My new favorite Democrat is Grover Cleveland (1837-1908), the only man to serve two non-consecutive terms as President, first from 1885–1889 and then from 1893–1897. (Cleveland also won the popular vote for President in 1888, but Benjamin Harrison won the Electoral College 233 to 168.) True, he doesn’t sound much like a modern-day Democrat. According to Wikipedia, Cleveland “opposed imperialism, taxes, subsidies and inflationary policies,” and also “worked against corruption, patronage, and bossism.” Instapundit points to a column at the website Threedonia that reprints a couple of remarkable letters from Cleveland. The first was written in 1885 to a young man seeking a government job:
MY DEAR YOUNG FRIEND I cannot attempt to answer all the letters addressed to me by those both old and young who ask for places. But if you are the boy I think you are your letter is based upon a claim to help your mother and others who are partly dependent upon your exertions. I judge from what you write that you now have a situation in a reputable business house. I cannot urge you too strongly to give up all idea of employment in a public office and to determine to win advancement and promotion where you are. There are no persons so forlorn and so much to be pitied as those who have learned in early life to look to public positions for a livelihood. It unfits a man or boy for any other business and is apt to make a kind of respectable vagrant of him. If you do well in other occupations and thus become valuable to the people they will find you out when they want a good man for public service. You may be sure that I am as you say the friend of every boy willing to help himself but my experience teaches me that I cannot do you a better service than to advise you not to join the great army of office seekers. I never sought an office of any kind in my life and if you live and follow my advice I am certain that you will thank me for it some day
Government employment “unfits a man or boy for any other business and is apt to make a kind of respectable vagrant of him.” How’s that for a useful thought on Labor Day?
Nor was Cleveland’s common sense confined to his private correspondence. Here he is in 1887 responding to a bill that sought to provide government-funded relief to some parts of Texas suffering from a drought:
To THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES I return without my approval House bill number ten thousand two hundred and three entitled An Act to enable the Commissioner of Agriculture to make a special distribution of seeds in drought stricken counties of Texas and making an appropriation therefor. It is represented that a long continued and extensive drought has existed in certain portions of the State of Texas resulting in a failure of crops and consequent distress and destitution Though there has been some difference in statements concerning the extent of the people’s needs in the localities thus affected there seems to be no doubt that there has existed a condition calling for relief and I am willing to believe that notwithstanding the aid already furnished a donation of seed grain to the farmers located in this region to enable them to put in new crops would serve to avert a continuance or return of an unfortunate blight And yet I feel obliged to withhold my approval of the plan as proposed by this bill to indulge a benevolent and charitable sentiment through the appropriation of public funds for that purpose.
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 strengthen the bonds of a common brotherhood.
It is within my personal knowledge that individual aid has to some extent already been extended to the sufferers mentioned in this bill. . .
“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.”
“The expectation of paternal care on the part of the government and weakens the sturdiness of our national character.”
Moreover, that “expectation of paternal care” also “weakens the kindly sentiment and conduct which strengthen the bonds of a common brotherhood.”
Why do these home truths need constantly to be rediscovered? Commentators like Charles Murray pointed them out for us in the 1970s and 1980s. Murray wrote about the terrible effects of well-meaning but misguided welfare policies (increased dependency, corruption, inefficiency, erosion of the spirit of individual philanthropy). Back in 1943, Friedrich Hayek made a cognate observation in The Road to Serfdom when he pointed out that the most important effects of extensive government control was psychological, “an alteration of the character of the people.” Hayek’s point — and Cleveland’s — was that we are the creatures as well as the creators of the institutions we inhabit.
As we enjoy this Labor Day, I hope we will have occasion to pause and reflect about the meaning labor and the enabling properties of hard work. I hope, too, we will spare a moment for a kindly thought about President Cleveland. As Glenn Reynolds remarks, “Mister, we could use some men like Grover Cleveland again.”