All Commentary
Saturday, May 1, 1971

Tell the Truth


Mr. Colvard teaches at Clairemont High School in San Diego.

In the introduction to The Worldly Philos­ophers observed that among the great economic thinkers in his books were “a madman, a parson and a stockbroker, a revolutionary and a nobleman, an aesthete and a tramp.” The significant trait they shared was curiosity. Last August I had an opportunity to participate in a seminar at FEE. Although none of my fellow seminar partici­pants that particular week fitted Professor Heilbroner’s more bi­zarre categories, the notable curi­osity of the philosophers was, I found, lavishly distributed. Many of us had, as teachers, searched for comfortable, noncontroversial positions between the ideological extremes labeled “freedom” and “equality” or “individualism” and “collectivism.” Like Plato, so long ago, we questioned whether or not true democracy must inevitably lead to irresponsible anarchy and aristocracy to privileged oligarchy. Much of our effort that frenzied week at Irvington-on-Hudson was concerned with pinpointing the “good” economics philosophy.

A new concept of liberty was suggested by the speaker one afternoon—freedom from pater­nalism. That was a troublesome idea to me. How was it possible to deny the obvious historic merits of the Square Deal, New Deal, and Great Society? Could we dare not to license our government to save American businessmen from for­eign competition, not subsidize “infant” industries, not guarantee fair wages for workers, parity for farmers, and profits for investors? Could we reasonably expect aver­age citizens, without the minis­trations of benevolent government, to anticipate the financial hazards of ill-health and old age? This, then, was the crux: Was paternal­ism our answer or was it, in grim reality, alienation from initiative and opportunity?

The flow of ideas came rapidly that week at FEE. Fortunately for me a mental rest stop was available in the guise of an op­tional classroom session. Here the real students in the seminar had an opportunity to direct more definitive questions to the lecturer, and slow learners, like myself, found time to rescue Adam Smith from the bosom of the Adams family and to determine that the writings of John Stuart Mill were different from those of C. Wright Mills.

The poet Horace, I recalled, wrote: “Get money, by fair means if you can; if not, get money.” This had been the continuing war cry of those whose hands reach to­ward the national treasury. Each President was thrust by them into the role of vault guardian or of dispenser of largess. “After all,” one of the seminar participants pointed out, “it’s only government money to a President, but it’s the life’s blood of politics from county seat to Capitol Hill. No politician can withstand the party bosses and pressure groups who consider him `their’ man.”

“There was one who could, and did:” the seminar lecturer observed, “Grover Cleveland.”

One Version of the Man

From the “facts” which had been learned in my U. S. history courses Cleveland had been fat, stubborn, and honest, but no hero.

He fathered an illegitimate son. He vetoed veterans’ bonus bills. He married a girl half his age. He ordered Federal troops to break strikes.

He thought manifest destiny was dead.

He was “the stuffed prophet of naked conservatism.”

The terrible-tempered editor of The Iconoclast, William Cowper Brann, was widely quoted by the “debunkers” school of history:

… Caesar and Napoleon treated the people’s representatives with al­most Clevelandesque discourtesy; but neither sent a substitute—a hired assassin—to the front to do his fight­ing, while he played pinocle for the beer and wallowed around in fourth-class bawdy houses with disreputable widows….

… Instead of making the White House the resort of authors, poets, painters, philosophers and scientists, it is the rendezvous of female necro­mancers and nigger mascots.

Integrity and Responsibility

Neither scholarship nor origi­nality is implied by this resume. It is merely a look into a single facet of the Cleveland character, honesty. The historian, Allan Nev­ins, concluded his monumental bi­ography by stating:

We are surrounded on every hand by leaders who compromise here and waver there. Even the great among them are too often found to have a breaking-point, to be ready to sur­render part of an eternal principle in order to obtain a temporary gain. From such leaders it is pleasant to turn to the memory of Cleveland… such an example of iron fortitude is better than to have swayed parlia­ments or to have won battles or to have annexed provinces.

The Cleveland dimensions of bravery in his stand on personal integrity and public responsibility makes him a man for all seasons. Without the brilliance of Jefferson or the mystique of Lincoln his in­domitable will made him their peer. Cleveland, tongue in cheek, no doubt, said: “It is no credit to me to do right. I am never under any temptation to do wrong.” That ironic witticism, more than any display of righteous anger, gives us a glimpse of the sensitive hu­man behind the bold public figure. His enemies were vocal and color­ful. “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman ranted: “Send me to Washington, and I’ll tickle Cleveland’s fat ribs with my pitchfork!” A Midwest­ern “Silverite” shouted: “I detest him so much I don’t even think his wife is beautiful.”

Except for a catastrophic phys­ical crisis Grover Cleveland’s uni­versal order to his supporters was, “Tell the Truth.” His illness and the removal of malignant palate and upper jaw during the summer of 1892 remained a virtual secret from the public for a quarter cen­tury. About this tragic event Cleveland probably lied more than he did on all other issues through­out his lifetime. He told the truth “without fear or favor,” but as the Indianapolis Sentinel stated in 1896:

… No president was ever so per­sistently and malignantly lied about as Grover Cleveland has been. The judgment of thousands of men has been warped by whispered stories that are too silly to discuss.

The Dangers of Paternalism

The historic lessons of econom­ics and politics must be re-learned by each generation. Cleveland could teach them only for his time. The market, not government, he held, must determine economic di­rection. Paternalism by govern­ment destroyed the initiative of the people.

The lessons of paternalism ought to be unlearned and the better lesson taught that while the people should patriotically and cheerfully support their Government, its func­tions do not include the support of the people….

Demands for pensions by profes­sional patriots during Cleveland’s administrations are paralleled to­day, to a remarkable degree, by “Welfare Rights” advocates. Cleve­land signed far more private pen­sion bills for Civil War veterans and their dependents than he ve­toed. The significance of his heroic stand is that no earlier President had vetoed one. Cleveland’s vetoes were for benefits to dead pension­ers, to widows long ago remarried, to wartime deserters, and to indi­viduals who would have enlisted if the war had not ended so soon. One bill which he vetoed demand­ed a pension for all Union soldiers on the grounds that each one had come out of the war physically weaker than he had entered it. He virtually stood alone in saving the national treasury from the greed of the Grand Army of the Repub­lic. The collective strength of po­litical, special interest groups was not great enough to defeat him.

Warnings Against Collectivism

Cleveland’s warning against col­lectivism is timely now. Modern economists like Robert L. Heil­broner and Kenneth Galbraith point out that the “communism” of wealth and capital already is here. Businessmen are now openly pressuring for more government investments in aircraft, railroads, and securities. Socialism is widely advocated by industrialists, entre­preneurs, and educators under the euphemism, “social capitalism.” Cleveland spoke to the nation at the end of his first term:

Communism is a hateful thing and a menace to peace and organized government; but the communism of combined wealth and capital, the out­growth of overwhelming cupidity and selfishness, which insidiously under­mines the justice and integrity of free institutions is not less dangerous than the communism of oppressed poverty and toil, which, exasperated by jus­tice and discontent attacks with wild disorder the citadel of rule.

In today’s economic jargon, when national wealth is measured in “gross national cost” and the na­tion’s money evaluated in terms of “credit,” Cleveland’s warning against communism may seem ata­vistic, just as a superficial analy­sis of his decision to return to a sound dollar may appear as a Pyrrhic victory. Nearly a billion dollars in fiat money and Civil War greenbacks in commercial channels provided an endless nonreversible conveyor belt for moving Ameri­can gold into European banks. Cleveland called a hostile Congress into special session. “Fiat” was not and never could be equivalent to intrinsic value. He said, “The people of the United States are en­titled to a sound and stable cur­rency, to money recognized as such on every exchange and in every market of the world.” In spite of William Jennings Bryan’s emo­tional counter appeal for the “un­numbered throng,” “work-worn,” and “dust-begrimed,” Cleveland and the nation won. The Silver Purchase Act was repealed. The battle for sound money was won for his generation. As reported by The New York Times:

at that moment, as often before, between the lasting interests of the nation and the cowardice of some, the craft of others, in his party, the sole barrier was the enlightened con­science and iron firmness of Mr. Cleveland.

The Democratic Party in 1896 repudiated his leadership. The paradoxical Republican triumph of William McKinley was Cleveland’s last great victory. The Baltimore News stated it succinctly:

When the history of the present time comes to be seriously written, the name of the hero of this cam­paign will be that of a man who was not a candidate, not a manager, not an orator; the fight which has just been won was made possible by the noble service of one steadfast and heroic citizen, and the crowning achievement of his great record…. It is impossible to over-estimate the value of the service Grover Cleveland has done through his twelve years of unswerving fidelity to the cause of honest money.

Here I rest my thesis. I am grateful to the member of FEE’s staff whose answer sparked my curiosity. I think I understand the character of Grover Cleveland more fully now than I did several months ago. I think I also under­stand something more about FEE. I would attempt to excuse the dull­ness of my perception except for a highly comforting observation in Leonard E. Read’s Talking to My­self:

The only thing new about an idea is its newness to any one of us. And it is never new prior to the point of apprehension—that is, until it has hatched and, thus, become one’s own….

Getting results on behalf of the freedom philosophy here and now, in this context, is any shift toward en­lightenment that takes place in a lifetime. Patience!