The Last Constitutional Stalwart
How Grover Cleveland Wielded the Veto Power to Curb the Growth of Government
From mayor to governor to president, Cleveland never let his veto pen sit idle.
By Kody Jensen – April 26, 2020
“(T)he (veto power) has a further use. It not only serves as a shield to the Executive, but it furnishes an additional security against the enaction of improper laws. It establishes a salutary check upon the legislative body, calculated to guard the community against the effects of faction, precipitancy, or of any impulse unfriendly to the public good, which may happen to influence a majority of that body. “
The Veto Man Cometh
Let’s talk about Grover Cleveland. In him we find a man who wielded the veto hammer with principle and alacrity.
In 1881 he was elected mayor of Buffalo, New York.
“He entered upon the office January 1, 1882, and soon became known as the “Veto Mayor,” using that prerogative fearlessly in checking unwise, illegal, and extravagant expenditures. By his vetoes he saved the city nearly $1,000,000 in the first half year of his administration.
He opposed giving $500 of the taxpayers’ money to the Firemen’s Benevolent Society on the ground that such appropriation was not permissible under the terms of the State constitution and the charter of the city. He vetoed a resolution diverting $500 from the Fourth of July appropriations to the observance of Decoration Day for the same reason, and immediately subscribed one-tenth of the sum wanted for the purpose.
His administration of the office won tributes to his integrity and ability from the press and the people irrespective of party.”
Fiscal responsibility in office. How quaint, right?
Cleveland became governor of New York in 1883.
“In his career as governor Cleveland displayed the same stanch characteristics as before, and he was fearless and aggressive in maintaining his principles. The most striking characteristic of his veto messages is the utter absence of partisan or personal designs. Some of the bills he vetoed purported to benefit labor interests, and politicians are usually fearful of any appearance of opposition to such interests: His veto of the bill establishing a five cent fare for the New York elevated railways was an action of a kind to make him a target for calumny and misrepresentation (…)
He told the Legislature in one veto message that ‘of all the defective and shabby legislation which has been presented to me, this is the worst and most inexcusable.’ He once sent a scolding message to the State Senate, in which he said that ‘the money of the State is apparently expended with no regard to economy,” and that “barefaced jobbery has been permitted.'”
Cleveland became president of the United States in 1885. And he took his veto pen all the way to the top. In his first term as president he vetoed a record 414 bills. Let’s explore the veto master’s work.
The vast majority of his vetoes as president were for pensions for individual Civil War veterans. It is nearly impossible to imagine a president today refusing to authorize a pension for a supposed war hero. But as Cleveland wrote in one veto message:
“I am by no means insensible to that influence which leads the judgment toward the allowance of every claim alleged to be founded upon patriotic service in the nation’s cause; and yet I neither believe it to be a duty nor a kindness to the worthy citizens for whose benefit our scheme of pensions was provided to permit the diversion of the nation’s bounty to objects not within its scope and purpose.”
There was a general pension law already in effect which granted pensions to veterans disabled by service in the Civil War or the dependents of soldiers killed. However, Congressman found an easy way to buy support by passing individual pensions for constituents from their district. One veteran congressman laid out their logic, “You need not worry, you cannot very well make a mistake allowing liberal pensions to the soldier boys. The money will get back into the Treasury very soon.” One veto message shows the lack of care with which these pensions were handed out.
“A sufficient reason for the return of the particular bill now under consideration is found in the fact that it provides that the name of Andrew J. Hill be placed upon the pension roll, while the records of the Pension Bureau, as well as a medical certificate made a part of the committee’s report, disclose that the correct name of the intended beneficiary is Alfred J. Hill.”
Cleveland detailed in veto after veto that the claims for many of these pensions were flatly fraudulent. Old soldiers found it all too easy to blame their present maladies on some incident that had supposedly happened 20 years previous during the war. Take for instance, one of the more egregious examples of such fraud:
“(T)he following statement from his certificate of discharge, if trustworthy, sheds some light upon the kind of debility with which he was afflicted:
‘This man has been in this hospital for the past eight months. We do not believe him sick, or that he has been sick, but completely worthless. He is obese and a malingerer to such an extent that he is almost an imbecile—worthlessness, obesity, and imbecility and laziness. He is totally unfit for the Invalid Corps or for any other military duty.
I do not regard it at all strange that this claimant, encouraged by the ease with which special acts are passed, seeks relief through such means, after his application, filed in the Pension Bureau nearly twenty years after his discharge, had been rejected.
Of the four comrades who make affidavit in support of his claim, two of them are recorded as deserters.’”
Or the case of one Mr. Carroll who received a pension from Congress on the testimony of a Mr. Perkins that they were wounded at the same time in the service of their country.
“After an investigation made at that time by a special examiner, he reported that Perkins and Carroll had collected a number of men together, who made their headquarters at the home of Carroll’s mother and were engaged in plundering the neighborhood, and that on account of their depredations they were hunted down by home guards and shot at the time they stated.”
A President of the United States so committed to protecting the taxpayers he would be personally involved in investigating and vetoing singular pensions? Imagine that.
Cleveland also vetoed an expansion of the general pension law on the grounds that it had a broader scope than any previous pension and that it was just too expensive.
“While cost should not be set against a patriotic duty or the recognition of a right, still when a measure proposed is based upon generosity or motives of charity it is not amiss to meditate somewhat upon the expense which it involves. Experience has demonstrated, I believe, that all estimates concerning the probable future cost of a pension list are uncertain and unreliable and always fall far below actual realization.”
Cleveland was defeated in his (first) bid for reelection by Benjamin Harrison who said it “was no time to be weighing the claims of old soldiers with apothecary’s scales,” and proceeded to pass an expanded pension bill and hand out pensions to all comers.
A second class of commonly vetoed bills were those providing for the construction of new federal buildings. Cleveland set forth the principles upon which he judged the necessity of these bills.
“The care and protection which the Government owes to the people do not embrace the grant of public buildings to decorate thriving and prosperous cities and villages, nor should such buildings be erected upon any principle of fair distribution among localities.
The Government is not an almoner of gifts among the people, but an instrumentality by which the people’s affairs should be conducted upon business principles, regulated by the public needs.”
He found numerous instances where he believed the government officials could perform their duties without the cost of a new building. For instance:
“So far as I am informed the patrons of the post-office are fairly well accommodated in a building which is rented by the Government at the rate of $800 per annum; and though the postmaster naturally certifies that he and his fourteen employees require much more spacious surroundings, I have no doubt he and they can be induced to continue to serve the Government in its present quarters.”
It is unfortunately not difficult to find government officials in the annals of American history who did not respect even the most basic rights of the Native Americans. When President Cleveland found a bill on his desk to allow railroads to be built through Indian territory in northern Montana he vetoed it.
“The Indian occupants have not given their consent to it, neither have they been consulted regarding it, nor is there any provision in it for securing their consent or agreement to the location or construction of railroads upon their lands. (…)
If the United States must exercise its right of eminent domain over the Indian Territories for the general welfare of the whole country, it should be done cautiously, with due regard for the interests of the Indians, and to no greater extent than the exigencies of the public service require.”
In 1838 a number of Indians then living in New York and Wisconsin were ordered off their lands in those states but were guaranteed by treaty some lands in what would become Kansas. Those who moved to Kansas however, soon found themselves driven off of these lands as well by violence from white settlers.
In 1873 Congress decided that the land thieves would at least be required to pay the Native Americans a fair price for what they had taken.The land was appraised at an average of $4.90 an acre. In 1888 Congress decided that anyone who had evaded the law of 1873 should be allowed to purchase the remainder of the land for $2.50 an acre.
Grover Cleveland would have none of that.
“(W)hatever the effect of a compliance with the provisions of this bill would be upon the title of the settlers to these lands, I can see no fairness or justice in permitting them to enter and purchase such lands at a sum much less than their appraised value in 1873 and for hardly one-half the price paid by their neighbors under the law passed in that year.
The occupancy upon these lands of the settlers seeking relief, and of their grantors, is based upon wrong, violence, and oppression. A continuation of the wrongful exclusion of these Indians from their lands should not inure to the benefit of the wrongdoers. The opportunities afforded by the law of 1873 were neglected, perhaps, in the hope and belief that death would remove the Indians who by their appeals for justice annoyed those who had driven them from their homes, and perhaps in the expectation that the heedlessness of the Government concerning its obligations to the Indians would supply easier terms. The idea is too prevalent that, as against those who by emigration and settlement upon our frontier extend our civilization and prosperity, the rights of the Indians are of but little consequence. But it must be absolutely true that no development is genuine or valuable based upon the violence and cruelty of individuals or the faithlessness of a government.”
His Magnum Opus
The year was 1887. A drought was ravaging the farmers of Texas. Consequently, Congress did something that today is so commonplace as to be utterly unremarkable. They passed a bill to provide relief to the victims of some unfortunate circumstances. Specifically, they appropriated money to provide the farmers with seeds.
Grover Cleveland responded in a way that is far from commonplace. He returned the bill to Congress with what would become his most famous veto.
“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 strengthens the bonds of a common brotherhood.”
Henry Jones Ford wrote dismissively: “Cleveland was no genius; he was not even a man of marked talent. He was stanch, plodding, laborious, and dutiful; but he was lacking in ability to penetrate to the heart of obscure political problems.”
I would suggest that, perhaps what America needs is not more political geniuses, but rather more men of principle, like Grover Cleveland.
Kody Jensen is a millennial who enjoys economics and chess. Some of his favorite writers are Frédéric Bastiat, Henry Hazlitt, and Frank Albert Fetter.