This is a post in My Presidential Rankings series, linked here: https://sdu754.wordpress.com/2014/01/05/presidential-rankings/
Grover Cleveland was the only president to serve non consecutive terms, a distinction that’s not likely to be repeated.
As president, Grover Cleveland had little use for people of color. He outright refused to enforce the 15th Amendment protecting rights of blacks. He repealed other laws protecting blacks in the south, and in fact was elected in large part due to Jim Crow laws. He lobbied congress to pass the Scott Act, which wouldn’t allow Chinese emigrants to re-enter the country if they had left. Cleveland even went after Native Americans with the Dawes Act. This act allowed the government to take away about 67% of the remaining Indian lands, including the state of Oklahoma. He even also opposed women’s suffrage, though it wasn’t known until he left the White House. Grover Cleveland clearly saw basic human rights as being for white man only, and clearly governed with that in mind.
Another group that Cleveland had no sympathy for was disabled war veterans. Maybe this was because he bought his was out of fighting in the civil war, so he felt little obligation to former veterans. He vetoed the Dependent Pension Bill, which would have given any man who served 90 days during any war and who could not earn a living a monthly pension of $6 to $12. Cleveland called this bill a “premium of fraud”, most people would call it a minimum of compassion. Cleveland further vetoed more than 275 individual pension bills during his first term in office. Cleveland is largely held in high esteem by historians for such vetoes, but denying pensions to disabled veterans is not the “Great Act” a president should be known and celebrated for. There was also a practical reason for the veteran’s pension bill Cleveland vetoed and Harrison passed, these individual pension bills were clogging up congress. Another famous veto Cleveland gets praised for is the Texas Seed Bill. This bill was passed as a relief measure to help victims of a natural disaster, an extended drought, by giving them seeds to replant with. In his veto message Cleveland stated “though the people support the government, the government should not support the people.”
Grover Cleveland didn’t just hold disdain for non whites, war veterans and drought victims, he also had a special place in his heart for union workers as well. The Pullman company forced employees to live in “Pullman towns” in a form of quasi slavery. When the company forced workers to take a 25% pay cut, without reducing rents, the Pullman workers went on strike. The American Railroad Union refused to move any trains with Pullman cars on them. The only way the President could legally intervene in the strike was if the Governor of Illinois asked for his help. The governor of Illinois, John P. Altgeld, did not want to request troops because he believed that workers should have the same rights as their bosses. Never one to be restricted by the Constitution, Grover Cleveland illegally sent federal troops in anyway, to intervene on behalf of the exploitive Pullman company. The Pullman Strike was important because it was the first time a federal injunction had ever been used to break up a strike.
The Panic of 1893 was first caused by the overbuilding of railroads. These railroads were overbuilt, because the government subsidized the building of new lines, without regard to quality or selection of optimal routes. By giving federal aid based on amount of track laid, the government was rewarding overinvestment in railroads. This investment would eventually need to be liquidated, causing railroad failures, then bank failures leading to a recession. Such a recession confronted Grover Cleveland soon after starting his second term. Even though Cleveland can’t be blamed for the onset of the recession, he can be blamed for his reaction to it. Cleveland fought the recession through two actions, repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act and enacting the Wilson-Gorman Tariff. Cleveland made a weak economy into the worst recession until that time in American history by increasing internal taxes, which means less money for investment, and reducing tariffs which increases competition for US companies through the Wilson-Gorman Tariff. He also restricted the money supply through the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act. Whereas the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act was a good thing, the timing couldn’t have been worse. The three worse recessions up until that time, the panics of 1837, 1856 & 1893, all had two things in common: reduced tariffs and a credit crunch through a reduced money supply.
Grover Cleveland showed his short sightedness in world affairs by withdrawing two important treaties. The first was the Zavala Treaty from senatorial consideration. This treaty gave the United States the right to construct a canal in Nicaragua that was to be owned jointly by the two nations. Not seeing that the United States could eventually need the ability to more quickly move it’s fleets to protect both of it’s coasts shows a major lack of vision. The second treaty Cleveland withdrew was a treaty to annex Hawaii, which eventually happened anyway.
Cleveland also intervened on behalf of Columbia, by sending a small detachment of marines to help that country squash a Panamanian rebellion. Grover Cleveland also risked war with two major European powers in matters of little importance to the United States. The first was in Samoa, a small group of islands in the south pacific. Cleveland risked war with Germany over the small islands when they sought to take them as an imperial colony, as other European powers had been taking other colonies in the area. Cleveland sent a fleet to the islands, but it was damaged along with a German fleet during a cyclone. This eased tensions until President McKinley could solve the issue peacefully with the Tripartite Convention, which divided the islands between the United States, Germany & Great Britain. The other instance that Cleveland risked war was in a Venezuelan-British Guiana boundary dispute. Claiming that the disputed boundary came under the Monroe doctrine was dubious at best. Britain wasn’t trying to establish a new colony, or take over Venezuela, they were trying to negotiate the boundary of an existing colony. The area claimed by both nations contained rich gold mines. The Venezuelans smartly gave Americans concessions in the mines, and then asked President Cleveland to arbitrate the matter. Britain, clearly seeing the conflict of interest, and the Venezuelan bribe, balked at U.S. involvement, leading Cleveland to write a “twenty-inch gun” missive in which he threatened Britain with war, and he sent the U.S. Navy to confront British warships near Venezuela. Rather than go to war Britain agreed to accept arbitration. Cleveland deserves serious demerits for nearly involving the United States in three potential wars that held little to no importance to the United States.