The Treasure State’s First Presidential Election
"He restrained spending and vetoed more bills than the previous 23 presidents combined."
Montana statehood directly involved two U.S. presidents, though neither of them ever visited. In February 1889, just days before he left office at the end of his first term, Democrat Grover Cleveland signed a bill that granted statehood upon approval of a new state constitution. That happened in the summer and on November 8, Republican Benjamin Harrison formally welcomed the 41st state into the union.
Three years later, Montanans voted in their first presidential election. Cleveland earned the Democratic Party’s nomination that year (1892) for the third time. His Republican opponent was, as it had been in 1888, Benjamin Harrison. So in this notable rematch, which of the two did Montanans go for?
If silver was your livelihood, you probably voted for the incumbent Harrison. He had signed into law a scheme that required the U.S. Treasury to buy virtually the entire output of American silver mines and pay twice what it was worth. When Cleveland was president (1885-89), he opposed silver subsidies.
If you supported free trade and a smaller federal government, you probably voted Cleveland. He wanted lower tariffs and an end to the Harrison administration’s spending spree. The Republican incumbent had raised both tariffs and spending dramatically.
Nationally, Cleveland beat Harrison by about three percentage points and became the only person in our history to be elected to two non-consecutive terms. But in Montana, Harrison beat Cleveland by about the same margin, just three points. With all due respect, I think the country made the wiser choice.
The first order of business for the new president was to get rid of those silver subsidies. They were draining the Treasury’s gold reserves, threatening the stability of the financial system, and about to bring on a full-scale panic and depression when Cleveland took office in March 1893. He jawboned Congress until it repealed its monetary mischief later that same year.
As a small-government man, Grover Cleveland wouldn’t recognize the Democratic Party of today. He restrained spending and vetoed more bills than the previous 23 presidents combined. He even took a stand against early welfare-state measures, such as when he vetoed a bill to provide federal aid to drought-stricken Texas farmers. He declared, “Though the people support the government, it is not the duty of the government to support the people.” A new biography of him by author Troy Senik, Grover Cleveland: A Man of Iron, explains why Cleveland should rank among the best men to ever hold the office.
Cleveland was born in New Jersey and built his political career in New York, where he served as Governor. Though he never visited Montana, I know how he would have spent most of his time there had he done so—fishing. He was an avid fly fisherman and a lover of the outdoors. In an article titled “A Defense of Fishermen” for the Saturday Evening Post in 1901, he wrote:
Laziness has no place in the constitution of a man who starts at sunrise and tramps all day with only a sandwich to eat, floundering through bushes and briers and stumbling over rocks or wading streams in pursuit of elusive trout…
The real worth and genuineness of the human heart are measured by its readiness to submit to the influences of Nature, and to appreciate the goodness of the Supreme Power. In this domain those who fish are led to a quiet but distinct recognition of a power greater than man’s, and a goodness far above human standards. Amid such surroundings, no true fisherman can fail to receive impressions which so elevate the soul and soften the heart as to make him a better man.
In that 1892 presidential election, the better man narrowly lost in Montana. But that’s OK. Under our constitution, we all get to try again every four years until we get it right.
Lawrence W. Reed writes a monthly column for the Frontier Institute in Helena, on whose board he serves. He is president emeritus of the Foundation for Economic Education and blogs at www.lawrencewreed.com.