Drought 1887 versus Drought 2012: A Lesson from Grover Cleveland


Droughts periodically strike the United States and this year is no different, as a severe calamity has affected at least half the country, the worst, at least so far, since 1956.  The House of Representatives recently passed a one-year relief bill, yet the Senate adjourned for August recess without acting on it.  Senate Democrats have already passed a massive agriculture bill that totals nearly $1 trillion over a decade and want the House to do likewise.

So the question is not if there will be relief, but only how much relief will be doled out from Washington.  It wasn’t always this way.  During the late 1880’s, a severe drought struck Texas.  Congress, growing with progressive-minded members, sought to help, since no organization like the notoriously inept, incompetent, and corrupt FEMA existed in those days.

In February 1887, legislators appropriated $10,000 to buy seed to distribute to suffering farmers.  The President of the United States, however, was Grover Cleveland, a strict Jeffersonian who did not believe in such aid.  Without hesitation he vetoed the bill, returning it to Congress with one of his most famous declarations:

“I can find no warrant for such an appropriation in the Constitution, and I do not believe that the power and duty of the General Government ought to be extended to the relief of individual suffering which is in no manner properly related to the public service or benefit.  A prevalent tendency to disregard the limited mission of this power and duty should, I think, be steadfastly resisted, to the end that the lesson should be constantly enforced that though the people support the Government the Government should not support the people.

“The friendliness and charity of our countrymen can always be relied upon to relieve their fellow-citizens in misfortune.  This has been repeatedly and quite lately demonstrated.  Federal aid in such cases encourages the expectation of paternal care on the part of the Government and weakens the sturdiness of our national character, while it prevents the indulgence among our people of that kindly sentiment and conduct which strengthens the bonds of a common brotherhood.”

Unsurprisingly, Jeffersonian Democrats across the country applauded Cleveland’s veto.  Even Texans, as exhibited in two of the state’s major newspapers, praised the president’s action against the seed bill, even though his decision directly affected their state.  The Houston Daily Post called it “a very proper veto” of a bill that was “clearly unconstitutional.”  Crops fail in all parts of the country, noted the Post, and “it will not do to expect Uncle Sam to repair the damages wrought by nature.”

The Dallas Morning News noted that, although the veto might be “abrupt and ungracious” to some, it was “a truly exemplary act.”  The “Texas Democracy should look with peculiar pride and satisfaction upon an executive act indicating that the official head of the Democratic party of the country is disposed to assist a principle which they have so long cherished by laboring to redeem the national government, if possible, from the vice of paternalistic prodigality.”  Congress or the president should never “dream of thrusting the hand of government in the pockets of the people for either charity or robbery.”

After the veto, some of the nation’s leading newspapers heeded the President’s call for aid to the downtrodden farmers and issued pleas for donations, as did Clara Barton, the president of the American Red Cross.  In all, people across the nation raised money in excess of $100,000, more than 10 times what Congress sought to appropriate.  Despite liberal rhetoric to the contrary, private charities work.

Just as Grover Cleveland warned the American people time and time again, once the government, rather than the private sector, became the center for assistance and relief, it would never end.  He understood that the goodness of the American people would be sufficient to take care of any needs among the populace.  Government aid would only invite more government aid.

Today we think nothing of handing out relief for this tragedy and that one, and not just natural disasters but others as well.  We have “disasters” in our schools, in our streets with crime, in our neighborhoods with poverty, and throw never-ending amounts of money at them in an attempt to fix the problems.  But such generosity has not helped; it has nearly bankrupted us.

For more on the remarkable public career of Grover Cleveland, and how his policies can help us today, check out my book The Last Jeffersonian: Grover Cleveland and the Path to Restoring the Republic.

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