Ex-President Cleveland Personally Considered
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
IF anybody should happen to draw the inference, from the strictures I have made elsewhere on the errors and shortcomings of ex-President Cleveland, that he was not possessed of several elements of greatness, it would be a grave error in judgment on the part of the reader. Mr. Cleveland has shown himself to be a great and remarkable man in many respects, and this will in all probability be the estimate of posterity. My chief reason for this belief is that the man's potent personality in a few things that were highly important has stamped itself indelibly on the politics of his own times. For instance, he stood up for sound money, and was one of the strongest advocates of the cause against the clamor for free-silver coinage, which at one time came near carrying with it a majority. Of course the victory would have been only temporary, if such general dementia had seized the people at large, because the sober second thought of the thinking minority would have triumphed eventually after the country had perhaps passed through the ordeal of a panic worse than all former panics condensed into one. From a calamity of this character Mr. Cleveland was one of the most potent agencies in saving us. He was unflinching in his courage in the maintenance of the gold standard, and in all probability his influence and his powerful attacks on the free-silver heresy made almost as many votes for McKinley as Mark Hanna did; and this in spite of Mr. Cleveland's deep-seated aversion to Mr. McKinley's pet theory of protection for our industries. Cleveland has been very popular at intervals during both terms of his administration, and the secret of his popularity has been rather a mystery to both friends and foes. The supreme test of the popularity of a President and an administration is whether during the greater part of the period of power the country has been prosperous. Beyond this test the public are no more inclined to listen to excuses or apologies than they are in the case of a general who has been vanquished in a series of battles by the enemy. That charity which is said to cover a multitude of sins is rarely, if ever, exercised in instances like these. When Mr. Cleveland took possession of the White House, March 4, I893, the country was prosperous. When he went out of office, March 4, I897, the country was almost on the verge of bankruptcy, and the worst prolonged depression in business that the nation has ever experienced prevailed during the greater part of. the time. Had it not been for the agitation regarding free-trade theories, together with certain other Utopian schemes of reform, the good times which the country enjoyed during the last year of General Harrison's administration would in all probability have been continued indefinitely. Now it seems to be the popular belief that when Mr. Cleveland ran for President in 1892, after having been defeated by General Harrisoin in i888, he was the candidate of the Democratic party. He was nominally and officially so, it would appear, but he was besides a popular candidate, and did not seem to own allegiance to any party. His aim from the first was to catch the popular ear and to make the impression deep in the hearts of the people that he was their candidate irrespective of party. That portion of his devotion which pertained to party he seemed to regard only as a matter of form, a kind of principle of politeness, with the formality of which political society expected compliance as mere pantomime, without putting any soul into it or having any conscientious sensations about it. Both his letters of acceptance and his speech on taking the oath of office bear out his theory, and it was the perception by the people of this feeling on his part that in large measure drew to him so many heterogeneous elements and gave him such a large majority over President Harrison. He drew from all shades of politics and factions to swell his immense majority, from the Populists and protectionists as well as from the free-traders, and herein is revealed a part of the mystery. Careful investigation by expert politicians and journalists after the election showed the fact that even protectionists voted for him, without being able to assign a reason other than that they wanted a change and desired to experiment. Farmers and others said so, while admitting that they had enjoyed greater prosperity during the two former years of the operation of the McKinley tariff than ever before. Such instances as these only tend to deepen the mystery, and throw us back to the reflection that Mr. Cleveland, amid the discussion of a great variety of topics, never ceased to vibrate one chord wherever he had the opportunity, namely, that he was the representative of the people, always their obedient servant and, ready to do their will and perform their behests at all times. Whatever derelictions there might be from these professions, they did not seem to count with the multitude either before or after the election, at least for the first year of his second term. There could be no stronger proof of great personality, and that certain hypnotic potencies are largely developed in Mr. Cleveland. It is a proof of the attributes of generalship. Nothing drew the soldiers of Napoleon closer to him than a temporary defeat. This was true in every instance until Waterloo, and notably so after Moscow. Mr. Cleveland will have no chance of experimenting on a Moscow or a Waterloo. He re tired peacefully and in good order, not to a St. Helena, but to a Fontainebleau at Princeton, New Jersey, where he entered into the full enjoyment of domestic happiness. Mr. Cleveland may employ some of his leisure hours in writing the inside history of his administration, but it is questionable if he himself can satisfactorily explain the many sided traits of character which he displayed during the period of his toilsome and arduous experience in Washington. Macaulay in his review of Machiavelli says: “Two characters altogether dissimilar are united in him. They are not merely joined, but interwoven. They are the warp and woof of his mind, and their combination, like that of the variegated threads in shot silk, gives to the whole texture a glancing and ever changing appearance. The explanation might have been easy if he had been a very weak or very affected man. But he was evidently neither the one nor the other. His works prove, beyond all contradiction, that his understanding was strong, his taste pure, and his sense of the ridiculous exquisitely keen." Now, this is very high praise from the great English essayist, critic, and historian, bestowed upon a man who has been universally execrated on account of his politics and diplomacy; and it is curious how closely this particular characterization will apply to Mr. Cleveland, unlike the wily Italian as the downright and honest "Grover" is. Concerning one point of the comparison, however, - the last clause, " his sense of the ridiculous exquisitely keen," -I am in doubt. If it were on record that Mr. Cleveland had laughed heartily when the Wilson Bill was sent to him with the Senate amendments, then this fragment of Macaulay's description of the great Florentine statesman might apply with some modifications to him. He appears to have been many-sided, yet without much inconsistency, paradoxical as it may seem; and possibly the multi-sided aspect of the man may have been more in appearance than in reality. It may have been the reflection of others, but, like St. Paul, he appeared at times to be "all things to all men." This was doubtless the effect of reflex action. Several political parties and factions, holding diverse opinions, each seemed to consider him as the one man who could best represent them. Hence we perceive one secret of his large majority. He proclaimed himself the candidate of the people, and the large majority took him at his word, regarding as minor matters in their political faith what formerly had been considered of the first importance. The support which the bankers gave to Mr. Cleveland illustrates how men took him at his personal word. Although he accepted the Democratic platform in its entirety, yet the bankers connected with the national banking system gave him a hearty support, despite the fact that he was bound to favor, so far as executive favor can go, the plank in the platform which recommended the abolition of the ten per cent. tax on the state banks, a step which, in all probability, would have exercised a demoralizing influence on our whole currency system. Yet the bankers seemed to overlook this very important point, in view of the fact that he was sound on the question of the gold basis. To that all other considerations were secondary. Again, high tariff men who had hitherto seemed to pin their faith on Major McKinley's sleeve with the enthusiasm of Mussulman devotees to Mahomet, voted for Mr. Cleveland in spite of the fact that he denounced the tariff laws as " the vicious, inequitable, and illogical source of unnecessary taxation." Even Populists, anarchists, and socialists gathered to his standard, notwithstanding his well-known antipathy to all enemies of a firmly established government by the will of the people on a conservative and permanent basis. The attraction of such diverse elements can be accounted for only by the strength of his personality, and by the additional fact that there must have been something in him which inspired confidence. When he saw his way clearly he was usually prompt in action, though some of his unaccountable delays were irritating to the people as well as injurious to public prosperity. His remarkable quality of promptitude in action was manifested in a very laudable manner in the suppression of the railroad riots at Chicago. The country was then on the brink of a revolution. Governor Altgeld of Illinois did not show any inclination to suppress the riots. Adhering closely and technically to the language of the Constitution, he did not see the necessity of calling on the United States troops until the forces within the State at his disposal were proved unequal to the task, and he had apparently no desire even to utilize those forces. In fact, he appeared to be rather pleased with the uprising against the capitalists, the movement being in accordance with his views on national politics, and the rule of the rabble appearing to him as the proper means of establishing a paternal government. In this extremity General Schofield, observing with the keen eye of a practical leader in an emergency, that the passions already engendered in the mob were gathering strength and ferocity every hour, concluded that the incipient insurrection might soon be fanned into a revolutionary flame and extend all over the Union. In fact, it appeared as if the country might be threatened with something as direful as another civil war. He therefore lost no time in consulting the Attorney-General, Mr. Olney, to find out if there were no means of quelling the riot by Federal authority without depending on Governor Altgeld. Mr. Olney soon discovered that the case involving the Chicago riots was not confined to the State of Illinois, but was an interstate affair of national concern, and that the Federal government had the right to interfere with the trainwreckers for the purpose of protecting the United States mails. Thus the ostensible plea of Governor Altgeld was set aside, and the United States authorities held the fort. President Cleveland, as commander-in-chief of the army, promptly gave orders that Federal troops should be sent to Chicago for the purpose of reducing to order and decent behavior all riotous persons who should attempt to wreck railroad cars containing United States mail. The troops came and conquered, without the shedding of much blood, and the revolution was nipped in the bud. The labor unions all over the country, restless, and tempted to a simultaneous rising by Eugene V. Debs, were quieted by this display of force, and since then there has been no serious show of hostility against capital. Had it not been for Mr. Cleveland's promptness on that occasion, it is hard to say how the trouble might have ended. If he had been a man of weak and vacillating purpose, the forces of disorder would doubtless have made rapid headway while he was coming to a decision; but the emergency in question shows that he has a well-balanced mind, that he is quick to apprehend combinations of circumstances, real, probable, and possible, has the judgment and comprehension to devise plans to meet them, and. the courage to execute the plans without hesitating or wavering. These are a few of the qualities of a great general, but not all. The statesman and the general are seldom united in the same person, except in military geniuses, like Caesar, Scipio, Marcus Aurelius, Justinian, Napoleon, and a few others. A large number of generals aspire to be considered statesmen of the highest type, but they are generally failures, like the Duke of Wellington, for instance. In statesmanship, it must be candidly confessed, Mr. Cleveland was not as sagacious as some of the great occasions required. Yet some of his mistakes can probably be laid to the charge of these very attributes of generalship, one of which is to assail the enemy at every weak point and on every favorable opportunity, to be constantly on the lookout for defects in his armor, and to strike vigorously at those defects. Now the very thing that may be considered bravery of the highest type in a military officer may also be regarded as indiscretion in a statesman. The Venezuela panic message, for instance, mixed the expressions of a statesman with the brusqueness of a general of the army. If it had been carefully edited by a calm statesman, it would have been much better both for the personal comfort of the author and for the business interests of the country. But Mr. Cleveland might not have permitted anybody to draw the blue pencil through the last paragraph of that message, in which the chief source of trouble lay. It is probable that Mr. Olney did propose to do so, but was checked in the attempt. Mr. Cleveland has always been decidedly averse to relinquishing his individuality, and its bold assertion, more in action than words, perhaps, is one of the secrets of his success in bearing down opposition and succeeding against the onslaughts both of friends and enemies. Take the case of Tammany, for instance, in Cleveland's last campaign. This solid organization imagined that it held New York as in a safe for which nobody but the "boss" had the combination, and the state committee of seventy-two had instructions from that mighty mogul to arrange matters politically so that Mr. Cleveland would be excluded from the White House. Bourke Cockran, moreover, the official orator of Tammany, who has since done "works meet for repentance," denounced the man of destiny, bringing all the tricks of the orator most effective and telling with the average audience, to aid his purpose. Vituperation in its various forms was directed against the popular candidate, and satire, cynicism, and irony were hurled in reckless profusion at him. "Grover Cleveland," said the silver-tongued orator in a tone of withering sarcasm, " is the most popular man in the country every day in the year, except election day." This hit drew roaring applause, but it proved a terrible boomerang to Cockran on the 8th of November following that applause. I have referred to Mr. Cleveland's habit, in whatever he said or wrote, of keeping in prominence the idea that the people were the first object of consideration, and that parties and their machines should be relegated to a secondary position or totally ignored. His method in this respect was pretty well illustrated in a speech at the Manhattan Club, a short time after his last election, a speech which also reveals what he himself considered largely as the secret of his success. He said: — "The American people have become politically more thoughtful and more watchful than they were ten years ago. They are considering now, vastly more than they were then, political principles and party policies, in distinction from party manipulation and the distribution of rewards for partisan services and activities. In the present mood of the people neither the Democratic party nor any other party can gain and keep the support of the majority of our voters by merely promising or distributing personal spoils and favors from partisan supremacy. They are thinking of principles and policies, and they will be satisfied with nothing short of the utmost good faith in the redemption of the pledges to serve them in their collective capacity by the inauguration of wise policies and giving to them honest government. I would not have this otherwise, for I am willing that the Democratic party shall see that its only hope of successfully meeting the situation is by being absolutely and patriotically true to itself and its profession. This is a sure guaranty of success, and I know of no other." The last words of this sapient advice naturally recall the language of Shakespeare in the mouth of old Polonius in that famous advice to his son, who was just going out into the world: "This above all, to thine own self be true; And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man."