By George B. McClellan
|Grover Cleveland and his family|
It is difficult to speak at the grave of a friend. It may be that the last word about Grover Cleveland cannot be spoken until all are dead who fought with him or against him. Yet so has the bitterness of the political struggles of which he was the center been dissolved that friend and foe alike, those who revered and loved him for what he was, and those who, whether agreeing with him or not, respected and honored him for what he did and tried to do, are practically in accord in their estimate of the man.
No President ever assumed office with greater partisan acclaim none ever left it so abused by his own party. None in so short a time regained the respect and admiration of his former associates. Jefferson, Madison, and Jackson retired from office certain of the continuance of their policies in the hands of successors they had named. John Quincy Adams left the Presidency embroiled with most who knew him, and only regained the confidence of his party associates after years in the House of Representatives.
When Cleveland left the Presidency, it is doubtful if he could have had a nomination for constable from the Democratic leaders in any part of the country. His last veto that of an insignificant pension bill was overridden by an almost unanimous vote. Yet in little more than a decade a miracle was wrought, and the man who had been whipped and pilloried by his own died the generally recognized first citizen of our country. This doer of miracles was neither apostle, saint, nor prophet. The miracle was worked not so much by what he did as by what he was. That those who had abused him most, newspapers and men, were eager to honor his memory when he died, was not because they had seen the error of their ways, but because they discovered, somewhat late, it is true, that they had misunderstood their public, while he had always believed in that public and the American people had put faith in him. There was an intimate relation between them, a union of hearts and of hopes and of purposes that began when they first learned to know him, and that lasted unbroken to the end. And this was only possible because of the manner of man he was.
By blood and birth, by upbringing and association, by character and by mind he was of that American stock which has furnished, and as long as our Republic endures will furnish, the bone and sinew of our country. He was of the men who won our independence, who unselfishly sacrificed all for the Confederacy, and no less unselfishly saved the Union. He was not of the kind of which demigods or demagogues are made. He did not appeal to his countrymen in their moments of excitement or hysteria, but held them when they permitted themselves to be ruled by their sober second thought. The people trusted him because they knew he was of them and belonged to them. They followed him because they knew he represented the very best that was in them. He typified the American character. He possessed in a marked degree the three major senses: a sense of honesty, a sense of proportion or, what is the same thing, common sense, and a sense of humor. His honesty was of the rugged, straightforward, manly kind. There was nothing of the "holier than thou" about Grover Cleveland. He assumed honesty in others, as he did in himself, as a matter of course, and nothing annoyed him more than the suggestion that as an honest man he was entitled to any particular credit. He had only one standard of honesty, by which he measured himself morally, intellectually, and politically. For him the standard was absolute, and right was right and wrong no matter under what conditions.
|Westlands, the Cleveland home at Princeton, New Jersey|
As Mayor of Buffalo and as Governor of New York his record was that of a painstaking, conscientious official, never hesitating to make an enemy in the cause of the right, always anxious to make a friend. Loyal in his friendships, fair in his fighting, he retained the affection of his friends and the respect of his enemies. In his early years of public office he acquired the habit of saying no. There is scarcely a word in the English language that is shorter, yet there is none for public men more difficult to utter. The line of least resistance in politics is marked with the word yes. The most dangerous enemies of our country have been the good-natured weaklings who have been unable to resist the unconsidered popular clamor of the hour.
When Cleveland became President, it is true that he lacked experience in National affairs that he did not understand what is called "the temper of Congress," and, moreover, he never learned to understand it. His experience in executive office was limited. Yet he entered upon the exercise of the greatest office on earth with an equipment such as few Presidents have possessed. He believed in the fundamental principles of his party with the childlike faith of a strong man. He believed that he had been called to serve the people —not any section or faction or part of them, but all alike, the men who had as well as those who had not, the men in the shops and in the fields, the great American people as a whole. He knew exactly what he wished to accomplish, and devoted his eight years of office to the people he loved.
During his first two years of the Presidency he had ample opportunity to show, and he did show, his ability to say no. He began his policy of vetoing unworthy private bills, which, for a time at least, brought Senators and Representatives to a realization of the fact that the Treasury ought not to be treated as a pasture for favored constituents. He broke all records by vetoing 115 out of 987 bills in his first session. It was not until his third year of office that he faced his first great crisis. In his annual Message sent to the Congress in December, 1887, he demanded a general revision of the tariff. Its effect was immediate and far-reaching. Republicans who had abandoned hope of defeating him at once saw their opportunity, and seized it. Democrats who had expected an easy success were in despair. Revision of the tariff at once became the absorbing issue of the campaign. The President was charged by his party associates with having deliberately thrown away a certain victory, with having failed to consult with most of the Democratic leaders throughout the country, and with having disregarded the advice of those with whom he did confer. All this was wholly true. Cleveland, disregarding the advice of those with whom he consulted, sent the tariff Message of 1887 to the Congress, knowing that in affixing his signature to it he was signing his own political death-warrant. He knew that the only hope for the triumph of the principle of tariff reform lay in educating the people to its justice and necessity, and that, as all great causes have their martyrs, it was inevitable that he should be the first. No President ever performed an act of greater moral courage than did Grover Cleveland in signing his first Tariff Message.
|Grover Cleveland duck shooting|
As early as 1885, in a letter to General Warner, Mr. Cleveland put himself squarely on record against cheap money. After that time there was never the slightest doubt that he would maintain the gold standard, were it humanly possible to do so. The silver wave swept the country, broke, and rolled back to sea, carrying the Democratic Party with it, but he stood up against it, firm as a rock. The party, for the moment, adopted new dogmas and new beliefs, but he adhered more firmly than ever to the fundamental doctrines of the past. Before beginning his second term as President he tried to have the Sherman silver purchase law repealed. The hard times of 1893 had already begun, the Treasury was almost at the end of its resources, Congress had been extravagant, and a deficit had taken the place of a surplus. But the Republican leaders, rather than help a Democratic President-elect, preferred to imperil the credit of the Nation, and declined to do anything. When Mr. Cleveland took office, conditions were rapidly growing worse. Banks were breaking and failures increasing; the panic was well under way. He at once called the Fifty-third Congress together and urged upon it its plain duty, to repair the error of its predecessor. The House responded promptly under the leadership of Mr. Wilson, of West Virginia. The Senate, however, delayed. After nearly three months of filibustering a compromise repeal bill was suggested to the President, who declined to consider it for a moment. The Sherman Act was then repealed, and the credit of the country was saved. Four times during his second term Mr. Cleveland was obliged to replenish the gold reserve by the purchase of gold, paid for by United States bonds. Each of these bond issues was essential for the maintenance of the credit and the good name of the United States, yet each one was received with a fanatical outburst of denunciation from many of his own party, and of partisan wrath horn many Republicans, who apparently preferred National ruin to salvation at the hands of a Democratic President.
It has been said that had he treated the Democratic leaders in Congress with more consideration and tact, and in a spirit of conciliation, the break in the Democratic Party might have been avoided. Those who have said this forget that the only olive branch which the Democratic leaders would have accepted was a sop thrown to the cause of "free silver." The country was trembling on the edge of bankruptcy; any compromise whatsoever would have meant the stoppage of gold payments and absolute National ruin. Mr. Cleveland realized that there was but one way to save the credit of the country, and he saved it.
|Grover Cleveland in 1908|
Curiously enough, those who had been loudest in their praise of his position on the currency question were harshest in their abuse of him for his attitude in the Venezuela matter, and yet he had done nothing more than any patriotic American President ought to have done, nothing more than any patriotic American should have wanted him to do. He had asserted the Monroe Doctrine in its fullest sense. Not the Monroe Doctrine of our later , years, which seems to be an elastic, all-sufficient excuse for any vagary of foreign policy upon which Government may care to embark; but the Monroe Doctrine that he had been taught in his youth, the Monroe Doctrine because of which Maximilian went to his death, and through which the independence of Central and South America from foreign interference has been secured.
There are those who have with perfect seriousness criticized the Venezuela incident upon the ground that it might have meant war with Great Britain. No one knew that better than Grover Cleveland. Much as he deplored the thought of war, much as he knew the necessity of peace for the prosperity and happiness of his countrymen, he nevertheless felt that an intolerable condition existed which must be brought to an end, even at the risk of war. As everyone knows, Great Britain yielded, and the findings of the arbitrators amply justified Cleveland's course.
Take it all in all probably the bravest act of his life was the suppression of anarchy in Chicago. The Governor of the State of Illinois openly sided with the rioters and vigorously protested against National interference. It was said at the time that Cleveland had violated the doctrine of States' rights and had proclaimed the undemocratic doctrine of centralization. But he was "confronted with a condition and not a theory," and, realizing the necessity of protecting inter-State commerce and the United States mails, he restored order in the second city of the country, and taught anarchy a lesson that it has not yet forgotten. Just as Andrew Jackson arbitrarily suppressed nullification in South Carolina, so Cleveland with a firm and undoubtedly a high hand suppressed lawlessness in Chicago.
Every leading act of his career was done in the face of the most violent abuse. It is as absurd as it is untrue to say that he courted unpopularity. He cared as much as any other man for the good opinion of his fellows, but he was unwilling to buy that good opinion at the price of principle. Had it been no effort for him to breast the tide of unpopularity, he would have deserved no credit for doing so. He had so profound a belief in the common sense of the people that he knew that, sooner or later, time, that great righter of all injustice, would vindicate him with them. That he was right, time has proved.
The question has often been asked, "What shall we do with our ex-Presidents?" Mr. Cleveland's life after he left the. White House is a convincing answer.
In 1896, while still President he attended the sesquicentennial celebration at Princeton. Like everyone who has seen that most beautiful of college towns, he was greatly attracted by it. The charm of the place, the life the people, all appealed to him. He bought Westlands, one of the old Stockton country places, and on his sixtieth birthday, March 18, 1897, moved in. Soon afterward he was elected a life trustee of the University, and, in the course of time, chairman of its committee on the graduate college. To Princeton, but especially to the development of its graduate college, he gave much thought and care and interest. He was a firm believer in Princeton, and was convinced that her influence for good in the future lay not only in the undergraduate department, but especially in the opportunities given for graduate study and research. He once said to a Princeton graduate with whom he was talking, "You, who are a college man, cannot appreciate as much as I do, who am not, the benefits of a college education. I believe that postgraduate work is even, if possible, of greater importance. I pray that I may live to see our graduate college established on a firm foundation." That his hopes were almost realized is largely due to his painstaking care and hard work.
His life in Princeton was as dignified and as simple as he was himself. He made friends easily and retained them always. He was intensely human, with deep sympathy and charity for his fellowman. He loved "God's out of doors" and all that it contains. He did not care for exercise for its own sake, but he was a sportsman through and through. Whether it was duck-shooting or fly-fishing, he enjoyed them both with the zest of a boy. He was not expansive with strangers, but with the friends who surrounded him in later years he was a wise counselor and a delightful companion.
During the last few years of his life he became a trustee for the reorganization of the Equitable Life. He felt that there was man's work to be done, as there was, and that he was doing something for the small policy-holders, the people he loved, his people, and he did it. This took him to New York two days a week. Most of the time he spent in Princeton, happy in his home, caring for Westlands, caring for the graduate college, seeing his friends, respected by all who knew of him, loved by all who knew him. His was the ideal life of a statesman in retirement. Sometimes he wrote for the magazines, sometimes he spoke in public. When in office, his public papers were often criticized by his opponents as being stilted and ponderous. Yet his style was pure and powerful. His English was almost that of the eighteenth century in its carefulness and strength.
Occasionally he uttered a phrase so direct and so powerful that it will live. His Public office is a public trust, "his" Any cause that is worth fighting for is worth fighting for to the end," his "innocuous desuetude," and his "It is a condition, not a theory, that confronts us," have become household words with the American people. His little sketch "A Defense of Fishermen" is a complete refutation of the charge that he lacked a sense of humor. In lightness of touch, in charm, in simplicity, and in humor it is delightful.
He never lost his interest in politics, nor his hope for the ultimate success of the party to which he belonged. In political affairs his counsel was always wise and sound, his advice was always invaluable.
What Cleveland's place will be in history, time alone can tell. One thing is certain, in sincerity of purpose and honesty of action few Presidents have equaled him and none has surpassed him. He was not a brilliant man. He thought slowly. But when once he had grasped a subject, he had mastered it. He was neither a great orator, nor a great rhetorician, nor a great politician. There was nothing dramatic about him, nothing sensational. He did not know how to appeal to the gallery, and had he known how, he would have scorned to do so. He did not know how to manipulate men, nor how to trim sail for party advantage. He fought the good fight stubbornly, and won, and having done so, died as he wished to die, in the home he loved.
He did more than any of his contemporaries to elevate the standard of public life, to expose hypocrisy and sham, to emphasize straightforward honesty and virile manhood.
Not great by the flashes of genius, not throned in the glory of a solitary achievement, Grover Cleveland was great in the unswerving course of right, unmoved by passing storms, great in his example to his countrymen.
From The Independent Magazine, 1908.