A President Who Warned Americans What Extravagant Federal Spending Would Do to Character
I favor the policy of economy, not because I wish to save money, but because I wish to save people. The men and women of this country who toil are the ones who bear the cost of the Government. Every dollar that we carelessly waste means that their life will be so much the more meager. Every dollar that we prudently save means that their life will be so much the more abundant. Economy is idealism in its most practical form.
—President Calvin Coolidge, Inaugural Address, March 4, 1925
In August 2023, when we mark the centennial of Calvin Coolidge’s ascendance to the presidency upon the unexpected death of Warren Harding, we should celebrate his devotion to economy in government—and not just that he talked about it, but mainly because he delivered on it.
Federal expenditures in 1920, the year the Harding-Coolidge ticket won election, amounted to $6.4 billion. At Harding’s passing in 1923, they were less than half that, at $3.2 billion. Then after more than five years of the Coolidge presidency, they were just a hair below $3.0 billion. Tax rates in the 1920s were cut dramatically, federal revenues rose, and nearly half the national debt was eliminated. The budget was in surplus every single year.
Sadly, nothing like that sterling fiscal record has ever been seen since. Indeed, both major parties now embrace massive deficit spending as far into the future as the eye can see. The prospects of a balanced federal budget seem as remote as finding a beach in the Alps.
Coolidge was a Republican, and Republicans usually give lip service to fiscal responsibility. He just happened to be one who practiced it too. But not so long before him, a Democratic president did as well. It certainly wasn’t Woodrow Wilson, who blew the lid off the budget with massive tax and spending hikes for “progressive” programs and World War I. I refer, rather, to the last Democratic president of the 19th Century, a man who vetoed more bills than all the previous chief executives combined—Grover Cleveland.
Cleveland’s opposition to big government is well-documented in the pages of FEE.org. See the list of suggested readings below. His tenure is also the subject of a new and very good biography, A Man of Iron: The Turbulent Life and Improbable Presidency of Grover Cleveland by Troy Senik.
Cleveland won the White House in 1884 on a platform of restraining federal spending and corruption. Running for re-election in 1888, he won the popular vote but lost to Republican Benjamin Harrison in the Electoral College. A major reason he came out of retirement to run again in 1892 was the reckless spending of the Harrison administration. He beat Harrison that year and became the only man ever elected to non-consecutive terms (1885-89 and 1893-97).
I call to the reader’s attention an article ex-President Cleveland wrote three years after the end of his second term, in June 1901. Titled “The Waste of Public Money,” it was one of half a dozen he penned for The Saturday Evening Post. In this one, he referred to “a malign condition which threatens us,” an “evil” that he saw as “calamitous and destructive to our national character and integrity.”
In 1901, the federal government spent half a billion dollars over the whole year, roughly equivalent in real terms to around $12 billion today. Washington spends that much now in about half a day. Lest you think the feds were misers in 1901, ponder what Cleveland had to say in his article that year:
Probably no one will have the hardihood to deny that the cost of our Government is excessive and wasteful, and that for this condition the heedless neglect and indifference of our people are in some degree responsible…If the aggregate mass of our people are at all blameworthy on account of the present advanced stage of public prodigality, it is largely because they overlooked and tolerated its small beginnings, when at all times they should have been vigilant and uncompromising. A self-ruling people…should constantly remember that nothing multiplies itself more abundantly than national extravagance, and that neither an individual nor a popular government can easily correct or check habits of waste.
The former president did not for a moment believe that only the politicians were to blame for excessive spending. He boldly asserted that many Americans embraced it. They were effectively bought and paid for, guilty of “accepting the bribes of selfish and personal advantage which public waste and extravagance offer.”
Cleveland was often warned by advisers to moderate his stances to avoid controversy. Biographer H. Paul Jeffers quotes him as responding once to such advice by asking, “What is the use of being elected or re-elected unless you stand for something?” When he vetoed a bill to relieve drought-stricken farmers with federal money, he made it plain that “though the people support the government, the government should not support the people.” He saw his job as upholding the Constitution and keeping the federal government in its proper place, not weakening “the bonds of common brotherhood” by robbing Peter to pay Paul.
This was a man who said what he meant and meant what he said, come Hell or high water. He spoke with a clarity of principle that makes a nation great, and the absence of which makes a great nation fail. He understood that no society in history that allowed itself to be bribed by its politicians ever survived such legal larceny.
In the final paragraphs of his June 1901 Saturday Evening Post article, Cleveland admonished his fellow Americans. With these words, he urged them to muster the character to resist being bribed with their own money:
The lessons of extravagance and paternalism must be unlearned; economy and frugality must be reinstated; and the people must exact from their representatives a watchful care for the general welfare and a stern resistance to the demands of selfish interests, if our Government is to be an enduring and beneficent protection to a patriotic and virtuous people.
Many Americans today would undoubtedly dismiss Cleveland’s warnings as “quaint” and “old-fashioned.” They want the government to give them stuff and they don’t think much about who will pay for it. They think even less about how it corrupts the national character.
Cleveland would likely conclude that this is distressing evidence that the national character has already been deeply corrupted. And in that, I believe he would be precisely and disturbingly correct. The question each of us should ask ourselves is, “Am I part of the problem or part of the solution?”
Reprinted from the Foundation for Economic Education