William Howard Taft

Address at the Grover Cleveland Memorial Exercises at Carnegie Hall in New York City

March 18, 1909

Grover Cleveland was as completely American in his character as Lincoln. Without a college education, he prepared himself for the Bar. His life was confined to western New York. His vision of government and of society was not widened by foreign travel. He was a pure product of the village and town life of the Middle States, affected by New England ancestry and the atmosphere of a clergyman's home. His chief characteristics were simplicity and directness of thought, sturdy honesty, courage of his convictions and plainness of speech, with a sense of public duty that has been exceeded by no statesman within my knowledge. It was so strong in him that he rarely wrote anything, whether in the form of a private or public communication, that the obligation of all men to observe the public interest was not his chief theme.

His career was a most remarkable one. By his administration of the affairs of his city as its Mayor, he showed his power of resistence to, and of overcoming, the influences that made for corruption and negligence in city government, both in his own party and in the party of his opponents. His reputation in this regard spread over his native state of New York at a time when such an attitude as his seemed exceptional, and his standing before the community became a political asset for the Democratic party, that even those who had but little sympathy with his principles were glad to seize upon as a means of getting into power. Accordingly, he was nominated for the Governorship, and was elected by the votes not only of his own party but of hundreds of thousands of the Republican party. The discharge of his duties as Governor confirmed and strengthened the reputation that he had acquired as a Mayor. Before he had ceased his office as Mayor, he had been elected Governor. Before he had ceased his office as Governor, he had been elected President of the United States.

The presidential campaign of 1884 degenerated into one of slander, scandal and abuse, but Mr. Cleveland came through it, retaining the confidence of the American people in his courage and honesty and his single purpose to better the public service.

Mr. Cleveland was a Democrat. He was a partisan. He believed in parties, as all men must who understand the machinery essential to the success and efficiency of popular government. His impulses were all toward the merit system of appointments in the public service, and against the spoils system; but he had a practical, common-sense view of the problems before him. He dealt with the instruments which he had, and he not infrequently was obliged, in order to accomplish greater objects, to yield to the demands of those who had no ideals, and who were impatient of anything but the use of government offices as a purely political reward. Every time that opportunity offered, however, and there was not some greater object in immediate view, he strengthened and assisted the movement toward the merit system.

Mr. Cleveland's political career was so short that he had a great advantage over the prominent men of his party whose records reached back into, and were governed by, the bitter quarrels of the Civil War. As a political quantity, his history began during the corruption and demoralization in the Republican party which were a necessary result of continued power during the war and the decade succeeding it. He represented in a sense a new Democracy, about which all the older elements rallied, both those strongly in sympathy with his reform views, as well as those elements without such sympathy, who were anxious to secure party power.

At the end of his first term, he was renominated, but was beaten by General Harrison in a close vote. By that time, the politicians of the old school in the Democratic party had drawn away from him, and had no desire to continue his leadership. But so strong a hold had he upon the affections and confidence of the rank and file of his party, and so sure were they that he was stronger than the party in an electoral contest, that he was nominated in the National Convention against the desires of most of the state organization leaders; and in the election which followed, he led his party to the greatest victory in its history.

In this campaign Mr. Cleveland stood for an affirmative idea, that of a reduction of the tariff, so as to make it a tariff for revenue. He attacked the protective theory and system. He stood for something aggressive and affirmative. It was in accordance with the ancient traditions of the party.

I do not need to enter into a discussion of the merits of the issue, but comment on it only as illustrating Mr. Cleveland's character. He was positive. He was affirmative. He was courageous. He believed in parties. He believed in party policies, and he believed in consistency in regard to them, and he did not believe in trimming down a policy to catch the votes of those who really did not agree with it.

The first time Mr. Cleveland was in power he was opposed by a Republican Senate. This gave little opportunity for any radical change by legislation in the previous policies of Republican administrations, but it did offer an opportunity for Mr. Cleveland to point out to the country the fact that our government is a government of three distinct branches, the Executive, the Legislative, and the Judicial, and that the Executive has a sphere which the Legislative branch has no right to invade.

We hear much in these days of the usurpation of the Legislative jurisdiction by the Executive branch. As long as the Legislative branch has the power of the purse, the danger of Executive usurpation is imaginative. The real danger arises from the disposition of the legislative branch to assume that it has the omnipotence of Parliament and may completely control the discretion conferred upon the Executive by the Constitution. The country is under obligation to Mr. Cleveland for having pointed out in his controversy with the Republican Senate, some of the limitations that there are in the Constitution upon attempted Legislative action to restrict Executive discretion. In the end Mr. Cleveland won in his controversy with the Senate. Whether he might have done so, had both the House and the Senate been against him, is a matter of doubt. The history of Andrew Johnson's controversy with Congress shows how far a partisan legislature may be induced to go in an unconstitutional attempt to cut down Executive power. The limit of Legislative restriction upon Executive action is a difficult line to define. Any one who attempts to do more than to pass on single instances as they arise may find himself in great difficulty, but as such instances are considered and decided, the limits are gradually being defined. We owe to Mr. Cleveland and his courage in dealing with the Senate of the United States, the establishment of some useful precedents.

In Mr. Cleveland's second term, there was a large majority of his party in the House and a working majority in the Senate, so that the whole responsibility of Government fell upon the Democracy, with Mr. Cleveland at its head. The significance of his second administration centers about three issues. The first was the tariff; the second, free silver, and the third, the suppression of lawlessness directed against Federal authority by use of the process of Federal courts and by Federal troops. The same influences in his own party which had sought to defeat Mr. Cleveland for nomination in his third canvass, he found intrenched in the Senate so strongly as to be able to defeat the declared policy of his party in favor of a revenue tariff, and he refused to sign the Gorman-Wilson Bill but allowed it to become a law after denouncing it as the result of perfidy and dishonor. This was doubtless the greatest disappointment of his political life, for it destroyed the opportunity to test the wisdom of the party policy advocated by him and declared in the party platform, while the business depression which existed before and after its passage furnished ammunition to his political opponents who did not hesitate to argue that the prospect of a revenue tariff on the one hand and the passage of the actual Gorman-Wilson Bill on the other had paralyzed the industries of the country. Whatever one's views upon the tariff, whether he be a protectionist or a free-trader, he cannot but have the deepest sympathy with Mr. Cleveland in his deep indignation at the party disloyalty which defeated the Wilson Bill as it passed the House, and gave us the nondescript bill which became the law.

But there was rising in the Democratic party at the time, especially in the western and southern parts of the country, a desire for economic remedy which should cure everything in our business and body politic. This was the movement in favor of the free coinage of silver. The Republican party and some of its leaders in the west and south had not been free from weakness in this respect, and the law for the monthly purchases of $2,000,000 of silver hung like a stone around the neck of the country. Mr. Cleveland used all the authority that he could command as the Executive to bring about a repeal of this law, and he finally succeeded. The deep gratitude of the country is due to him for this result. Without it disaster would have come. Without it the credit of the country could not have been sustained and there would have been a blot on our financial escutcheon. But when Mr. Cleveland succeeded in securing the repeal of the Sherman Act, it seemed as if his control over the party with respect to the monetary issue had been exhausted. His party became hopelessly divided, and the majority of it declared in favor of the free coinage of silver, a policy which we know to-day, and which we ought to have known then, was nothing but a policy of repudiation. It was a policy completely contrary to the ancient and traditional views of the old Democratic party. It was a departure from the plainest principles of honesty to those who foresaw its effect in the repudiation and scaling down of public and private debts by legislative fiat. It was a policy which has taken away from the Democratic party the confidence of the business community, whether previously Democratic or Republican. It presented a moral issue so sharp, so clear, as completely to destroy party fealty and party attachments. It took away from the Democratic party that strong, conservative element of which Mr. Cleveland was the leader, and it made it for the time a party which seemed to threaten the foundation of honest business and of honest government. It seemed to make its campaign in 1896 and 1900, an assault upon that which was best in our civilization. In my judgment, the safety of the Republic was threatened by the breaking up of the Democratic party into its radical and conservative elements.

In the campaigns of Mr. Blaine and Mr. Cleveland and of Mr. Cleveland and Mr. Harrison, every one felt, however deep his partisan desires, that the institutions of the country, as established by the fathers, would be preserved under the leadership of either party, but in the campaign of 1896, and the one which followed it, there was certainly no such confidence on the part of the men who voted for Mr. McKinley. It seemed to be an issue in which the permanence of our institutions was involved.

In this light, it was an unfortunate day for the Republic when the leadership of the Democracy passed from Mr. Cleveland.

The patriotic spirit which moved those under Mr. Cleveland's leadership to break from party ties and save the country from repudiation, entitled them and him to our everlasting gratitude.

Another great debt which the country owes to Mr. Cleveland is the assertion, made through him as its Chief Executive, of the power of the Federal Government directly to defend the Federal jurisdiction through the process of Federal courts and by Federal troops, against the lawless invasion of a mob. Mr. Cleveland was a Democrat and of course respected the traditional construction of the Constitution by that party; but no fear of apparent inconsistency prevented him from asserting the full Federal power to maintain its authority to suppress lawlessness when directed against Federal right and Federal jurisdiction; and so he instituted proceedings in the Federal courts to restrain the Debs' boycott of the country, the tying up of interstate commerce, and the interference with the mails, and he sent the troops under General Miles to Chicago to make his assertion of the power effective. It cost him the support of the thoughtless whose sympathy against the unjust aggressions of corporate power and wealth make them wink at the lawless invasion of vested rights. But he succeeded in stopping what had really grown to the proportions of an insurrection. The highest tribunal created by the Constitution to fix the limits of State and National authority completely sustained his course. There were other issues in his administration; there were other controversies in which he took part in his political life, but time permits me only to discuss those which I have referred to.

Grover Cleveland earned the sincere gratitude of his countrymen and justified recurring memorial occasions like the one in which we are taking part. He was a great President, not because he was a great lawyer, not because he was a brilliant orator, not because he was a statesman of profound learning, but because he was a patriot with the highest sense of public duty, because he was a statesman of clear perceptions, of the utmost courage of his convictions, and of great plainness of speech; because he was a man of the highest character, a father and husband of the best type, and because throughout his political life he showed those rugged virtues of the public servant and citizen, the emulation of which by those who follow him will render progress of our political life toward better things a certainty.

Source: Presidential Addresses and State Papers of William Howard Taft

William Howard Taft, Address at the Grover Cleveland Memorial Exercises at Carnegie Hall in New York City Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/363255

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