A Man of Iron: The Turbulent Life and Improbable Presidency of Grover Cleveland, by Troy Senik (Threshold Editions, 384 pp., $32.99)
Liberalism does not have much of a heroic reputation these days. Certainly, it remains a formidable political doctrine, as critics on the right and left have failed to develop viable alternatives to it. But even if their attacks have not made much practical headway, critics have deprived liberalism of some of its former moral appeal. Troy Senik’s new biography of President Grover Cleveland, A Man of Iron, sets out to revive the idea of liberalism as the creed most appropriate for honorable men.
Cleveland is best known for having served two non-consecutive terms as president. He was the first Democrat elected after the Civil War and, indeed, the only Democratic president elected between 1856 and 1912. Favoring executive restraint, federal restraint, civil-service reform, low tariffs, and anti-imperialism, Cleveland would also be the last Democratic president to fit the description “classical liberal” before Woodrow Wilson took the party in a different direction.
Senik sees Cleveland as defined just as much by the tenacity with which he clung to his ideals as the ideals themselves. A Man of Iron is the biography of a conviction politician par excellence. During the post-Civil War era, the most powerful lobbying force was the Grand Army of the Republic, “an organization with the emotional appeal of the VFW and the political power of a major union.” Spending on veteran pensions represented the second-largest item in the federal budget, but the GAR was never satisfied and pushed constantly to expand benefits. Cleveland held the line, even personally examining disability pension applications for evidence of fraud. Cleveland’s refusal to be intimidated by veterans was all the more remarkable for his not being a veteran himself, a rare trait for a late nineteenth-century president. The sole provider for his widowed mother and sisters during the Civil War, Cleveland borrowed money to hire a substitute.
But relative to other episodes in his life, the courage that Cleveland showed in standing up to Union war heroes was standard stuff. “Grover Cleveland was not for turning,” Senik writes. He issued more vetoes than any president except FDR, and, in his first term alone, more than twice as many as all his predecessors combined. Cleveland, who won the popular vote three times (Benjamin Harrison prevailed in the electoral college in 1888), believed that everyone underrated the political value of principle. He once dismissed a contemporary by saying that “the trouble with that fellow is he is always ready to make this mistake of thinking there is no political force in a moral idea.”
Doing the right thing will not always be expedient, of course (no one would deserve praise for it if it were), and Cleveland experienced some humiliating defeats, particularly in his second term. But much of his ascent was powered by his willingness to risk unpopularity. When governor of New York, Cleveland vetoed legislation that would have lowered fares on the New York City elevated railway, the predecessor to the subway system. Though this act benefited the notorious financier Jay Gould, who owned the El, Cleveland insisted on honoring the contractual guarantees included in the system’s authorizing legislation. Some denounced the move as corporatism, but the press and public supported Cleveland.
The Cleveland presidency was “improbable” for a few reasons, one of which was the extraordinary speed of his rise. Cleveland went from being a lawyer in Buffalo to mayor of that city, to governor of New York, to president, within about three years. He wasn’t well educated, having ended his formal schooling at 16 because of family commitments. He would not rank among our most philosophic presidents. But he was never intimidated by any policy question, however abstruse, on account of his prodigious work ethic and his faith in the liberal tradition. “The President believed that the wisdom of the Founding Fathers rarely required updating,” Senik observes.
At the risk of sounding backhanded, I want to praise this book’s length. Running about 330 pages, A Man of Iron finds the perfect balance between gifty histories and doorstop biographies, which operate on the mistaken logic that 900 pages must be more serious than 400 pages. Senik packs in many dense discussions of the annexation of Hawaii, the gold standard, Cleveland’s fraught relationship with Buffalo, and violent labor struggles. Also exemplary is A Man of Iron’s aphoristic style. Senik sprinkles throughout many insightful reflections of his own—“It is an underappreciated feature of American history that much of the nation’s territorial expansion owes to diplomatic or military officials operating with near autonomy because of their distance from Washington”—along with well-selected quotes from Cleveland himself. Here’s Cleveland’s broadside against exercise: “Bodily movement alone, undertaken from a sense of duty or upon medical advice, is among the dreary and unsatisfying things of life. It may cultivate or increase animal strength and endurance, but it is apt at the same time to weaken and distort the disposition and temper.” (“Uncle Jumbo” weighed 275 pounds and suffered from gout.)
It’s hard to break into the ranks of greatest presidents if you didn’t manage a war. That standard makes it challenging to compare and rank the vast majority of our presidents who served in peacetime. Senik argues for ranking Cleveland quite high among this less dramatic category. As Senik notes, the American political system was in some ways designed not to have to rely on greatness. But that doesn’t mean that we should dismiss qualities such as Grover Cleveland’s honesty and sense of fiduciary duty, which seem to have been rare even in his day. They are certainly rare in our own.
Photo by Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images