1888, Benjamin Harrison Defeats Grover Cleveland: The Constitutional Issues Raised By Cleveland’s Veto Of Pension Legislation For Veterans – Guest Essayist: Brion McClanahan
Portions of this essay are from the chapter “Grover Cleveland” in Brion McClanahan, 9 Presidents Who Screwed Up America and Four Who Tried to Save Her (Regnery History, 2016).
Grover Cleveland lost the 1888 election to Benjamin Harrison through voter fraud, and it involved what may be considered the first major lobby group in American history, the Grand Army of the Republic, a Union veteran’s organization that had deep pockets and the ability to swing elections in favor of the Republican Party, the real brawn behind the organization.
Why did this organization target Cleveland in 1888? Because Cleveland waged a one-man war against illegal and unconstitutional pension bills during his first term in office. It did not help that Cleveland was a Democrat or that he had paid the substitute fee during the war to avoid dying on the bloody battlefields of the South. To many Union veterans, that made Cleveland as bad as a draft dodger, shirker, or even a deserter. But many Northerners of means had taken this route and because Cleveland did not support Northern policies on the home front and while he generally supported the War, this option offered an alternative to open denunciation of Abraham Lincoln. It also let him focus on his political and legal career. That didn’t matter nor did it matter that the GAR would eventually embrace shirkers and deserters as “veterans” in need of a pension.
Following the War, a Union Army veteran could apply to the Federal Bureau of Pensions for financial relief. If the Bureau rejected the claim, the veteran could appeal to his congressman to present a bill overriding the bureau’s decision. This happened with such regularity that when Cleveland assumed office in 1885, the Congress was setting aside one day a week during the legislative session for pension bills. It had become a form of open corruption, a way for congressmen to buy votes and curry favor with their constituents. The American people viewed it as an expensive and corrupt waste of time. Cleveland considered fraudulent pension bills to be a form of government welfare and an abuse of taxpayer dollars that had to be stamped out. As president he vetoed over two hundred pension bills for Union Army veterans. That accounted for nearly half of his total number of vetoes while in office. Yet, he also allowed over two thousand pension bills to pass unmolested, and he never objected to credible claims.
Cleveland’s veto messages were brief but hard hitting. For example, he explained that he could not understand why a man who took the fee to serve as a substitute in March 1865, only three weeks before the war ended, contracted measles, spent the next month in a hospital, and then was mustered out of service in May 1865 needed a government pension because his “brilliant service and this terrific encounter with the measles” did not warrant government aid. He vetoed another bill when the claimant had insisted that “sore eyes among the results of his diarrhea” merited an increase in his pension. Another veto was inspired by the fact that the widow of a deceased veteran applied for a pension because her husband had fallen off a ladder in 1881, fully sixteen years after the conclusion of the War. Cleveland could not ascertain how this accident was related to his war injury. He wrote that “we are dealing with pensions and not gratuities.” Cleveland vetoed pensions for deserters, one of which was filed for by a family after their son drowned in a canal while trying to make it back home. Another widow claimed her husband died of a cerebral apoplexy that was related to a hernia injury he had incurred in 1863 while in the army. Cleveland’s war against government waste was best summarized by one pension veto: “I believe this claim for pension to be a fraud from beginning to end. . . .”
When Congress sought to transform individual pensions for wounded soldiers into a general federal welfare system for veterans, Cleveland vetoed the bill. The “Dependent Pension Bill,” otherwise known as the Blair Bill after sponsor Henry W. Blair of New Hampshire, who himself was a veteran, would have granted a $12 monthly pension to all Union veterans who had served at least three months and were honorably discharged and to their dependent parents. No longer were combat wounds a prerequisite for government money. The drunk, the vagabond, and the shiftless rent-seeker would have been on equal terms with the men who had lost a limb in the wheat field at Gettysburg or in the trenches at Petersburg. The GAR lobbied hard for the bill’s passage. They sold the bill on emotion, claiming that thousands of Union veterans were languishing in poor houses across America. When critics countered with fears of fraud, Blair and other supporters insisted that the GAR would ensure that the millions of dollars set aside for the project would be administered in good faith.
Cleveland’s veto message emphasized the already voluminous number of fraudulent pension bills that crossed his desk on a weekly basis. He believed that no wounded veteran who had suffered from valiant efforts in defense of the Union would approve of a bill that placed his efforts on the same plane with the behavior of shirkers and deserters. Cleveland insisted that “there can be no doubt that the race after the pensions offered by this bill would not only stimulate weakness and pretended incapacity for labor, but put a further premium on dishonesty and mendacity.” The Blair bill would strain the treasury and keep the American people saddled with “Federal taxation . . . still maintained at the rate made necessary by the exigencies of war. If this bill should become a law, with its tremendous addition to our pension obligation, I am thoroughly convinced that further efforts to reduce the Federal revenue and restore some part of it to our people will, and perhaps should, be seriously questioned.”
Cleveland offered no criticism of the bill on constitutional grounds, but this veto, and every other bill for individual relief, could have been defended with that argument. The Constitution does not empower Congress to provide stipends for individual citizens for any reason, including military service once discharged. Certainly, veterans who had been wounded or maimed by American wars, including those of the American War for Independence, had been granted pensions, but not until many years after the conclusion of hostilities and only in dire circumstances.
This did not make them constitutional. Americans regarded pensions as morally responsible, and yet only around one hundred twenty thousand pensions had been granted between 1789 and 1861. Then from 1861 until 1886, the general government granted over half a million pensions to Union war veterans. The constitutional question, however, had never been answered. Pensions were the first round in a dramatic expansion of federal benefits for individuals—something never approved by the framers and ratifiers of the Constitution. Cleveland vetoed pension bills because they were fraudulent and a waste of taxpayer money, but he could have vetoed them because they were unconstitutional. For this and other vetoes, he has been viewed as a callous ideologue, but his oath of office meant something. More than anything, Cleveland wanted a republic of laws, not of men. Even the progressive historian Allan Nevins called his veto “an act of principle, without a trace of partisanship. . . .”
Cleveland won the popular vote in 1888 but lost in the Electoral College. The powerful and illegal efforts of the GAR in New York and Indiana sealed the deal. Cleveland would return to the executive mansion in 1893, but it was a principled defense of the Constitution that led to his defeat in 1888. We should be so lucky as to have another Grover Cleveland in the White House today.
Brion McClanahan holds a Ph.D in American History from the University of South Carolina. He has authored, co-authored, or edited six books, including The Founding Fathers Guide to the Constitution (Regnery History, 2012) and 9 Presidents Who Screwed Up America and 4 Who Tried to Save Her (Regnery History, 2016) You can find him at www.brionmcclanahan.com or at Tom Woods’s Liberty Classroom, www.libertyclassroom.com