The Last Jeffersonian
The Last Jeffersonian
Grover Cleveland and the Path to Restoring the Republic
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America is in danger of losing the constitutional republic created by the Founding Fathers. Since the beginning of the progressive era, the federal government has steadily encroached on the rights of the states and the people. Yet today, we are inundated with politicians of both parties who seek new ideas and innovative ways to make government work, rather than solutions for preserving our political heritage. To restore our republic, we need to look to the past, to the political fathers of old who made the nation the best and brightest on earth. Grover Cleveland was the last of those fathers. As a mayor, governor, and president, Cleveland dealt with many of the same troubles we face today—the public character and behavior of our candidates, the role of government in the everyday lives of the people, the burden of taxation, the distribution of wealth, government involvement in an economic depression, monetary policy, and complex foreign affairs. By studying Cleveland’s policies and ideals, we can relearn those forgotten lessons of ancient times and restore the American republic.

On first glance, it might seem odd that a 19th century president could have any bearing on the modern world. How could the record of a president who served more than a century ago have any influence on contemporary politics or impact a political movement like conservatism? Should we even care about what happened in bygone eras? Many economists, politicians, and pundits believe there’s nothing to gain from studying the past. We live in a new world, they often say, and should look to the future and to new ideas. But that is where we make a great mistake. There are lessons we as a society can learn by viewing modern times through the prism of history, and conservatives can gain much by examining the historic presidential administration of Jeffersonian Democrat Grover Cleveland. The conservative movement, once the dominate political force in America, found itself, after the electoral debacles in 2006 and 2008, in a state of disarray. Conservatives struggled to find a solid leader or a unified agenda, and seemed to have no solid prospects for the immediate future. In the dark days after Barack Obama’s historic victory, the right appeared to be a ship adrift at sea without a rudder, as many politicians and the media capitulated to “Obama-mania.” Even Christopher Buckley, son of the late conservative icon William F. Buckley, shocked the rightwing world in the fall of 2008 by announcing his support for Obama, while other Republicans flirted with the possibility, disgusted as they were with their party and their nominee. The recent Tea Parties have started a groundswell of resistance to Obama’s encroaching government, a movement instrumental in the 2010 midterm election landslide. Yet even since the advent of the Tea Party, many rank-and-file members, the heart and soul of the conservative movement, have been disillusioned, depressed, and in search of a champion. There are numerous reasons for the state of perplexity and lack of direction, the absence of an inspirational, unifying leader among them. But a lack of a coherent message is another. Conservative leaders themselves often question and disagree on what conservatism actually is. Many have succumbed to the never-ending leftwing assault that conservatism is extreme and mean-spirited. To counter that attack, a multitude of new books, theories, and catchy slogans, like “compassionate conservatism,” have emerged in the last several years attempting to re-define the movement for the purpose of bringing in new supporters, seemingly by lessening conservatism’s supposed harshness. But conservatives need not fear the assaults of Democrats, nor should conservatism be re-tooled or re-defined. It should be advocated in its original Jeffersonian purity. The Jeffersonians believed in all the major tenants of modern conservatism, known at the time as classical liberalism: limited government, states’ rights, economy and accountability, strict construction of the Constitution, sound money, low taxes and tariffs, no national debt, and a non-interventionist foreign policy. When these ideals of pure Jeffersonian conservatism are expressed, as they were so eloquently by Ronald Reagan, the right wins and wins big; when it’s not, as in the recent case of John McCain, Republicans are beaten and generally beaten badly. Conservatives, we often hear from many thinkers and commentators on the right, must look to the future for new ideas about governing, for the present is much too complex to rely on a distant, simplistic past. Many of these new theories put trust in a governmental structure to fix problems. But it was not government that made America great; it was the people, who possess individual liberty, a capitalistic economic system, and a government that remained on the sidelines and out of their back pockets. We need only to look to the past to what worked and to those principles that made the United States the greatest nation on Earth. “For conservatism is grounded in the past,” writes Pat Buchanan. “Its principles are derived from the Constitution, experience, history, tradition, custom, and the wisdom of those who have gone before us – ‘the best that has been thought and said.’ It does not purport to know the future. It is about preserving the true, the good, the beautiful.” Or as Chuck Norris has written in Black Belt Patriotism, “Go Back to Go Forward.” But perhaps our Lord said it best in Jeremiah 6:16, “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.” But rarely do we hear candidates discuss our glorious past. Today’s conservative leaders express new ideas, new solutions, and new ways of doing things, trying to impress voters with how innovative they are, when we should be looking for our answers in the past, at the old ways of doing things. For this reason we study history. To students, both past and present, as well as those in the future, history should not be seen as simply a bunch of facts, names, and dates; nor is it, as one critic suggested, “just one damn thing after another.” The study of history has a purpose. We must learn from it or if we do not we become irrelevant as a people and as a great civilization. As Ronald Reagan reminded the American people in his 1989 Farewell Address, “If we forget what we did, we won’t know who we are.” How right he was. Consider for a moment an absence of history. What if we had no knowledge of the past, no stories, no facts, no records, nothing but complete ignorance? What if we knew nothing that had happened before our lifetimes and beyond the grasp of our memories or that of our elders? A scary thought indeed. History can intellectually enrich ones life but can also be an excellent guide to understand present events and correct existing problems. “What…is the solution to our current woes?” asks Professor Larry Schweikart in his recent book, What Would the Founders Say? A Patriot’s Answers to America’s Most Pressing Problems. “It helps, when you are lost, to find out where you made the wrong turn. But if you don’t know where you started, how can you discover where you went off course?” The study of our history will show us the answers, allowing us to understand where we have come from as a society so we will know where we are going as a society. So it is important that the study of history, as well as the writing of it, reflect modern times. A thorough understanding of American history can also make one a better citizen and a more enlightened voter. Discussing posterity, Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1784, that the people would derive tremendous benefits from studying the past. “History by apprising them of the past will enable them to judge…the future; it will avail them of the experience of other times and other nations; it will qualify them as judges of the actions and designs of men; it will enable them to know ambition under every disguise it may assume; and knowing it, to defeat its views.” Grover Cleveland would have agreed. He held strongly to what he believed, passionately advocating the principles of Jeffersonian conservatism, then at home in the Democratic Party. He held that those ideals should be freely championed, not concealed or watered down, and history could be an excellent judge for the present and future. “The Democratic cause need have no fear of the most complete discussion of its principles, and the history of its great leaders and their achievements cannot fail to inspire the members of the party with pride and veneration,” he wrote a friend during his first year as president. “It is well in these latter days to often turn back and read of the faith which the founders of our party had in the people – how exactly they approached their needs and with what lofty aims and purposes they sought the public good.”

Ryan S. Walters was born in Laurel, Mississippi, on July 7, 1973. He grew up in Jones County, the famous “Free State of Jones,” in the small town of Ellisville. He graduated from Heidelberg Academy, a Christian-based private school,and then attended Jones County Junior College and the University of Southern Mississippi. Ryan holds a BA and an MA in American history from Southern Miss and is currently working on a PhD in nineteenth-century American political history.


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