True Libertarian Presidents III: Grover Cleveland

By Dane Larsen | United States

“It is better to be defeated standing for a high principle than to run by committing subterfuge.” -Grover Cleveland

On March 4th, 1885, a new President was inaugurated. One fresh face of a politician, who had only 3 years of experience in politics prior to being elected to Commander in Chief. Being the Mayor of Buffalo for 11 months, then the 28th Governor of New York for just over two years, Grover Cleveland brought many new ideals that alligned with the late-19th century American public.

Whether known for his rough around the edges attitude, or serving two terms as President, just 4 years, many people forget that much of the shrinking of government in wake of the 20th century should be credited to Grover Cleveland. After his first term, he was beat by Benjamin Harrison, a GOP candidate who was in office for 4 years, and messed up almost everything Cleveland did from 1885-89. From raising taxes on every tax bracket, to enforcing protectionist tariffs, or furthering the US’ involvement in Imperialism, Harrison was anything but Libertarian. So, in an effort to bring prosperity back the White House and D.C., Cleveland ran again in 1892, and won the election to be President for another 4 years, until he stepped out  of  power.

Economic Freedom

If anything, Cleveland is known for his “no nonsense” laissez-faire economics, combined with scaling down the size of government in all aspects, but in domestic finance policies primarily. He was known and recorded to have vetoed hundreds of crazy spending proposals, including omnibus budgets, enormous pension expansions, and needless capital boosts on the military’s power. Following through on his campaign promises, he also brought the national debt down, when it was still on the rebound from the Civil War.

Cleveland was a notable fighter against tariffs. In an address to Congress of 38 states at the time, he stated “it is indefensible extortion and a culpable betrayal of American fairness and justice”, to enact such taxes on goods that in all, hurt the American economy. He studied economics independently, as he only foresaw an Elementary education, yet he was up at the top of the class when he  was admitted to the New York Bar  in 1859. During a time where the idea of tariffs were gaining traction from the misinformed, and uninformed, Cleveland stuck to his word, vetoing double digits of tariff bills in office.

Lastly, the 22nd and 24th President of the USA was a firm believer in the gold standard, rather than a government-backed central bank which manipulates money at the general public’s expense. Shortly after he was inaugurated for the second time, there was a brief Depression that ensued over the United States, prompted by the failure of a railroad being built. Over one million Americans lost their jobs, and just under 400 banks closed. Cleveland overturned a Compromise bill that forced the use of silver in the monetary policy, passed by Benjamin Harrison before him. This gave the US a more sound economic position both domestically and in the world economy.


Cleveland was also a strong opponent of the Imperialism movement of the late 19th century. While he fought against intervention into the Congo specifically, he also believed in the sovereign rights of states around the US. He believed that land shouldn’t be governed from far away, much like the Founding Fathers, and he proved this when he refused to annex Hawaii and other Caribbean colonies.

During his Presidency, Cleveland did use force to try to get his way in Latin America. Despite his lacks views of foreign policy and isolationism, he did have strong opinions on countries trying to intervene in the colonial puppets of Central and South America. When Great Britain tried to set up their Imperialist powers in countries like Jamaica, Honduras, Barbados, etc., Cleveland insisted that he spread military power to the regions to resist this imperialism. He did so with Congress approval, but he overstepped his boundaries, some say, to impose his own views on other governmental powers.

While the last act of aggression can be passed off because of its good intentions, the Scott Act of 1888 is inexcusable. During the heart of Chinese Exclusion of the United States,  the Scott Act “prohibited Chinese laborers abroad or who planned future travels from returning”. Much of what we see in the Protectionist movement in modern day America, both the Republican and Democratic parties in the late 1800’s were for limited immigration and semi-closed borders. According to the Department of Homeland Security, this denied access to between 20-30,000 potential workers.

Individual Autonomy

Cleveland’s views on rugged individualism and unalienable freedoms were more of the same, aligning with many of the libertarian-type people in power. Whether it was supporting state’s rights, the Bill of Rights, and autonomy from the state, Cleveland is much like Ulysses S. Grant, Warren G. Harding and other Libertarian Presidents of members of Congress who pushed liberty. Differently than his predecessors, however, Cleveland appointed his government employees by experience and knowledge of the job itself. By committing to a meritocracy, the POTUS set up a necessary precedent for the government to avoid nepotism, or anything of the sort.

Cleveland hits a speed bump here, where he gave in to the times he was born into. The Dawe’s Act is where Grover Cleveland signed into law, a bill which turned over a lot  of the remaining American Indian land, back to the government. It divided up the tribal land between the population of Native Americans, and the rest would be surplus, open for the white man. This broke apart the tribal structure and culture. Another fault in his Presidency was during the Pullman Strike, where Cleveland broke apart a Union of railroad workers with governmental force. He used the military and police departments to threaten with strength against this strike. Because this was a cause of concern for the general public, Cleveland intervened.

He had a short list of flaws, but some may not be looked over without batting an eye. Grover Cleveland did, however, align himself with a lot of modern libertarian beliefs, and did more good than harm in office.


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