Grover Cleveland, The Forgotten Conservative

Oil painting of Grover Cleveland by Anders Leonard Zorn, 1899.

This article appears in the Fall 2015 issue of the Intercollegiate Review. Check out the rest of the issue here.

If Grover Cleveland is remembered at all today, it is usually as the answer to a trivia question: Who was the only president to serve non­consecutive terms in office?

But if that is all you know about Cleveland, you are missing out on a model of character, courage, and commitment to principle. Biographer John Pafford rightly calls Grover Cleveland “The Forgotten Conservative.” We should heed Cleveland’s example today. That is why I include Cleveland among the exemplary leaders I profile in my book Conservative Heroes.

It may surprise people familiar only with today’s political scene that this conservative president was a Democrat. With the Civil War came unparalleled centralization of power in Washington and a long period during which limited government and separation of powers were pushed aside. In a backlash against big government and Republican corruption, Cleveland was elected president in 1884. His rise was meteoric: he entered the White House only three years after becoming mayor of Buffalo, New York.

Cleveland did not waste any time letting the American people know where he stood. Even before his inauguration, he acted boldly to support sound money, defend free markets, and reform the government spoils system. Throughout his time in office he held fast to his constitutional principles. He vetoed 584 bills (mostly spending measures), still a record for any eight-year presidency.

Cleveland served two (nonconsecutive) terms as president but ultimately lost control of the Democratic Party to the progressives. The country has suffered ever since.

We would do well to recall the commonsense leadership and commitment to principle Grover Cleveland brought to political life. As you read these statements, ask yourself: could you imagine any president today, of either party, taking so seriously the oath to defend the Constitution?

A President, Not a King

“In the discharge of my official duty I shall endeavor to be guided by a just and unstrained construction of the Constitution, a careful observance of the distinction between the powers granted to the Federal Government and those reserved to the States or to the people, and by a cautious appreciation of those functions which by the Constitution and laws have been especially assigned to the executive branch.” —First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1885

The Proper Role of the Federal Government

“I can find no warrant for [this] 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.”
—Veto of the Texas Seed Bill, 1887

On Principle

“What is the use of being elected or reelected unless you stand for something?” —On his refusal to compromise on tariff reform, 1887

On Paternalism

“The lessons of paternalism ought to be unlearned and the better lesson taught that while the people should patriotically and cheerfully support their Government, its functions do not include the support of the people.” —Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1893

Garland S. Tucker III is the author of Conservative Heroes: Fourteen Leaders Who Shaped America, from Jefferson to Reagan, available at

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