30 September 2011


Halfway Done

I just finished the first volume of Allan Nevin’s Grover Cleveland: A Study in Courage (Easton Press, 1932). That marks the halfway point (for now) of my reading of biographies of the presidents of the United States in order of their service.

I'm not exactly sure when I started the project, sometime in 2004 or so, I think. I had read bios of Alexander Hamilton and Benjamin Franklin in the early 2000s, then David McCullough's John Adams: A Life, and Founding Brothers by Joseph Ellis, before I dove in and found a Washington bio. It's been fairly steady since then.

Cleveland, elected in 1884, defeated for reelection in 1888, but elected again in 1892, is considered both the 22nd and 24th president. One of my trivial gripes with President Obama is his sometimes referring to the forty-three previous presidents, when there have been only forty-two previous presidents, but forty-three previous presidencies.

I couldn’t find what I felt would be a truly comprehensive recent bio of Cleveland. I pick these by reviewing sources on the Wikipedia page for the president whose bio I’m going to read, and then skimming Amazon reviews of the candidate bios. At Amazon, one learns that there are quite a few people out there who are engaged in or have completed this same project. So I ended up with this two-volume work, perfectly split with volume one finishing with Cleveland’s defeat by Benjamin Harrison, grandson of William Henry Harrison. William Henry Harrison's presidency is remembered almost solely for its short duration—Old Tippecanoe became ill almost immediately after his inauguration and only served 32 days—and its giving us the first instance of a vice-president ascending to president after the president’s death. (Tyler was a total mess.)

While matters of situation lead Democrats to want to compare President Obama to Franklin Roosevelt and matters of temperament lead one to compare him with Lincoln, it would be wise for a greater number of contemporary Democrats to study the presidency of Cleveland. Cleveland was elected president after having served previously for one-term as mayor of Buffalo and only one-half of his term as governor of New York. His success in Buffalo rooting out corruption and his success in Albany in spite of opposition from Tammany Hall within his own party had made him the choice of good-government types in both parties.

The GOP of the time had held the presidency since 1860 (excepting the weirdness that was the Andrew Johnson administration), and it had controlled both the House and the Senate for most of the same time. While its opposition to slavery was clearly its core strength during the Civil War and during Reconstruction, its recognition of an active role of the general government in developing the national economy was also clear at the time of its founding. That active role grew in the post-Civil War era into a cozy relationship between business and the GOP that continues to this day. And not unlike this day, there had also evolved in the Democratic Party and goodly number of politicians who had ties to both national and local industry. The big businesses of the day were railroads, who had received numerous grants, concessions, franchises, and subsidies from the federal and state governments to build rail lines locally and across the continent; iron and steel, with plants in the “New South”, e.g. Birmingham, joining existing mills in Pennsylvania and New York; and textiles (still located then along the fall line from New England into the Piedmont). Labor had just begun to come onto the scene.

Both finance and taxation were issues during the times, with Civil War import tariffs still on the books, even having been increased in the time since the war. The Federal government enjoyed revenue in surplus of its expenses, largely due to those tariffs, as well as taxes on liquor and tobacco, and most everyone recognized that the surplus would eventually lead to an end to federal indebtedness, something the economists of the time, as likely would those today, recognized as just as great an evil as continually increasing debt. Federal bonds were part and parcel of the monetary system then, just as they are now. The money of the time was gold coin, silver coin, and greenbacks, and the use of fiat money (greenbacks) was unpopular with creditors and financial interests of the east, but very popular with the debtors and the farmers and developers of the west.

We can look forward to a 2012 campaign in which health care, taxes, deficit/debt, and money are issues, with the last not really being able to be debated much because the Federal Reserve remains, for now at least, mostly off limits to debate. Excepting Ron Paul, few candidates on the right openly discuss the crazy idea of returning to basing the money supply on the ability to mine a selected metal (as much as many of them might like to). The campaigns of 1888, 1892, 1896, and 1900 would see each of the issues above come into consideration and dispute.

In 1888, the tariff was the dominant campaign issue, with Cleveland’s vigorous call for tariff reform—both reducing the surplus and leading toward freer trade—coming too late in his first term to prevent his proposal being defeated and giving the Republicans and their business supporters an issue they used successfully to prevent his reelection, but leading to the excesses of the McKinley tariff of 1890. At the time, though, big employers had far greater leverage over the votes of their employees, since unionization was rare, and employers could either escort their employees to the ballot box and ensure how they voted, or still, in some cases, collect the ballots of their employees and have them taken to the ballot box themselves. There was a time, we forget, before the Australian ballot.

Not to draw the parallelism too closely, but the contemporary debate over taxes is similar. The current tax structure, brought to you by a GOP bought lock, stock, and barrel, by big business and big finance, in cahoots with a substantial wing of the Democratic Party, similarly in the pocket of big finance (more) and big business (some), gave us the Bush era tax cuts, which, as sensible people know, has continued a shift in wealth from the middle-class to the rich without delivering one bit the promised increase in jobs or prosperity. The Gilded Age tariffs, similarly, put big money into the pockets of industrialists and financiers, by protecting their businesses from foreign competition while increasing the cost of necessities and other products to those who farmed and those who worked.

Cleveland began his term recognized as a conservative Democrat with some connection to those with financial interests, particularly in his being a hard (gold) money guy. But he clearly came out for a more sensible structure for tariffs that would reduce the costs of raw materials and manufactured products, to the advantage of ordinary citizens. The debt situation of his time is topsy-turvy to ours now, but the necessity of reforming the way the Federal government raises revenue is just as important in this election as it was then. We have to ensure that all pay their fair share, understanding that it is completely and totally fair to expect those who can pay more to actually pay more through real, progressive income tax rates.

So, I encourage my fellow Democrats to learn more about President Cleveland and not to look only to the Great Depression and FDR for parallels in economies and politics.

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