Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Breakfast with Grover Cleveland

Always bring a book that matches the decor.

It was my birthday yesterday, so I took a day off from blogging. This morning the wife and I had a celebratory breakfast at Wishbone. Smoked bacon and crunchy french toast accompanied my usual morning coffee and book reading.

I'm a few more essays into The Gilded Age. "Populism and the Decline of Agriculture" by editor H. Wayne Morgan gave me an interesting, if highly opinionated, look at some of the characters who took advantage of the rural populist movement leading up to William Jennings Bryan's nomination. It was outshone, however, by R. Hal Williams' "Dry Bones and Dead Language: The Democratic Party."

"In times like these," explained one Cabinet member, "when every citizen is striving to reduce expenses, the Government, which is merely a collection of citizens, must do the same thing." Another of the President's advisers phrased it more vigorously: the administrations's primary task, he declared, was to oppose the unfortunate impulse toward "High Daddy government," to hold fast against " 'reforms' which mean that the Government is to rock the cradle and drive the hearse, weep over the grave and sit up with the widow, and pay every man for cracking his own lice."

It's really weird to hear the same phrases being used by politicians today. The Cleveland administration's laissez-faire policies were considered frustratingly old-fashioned and conservative a hundred years ago. You can argue about how much a President can actually affect an economic depression, but there was a definite call on both sides of the political spectrum for some sort of action. Democrats tended to favor silver coinage and Republicans, tariff reform. Neither of which Grover Cleveland would even consider.

Mr. Grumpy-grump on a 1923 postage stamp.

 And this is the kind of dangerous idealism that is still in play today. As we saw with the recent banking scandal, the individuals with power over the economy aren't going to step in and re-start it when things go bad, even if the companies that they oversee receive "bail-out" loans to provide federal protection. The whole idea of a natural law of economics is related to the other antiquated idea of Social Darwinism. Massive farm failures and unemployment are seen as a necessary, acceptable consequence of freedom.

Its adherents saw themselves as the last remaining bulwark in defense of the Constitution and sound government. Massed against them, they believed, were the forces of radicalism, the "silver bullionaires, industrial tramps and train wreckers, dreamers, dunces, cracked women, bums, bullies and loafers, who want to repudiate their own debts and divide the property of the thrifty and well-ordered." If unpopular now, the conservatives constantly reassured each other, history would vindicate them and their beleaguered President."

It's fascinating that over a hundred years later, there are still some who try to convince us that unregulated private power is preferable to government regulations and protections. But, what do I know? I'm not the one whose face is on the $1000 bill.

No longer being printed, but still legal tender, or handy for lighting expensive cigars.
(National Numismatic Collection at the Smithsonian Institution)

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