My quest to read (at least) one biography per President continues with Grover Cleveland, the twenty-second and (!!) twenty-fourth President of the United States. The biography I chose with my selectio n process (reading reviews online and utilizing and this website- My Journey Through the Best Presidential Biographies) is The Presidencies of Grover Cleveland by Richard E. Welch, Jr.
Here, I’ll offer my thoughts on that biography, and proceed to present my official ranking for the DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES!!!!!! The full list of the rankings with all the Presidents as well as comments on their careers, updated as I read through this list, may be found here.
The Presidencies of Grover Cleveland by Richard E. Welch, Jr.
The Presidenceis of Grover Cleveland is a dry, condensed look specifically at Cleveland’s presidencies. It doesn’t give a fuller account of his life beyond a few details of his early life, so, like the biography, we’ll focus here on his actual presidencies.
Cleveland was essentially an example of political conservatism of his time writ large. How this was applied, however, can appear somewhat inconsistent and even callous from the outside. Perhaps the most extreme example of the latter is his veto of a bill to provide starving Texas farmers with free seed to replant after a severe drought. Welch, Jr. notes that the reason for this was Cleveland consistently held to blocking any use of the government and its money for private gains. He was worried about the possibility of the government becoming something for individuals to rely on rather than pulling themselves up by their bootstrings (80-81, see also 14). So whether it was big lumber barons trying to get tax subsidies or private farmers trying to avoid starvation or bankruptcy, Cleveland blocked all assistance. It is difficult to see how this is a decent or laudable policy, though some today would hold it is, but it is one of the consistencies of Cleveland throughout his career.
There is no question Cleveland was a racist when it came to his feelings and dealings with both the newly freed African Americans and the Native Americans. Regarding the former, he made numerous racist comments in which he reveals his (common at the time) belief that Afircan Americans would not be efficient or effective. He did appoint a few black Americans to public offices, but did so in a condescending and inconsistent fashion, and even held the belief that it was the former enslavers who would “take care of” the freed black Americans rather than having the government intervene to do so. He did the bare minimum to defend African Americans in voting rights or getting appointments, and no more. Regarding Native Americans, Cleveland heavily favored an assimilation which would force Native peoples to give up their rights and practices in favor of conforming to the cultural standards of the white Americans. Though this was a more moderate approach than direct, active genocide, nonetheless it was an attempt to continue cultural genocide and forced assimilation–a policy that would continue well beyond Cleveland.
Cleveland also demonstrated the tendency of virtually everyone who claims to affirm “state’s rights” to do so inconsistently. Though he gave lip service to state’s rights, he also ignored state governments when it came to strike breaking, unsurprisingly sending federal troops in to force strikes to end, taking the side of the corporations and train industries over the workers and even over the protests of state governors (147). This and other examples (such as his fight over the silver/gold standard) demonstrate Cleveland’s strange legacy of disavowing the power of the government while actively expanding it beyond what it had been.
Regarding foreign policy, Cleveland approached it with the same attitude he felt in other areas, essentially seeing the United States as morally superior to other countries, which then meant that he distrusted the representatives of other, less ethically superior countries (199). This led to any number of poor policy decisions in foreign policy as well as alienating people in South America and beyond (see, eg, 67).
Cleveland’s legacy is somewhat difficult to evaluate due to the radical divergence in historical analysis of his Presidencies. Welch, Jr. manages to sort through some of the fog surrounding his legacy in his The Presidencies of Grover Cleveland, which I would rate as a fair, but not excellent biography.
Grover Cleveland (22nd and 24th President – Original Ranking #12)- Grover Cleveland was an ambitious politician who largely stuck to his conservatism, despite his apparent inconsistency looking in from the outside. His apparent callousness might be seen by some as consistency of conservative principles. His attempts to continue reform of the public offices stirred up vicious opposition to his presidencies. Ever a friend of the status quo, it is difficult to see how this may have harmed or benefited the United States even more than a hundred years later. His legacy is uneven, but also largely free of the worst of all moral failings, despite some examples. His intense belief in the superiority of America and Americanism is another part of his legacy, whether that includes the attempts to forcibly assimilate Native Americans (seen by many at the time as a reform–and it was, compared to actively genocidal policies) or his relations with other countries, Cleveland was an example of a President who truly tried to put America First, for better or ill, and to do so in a way that left each person to themselves. Additionally, Cleveland essentially expanded government authority despite his disavowal of the same.
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