Our Libertarian President

In honor of Presidents Day, I’m posting Thomas DiLorenzo’s piece on Grover Cleveland, which he calls The Last Good Democrat:

In the post-war years the Democratic Party possessed most of what was left of the states’ rights, strict constructionist Jeffersonians in American politics. The party had its share of scoundrels, politics being what it is, but it still generally championed free trade over the legal plunder of protectionism, and laissez faire over Lincolnian mercantilism. Its greatest spokesman in this regard was President Grover Cleveland, who served two terms as president: 1885–1889 and 1893–1897. His political philosophy was perhaps best expressed in his second inaugural address, where he said, “The lessons of paternalism ought to be unlearned and the better lesson taught that while the people should patriotically and cheerfully support their Government its functions do not include the support of the people.” He was a nineteenth century James Ostrowski.

Cleveland began his political career as sheriff of Erie County, New York in 1871, where he earned a reputation for fearlessness and incorruptibility. He was then elected mayor of Buffalo in 1882 where he became known as “the veto mayor.” He earned this noble designation for repeatedly vetoing inflated government contracts with politically-connected firms doing business with the city. He also insisted on competitive bidding on all city contracts, a practice almost unheard of in New York.

Ascending to the governor’s mansion, Cleveland became known as “the veto governor” for vetoing numerous Tammany Hall patronage bills put before the state legislature. Inevitably, this reputation would follow him into the White House where he would veto hundreds of bills, including forty-nine that he pocket vetoed on his very last day in office, March 4, 1897 (see Alyn Brodsky, Grover Cleveland: A Study in Character New York, St. Martin’s Press, 2000, p. 57).

Cleveland also campaigned vigorously for a reduction in the tariff rate, calling the current rates, an economic legacy of the Lincoln administration, “indefensible extortion” and “a vicious, inequitable, and illogical source of unnecessary taxation.” Republicans fiercely defended tariff extortion, as they always had, and prevailed politically during Cleveland’s first term.

Grover Cleveland was also a crusader for the Gold Standard and sound money. Naturally, the Republican Party opposed him on this issue with all its powers. In a message to Congress he announced, “The people of the United States are entitled to a sound and stable currency and to money recognized as such on every exchange and in every market of the world.” And only a gold standard, Cleveland believed, could guarantee such a stable currency.

During his first term as president Cleveland vetoed hundreds of pension expansion bills as unwarranted raids on the U.S. Treasury. He became Public Enemy Number One in the eyes of the “Grand Army of the Republic,” the Union army veterans lobbying organization that consistently agitated to plunder the taxpayers. Despite the dwindling number of veterans, expenditures on veterans’ pensions had increased by some 500 percent in the previous twenty years (Brodsky, p. 182), purely because of the political clout of Union army veterans. (Southerners paid taxes to finance the pensions, but did not qualify for them).


Grover Cleveland considered this imperialistic fantasy to be “every bit as odious as imperialism and misguided nationalism” (p. 228). He was determined that “we never get caught up in conflict with any foreign state unless attacked or otherwise provoked,” in the spirit of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. If he were alive today, Grover Cleveland would be the chief nemesis of the neocons.

Grover Cleveland was a principled classical liberal. But even while serving as president, his own Democratic Party was deserting him as the forces of statism and unlimited democracy, unleashed by the death of states’ rights in 1865, were beginning to dominate American politics. He was the last American president in the Jefferson/Andrew Jackson/John Tyler tradition, and the last good Democrat to serve in that office. For the most part, his successors (in both parties) have ranged from pathetic panderers to dangerous, megalomaniacal warmongers, or both.