Grover Cleveland's Second Administration
The election of Grover Cleveland to the Presidency in 1892 was one of the most extraordinary events in our political history. During his first Administration he had estranged many of the leading politicians of his party. He had gone far enough in the line of civil service reform to alarm and disgust the believers in the doctrine that “to the victors belong the spoils”; and a large majority of the Democratic leaders and workers held to that belief. He had affirmed, meaning it, that “public office is a public trust,” and that the interests of the country are paramount to those of any party — doctrines, profession of which is regarded by the thorough-paced partisan of our days as a pharisaical assumption of superior virtue. He had, indeed, not repelled the advice of the party magnates on matters of public policy, but he had not diligently sought it, nor had he followed it when it ran counter to his own judgment. Most of the Democratic leaders, as well as of the party workers of less degree, had, therefore, concluded that he was not the kind of President they liked. Then, near the close of his first Administration, he had, in a very impressive manner, advanced the tariff question as the principal issue between the two great political parties this also against the wish of some prominent Democrats, who predicted party defeat as a consequence.
In spite of all this his renomination for the Presidency in 1888 was a party necessity, and, therefore, a matter of course; for even the most discontented Democratic politicians had to admit that they could not refuse Mr. Cleveland a renomination without virtually disowning the first and only Administration the Democratic party could call its own since 1861, which would have been fatal. But, no matter for what reason, he was defeated in the election. Had he not been above the common run of party leaders, his position would then have been weak indeed. The party had paid off its debt to him by the renomination; and the prestige of a public man is usually greatly impaired by defeat.
Nor did he, during the four years of his retirement, do any of the things which, under such circumstances, the ordinary politician would have thought useful to repair his fortunes. He quietly practiced law. He did not pose as the central figure of public occasions to attract the public eye. He did nothing to regain the favor of those who manage party caucuses and conventions. In his own State he permitted the regular organization of his party to pass wholly into the hands of his enemies. He not only did not shape his utterances according to the temporary currents of party sentiment, but while an apparently irresistible “craze” for the free coinage of silver was sweeping over most of the Democratic States, he continued to manifest his opposition to free coinage in language almost defiant in its positiveness.
According to the notions commonly current among politicians, such a man was an impossible candidate. But in spite of it all, his name resounded all over the country as that of the favorite of the Democratic masses. It was a truly spontaneous movement. There was no concerted agitation, no machine work behind it. On the contrary, those given to political machine methods mostly worked against him. But in vain. At the Democratic National Convention of 1892 a thing happened which was without precedent in our political history. Mr. Cleveland was nominated as a candidate for the Presidency, not merely without the support, but against the emphatic protest of the regular party delegation from his own State.
It is a significant fact that there was nothing in the political situation to give Mr. Cleveland any peculiar advantage. Indeed, the high tariff enacted under the Harrison Administration had provoked a violent reaction which resulted in a sweeping Democratic victory in the Congressional elections of 1890 and made a similar victory in the Presidential election of 1892 probable. This did not, in itself, tell in favor of his nomination. On the contrary, the probability of Democratic success in 1892 was rather apt to bring out every possible Democratic aspirant for the Presidency, to call into action their local folio wings, to organize a powerful “field” against Mr. Cleveland, and thus to facilitate the nomination of some person less objected to. It is equally significant that Mr. Cleveland won his unprecedented triumph without possessing what are commonly supposed to be the elements of popularity. He did not fascinate people by the charm of extraordinary eloquence. He did not win their friendship by any magic of “personal magnetism.” There was nothing romantic in his history to captivate the imagination. Least of all did he know the demagogue's art of being all things to all men. The real source of his strength lay in the impression made upon the popular mind, less by his abilities or by his opinions, than by his character as it had revealed itself in his utterances and acts. People saw in him a man conscientiously devoted to his duties, honest in his zeal to understand and to perform them without regard to personal advantage, and maintaining with dauntless courage what he thought right against friend and foe alike — a personality of exceptional strength and trustworthiness, commanding confidence. Thus the very qualities which made him an uncomfortable and distasteful person to party magnates and their henchmen, had endeared him to the popular heart. They overshadowed in the minds of many all differences of opinion about silver or the tariff. They carried his nomination and election triumphantly over the heads of the “practical politicians,” and gave him even a large number of Republican votes — far more than enough to make up for the defection of Democratic malcontents.
As a vigorous pronouncement of public opinion in favor of a candidate who saw in his office not a party agency, but a public trust, and as a victory of moral forces over political machine principles and methods, the nomination and election of Mr. Cleveland were events of most encouraging significance. Had those moral forces proved equally potent in determining the character and temper of Congress, they would not only have secured during Mr. Cleveland's term of office harmonious coöperation between the different branches of the Government, but they would also have gone far to strengthen the power of honest and independent thought in party politics, to bring back party organization to its legitimate functions, and generally to elevate the tone of our political life. But Mr. Cleveland had to encounter antagonisms of a singularly complex and dangerous nature.
Every intelligent man among those who voted to make him President had known precisely what to expect of him. Nobody had the slightest reason for thinking that he would favor free coinage or “do something for silver”; or that he would easily acquiesce in the squandering of public money; or that he would countenance any tariff reform not embodying the free admission of “raw materials” and a corresponding reduction of duties; or that he would conduct our foreign affairs in any other than a spirit of justice and peace according to the principles of international law; or that he would let the spoils hunters of his party have their way and abstain from extending the operation of the civil service rules. With a general and full and clear knowledge of all this the Democrats, reinforced by a large number of independent voters, elected him.
But no sooner had he ascended the Presidential chair than he encountered with regard to almost every article of his creed a decided, sometimes even bitter and insidious, opposition within his own party as represented in Congress. This opposition sprang partly from honest difference of opinion on public matters, such as the silver question, partly from interest, partly from personal feeling. Indeed, in the House of Representatives, which had been elected at the same time with him and under the same popular inspiration, and which had the advantage of the able and high-minded leadership of Mr. Wilson of West Virginia, the adverse current remained within bounds. Some of the policies the President stood for found there a fair party support. But the Democratic contingent in the Senate, a few faithful friends excepted, was largely controlled by those party leaders who had long disliked Mr. Cleveland for the very qualities which gave him his popular prestige. In addition to the old grudge, they now resented his election over their heads. His success, owing to popular favor, had only served to embitter their hostility to him.
They found, of course, willing aid among the Republicans of both Houses. Many of these, indeed, carried on their legitimate party opposition against the Democratic President in a wholly honorable spirit. But there were not a few extreme Republican partisans who saw in Mr. Cleveland only the one Democrat who, since 1861, had been able to wrest the Presidency from Republican hands; whom, because of his peculiar standing in the popular confidence, they had most to fear, and whom it was, therefore, most desirable, by any available means, to destroy. This was considered “good party politics.”
The President thus found himself confronted by an extraordinary combination of hostile forces, and this at a time when the general situation he had to deal with was peculiarly perplexing. The preceding Administration had left a Pandora box of trouble as its legacy behind it. Among Republicans it is the fashion to attribute all the financial disturbance happening under the Cleveland Administration to that Administration itself. No fair-minded student of recent events will accept this view. The first causes of that disturbance will be found in one of those periodical business prostrations characteristic of our times. The ten years preceding 1890 had been years of great prosperity. That prosperity had produced the usual effect of inciting recklessness in borrowing and lending, and of stimulating the spirit of venturesome enterprise. With the year 1890 the reaction set in. Cautious men began to sell securities and to restrict their credits. Values shrank and creditors became apprehensive. In this country during the first six months of 1890 the mortgages of nearly two dozen railroad companies were foreclosed, and the Barings' collapse in England later in the year caused widespread consternation. Confidence here, as elsewhere, was grievously shaken, and business embarrassments rapidly increased.
There are two superstitions being cultivated in this country which the period of depression beginning in 1890 was well apt to put in their true light. One is that when business languishes we have only to enact a high tariff and everything will soon be in prosperous and happy motion again. The downward movement beginning in 1890 occurred while the McKinley tariff was in full operation. While it is not pretended that this downward movement was caused by that high tariff, it is very evident that the tariff did not prevent or stop it. The other superstition is that the sure remedy for hard times consists in an increase of the volume of current money. This remedy was applied in 1890 through the so-called Sherman act, by which the Government's currency was rapidly increased. But the business decline did not stop. On the contrary, it was seriously aggravated by adding to the other uncertainties of the day the portentous question whether, if the issues of Government paper money against silver purchases were continued, it would be possible to maintain its parity with gold.
This was the situation when Mr. Cleveland became President. To make his Administration responsible for that situation is a ludicrous absurdity. At the close of his first term, in 1889, he had turned over to his successor, Mr. Harrison, a cash balance in the Treasury of more than $281,000,000, of which more than $196,000,000 was gold. In 1891, after the second year of President Harrison's term, the cash balance had dropped to less than $176,500,000, and the Treasury gold to less than $118,000,000. At the close of his Administration in 1893, President Harrison left to his successor, Mr. Cleveland, a cash balance of less than $146,000,000, of which a little more than $103,500,000 was gold and this would have been considerably less than $100,000,000, the traditional gold reserve held against the greenbacks, had not Mr. Foster, President Harrison's Secretary of the Treasury, obtained several millions of gold for greenbacks from New York bankers, to keep that reserve from falling below the regular mark. Thus President Harrison left to his successor, Mr. Cleveland, over $134,000,000 less in cash assets, and $93,000,000 less in gold, than he had in 1889 received from him. Indeed, Secretary Foster was so anxious lest the gold reserve sink below $100,000,000 before the Republicans went out of power that he made preparations for a sale of Government bonds. This was the legacy left to Mr. Cleveland.
When his Presidential term began the financial crisis of 1893 was well under way. The condition of the Treasury continued to grow weaker. The appropriations made by Congress had been extravagantly lavish, and the McKinley tariff failed to furnish the necessary revenue. The period of deficits, in the place of the former surpluses, set in before that tariff was changed. The resources of the Treasury dwindled as its responsibilities increased. When the small excess of the gold holdings of the Treasury above $100,000,000 threatened to disappear, the country was startled by an announcement, telegraphed from Washington as coming from the Treasury Department, which created the apprehension that when that excess was exhausted, the Treasury notes provided for in the Sherman act would no longer be redeemed in gold. This announcement started a panicky feeling in the business centers. President Cleveland promptly caused the public to be informed that the gold payments would be maintained under all circumstances. The panic was checked, but a nervous disquietude remained which made the public mind morbidly susceptible to discouraging impressions. Soon the Treasury gold actually fell below $100,000,000, and the charm of safety which in the popular imagination hung about that reserve was broken. Business failures rapidly multiplied. In May, banks began to break at a terrific rate, especially in the West. The closing of the mints in India to the free coinage of silver caused a sudden fall of twenty points in the price of that metal. No intelligent man could doubt that, if the monthly silver purchases and the issuing of paper money standing for silver continued, the disappearance of our stock of gold would go on at an accelerating pace, and the monetary system of the country would soon be on the silver basis — a catastrophe involving the ruin of our National credit and a most disastrous confusion to all our business interests. The repeal of the silver purchase law was therefore the first necessity.
It was expected that President Cleveland would call an extra session of Congress for this purpose, to meet at the earliest possible period. But he put off that extra session until August — thinking, perhaps, that the public mind was not yet prepared for the repeal of the Sherman act, or that Congress would be better prepared for it later.
When Congress met in August, 1893, Mr. Cleveland had, like many other Presidents before him, lost some of the honeymoon popularity, and even some more important elements of strength that he had possessed a few months before. His anxious desire to save the country from the dire consequences of the silver purchase law and to bring about the reformation of the tariff had seduced him into efforts to win the favor, or at least to avert the displeasure, of Members of Congress by way of meeting their wishes in making appointments to office. To use the patronage of the Government for the purpose of influencing the action of Congress was against his principles as well as against his inclinations. There is no reason for doubting that he would have been glad to exterminate the spoils system, root and branch, at one blow, had he thought it possible to do so at that period without seriously endangering other great interests. He therefore adjourned his plans for extending the application of civil service reform principles to a later day.
But giving due credit to his general intentions, the correctness of his judgment of the situation may be questioned from a practical point of view. He was, after all, not capable of making the use of the patronage in this fashion a regular and in any sense successful policy. While doing some things which under less critical circumstances he would not have done, his care for the public interest compelled him to refuse to do other things without which he could not secure the active friendship of those who asked for them. In a large majority of cases you cannot satisfy the spoils-mongering politician unless you give him everything he demands. Deny him anything and he will be as dissatisfied as if he had received nothing. There are exceptions, but this is the rule. The result of Mr. Cleveland's concession to the old patronage abuse was that he pleased a few who, in turn, served him if they found it in their interest to do so, but not otherwise, and would have served him also without patronage if it accorded with their interests; that the old story of the bestowal of an office making ten enemies and one ingrate repeated itself in many cases; that the distribution of favors caused many bitter disappointments, jealousies and heartburnings; that his opponents made a great outcry about his attempts to buy votes in Congress with patronage — an outcry which was far greater than the facts warranted, but became a formidable weapon against him; and that some of the things done — such as the hasty removals and appointments in the Consular service — created a painful sensation among those whose principles and views of policy were most in accord with his own. Such slips weakened him for the time in public estimation; and inasmuch as that public estimation was always the main source of his strength, everything calculated to shake it served to increase the power of his enemies.
It happens sometimes that men of a superior stamp deem it expedient in difficult situations to resort to the arts of management familiar to the small politician, thinking themselves able to play at that game as well as anybody else. But there have been only few of them who proved that they could do so with success, or even with impunity. Mr. Cleveland was not one of these few. He had far less skill in the craft of small politics than he himself may have believed. His nature lacked that gift. He was powerful as a leader of men in mass, on a great scale, by prevailing upon public opinion, or by stirring the popular moral sense. But he was awkward in dealing with mankind in detail, in manipulating individuals. Such men are apt rather to lose much than to gain anything by ventures below their natural sphere.
The President on the 7th of August, 1893, sent a message to the Congress assembled in extra session strongly urging the immediate repeal of the silver purchase act. The House of Representatives, under Mr. Wilson's leadership, responded with reasonable promptness. It passed the Wilson repeal bill on the 28th by a heavy majority, of which, however, the Republicans furnished the larger part. But in the Senate the struggle assumed a different character. There was a majority in that body in favor of repeal. But the minority was strong enough, owing to the rules of the Senate, which know no “previous question,” to obstruct the vote indefinitely. The silver Senators, mostly Democrats, with some Republicans, coalesced under the leadership of the Republican Senator Teller, a man full of the zeal of honest fanaticism. The silver men understood the greatness of the stake. So long as the silver purchase act was in force, they could hope that its operation would bring the country at last upon the silver basis even without the enactment of a free-coinage act. The repeal of the silver purchase law would extinguish that hope. Therefore they fought against it with desperate energy. The repeal force, mostly Republicans, with some Democrats, were led by the Democratic Senator Voorhees, the chairman of the Committee on Finance, at heart a silver man, but honestly enough in favor of this Administration measure for the occasion. But he did not master his subject, and his leadership was unskillful and spiritless. Moreover, there were among the Democrats, and even apparently on the President's side in this struggle, some whose lurking rancor against him inspired the wish that if the repeal must pass, it should at least pass in a form making it appear as somebody else's measure rather than his.
From the 28th of August, when Senator Voorhees reported the bill to the Senate, the debate went on week after week, until finally the time was occupied on the part of the coalition opposing repeal only by those unseemly maneuvers called filibustering. Meanwhile the business community, harassed by the wantonly prolonged uncertainty and the accumulating embarrassments and disasters caused by it, grew more impatient from day to day. A storm of popular indignation broke upon the Senate. Senators were pelted with telegraphic messages, letters and resolutions adopted by business men's associations and public meetings in which prompt action was vehemently demanded and the obstruction denounced as a hostile plot against the public welfare. It is more than probable that the obstructionists would at last have yielded to this impetuous pressure of public sentiment, had not Senator Gorman encouraged them with the assurance that, if they held out, they would force the Administration to yield some concession favorable to “silver.”
Indeed, from time to time rumors found their way into the newspapers that such a compromise was on the point of consummation, and toward the end of October the consent of almost all the Democratic Senators was actually obtained to a proposition that the silver purchase law should remain in force one year longer and then stop; that the silver purchased under that act and the seigniorage should be coined, and that all Government notes under $10 should be withdrawn — a proposition full of mischief. The silver Democrats were propitiated by the argument that while the silver purchase law could hardly be permanently maintained under existing circumstances, this proposition would keep it in operation at least for a year longer and then compensate for it by other concessions. The Administration Democrats were falsely told that the Secretary of the Treasury himself favored it, and that this would be a “Democratic” measure upon which the whole party could be reunited; besides, it was “the only thing possible.” Meanwhile President Cleveland, profoundly convinced that nothing but the complete and unconditional repeal of the silver purchase clause of the Sherman act would save the country from immediate peril, stood unmoved in his purpose. Neither the desperate efforts of the obstructionists in the Senate nor the intrigues of his personal enemies disheartened him; and when the proposition of compromise was brought before him, with an array of persuasive argument by his very friends, the table shook under his fist when he exclaimed: “I will never consent to it.”
There was the end. The Senate voted the repeal as proposed by him without further delay. The thing which Senator Gorman had asserted could not be done, was done, because there was a man to see it done. It was a great victory. The public interest triumphed over everything, and that triumph was due to Grover Cleveland alone. The justice of history will never deny him this acknowledgment.
But while the repeal of the silver purchase act averted the most immediate peril, it could by no means stop the source of the evil. It removed one very serious cause of distrust, but it did not restore confidence. The struggle in the Senate had even increased public apprehension as to the resources, the recklessness, the desperate character of the silver movement. That movement has often been likened to the paper inflation “craze” of twenty years before. As to the ultimate ends the two are indeed alike. But the silver movement has in the mining interests of the far West a very strong and well-organized financial power behind it, which the paper inflation movement had not. By means of a well-supplied war chest it can sustain a systematic and incessant agitation, which the paper inflation movement could not. It is, therefore, much more able to take advantage of its local opportunities and to repair the effects of defeat. It dies much harder. Indeed, after the repeal of the silver purchase act it was felt to be still very much alive and capable of mischief. The anxieties it inspired were heightened by other circumstances. The revenues of the Government ran low. The apprehension that the Government would be obliged to draw upon the gold resources of the Treasury for current expenses caused many people, especially foreign investors in the United States, to anticipate this by drawing it out themselves for greenbacks, and to send it abroad. There was also not a little private hoarding of gold at home. This created a constant drain on the gold reserve of the Treasury, and to replenish it loans by bond sales had soon to be resorted to.
Such bond sales, open to the public, were made in January and again in November, 1894, but not without some difficulty. They did not stop the drain. Bonds were sold for gold. That gold was put into the Treasury. The distrust continuing, greenbacks were again presented for redemption, and thus that gold drawn out of the Treasury. The greenbacks were paid out again by the Treasury for current expenses, and then they were again presented for redemption to draw out more gold. It seemed indeed like an “endless chain,” as Mr. Cleveland called it. Early in 1895 the situation became very critical. On the 28th of January the President sent a message to Congress pointing out the dangers impending and asking for the passage of a law authorizing the Secretary of the Treasury to sell three per cent, gold bonds running fifty years. Congress had repeatedly shown its unwillingness to adopt effective measures for the relief of the Treasury, and did so this time. The apprehensive temper of the business community grew into actual alarm. A regular run began upon the Treasury for the gold in it. On the 8th of February the gold holdings were reduced to $41,300,000, and this amount consisted almost wholly, not of coin, but of bars. The Treasury was in a state of utter helplessness to meet the run, which threatened to spread as it went on. The Republic was within a hair's breadth of bankruptcy. Only the promptest help could ward off the catastrophe.
Then President Cleveland did a thing which exposed him to measureless obloquy and defamation, but saved the country from incalculable confusion, calamity and disgrace. The famous syndicate contract was made with New York bankers, who drew the foremost banking houses of Europe into coöperation. They sold to the Government $65,117,000 worth of gold for four per cent, bonds of the nominal value of $62,317,500. The difference between these sums represented the premium on the bonds, making their price equal to 104.49, and the rate of interest three and three-quarters per cent. These bonds, authorized by the act of July 14, 1870, were payable in “coin.” According to the talk of the silver men in Congress they should be paid in silver. According to the cowardly duplicities of the politicians in Congress who, although not silver men themselves, constantly bid for the silver vote, those bonds might be paid in silver. The syndicate was willing to run that chance; but it offered to take three per cent, instead of four per cent, bonds, if Congress would, within ten days, make them specifically payable in gold. President Cleveland communicated this offer, together with the whole contract, to the House of Representatives, strongly recommending that the terms of the offer be complied with, as more than $16,000,000 would be saved in interest during the time the bonds had to run. It seems almost incredible, but the House deliberately threw away that saving because a large majority of the members were too much afraid of the word “gold” to accept it. But by far the most important provision of the contract was that by which the most powerful American and European banking houses bound themselves not only to bring at least one-half of the gold to be delivered from Europe, but also to “exert all financial influence and to make all legitimate efforts to protect the Treasury of the United States against the withdrawals of gold pending the complete performance of the contract.”
When the conclusion of this contract became known, the panicky feeling subsided instantly. The run upon the Treasury ceased. Bankruptcy was averted. Every intelligent person knew that with the organized coöperation of such forces, which, having been secured once, could be secured again, the Government would remain able to continue its gold payments and to maintain its credit intact. And when a year later the gold assets again dropped considerably below the one hundred million figure, the revived popular confidence made it easy to fill the gap by a popular loan, while formerly the popular loan had been a precarious operation.
But the silver men were furious beyond measure because another chance for precipitating the country upon the silver basis had been spoiled by President Cleveland's determined action. Ever since, the “bankers' syndicate” has been a favorite staple of their denunciatory rhetoric. According to them, that syndicate has robbed the Government, enslaved the people, obliterated our free institutions and done whatever else of iniquity the human imagination can conceive. Their vindictive vilification of Mr. Cleveland has gone even to the length of charging him with having put millions into his own pocket as his share of the profit from the syndicate transaction. The inventors of a calumny so silly as well as revolting did not feel what an insult they offered to the national character by expecting any one to believe it. To such a charge, leaving out of the question Mr. Cleveland's personal repute, a self-respecting American has but one answer: It is simply impossible that a President of the United States, whatever else may be said against him, should ever conceive the thought of deriving a corrupt pecuniary profit from any use of his official power. It will be a sad day for the Republic when this impossibility ceases to be taken for granted. The wretches who circulated that falsehood about Mr. Cleveland did, of course, not credit it themselves.
There were also men of standing in the Republican party who attacked the syndicate contract in that carping, caviling spirit characteristic of narrow-minded partisans, criticizing its terms as if they had had a liberal assortment of first-class bankers at hand, ready for a pledge to protect the Treasury against the withdrawal of gold, and to expose themselves for months ahead to the chances of embarrassment by war or commercial perturbations — all for nothing; or as if the President should have jeoparded an arrangement absolutely necessary to save the country from the immediate danger of bankruptcy, disaster and disgrace, by haggling over a fraction of a per cent, while Congress was wantonly throwing away the opportunity of saving sixteen millions. Many of those who then displayed their partisan zeal by such pettiness may now be heartily ashamed of it. They may now gratefully remember that President Cleveland not only was ever watchful and prompt to defeat by his veto vicious legislation supported mainly by men of his own party, such as the bill for coining the seigniorage, but that in those days of supreme peril he remained undismayed by the ferocious assaults made upon his good name as well as his statesmanship, and stood firm as a rock against the powers of evil which menaced the welfare and the honor of the American people. Nor should it be forgotten when we at last come to the true cure of our financial ills — the withdrawal of our greenbacks and a liberal extension of banking facilities — that he time and again commended these measures to an unwilling Congress. The country has never had in the Presidential office a stronger bulwark of its credit and a more faithful champion of sound finance than Grover Cleveland.
Probably the greatest and most painful disappointment of his whole political career was the fate his tariff reform policy met with. His tariff message of 1887 gave to his party, which for a long time had been floundering about, as a mere opposition, in vagueness of purpose, a positive and definite policy, a cause and a battlecry. Although temporarily repelled in the Presidential election of 1888, tariff reform achieved a signal triumph in the Congressional elections of 1890, and formed the most prominent issue in the Presidential election of 1892 which put the Democratic party in full possession of the National Government. The time for its realization seemed to have come.
Mr. Wilson of West Virginia, who possessed and deserved the full confidence of the President, was made chairman of the Committee of Ways and Means of the House of Representatives. Himself a man of superior ability, of statesmanlike breadth of view and of noble aspirations, he had, in framing and carrying through the tariff bill, to contend with the lack of those qualities in other men's minds. There were among the Democrats in Congress a good many who professed to be in favor of tariff reform and who fully recognized the pledge of their party to abolish or reduce tariff duties to that end, but who wished to spare the protection given to the industries carried on in their own districts or States. They would reform every thing except the things in which they were themselves interested, politically or otherwise. This is one of the greatest difficulties the systematic reform of a high tariff has to encounter in a popular assembly. When the game of mutual concession and dicker once begins, there is no telling where it will end. The result is usually a legislative patchwork without any scientific symmetry or unity of purpose. Thus the tariff which issued from the deliberations of the House was by no means a faultless or consistent measure. Henry Clay would have considered it a tariff sufficiently protective to satisfy his views. But it embodied, at least in a measure, the rule of free raw material and an approximately corresponding reduction of the duties on manufactured articles. It was a long step toward the realization of the principles which Mr. Cleveland had advocated as the essence of tariff reform.
But when the bill went to the Senate it fell into the hands of those who were enemies both of tariff reform and of the President. The interference of special interests, which in the House of Representatives had served to demoralize the tariff reform forces to a dangerous degree, appeared in the Senate in a shape far more insidious as well as powerful. A combination formed by a number of Senators strong enough to defeat the tariff bill dictated to the Democrats of the Senate its conditions with the brutal peremptoriness of a band of brigands demanding ransom for a captive. Senator Gorman again was its directing spirit. Free coal and free iron were unceremoniously sacrificed, and the Sugar Trust had its own way in determining the duties in which it was interested. After months of secret intriguing and open bullying and dickering and haggling, the bill was at last put on its passage, but all that was left of it, except free wool, was a mere caricature of a tariff reform measure.
When the bill was about to go to a conference committee of the two Houses, the President made a last effort to save his cherished cause from discomfiture and disgrace. In a letter addressed to Mr. Wilson, and through him to the House of Representatives, he called upon the Democrats in pathetic accents to remain true to their principles.
But it was all in vain. Mr. Wilson indeed made a gallant fight in the conference committee, but the Democratic majority of the House at the decisive moment failed to sustain him. The Senatorial combination carried the day, and the cause of tariff reform was treacherously slaughtered in the house of its friends.
The chagrin of the President was extreme. He gave vigorous expression to it in denouncing the perfidy of those who had “stolen and worn the livery of Democratic tariff reform in the service of Republican protection,” and cast “the deadly blight of treason” upon their cause. He could not put his name to such a measure, but, inasmuch as after all it would lighten many tariff burdens that rested heavily upon the people, he permitted it to become a law without his signature.
The fate Mr. Cleveland's tariff reform policy met in Congress marked two facts. One was that he had lost the leadership of the Democratic party; and the other, that the Democratic party was in process of fatal disintegration, owing to the want of unity of purpose and to the destruction of the only leadership that possessed any moral force. Henceforth it was at the mercy of the machine politicians and of such distracting influences as the silver movement. The effect produced upon the country by the performances of the Democrats in Congress was instantaneous. The independents who had aided the Democratic party in the elections of 1890 and 1892 turned away with disgust. The best part of the Democratic constituency were utterly disheartened. The question was seriously debated among its very friends, whether the Democratic party was at all capable of carrying on the Government. We receive the impression of burlesque, or of Mephistophelian irony, when we now read a speech delivered by Mr. Gorman in the Senate after he had well-nigh completed the disfigurement of the tariff bill. “Mr. President,” said he, “we are nearing the end. After twenty years of progress, of positive growth, of constant development and of universal enlightenment, the Democratic party and the American people are within sight of the promised land. Emancipation is at hand. Years of arduous labor by unselfish and patriotic men cannot count for nothing. Fruition is as inevitable as fate. I repeat, it is near at hand. Now of all times the sun of Democracy is at the meridian.” A few months after this triumphant utterance of the leader of the Senatorial plot, the Democrats suffered an overwhelming defeat in the Congressional elections of 1894. Then Mr. Cleveland was confronted by a Congress opposed to him in both branches, and he had to do his work as President in complete political isolation. That work was, however, not without lasting effect.
In the conduct of our foreign affairs President Cleveland found, at the very beginning of his Administration, on his hands the treaty for the annexation of the Hawaiian Islands which had been concluded during the last days of President Harrison's term. Enough was known of the occurrences which had brought forth that treaty to justify Mr. Cleveland in promptly withdrawing it from the Senate for further inquiry and consideration. He despatched a special commissioner to Hawaii, who soon confirmed the report, beyond reasonable doubt, that the Hawaiian Queen had been dethroned and a change of government effected by a revolutionary movement set on foot by a small number of persons, largely Americans; that to the success of that movement officers of the United States and the forces under their command had actively contributed, and that the offer of the country for annexation to the United States had the support of only a very small minority of the Hawaiian people. There was but one honest conclusion, and President Cleveland pronounced it. This Republic, even if annexation were otherwise considered opportune, could not honorably take advantage for its own aggrandizement of a wrong committed by its own officers, and it was also in honor bound to redress the wrong done and to restore the status quo ante as much as circumstances permitted. A storm of denunciation burst forth from those who call it “patriotic” to augment the domain of the Republic by theft, and was echoed by the Republicans, who thought it their duty to find fault with a Democratic Administration. No end of senseless rant was indulged in about the “hauling down of the American flag” from the Hawaiian state-house — as if any man of self-respect would deny that wherever the flag floats in dishonor, honor commands it to be hauled down.
The clamor increased when it became known that under the instructions of our State Department the American Minister in Hawaii had offered to the dethroned Queen to restore her to her royal dignity, of which she had been deprived by the wrongful use of the power of the United States, on condition that she issue a general amnesty. It was fortunate that she refused to do this, and thus gave our Government an opportunity to retreat from an engagement, the execution of which might have produced most unfortunate complications. To restore the status quo ante even to the extent of putting the Queen on her throne again by the employment of the same power of the United States by which she had been driven from it, would indeed have accorded with abstract justice. But in dealing with the actualities of this world we have sometimes to admit that there are wrongs which cannot be completely righted in perfect justice to all, because by such wrongs situations may have been created, the entire overturning of which would inflict new wrongs upon innocent persons without after all furnishing the complete redress of the old wrongs aimed at. Thus the restoration of the Hawaiian Queen would undoubtedly have brought about in that country a state of restlessness and insecurity most grievous to the innocent part of the population — not to speak of the clash of opinions and the distracting agitation it would have caused in the United States.
It was wise, therefore, to recognize the new government of Hawaii as the government de facto, and firmly to resist the annexation scheme. On the whole, the action of the Administration in this case produced excellent effects. In declining to profit from an illegitimate use of the power of the United States, and in endeavoring, as far as possible, to redress a wrong done through it, Mr. Cleveland's Administration gave to the world a proof of our fairness, justice and good faith in dealing with weaker nations which could not fail greatly to raise the character of this Republic in the esteem and confidence of mankind. Nor did Mr. Cleveland render his country a less valuable service in saving it, by defeating the Hawaiian annexation scheme, from the first step in the direction of indiscriminate and reckless aggrandizement.
So uniformly judicious and discreet had Mr. Cleveland been in the conduct of our foreign relations; so solicitously had he guarded the honor and dignity of this Republic, not only by maintaining our own rights, but also by respecting the rights of others; so careful and conscientious in the observance of the principles of international law had been his course with regard to the insurrection in Cuba, notwithstanding the clamor of the professional “jingoes” and of hot-headed sympathizers, and notwithstanding, too, his own sympathy with the cause of the insurgents; so wisely and consistently pacific and so dignified had been his foreign policy throughout, that the people were struck with wonder and amazement when they read his famous Venezuela message on the 17th of December, 1895, in which he asked Congress to make an appropriation for a commission to investigate the boundary line in dispute between Venezuela and British Guiana; declared that if Great Britain refused to submit the whole matter to arbitration, the United States should by every means in their power enforce the finding of our own commission; substantially made the cause of Venezuela our own, and apparently countenanced, by inference at least, that construction of the Monroe Doctrine now so much in vogue, which maintains that the relations between any part of America and any foreign power are virtually the business of this Republic.
Without taking time for calm deliberation both Houses of Congress promptly voted the appropriation asked for. From many parts of the country came expressions of approval. The jingoes were jubilant, for they thought that the Administration had surrendered to them, and there was a threat of war in the air. A panicky feeling seized upon the business community both in England and in the United States. The prices of stocks and bonds dropped with a thump. The losses caused by the depreciation of securities were enormous. The revival of business in this country, of which there had been some promising symptoms, was instantly checked by a nervous sense of apprehension. Many of Mr. Cleveland's most steadfast friends were sorely puzzled. What could he mean? Did he try to catch popularity for himself and his party? But he was not a demagogue. Did he wish to provoke a war? But he had always been a man of peace. The truth most probably is that, the United States having for many years acted in this matter as the friend of Venezuela, he felt a certain responsibility as to the outcome; that he was irritated by the constant advance of British territorial claims at the expense of Venezuela, and apprehensive of a new forward attempt; that he thought it time to stop further encroachment and bring the question to a final issue; and that he knew of no better means to this end than a vigorous demonstration on the part of this Republic involving the possibility of war.
Assuming that the objects President Cleveland had in view were right, it can hardly be denied that by prudent and at the same time energetic management they might have been reached without the risk of a collision with a friendly power, without exciting dangerous passions among our population, without a disastrous disturbance of the business of the country — and thus without a grievous break in Mr. Cleveland's otherwise so dignified and statesmanlike foreign policy. At the same time it must be admitted that the means he employed did accomplish his purpose. As soon as a danger of war appeared on the horizon, public sentiment in England pronounced itself so generally and so emphatically for the preservation of peace with the United States that Lord Salisbury could yield important points in the Venezuela boundary dispute and thus clear the way for a satisfactory arrangement without weakening his position before the British people. In this country, too, the bellicose flurry was speedily subdued by telling demonstrations of our love of peace and goodwill among nations, which warmly responded to the feeling manifested by English public opinion. And then came, borne along on the wave of international fraternalism, that great achievement which alone would suffice to make an Administration memorable for all time — the general arbitration treaty between the United States and Great Britain — not only a guaranty of peace between the two nations but an example for all mankind to follow, an epoch in the advance of civilization. The active negotiations for this treaty belong wholly to Mr. Cleveland's Administration. They were begun under Secretary Gresham, and carried to a successful issue with extraordinary ability by Secretary Olney. The efforts made in the Senate to prevent the confirmation of the treaty while Mr. Cleveland was President — efforts attributed by the opinion of the country to a combination of partisan jealousy and personal rancor — succeeded in postponing the final consummation, but ignominiously failed in taking from Mr. Cleveland's Administration the glory of the achievement. That treaty will forever stand as a monumental milestone in history, bearing in large characters the names of Cleveland, Gresham and Olney. Nor will any amendments intended to emasculate the treaty defeat its purpose. The very fact that the executive heads of the two countries once concluded it will henceforth put upon any refusal to submit to arbitration any difference between them a burden of odium too heavy for any civilized nation to bear. This victory of peace is won.
There is another great victory with which Mr. Cleveland's name is nobly identified. He was a civil service reformer, not as a theorist, but as a practical administrator. He knew from practical experience that public office, to be treated as a public trust, must cease to be party spoil, and that a department of the public service, to be a business department, must cease to be a patronage department. He knew also that offices would not cease to be treated as party spoil so long as they were filled by partisan favor, and that public departments would not cease to be patronage departments so long as they had patronage to bestow. He had learned this as Mayor of Buffalo and as Governor of New York, and he found in the competitive merit system the simple, honest, practical remedy. When he became President the first time in 1885, he would have wiped out the spoils system at once, had he not feared by breaking too brusquely with long-established political habits, to alienate his party. He resolved therefore slowly to extend the civil service rules already in operation while humoring the Democratic politicians by conceding to them as much as he thought necessary. Such concessions, once begun, are apt to lead on beyond the original intention, and so it happened that at the end of his first term he had dissatisfied the reformers without satisfying the party politicians. Still, when he went out of office in 1889, he had added 12,000 places to those under the civil service rules.
It has already been mentioned what considerations induced him at the beginning of his second Administration to humor the politicians of his party again and to postpone what blows he meant to strike for his cherished reform. The first three years he added only this and that branch of the service to the classified list, and established rules covering a part of the consular service. But on the 6th of May, 1896, he issued an order which marked an epoch. It not only added at one stroke of the pen over 40,000 places to those already classified, making the total nearly 90,000, but it established the general principle that it is the natural and normal status of persons serving under the Executive Departments of the National Government to be under the civil service rules — in other words, that it shall no longer require a special edict to put them there, but that they shall be considered and treated as being there unless excepted by special edict.
This order was the most effective blow the spoils system had ever received. It completed the work of civil service reform as to the subordinate places under the heads of Government offices, leaving in their old condition virtually only the officers to be appointed with the consent of the Senate, and the minor postmasters. These, it is to be hoped, will in the same spirit be dealt with by Mr. Cleveland's successors. But of him it may justly be said that while he has not done for the reform of the civil service all that could and should be done, he has done far more than all his predecessors together, and he will ever stand preëminent among the champions of that great cause.
But he was a reformer of the Government service in more than one sense. No man in the Presidential chair has ever battled with more devotion, energy and fearlessness for economy and rectitude in the administration of the people's business; not one has carried on the struggle against the prevailing wantonness of public expenditure and against corrupt jobs more bravely, more persistently and with more unceasing watchfulness; and not one has, in doing this, defied the prejudices of large classes of people, the powerful resentment of favored interests and the vindictive hatred of greedy schemers with more self-sacrificing fortitude than he. The spectacle of the President of the United States, in the small hours of the night, poring over the details of bills granting public money for rivers and harbors, or for pensions, or for public buildings, and what not, to satisfy himself whether the people's interests were well guarded, and then, whenever he detected fraud, or wastefulness, writing his veto messages with an indefatigable and unflinching sense of duty — that spectacle has not seldom been held up to disdain and ridicule by unprincipled or light-headed persons. But the more thoughtfully the patriotic citizen contemplates it, the more worthy will he find that President of the admiration, confidence and gratitude of the people.
No thinking man denies that corruption and profligacy, the tendency to make the Government an agency for private support and the loose methods of doing the Government's business which minister to such evil practices are among the gravest dangers besetting democratic institutions. The more highly should we value among our officers of state that courage of conscience which fears nothing, and that devotion to duty which shuns no drudgery to protect the purity of the Government and the character and interests of the Nation. Indeed, there was something of civic heroism in the figure of President Cleveland as during the expiring days of his term he sat in the political solitude of the White House, to the last moment plodding in the accustomed way, elaborately writing out his enlightened and cogent objections to an illiberal immigration bill, in spite of the clamor in favor of it; studying appropriations and casting them aside if extravagant, and vetoing grants of pension if unwarranted by fact or equity — although he well knew that in most cases Congress would pass such acts of legislation over his head without a moment's consideration — thus doing his duty for duty's sake. It would be going too far to say that, as a reward, every honest man was his friend; but surely every rascal was by instinct his enemy. And all good citizens have reason to wish that every one of his successors may, irrespective of political opinions, possess that conscience and moral force which were President Cleveland's distinguishing qualities.
It is said that his Administration was a failure. True, he failed in holding his party together. But who would have succeeded? He felt himself a party man because he believed in the “old” Democratic policies which aimed at economical, simple and honest government of, for and by the people. He sought to elevate his party again to the level of its original principles. It was his ambition to do the country good service in the name of that Democracy. It was his fate — a fate with something of the tragic in it — that his very endeavors to revive the best of the old Democracy served only to reveal the moral decay and the political disruption of the Democracy of his day, and to consign him to an isolation paralleled in our history only by that of John Quincy Adams. There could be no more whimsical irony of fortune than that, after Mr. Cleveland had led his party to victory over the McKinley tariff, not only the specific fruits of that victory were made repugnant to him by the treachery of other Democratic leaders, but that the greater treason of the National Convention of his party, by threatening the country with immeasurable calamities, forced him to favor the election of Mr. McKinley himself as his successor in the Presidential office, and to find in Mr. McKinley's victory a popular vindication of his own financial principles.
As to the Democracy for which he had stood, it survived only in those represented by the Indianapolis convention of sound-money Democrats — the saving remnant, embodying the hope — indeed the only hope — of a Democratic party resurrection.
But what does the true success of an Administration consist in? Not in the mere prosperity of a party organization, but in the public good accomplished and in the public evil prevented. Who, then, will deny that, had not Mr. Cleveland stood like a tower of strength between his country and bankruptcy, we should have been forced on the silver basis and into the disgrace of repudiation? Would not, without his prompt interposition, the annexation of Hawaii have launched us upon a career of indiscriminate aggrandizement and wild adventure imperiling our peace and the character of our institutions? Has he not been a bulwark against countless jobs and acts of special legislation and of reckless extravagance, not only by his vetoes, but by merely being seen at his post? And as to the good accomplished, how many Administrations do we find in our annals that have left behind them a prouder record of achievement than the maintenance of the money standard and the credit of the country against immense difficulties, the splendid advance in the reform of the civil service, and that signal triumph of the enlightened and humane spirit of our closing century — the general arbitration treaty with Great Britain? Whatever its mischances and failures may have been — with such successes the second Cleveland Administration can confidently appeal to the judgment of history. Nobody pretends that Mr. Cleveland is the ideal human being or the ideal statesman; but it is safe to say that the greatness of his name will constantly grow in the historic retrospect, and that his figure will continue to stand strong and eminent in the front rank of American Presidents long after the small politicians who sought to thwart or belittle him have been buried under the drift sands of time.