the form of seed, but one man stood in their way — America’s 22nd president, Grover Cleveland. At a time when the federal budget boasted a large surplus, he vetoed the bill.

What kind of man could say no to free seed for his salt-of-the-earth brethren in distress? Was Cleveland, son of a Presbyterian minister, a cold, cruel and heartless Scrooge? Could this be the same man who once taught at the New York Institute for the Education of the Blind and cultivated a passionate, lifelong devotion to helping the sightless? Yes indeed, one and the same. But the president was no mean-spirited miser. He simply knew what almost no one in Congress today understands: He knew the decisive difference between government and everything else. If he were alive to witness the tragic antics of Federal Emergency Management Agency in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, he might be sorely tempted to say, “I told you so.”

In his veto of the Texas Seed Bill, Cleveland warned against a general disregard of the “limited mission” of the federal government. He didn’t think Congress or the president should torture the Constitution until it confessed that disaster relief was among the responsibilities of Washington, D.C. He felt that the country should heed the time-honored lesson that, as he put it, “Though the people support the Government, the Government should not support the people.”

The welfare-statists of our time have saddled us with $8 trillion in debt, a federal tax burden seven or eight times that of Cleveland’s day, and a legacy of handout programs that have yielded little more than dependency and dysfunctional families. Billions in corporate welfare have exacted a similar toll on American enterprise. Cleveland tried to tell us that government has nothing to give anybody except what it first takes from somebody, and that a government big enough to give us everything we want is big enough to take away everything we’ve got. But somewhere along the way we fooled ourselves into thinking that government can help our brothers and sisters better, more quickly, and more cheaply than we can help them ourselves. What a sorry mess of pottage we’ve mortgaged our children’s future for.

Cleveland didn’t say no to drought relief because he thought hurting farmers didn’t deserve relief. He urged Americans in general and members of Congress in particular to give from their own hearts and personal resources. His veto message noted, “The friendliness and charity of our countrymen can always be relied upon to relieve their fellow citizens in misfortune.” Aid from Washington, D.C., he wrote, only “encourages the expectation of paternal care on the part of the Government and weakens the sturdiness of our national character.”

Those farmers in Texas got their aid, all right — as much as 10 times or more in private assistance as the amount that Cleveland refused to launder first through a federal bureaucracy.

As the Katrina recovery continues, the federal government will do what the federal government does best. It will talk, squawk, and pontificate. It will hold hearings, point fingers, and proclaim its good intentions. It will learn nothing and change little, for that is the nature of the beast and a big reason our Founders wanted it kept small and constrained in the first place. It will, as one of Franklin Roosevelt’s cronies once said, “tax and tax, spend and spend, elect and elect.”

I suspect that meanwhile, in spite of the mind-numbing hurdles that big government puts in their way, the real heroes will be quiet folks who help their fellow citizens by what they give and by what they build. Grover Cleveland told us we could count on them because they, at least, have never let us down.
After reading that article, I came to the conclusion that Cleveland was more of a fiscal conservative than the current resident of the White House.

(H/T The Ohio Conservative)

1 Comments:

Anonymous Libertarian Jason said...

Cleveland... The last good Democrat.

2:18 PM

 

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