THE LAST JEFFERSONIAN — Recommended Reading

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Oct 31, 2012 No Comments ›› John Eidsmoe Last_Jeffersonian

THE LAST JEFFERSONIAN — Recommended Reading

At least once a year, I visit a rural cemetery near Beresford, South Dakota, where my parents, grandparents, and many other Eidsmoes await the Resurrection.  Elsewhere in the cemetery is a large monument to William J. Bulow (http://bioguide NULL.congress NULL.gov/scripts/biodisplay NULL.pl?index=B001055) (1869-1960), who served as South Dakota’s Governor 1927-31 and U.S. Senator 1931-43.  Described as a “Cleveland Democrat,” Senator Bulow often opposed Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal.

So, what is a “Cleveland Democrat”?  And who was Grover Cleveland?

For most of us, if we are asked to list America’s greatest Presidents, Grover Cleveland (http://www NULL.whitehouse NULL.gov/about/presidents/grovercleveland22) would not make the list.  He’s from that foggy era after the War Between the States and before World War I during which nothing much happened, at least nothing much that we can remember. And people in his own day couldn’t make up their minds whether they liked or disliked Cleveland; they elected him President in 1884, then defeated him for reelection in 1888, then returned him to office in 1892.  And besides, he was a Democrat — the only Democratic President between James Buchanan (1857-61) and Woodrow Wilson (1913-21).

The Last Jeffersonian: Grover Cleveland and the Path to Restoring the Republic (http://thelastjeffersonian NULL.com/) (Westbow Press 2012), by my friend Ryan Walters, is just what we need to fill the gaps in our knowledge about this great man and his era.  Nothing much happened during Cleveland’s Presidency — he didn’t start any major wars, he didn’t initiate any major income-redistribution programs, he didn’t ignite a social revolution, he didn’t try to re-write the Constitution.  But he respected property rights, he demanded honest government, he refused to waste the taxpayers’ money, he balanced the budget, and — above all — he fought to keep government within its constitutional limits.

Cleveland used his veto power more often per term than any other President in history — 584 times, compared to 2 vetoes for Obama, 12 for George W. Bush, 37 for Clinton, 78 for Reagan, 250 for Truman, 44 for Wilson, 7 for Lincoln, 12 for Jackson, 7 for Madison, 2 for Washington, and none for Garfield, Fillmore, Taylor, W.H. Harrison, Jefferson, or either Adams.  Only one President, Franklin D. Roosevelt (635 times), used the veto more often than Cleveland, and those were exercised over three terms and part of a fourth.  And while FDR often use the veto to thwart congressional efforts to restrain government power, Cleveland used the veto to prevent unconstitutional government spending.  Vetoing an 1887 bill to appropriate $10,000 to buy seed for farmers, Cleveland declared (http://www NULL.presidency NULL.ucsb NULL.edu/ws/index NULL.php?pid=71489),

I can find no warrant for such an appropriation in the Constitution, and I do not believe that the power and duty of the general government ought to be extended to the relief of individual suffering, which is in no manner properly related to the public service or benefit.

Cleveland considered himself the guardian of the taxpayers’ money, and his frugal policies converted a $1.5 billion national debt in 1885 to a $111 million surplus when his first term ended in 1889.  Walters recounts an incident in which Cleveland’s wife feared burglars had broken into their home.  She shook him awake, crying, “Wake up!  There are burglars in the house!”  ”No, no, my dear,” Cleveland replied, “In the Senate maybe, but not in the House.”

Walters explains that Cleveland maintained a strong national defense but opposed American intervention in foreign conflicts that did not directly affect American interests.  He sent American warships to protect American missionaries in China and Korea, and he invoked the Monroe Doctrine on behalf of Venezuela against Britain.  But he opposed American annexation of Hawaii and American interference with internal affairs of Cuba.  Today, conservative Republicans are often painted as the “war party.”  Cleveland’s presidency should remind us that, while conservatives recognize the need for a strong national defense to deter aggression and preserve peace, war and foreign intervention are not the default conservative position.

Cleveland also reminds us conservatism is not exclusively or irrevocably identified with the Republican Party.  In the United States today, Republicans generally are more conservative than Democrats.  Compare the platforms of the two parties, and compare the overall voting records of Republican and Democratic legislators, and the difference is apparent.  But it has not always been so.  Thomas Jefferson, who many recall as the original Democrat, stood for states’ rights, limited government, strict construction of the Constitution, and opposition to judicial activism.  Throughout most of the 1800s, Democrats like Cleveland stood for these virtues, while Republicans advocated big spending, expanded federal power, an interventionist foreign policy, and loose interpretation of the Constitution.

So, how did the Democratic Party of Jefferson and Cleveland become the party of Clinton and Obama?   William Jennings Bryan (1860 – 1925) was the Party’s standard-bearer in 1896, 1900, and 1908.  One of the greatest orators in American history, Bryan was a devout Christian and a formidable opponent of Darwinism.  He became convinced that Social Darwinism, the ruthless tooth-and-claw capitalism of the late 1800s, was unfair to the common man.  This led him to advocate “social reform” measures like free silver, income and inheritance taxes, and regulation of business.  Bryan’s progressivism led to Wilson’s liberalism and FDR’s New Dealism, and by 1950 conservative Democrats were hard to find except in the South.  Today, Southern Democrats often talk “good old boy” talk to their constituents back home, but when they go to Washington they vote just like their Northern colleagues.

Ryan Walters (http://ryanswalters NULL.wordpress NULL.com/about-me/), a rising spokesman for Southern conservatism, is a PhD candidate in nineteenth-century American history.  He may be too generous to Thomas Jefferson; modern conservatism draws from both Jefferson and Hamilton, and perhaps even more from Madison.  And perhaps he is too critical of Teddy Roosevelt, who, despite his progressive Republicanism, was a strong and articulate defender of Christian civilization.  But in The Last Jeffersonian Walters has resurrected a true American conservative hero, possibly even more significant because Cleveland was not tied to the Republican Establishment.

May we hear more of Grover Cleveland, and from Ryan Walters, in the future!

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