Mr. Cleveland as President
“In him we got a President, as it were, by immediate choice from out the body of the people ... and he has refreshed our notion of an American chief magistrate.”
It is much too early to attempt to assign to Mr. Cleveland his place in the history of our government and policy. That he has played a very great and individual part in our affairs no one can doubt. But we are still too near him to see his work in its just perspective; we cannot yet see or estimate him as an historical figure.
It is plain, however, that Mr. Cleveland has rendered the country great services, and that his singular independence and force of purpose have made the real character of the government of the United States more evident than it ever was before. He has been the sort of President the makers of the Constitution had vaguely in mind: more man than partisan; with an independent executive will of his own; hardly a colleague of the Houses so much as an individual servant of the country; exercising his powers like a chief magistrate rather than like a party leader. Washington showed a like individual force and separateness; but he had been the country’s leader through all its Revolution, and was always a kind of hero, whom parties could not absorb. Jackson worked his own will as President, and seemed to change the very nature of the government while he reigned; but it was a new social force that spoke in him, and he re-created a great party. Lincoln made the presidency the government while the war lasted, and gave the nation a great ruler; but his purposes were those of a disciplined and determined party, and his time was a time of fearful crisis, when men studied power, not law. No one of these men seems the normal President, or affords example of the usual courses of administration. Mr. Cleveland has been President in ordinary times, but after an extraordinary fashion; not because he wished to form or revolutionize or save the government, but because he came fresh to his tasks without the common party training, a direct, fearless, somewhat unsophisticated man of action. In him we got a President, as it were, by immediate choice from out the body of the people, as the Constitution has all along appeared to expect, and he has refreshed our notion of an American chief magistrate.
It is plain that Mr. Cleveland, like every other man, has drawn his character and force in large part from his origin and breeding. It would be easy to describe him as a man of the people, and he would, I suppose, be as proud as any other man of that peculiar American title to nobility. But, after all, no man comes from the people in general. We are each of us derived from some small group of persons in particular; and unless we were too poor to have any family life at all, it is the life and associations of the family that have chiefly shaped us in our youth. Mr. Cleveland had a very definite home training: wholesome, kindly, Christian. He was bred in a home where character was disciplined and the thoughts were formed, where books were read and the right rules of life obeyed. He was early thrown, indeed, into the ordinary and common school of life, had its rough work thrust upon him, and learned, by his own part in it, the life of the people. But he never got those first lessons, conned in plain village manses, out of his blood. “If mother were alive I should feel so much safer,” he wrote to his brother upon the night he was elected governor of New York. Grover Cleveland certainly got good usury in his steadfast youth out of the capital stock of energy and principle he brought away, as his only portion, from his mother and father.
The qualities which have given him his place in his profession and in the history of the country seem commonplace enough in their customary manifestation: industry, thoroughness, uprightness, candor, courage. But it is worth while to remember that the same force and adjustment that will run a toy machine, made for a child’s use, will also bring to bear the full might of a Corliss engine, with strength enough to drive a city’s industries. It is the size and majesty of moral and intellectual qualities that make them great; and the point the people have noted about Mr. Cleveland is that his powers, though of a kind they know and have often had experience of, are made upon a great scale, and have lifted him to the view of the world as a national force, a maker and unmaker of policies. Men have said that Mr. Cleveland was without genius or brilliancy, because the processes of his mind were calculable and certain, like a law of nature; that his utterances were not above the common, because they told only in the mass, and not sentence by sentence, were cast rather than tempered; that he was stubborn because he did not change, and self-opinionated because he did not falter. He has made no overtures to fortune; has obtained and holds a great place in our affairs by a sort of inevitable mastery, by a law which no politician has ever quite understood or at all relished, by virtue of a preference which the people themselves have expressed without analyzing. We have seen how there is genius in mere excellence of gift, and prevailing power merely in traits of chastened will.
When a city or a nation looks for a man to better its administration, it seeks character rather than gifts of origination, a clear purpose that can be depended upon to work its will without fear or favor. Mr. Cleveland never struck so straight towards the confidence of practical men as when he spoke of the tariff question as a condition, not a theory. His mind works in the concrete; lies close always to the practical life of the world, which he understands by virtue of lifelong contact with it. He was no prophet of novelties, but a man of affairs; had no theories, but strove always to have knowledge of fact. There is as great a field for mind in thinking a situation through and through as in threading the intricacies of an abstract problem, and it has heartened men from the first to find that Mr. Cleveland could do thinking of that sort with a sure, unhurried, steadfast power, such as no less practical man could even have simulated. He was an experiment when he was chosen mayor of Buffalo, did not know his own powers, had given no one else their true measure; but he was thereafter a known and calculable force, and grew from station to station with an increase of vigor, and withal a consistency of growth, which showed his qualities such as waited only the invitation of fortune and opportunity. It may be that there are other men, of like parts and breeding, who could rise in like fashion to a great rôle, but it is certain that Mr. Cleveland has made a place of his own among the Presidents of the United States.
The ordinary rules of politics have been broken throughout his career. He came almost like a novice into the field of national politics, despite his previous experience as mayor and governor. He had always identified himself, indeed, with the Democratic party; but his neighbors in Buffalo had chosen him to better rather than to serve his party, when they elected him to local office. He had elevated the office of sheriff, when they called him to it, by executing it with conscientious energy and with an enlightened sense of public duty; and he had made it his business, when they chose him mayor of their city, to see municipal affairs put upon a footing of efficiency, such as might become a great corporation whose object was the welfare of its citizens, and no partisan interest whatever. It was inevitable that he should shock and alienate all mere partisans, alike by his temper and by his methods. He called himself a party man, and had no weak stomach for the processes of party management; but he had not sought office as a career, and he deemed his party better served by manliness and integrity than by chicanery. He was blunt, straightforward, plain-spoken, stalwart by nature, used to choosing and pushing his own way; and he had a sober audacity which made him no caucus man. His courses of action were incalculable to the mere politician, simply because they were not based upon calculation.
It commonly turns out that the fearlessness of such a man is safer than the caution of the professional party manager. A free and thoughtful people loves a bold man, who faces the fight without too much thought of himself or of his party’s fortunes. Mr. Cleveland’s success as mayor of Buffalo attracted the attention of the whole State, — was too pronounced and conspicuous to be overlooked. Party managers saw in him a man to win with, little as they understood the elements of his power. Even they stared, nevertheless, to see him elected governor of the State by the astounding majority of 192,854. He evidently had not studied the art of pleasing; he had been known as the “veto mayor” of Buffalo, and his vetoes as the “plain speech” vetoes. He had an odd way of treating questions of city government as if they were questions of individual official judgment, and not at all questions of party advantage. He brought his exact habits as a lawyer to bear upon his tasks as a public officer, and made a careful business of the affairs of city and State. There was nothing puritanical about him. He had a robust and practical spirit in all things. But he did not seem to regard politics as in any way a distinct science, set apart from the ordinary business of life. He treated the legislature of the State, when he became governor, as he had treated the city council of Buffalo, as if he were the president of a great industrial concern with incidental social functions, and they were its board of directors, often unwise, sometimes unscrupulous, in their action; as if it were his chief duty to stand between them and the stockholders, protecting the latter’s interests at all hazards. He used his veto as freely when governor as he had used it when mayor. “Magnificent,” cried the trained politicians about him, under their breath, — “magnificent, but it is not politics!”
And yet they found him thrust inevitably upon them as their candidate for President before his term as governor had drawn to its close. Evidence was accumulating that the country was ready to put an end to the long succession of Republican administrations which had held the federal executive departments for more than twenty years as a sort of party property; but it was also plain enough that the old, the real party leaders among the Democrats would by no means be acceptable substitutes. The Democratic party, moreover, had been too long in opposition to be ready to assume, as it stood, the responsibilities of government. It had no real union; it was little more than an assemblage of factions, a more or less coherent association of the various groups and interests opposed to the Republicans and bent upon breaking their supremacy. It did not itself know whether it was of one mind or not. For, though popular majorities had been running its way for ten years and more, and both Houses of Congress had once come into its hands, it had never had leave to undertake constructive legislation. The President’s veto had stood always in its way, and its legislation had often been proposed for effect rather than with a view to actual execution. It was necessary it should go outside its own confused and disordered ranks if it would choose a successful presidential candidate, in order both to unite its own factions and to win the country’s confidence: and so it chose Mr. Cleveland, and the country accepted him.
It was a novel experiment. The very considerations that made it wise to nominate Mr. Cleveland as President were likely to render it difficult to live under his presidency with an unbroken party discipline; and the circumstances of his election made it all the more probable that he would choose to be President of the country rather than leader of the Democrats. The Democrats, in fact, did not recognize him as their leader, but only as their candidate for the office of President. If he was leader at all in the ordinary sense, — if he spoke and acted for the views of any body of men, — he was the leader of those independent Republicans who had broken with their own party, and were looking for some one who should open a new era in party politics and give them efficient and public-spirited principles to believe in and vote for again. Men everywhere wished to see parties re-form themselves, and old-line Democrats had more reason to expect to see their party fall apart into its constituent elements once more than to hope that Mr. Cleveland would unite and vivify it as an aggressive and triumphant organization. He had been made President, there was good reason to believe, rather because thoughtful men throughout the country wanted a pure and businesslike administration than because they wanted Democratic legislation or an upsetting of old policies; he had been chosen as a man, not as a partisan, — taken up by his own party as a likely winner rather than as an acceptable master.
Apparently there was no reason, however, to fear that Mr. Cleveland would arrogate to himself the prerogatives of political leadership, or assume the rôle of guide and mentor in matters of policy. At first he regarded the great office to which he had been chosen as essentially executive, except of course in the giving or withholding of his assent to bills passed by Congress. His veto he used with extraordinary freedom, particularly in the disapproval of private pension bills, vetoing no less than one hundred and forty-six measures during the sessions of the first Congress of his administration; and he filled his messages with very definite recommendations; but he thought it no part of his proper function to press his preferences in any other way upon the acceptance of Congress. In the public interest, he had addressed a letter to Mr. A. J. Warner, a member of Congress, and others, only eight days before his inauguration as President, in which he had declared in urgent terms his strong conviction that the purchase and coinage of silver should be stopped at once, to prevent radical and perhaps disastrous disturbances in the currency; and he joined with Mr. Manning, his Secretary of the Treasury, in speaking very plainly to the same effect when Congress met. But he deemed his duty done when he had thus used the only initiative given him by the Constitution, and expressly declined to use any other means of pressing his views upon his party. He meant to keep aloof, and be President with a certain separateness, as the Constitution seemed to suggest.
It cost him at least one sharp fight with the Senate to carry his purpose of executive independence into effect. Mr. Cleveland saw fit to remove certain federal officers from office before the expiration of their terms, and to appoint Democrats in their places, and the Senate demanded the papers which would explain the causes of the removals. The President declined to send them, holding that the Senate had no right to judge of anything but the fitness of the men named as successors to the officers removed. It was not certain that the moral advantage lay with the President. He had been put into the presidency chiefly because independent voters all over the country, and particularly in his own State, regarded him a tried champion of civil service reform; but his choice and method in appointments had by no means satisfied the reformers. They had stared to see him make Mr. Daniel Manning Secretary of the Treasury, not because Mr. Manning lacked ability, but because he was notoriously a politician of the very “practical” sort, and seemed to those who did not know him the very kind of manager Mr. Cleveland ought to have turned his back upon; and they did not like any more than the Senate did to see men deprived of their offices to make room for Democrats without good reason given, reason that had no taint of partisanship upon it. The truth was that the public service had been too long in the hands of the Republicans to be susceptible of being considered an unpartisan service as it stood. Mr. Cleveland said simply, to those who spoke to him in private about the matter, that he had not made any removal which he did not, after careful inquiry, believe to be for the good of the public service. This could not satisfy his critics. It meant that he must be permitted to use his judgment not only as a man, but also as a Democrat, in reconstructing a civil service which had been for a generation in the hands of the opposite political party. The laws could not be made mandatory upon him in this matter, under the Constitution, and he took leave to exercise his discretion here and there, as his judgment as a practical and strong-willed man suggested. That the operation of the laws passed for the reform of the civil service was strengthened in the main, and their administration thoroughly organized and very much bettered under him, no candid man could deny; and with that he asked the country to be content.
The whole question afforded an excellent opportunity for studying Mr. Cleveland’s character. The key quality of that character is, perhaps, a sort of robust sagacity. He had never for a moment called himself anything but a party man. He had not sought personal detachment, and had all along known the weakness that would come with isolation and the absolute rejection of the regular means of party management; and he had dared to make his own choices in cases which seemed too subtle or exceptional for the law. It was unsafe ground often; blunders were made which appeared to defeat the purposes he had in view in making removals and appointments; it looked in the end as if it would have been wiser to make no exceptions at all to the ordinary rules of appointment: but the mistakes were those of a strong nature, — too strong to strip itself absolutely of such choice as might serve what was to him legitimate party strength. Who shall judge the acts in question who does not know the grounds upon which the President proceeded? Not all of government can be crowded into the rules of the law.
At any rate, criticism did not disturb Mr. Cleveland’s serenity; and it pleased the fancy of men of all sorts to see the President bear himself so steadfastly and do his work so calmly in the midst of all the talk. Outsiders could not know whether the criticism cut or not; they only knew that the President did not falter or suffer his mind to be shaken. He had an enormous capacity for work, shirked no detail of his busy function, carried the government steadily upon his shoulders. There is no antidote for worry to be compared with hard labor at important tasks which keep the mind stretched to large views; and the President looked upon himself as the responsible executive of the nation, not as the arbiter of policies. There is something in such a character that men of quick and ardent thought cannot like or understand. They want all capable men to be thinking, like themselves, along lines of active advance; they are impatient of performance which is simply thorough without also being regenerative, and Mr. Cleveland has not commended himself to them. They themselves would probably not make good Presidents. A certain tough and stubborn fibre is necessary, which does not easily change, which is unelastically strong.
The attention of the country, however, was presently drawn off from Mr. Cleveland’s pension vetoes and individual methods of appointment, from his attitude and temper as a power standing aloof from Congress, to note him a leader and master after all, as if in spite of himself. He was too good a Democrat and too strenuous a man of business to stand by and see the policy of the country hopelessly adrift without putting his own influence to the test to direct it. He could not keep to his rôle of simple executive. He saw his party cut into opposing factions upon the question of the tariff, upon the reform to which it had been pledged time out of mind. Mr. Carlisle, who wished to see the tariff brought to a revenue basis, was Speaker of the Democratic House, and Mr. Morrison was chairman of the Committee of Ways and Means; but Mr. Randall checkmated them at every turn, and nothing was done to redeem the party’s promises. No man of strong convictions could stand there, where all the country watched him, waiting for him to speak, the only representative of the nation as a whole in all the government, and let a great opportunity and a great duty go by default. He had intended to make his a strictly business administration, to cleanse the public service and play his assigned part in legislation with a clear judgment to do right. But the President stands at the centre of legislation as well as of administration in executing his great office, and Mr. Cleveland grew to the measure of his place as its magnitude and responsibilities cleared to his view. The breath of affairs was at last in his lungs, and he gave his party a leader, of a sudden, in the plain-spoken, earnest, mandatory tariff message of December, 1887. It was such a stroke as no mere politician would have hazarded, and it sadly disconcerted the men who had supposed themselves the leaders of the Democrats. Mr. Cleveland had not consulted them about his manifesto. He had made the issue of the next presidential campaign for them before they were aware of it, and that campaign was immediately at hand. The Congress to which he sent his message showed already a sad cutting off in the ranks of the Democrats. In the first Congress of his administration his party had had a majority of close upon forty in the House, though the Senate was still against them. In the Congress of which he demanded tariff reform the Democratic majority in the House had dwindled to eleven, though the Senate was almost equally divided. It seemed as if lie would commit his party to a dangerous and aggressive policy at the very moment when its power was on the decline, and risk everything with regard to the next choice of President. Some resented his action as a sudden usurpation; others doubted what they should think; a few took the changed aspect of politics with zest and relish. It was bravely done. The situation produced was even dramatic; and yet the calmest man anywhere touched by the business was Mr. Cleveland himself. It was no trick or impulse. It was the steadily delivered blow of a stalwart and thoughtful man, thoroughly sick of seeing a great party drift and dally while the nations finances suffered waste and demoralization.
He had certainly settled the way the next campaign should go: that the country’s reception of his message showed; and the politicians adjusted themselves as best they might to his policy of plain speech and no circumspection. The House passed a tariff measure, drafted by Mr. Mills, which was thrown aside in the Senate, but not rejected by the party. Mr. Cleveland was renominated for the presidency by acclamation, not because the politicians wanted him, but because their constituents did. The two parties went to the country, and Mr. Cleveland lost by the vote of his own State.
The odd thing about it was that defeat did not seem to lessen Mr. Cleveland’s importance. Some persons did not like to see their ex-President return to the ordinary duties of legal practice, as he did in New York, apparently expecting a healthy, practical man to accept a merely ornamental part in society after once having been their chief magistrate. There was no denying the fact that he had wrought his own defeat and his party’s by forcing a hot fight when matters were going peacefully enough. He himself kept as much as might be from unnecessary publicity. But the country could not cease to be interested in him, and he was the only man it would take seriously, even now, as the leader of the Democrats. Practical men could not for the life of them think of any more suitable candidate for the next campaign. Whether he had united or pleased his party or not, he had, in any case, given it a programme and made himself its chief representative. Through all the four years of Mr. Harrison’s administration Mr. Cleveland was the most conspicuous man in the country out of office, and a sort of popular expectation followed him in all his movements.
The Republicans, moreover, delivered themselves into his hands. They took his defeat as a mandate from the people to make a tariff as little like that which Mr. Cleveland had desired as it might be possible to construct. The Committee of Ways and Means, of which Major McKinley was chairman, framed a measure unmistakably fit to meet the demand; and the congressional elections of 1890 went overwhelmingly against the Republicans. Apparently, the country had come at last to Mr. Cleveland’s mind in respect of the tariff, and he became once more the logical as well as the popular candidate of the Democrats for the presidency. Once more he became President, and essayed the difficult rôle of leader of a composite party. He had created an additional difficulty, meanwhile, obeying an imperative conviction without regard to policy or opportune occasion. He had ventured a frank public letter in opposition to the free coinage of silver, notwithstanding the fact that he knew free coinage to be much more distinctively a Democratic than a Republican measure. The habit of independent initiative in respect of questions of legislative policy was growing upon him, as he felt his personal power grow and his familiarity with public questions; and he knew that he was striking straight home, this time, to the confidence, at any rate, of every enlightened man of business in the country. Such men he had known from his youth up, and could assess: his courage and self-confidence in such a case was stuff of his whole training and character, and he felt that he could afford to lose the presidency upon that issue.
Mr. Cleveland’s second term has shown the full strength and the full risk of the qualities which, during his first administration, the country had seen displayed only in the disturbing tariff message of 1887, in his energetic treatment of the fisheries question, which the Senate did not like, and in certain appointments which the whole country had criticised. He gave warning at the outset of the individual rôle he meant to play in the selection of his Cabinet. He bestowed the secretaryship of state upon a man come but the other day out of the Republican ranks to support him; the secretaryship of war upon a man who had formerly been his private secretary; the post-office upon his one-time law partner; the department of the interior upon a Georgian whose name the country smiled to hear for the first time; the attorney-generalship upon a lawyer who was no politician; and the secretaryship of agriculture upon a quiet gentleman of his own picking out. Only the navy and the headship of the treasury went to men whom his party knew and followed in the House. His first Cabinet had contained men whom everybody knew as accredited leaders among the Democrats, — Mr. Bayard, Mr. Whitney, Mr. Lamar, Mr. Yilas; only the minority of his counselors had then been selected as if to please himself, rather than to draw a party following about him by recognizing the men who exercised authority among the Democrats. But his second Cabinet seemed chosen as if of deliberate and set purpose to make a personal and private choice, without regard to party support.
And yet there was less difference between the two Cabinets than appeared upon the surface. Though there had been some representative Democrats in the first Cabinet, they had not been men who controlled their party. Mr. Carlisle, of the second Cabinet, was undoubtedly more influential than any of them, and Mr. Herbert more truly a working, capital member of the party’s force in the House. The truth was that Mr. Cleveland had, throughout his first administration, been all the while held at arm’s length by his party, — an ally, perhaps, but not a partner in its undertakings, — had been compelled to keep the place of separateness and independence which had at first seemed to be his choice. In his second administration he apparently made no effort to force his way into its counsels, but accepted his place as the independent voters President, — content if only he could have a personal following, carry out the real pledges of his party, and make his purpose felt as the nation’s spokesman. Not that he broke with his party either in thought or in purpose; but he saw that it would not take counsel with him, and that, if he would fulfill his trust, he must force partisan leaders, for their own good, to feel his power from without. It might be they would draw about him more readily through mastery than through persuasion.
It was singular how politics began at once to centre in the President, waiting for his initiative, and how the air at Washington filled with murmurs against the domineering and usurping temper and practice of the Executive. Power had somehow gone the length of the avenue, and seemed lodged in one man. No one who knew Mr. Cleveland, or who judged him fairly, for a moment deemed him too covetous of authority, or in any degree disregardful of the restraints the Constitution has put upon the President. But the Democrats in the House were made conscious that the eye of the country had been withdrawn from them in matters of policy, and Washington seemed full of Mr. Cleveland, his Secretary of the Treasury and his Secretary of State. A position of personal isolation had been thrust upon him, but he used the power which had come to him to effect the purposes to which, as a Democrat, he felt himself pledged. If the party would not act with him, he must act for it. There was no touch of cant in him when he declared his allegiance to the Democratic party; there was only a danger that if the leaders of the party in Congress continued to follow him merely when they were obliged, he would himself presently be all the Democratic party that was left in the country.
On June 30, 1893, four months after his second inauguration, he took steps to force action upon the silver question. He called Congress to meet in extra session upon the 7th of August following, to deal with the finances of the country and prevent a panic; telling them plainly that the law which compelled the purchase and coinage of silver by the government ought to be repealed, and that this question must be settled even if the tariff had to wait. There was already serious disturbance in business circles, arising in large part from the condition of the currency, when, on the 26th of June, the British authorities in India closed the mints of that country to the free coinage of silver, and sent the price of the unstable metal down with a disastrous tumble in all the world’s markets. It looked then as if there would certainly be a fatal panic, and Mr. Cleveland saw that Congress must meet and face the situation at once.
It was evident, even before Congress came together, that the battle was to be, not between Democrats and Republicans, but between the advocates and the opponents of the free coinage of silver, without regard to party. Conventions called by the silver men met in Denver and in Chicago before Congress assembled, and denounced the proposal to repeal the silver purchase law as a scheme devised by American and English bankers, with the assistance of Mr. Cleveland, to drive silver out of use as money; and when Congress took the matter up, old party lines seemed, for the moment at any rate, to have disappeared. It was the “friends” of silver against its “enemies.” The advocates of Mr. Cleveland’s policy of repeal won a decisive victory in the House of Representatives, and won it at once, before August was out; but in the Senate the fight dragged, with doubtful and wavering fortunes, until the very end of October, — would have ended in some weak compromise had not the President stood resolute, — and kept the country waiting so long for the issue that business suffered almost as much as if repeal had been defeated.
It was the President’s victory that the law was at last repealed, and every one knew it. He had forced the consideration of the question; he had told Senators plainly, almost passionately, when they approached him, that he would accept no compromise, — that he would veto anything less than absolute repeal, and let them face the country as best they might afterwards. Until he came on the stage both parties had dallied and coquetted with the advocates of silver. Now he had brought both to a parting of the ways. The silver men were forced to separate themselves and look their situation in the face, choose which party they should plan to bring under their will and policy, if they could, and no longer camp in the tents of both. Such a stroke settled what the course of congressional politics should be throughout the four years of Mr. Cleveland’s term, and made it certain that at the end of that term he should either have won his party to himself or lost it altogether. It was evident that any party that rejected the gold standard for the currency must look upon him as its opponent.
He showed his fixed purpose in the matter once again by his veto of the so-called Seigniorage Bill in March, 1894. The silver men had already so far rallied as to induce substantial majorities in both Houses to agree to the practically immediate coinage of all the silver bullion owned by the treasury as a result of the purchases of silver made under the law which had but just now been repealed in the special session. It would not be wise to put forth so great a body of silver, at such a time, to the fresh disturbance of the currency, said the President, and the bill was negatived. The issue of more silver was defeated, and the silver men quietly set about forming their party lines anew.
Meanwhile, issue was joined once more upon the question of the tariff, not only as between Democrats and Republicans, but also as between Democrat and Democrat, and new lines of divergence were run through Mr. Cleveland’s party. The Committee of Ways and Means, of which Mr. W. L. Wilson was chairman, had formulated a tariff bill during the special session, and when Congress came together for its regular sittings they added to their tariff scheme a bill providing for an income tax, to meet the probable deficiency in the revenue likely to result from the reduction of import duties which they had proposed. The two measures were made one. There was keen opposition in the East to the adoption of the income tax, and though the composite bill went through the House by a majority of sixty-four, many Democrats voted against it, and party lines were again broken. In the Senate, the tariff bill was changed beyond recognition by more than six hundred amendments. Many of the ad valorem duties proposed by Mr. Wilson’s committee were made specific; the Senate would not consent to put iron and lead ores or coal upon the free list with wool; above all, it insisted upon an increase rather than a reduction of the duty on sugar. In the Committee of Conference, irreconcilable differences of opinion emerged between the two Houses; a letter from Mr. Cleveland to Mr. Wilson, supporting the plans of the House and severely criticising those of the Senate, only stiffened a little more the temper of the Senate conferees; and the House at last yielded, rather than have no change at all in the tariff.
Mr. Cleveland did not sign the bill, but suffered it to become law without his signature. It was not such a law as he wanted, he said, nor such a law as fulfilled the pledges of the party; but the party had accepted it, and he would not cast himself loose from it in this critical matter by the use of his veto. No one believed that the Senators who had insisted upon the chief matter of contention, the change in the sugar duties, had acted as Democrats. It was the universal opinion that they had acted as the representatives of a particular vested interest. But in the nice balance of parties which existed in the Senate they were in a position to dictate. The party leaders in the House thought it better to pass some measure of tariff reform than to suffer a total miscarriage; and Mr. Cleveland tacitly consented to their judgment.
The Supreme Court completed the discomfiture of the party by declaring the income tax law unconstitutional. Without that tax there was not revenue enough to meet the expenditures of the government, as presently became evident. Deficiency of revenue, coupled with the obligation of the government to redeem its notes in gold on demand, cut into the gold reserve, and the money question grew acute again. To maintain the gold reserve the administration was obliged again and again to resort to the issue of bonds. The President was in league, the silver men said, with the bankers and the men who controlled the gold of the world everywhere. Mr. Carlisle earnestly urged a radical reform of the currency system: the repeal of the law compelling a constant reissue of the government’s legal tender notes, and such legislation as would make provision for a sufficiently elastic currency by means of liberal changes in the banking laws. But his plans were not acted upon; the revenue did not increase; the government was obliged to pay out gold, upon demand, from its reserve; and there was nothing for it but to obtain gold of the bankers, and of those who had hoarded it, by issuing new bonds and increasing the interest charges of the government. The silver men grew every day more hostile to the administration.
The administration bulked very large the while, not only in the business world, but also in the field of foreign affairs. A treaty providing for the annexation of Hawaii was pending in the Senate when Mr. Cleveland came into office in March, 1893; but Mr. Cleveland promptly withdrew it, and, in characteristic fashion, set about finding out for himself the real situation of affairs in the islands. The outcome showed his transparent honesty and rare courage very plainly, if not his skill in a delicate affair. He found that it was the countenance and apparent assistance of the agent of the United States in Hawaii that had facilitated the dethronement of the Queen and the setting up of a revolutionary government, and he took steps to undo so far as possible the mischievous work of interference. The apologies of the United States were made to the Queen, and the provisional government was informed that the government of the United States would expect it to withdraw and make way for the reëstablishment of the legitimate government of the islands. But the provisional government refused to withdraw, and the President was obliged to submit the whole matter to Congress, without whose sanction he did not feel justified in employing force or in taking any further step in the unhappy affair. It seemed a lame ending, and the papers found it easy to scoff, though hard to say what other honorable course could have been taken; and every man who was not a Jingo perceived that the President had not in fact lost credit. He had simply followed his conscience without regard to applause or failure, and given one more proof of his unsophisticated character.
At any rate, everybody forgot Hawaii upon the emergence of Venezuela. Diplomatic relations had been suspended between Great Britain and Venezuela because of a dispute regarding the boundary line between Venezuela and British Guiana, and Mr. Cleveland’s administration had intervened, and had insisted that the whole question be submitted to arbitration. The position it took was based explicitly upon the Monroe Doctrine, and the course it proposed was virtually a demand that the United States be accorded the right of intervention in all questions arising between South American states and European powers. Lord Salisbury declined to make any such concession to the United States, or to submit any more of the question between Great Britain and Venezuela to arbitration than he had already expressed his willingness to submit to adjudication in his correspondence with the Venezuelan government; and Mr. Cleveland sent to Congress his startling message of December 17, 1895.
Here again he showed himself a strong man, but no diplomatist. It was like a blunt, candid, fearless man to say that it was the duty of the United States to ascertain for herself the just rights of Venezuela, and resist any encroachment upon her southern neighbor by every means in her power, and to add that he fully realized the consequences that might follow such a declaration of purpose. But only our kinsmen oversea would have yielded anything or sought peace by concession, after such words had been spoken. England presently showed that she would not have taken such a defiance from William of Germany; but good feeling, good temper, good sense, soon brought the two governments to a better understanding. Our commission of inquiry acted with the utmost sobriety and tact; Mr. Gluey pursued his correspondence with Lord Salisbury with a strength of good manners, good reasoning, and disinterested purpose that carried its own assurance of victory; we had in Mr. Bayard a representative in London of an old and excellent school of behavior; and the end was a diplomatic triumph for the United States which attracted the attention of the world. The successful settlement of the particular question in controversy was even followed by a treaty of general arbitration between England and the United States, such as multitudes of peace-loving men had prayed for, but few had dared to hope to see. What had at first seemed to threaten to mar Mr. Cleveland’s fame once and for all turned out in the end its greatest title to honorable dignity. We are at last enabled to read the famous message aright. There spoke a man as desirous and capable of peace and moderation as any in the nation, but accustomed, when he spoke at all, to speak his whole mind without reserve, and willing to speak to Europe, if she must hear, as freely as he would speak to his own people. It was the perilous indiscretion of a frank nature incapable of disguises.
The Cuban question has shown us the same man. He has satisfied neither the Democrats nor the Republicans, because neither cared to observe the restraints of international law or set themselves any bounds of prudence; but he has made Spain feel the pressure of our opinion and of our material interest in the Cuban struggle none the less, and by his very self-restraint has brought the sad business sensibly nearer to its end.
In this, as in other things, he has been a man without a party. His friends have been the silent men who watch public affairs without caring too much about the fortunes of parties. He has carried civil service reform to its completion at last; but that did not give him a party. To extend the rules of the classified merit service to all branches of the public business was a work of non-partisanship, and no man need expect a party following because of that. Mr. Cleveland did not do this work hurriedly. At the close of his first administration the friends of reform stood disappointed and not a little disheartened. But he has done the work in his own way and thoroughly, and no man need doubt his record now. He can look back with deep satisfaction upon the fact that while he directed the affairs of the government vast tracts of the public lands were reclaimed for the use of the people; that he was enabled to put system and a little economy into the management of the Pension Bureau; that more than one of the executive departments has received a complete reorganization at his hands; that he gave the country the businesslike administration he promised. None of these things, however, secures any man the support of a party. Mr. Cleveland never seemed so utterly without a party as in the extraordinary campaign which has made Mr. McKinley his successor. But it is the country’s debt to him now that he thus stood alone. He forced the fight which drove the silver men to their final struggle for a party. They chose the Democratic party, because it was strong in the West where the silver ore was mined, and in the South and in all the agricultural areas of the continent where those business interests are weak which most sensitively feel the movements of the money market. They drove thousands of men out of the Democratic party when they took it, Mr. Cleveland, their chief enemy, with the rest. And the Republicans routed them upon the issue which Mr. Cleveland had made definite and final.
We need not pretend to know what history shall say of Mr. Cleveland; we need not pretend that we can draw any common judgment of the man from the confused cries that now ring everywhere from friend and foe. We know only that he has played a great part; that his greatness is authenticated by the passion of love and of hatred he has stirred up; that no such great personality has appeared in our politics since Lincoln; and that, whether greater or less, his personality is his own, unique in all the varied history of our government. He has made policies and altered parties after the fashion of an earlier age in our history, and the men who assess his fame in the future will be no partisans, but men who love candor, courage, honesty, strength, unshaken capacity, and high purpose such as his.