Grover Cleveland
“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.” — Grover Cleveland, after vetoing a relief bill for Texas farmers.
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division [LC-USZ62-13024 DLC]

All of which leads me to a few words about a president who happens to be among my personal favorites: Grover Cleveland — our 22nd and 24th president (the only one to serve two nonconsecutive terms), and the humble son of a Presbyterian minister.

Cleveland said what he meant and meant what he said. He did not lust for political office, and he never felt he had to cut corners, equivocate or connive in order to get elected. He was so forthright and plain-spoken that he makes Harry Truman seem indecisive by comparison.

This strong streak of honesty led him to the right policy conclusion again and again. H.L. Mencken, who was known for cutting politicians down to size, even wrote a nice little essay on Cleveland titled "A Good Man in a Bad Trade."

Cleveland thought it was an act of fundamental dishonesty for some to use government for their own benefit at everyone else's expense. Accordingly, he took a firm stand against some early stirrings of an American welfare state.

In "The American Leadership Tradition: Moral Vision from Washington to Clinton," Marvin Olasky noted that when Cleveland was mayor of Buffalo, N.Y., in the early 1880s, his "willingness to resist demands for government handouts made his name known throughout New York State," catapulting him to the governorship in 1882 and the presidency in 1884.

Indeed, frequent warnings against using the government to redistribute income were characteristic of Cleveland's tenure. He regarded as a "serious danger" the notion that government should dispense favors and advantages to individuals or their businesses. This conviction led him to veto a wagonload of bills - 414 in his first term and 170 in his second - far more than all the previous 21 presidents combined. "I ought to have a monument over me when I die," he once said, "not for anything I have ever done, but for the foolishness I have put a stop to."

In vetoing a bill in 1887 that would have appropriated $10,000 in aid for Texas farmers struggling through a drought, Cleveland wrote:

"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."

Cleveland went on to point out, "The friendliness and charity of our countrymen can always be relied upon to relieve their fellow-citizens in misfortune." Americans proved him right. Those Texas farmers eventually received in private aid more than 10 times what the vetoed bill would have provided.

As a devoted Christian, Cleveland saw the notion of taking from some to give to others as a violation of the Eighth and Tenth Commandments, which warn against theft and envy. He noticed what 20th century welfare statists did not, namely, that there was a period after the word "steal" in the Eighth, with no added qualifications. It does not say, "Thou shalt not steal unless the other guy has more than you do, or unless a government representative does it for you, or unless you can't find anyone who will give it to you freely, or unless you're totally convinced you can spend it better than the guy to whom it belongs."

Cleveland had been faithful to the Founders and to what he believed were God's commandments, common sense and historical experience. I can't say the same for certain of his successors who, in more recent times, cast wisdom to the winds and set America on a very different course.