Paternalism’s Foe: Grover Cleveland


Politicians, pundits, and scholars have wrestled over a central question throughout American political and constitutional history:  What role should the government have in the lives of ordinary citizens?

For Jeffersonian Conservatives, such as Grover Cleveland, the government has no business involving itself in areas outside its limited, constitutional role, and should never take a position as a “custodian;” the people should be free to pursue their own dreams without government interference, to rise as high and as far as their God-given talent, abilities, and determination will carry them.  Success or failure depends on the individual.

washigton dc capitol building

Some liberals on the other side of the political spectrum believe the government should play a vital role in the lives of the people, from cradle to grave. They believe the lowly masses cannot take care of themselves.  For Democrats, government must step in and take up the role of caretaker.  As Nancy Pelosi said in 2011:  “I view my work in politics as an extension of my role as a mom.”[i]  This progressive viewpoint is known as government paternalism, and has been defined as “a policy or practice of treating or governing people in a fatherly manner, especially by providing for their needs without giving them rights or responsibilities.”[ii]

During the latter part of the 19th century when Cleveland was in office, these paternalistic ideas, though rare, were slowly emerging and becoming more prevalent, mainly from the mouths of that era’s liberals – the Republicans.

President Rutherford B. Hayes sought direct federal aid to public education, and after leaving office in 1881 became what amounted to a socialist, pondering in his diary about “how to secure a more equal distribution of property among the people.”  He crafted a plan that called for inheritance to be capped at $500,000.  All inherited wealth over half a million dollars would be confiscated by the government to distribute to those less fortunate.  GOP Presidents Garfield and Harrison also had liberal and progressive leanings.

On the contrary, President Cleveland refused to allow the government to take up any such notions, nor assume the role of parent in any way.  He held true to Jeffersonian values, a main tenant being “equal and exact justice for all.”

He stopped Congress from trying to turn the veteran’s pension system into a full-scale welfare program by vetoing hundreds of private pension bills, and then topped it off by rejecting a major pension reform bill rife with fraud.   He also famously vetoed a bill to provide seed to drought-stricken farmers in Texas, saying that although “the people should support the government, the government should not support the people.”

And during the Panic of 1893, there was an idea for Congress to issue $500 million in new paper currency to spend on the construction of public roads, a precursor to the New Deal.  At the time, the entire federal budget was less than $400 million.  With Cleveland at the helm, the idea went nowhere.

It must be understood that President Cleveland did not allow the government to provide assistance to the wealthy either.  One of the central tenants of the Republican economic program was direct assistance to business, mainly in the form of bounties and subsidies, much like Obama’s “loans” to green energy companies.  Cleveland opposed such ventures.  He stated in his second inaugural address in 1893 that such direct assistance “burden the labor and thrift of a portion of our citizens to aid ill-advised or languishing enterprises in which they have no concern.”  Corporate leaders who thought they had a friend in the White House found out just how wrong they were.

Cleveland also went after the high tariff, the heart and soul of the GOP’s platform and the single largest form of government paternalism toward the rich.  High duties protected heavy industry and manufacturing – the biggest special interest associated with the Republicans, from any competition.  In 1894, Cleveland managed a moderate rate cut.

Cleveland’s strongly held, but long forgotten, Jeffersonian ideals promoting the idea that the government should stay out of the lives of the people have died away in our modern era.  But what have been the fruits of government paternalism?  Trillions wasted on anti-poverty programs that have not solved the problem of poverty, and trillions given to business for bailouts and job creation, which has created no prosperity nor solved the financial crisis.

The only solution to our current woes is to elect strong Jeffersonian leaders to public office in the mold of Grover Cleveland.  My book, The Last Jeffersonian:  Grover Cleveland and the Path to Restoring the Republic, examines this great statesman and offers solutions to our current woes.


[i] Nicholas Ballasy, “Pelosi: ‘My Work in Politics’ Is ‘An Extension of My Role as a Mom,’” CNSnews.com, July 28, 2011, http://www.cnsnews.com/news/article/pelosi-my-work-politics-extension-my-role-mom.

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