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Grover Cleveland: One of the great anti-imperialist presidents

He kept his country at peace and opposed unjust land grabs, and should be remembered as a successful foreign policy POTUS.

Analysis | Washington Politics

Grover Cleveland was one of the more remarkable presidents in U.S. history, but today he is scarcely remembered, despite being one of a few men to win the popular vote three times. In a new biography, author Troy Senik seeks to remind Americans of his life and work and to explain why Cleveland has largely vanished from the memory of the nation he served. 

Man of Iron: The Turbulent Life and Improbable Presidency of Grover Cleveland is sympathetic and admiring, but it is far from uncritical. It tells the story of a genuinely honest and principled man whose sense of justice was so strong that he would frequently put himself at a disadvantage by taking unpopular and losing stands. In a sharp contrast to the pandering and opportunism that we normally expect from politicians, Cleveland was almost always fixed in his positions and immoveable no matter how much resistance he encountered. 

As a result, he was arguably one of the most admirable and upstanding presidents we have ever had, but because of his inflexibility he was usually unsuccessful in achieving the ends he had in mind. 

To the extent that he has been forgotten, one reason is that his conception of the presidency was such a modest and limited one that he did not set much store by trying to do big things to create a legacy for himself. Cleveland believed in the fair and impartial administration of government in the public interest, and this repeatedly made him a poor fit for the roles of factional leader and partisan fighter.

His strict constitutionalism meant that he refused to play the activist role that so many historians want presidents to embrace. His interest in fairness was rooted both in the religious upbringing he had as the son of a Presbyterian minister, and his study of the law, and his legal career instilled in him a lifelong preference to settle disputes through arbitration. 

As Senik emphasizes, Cleveland was never a great orator, but in his plain speaking and desire for justice he could inspire tremendous enthusiasm and admiration. But because he was the last president coming from an older breed of conservative Democrat, Cleveland had few political heirs that would celebrate him in posterity. 

As the last truly anti-imperialist president on the eve of the American overseas empire, Cleveland was on the right but losing side of the great foreign policy debate of his day. Like almost all of his 19th Century predecessors, Cleveland’s two terms as president were mostly defined by domestic concerns and crises, but it is in his forays in foreign policy that we may get the clearest picture of the man and his convictions. 

An old-line Jeffersonian, Cleveland was firmly committed to keeping the U.S. free from foreign entanglements, and as a result he took a jaundiced view of the enthusiasm for overseas expansion that was already building up during his tenure. 

Cleveland’s sense of justice also caused him to take an interest in foreign affairs in some unexpected places. Alarmed by the possibility that Samoa would be swallowed up by Germany, he sought to protect Samoan independence without taking on a new protectorate. He withdrew the treaty of annexation for Hawaii when he returned to the presidency in his second term, and he attempted to repair the damage done by U.S. officials’ support for the Hawaiian coup under the previous administration. 

Persuaded that Britain was seeking to grab Venezuelan territory as part of an ongoing boundary dispute between Venezuela and British Guiana, Cleveland pressed for arbitration in such strong terms that the U.S. and Britain briefly seemed to be on a collision course. When he saw what he considered abuse by a stronger party against a weaker one, he saw an opening to find a fair resolution through diplomatic mediation. Unlike many of his successors, he took an interest in a neighboring Latin American country not to invade it or exploit it but to stand up for its rights against a major power. 

Cleveland’s opposition to the annexation of Hawaii as president was one of the best things he did in office, but it was soon overwhelmed by the expansionist frenzy unleashed by the war with Spain under his successor. His leadership in fighting against the annexation of the Philippines after he left office was further proof that his rejection of imperialism was rooted in deep principle. Unfortunately, like most of his previous fights, opposition to annexing the Philippines also ended in failure, albeit by a very narrow margin.

Senik covers Cleveland’s anti-imperialist record in one chapter, but curiously he omits his later role in the Anti-Imperialist League, and gives only passing references to the former president’s opposition to the Spanish and Philippine Wars and the treaty of annexation. This is an important oversight in an otherwise well-done account of Cleveland’s life. The annexation of Hawaii and the Spanish War moved Cleveland to speak out against what he called “schemes of imperialism” that were leading the United States into “dangerous perversions of our national mission.” 

As Stephen Kinzer noted in his excellent history of the League and the debate over annexation, The True Flag, “Cleveland’s outspoken statements gave anti-imperialists new reason for hope. They had believed from the beginning that justice was on their side….Now they were attracting first-rank leaders.” The fight against annexation was an important episode in Cleveland’s post-presidential life, and it should be included in an assessment of his career.

While the League ultimately failed to stop annexation, it was the first significant antiwar organization of its kind. It represented a broad cross-section of American opinion in opposition to the acquisition of overseas colonies. Cleveland’s membership in the League was a major early boost to its fortunes, and it brought him into common cause with both Mark Twain and Andrew Carnegie. Senik quotes Twain’s high praise for Cleveland as “a very great president,” but he curiously doesn’t mention that Twain and Cleveland were allies in the great fight against empire.

In his conclusion, Senik observes that Cleveland might have done things to secure his presidential legacy by being the one to annex Hawaii or intervene in Cuba. “Grover Cleveland didn’t miss those opportunities because he was an inept president, however; he refused them because he thought they were wrong.” Cleveland always emphasized doing right in the conduct of the nation’s business, and his devotion to this principle was unflinching. This caused him great disillusionment and disappointment as many of his countrymen chose the dishonorable course of stealing the lands of other peoples. 

Cleveland’s rejection of the course that the U.S. would take in the world over the following decades is undoubtedly one reason why he has been so often forgotten. In the twentieth century, both parties embraced the expansionist and interventionist policies that Cleveland abhorred. 

Modern historians tend to valorize activist presidents that sought global “leadership,” and Cleveland was the opposite of that. A president that kept his country at peace and opposed unjust land grabs should be remembered as a successful foreign policy president, and that is how Cleveland should be viewed.

Cartoon by Joseph Keppler (1838-1894) from Puck Magazine of 15 July 1885.
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