The close presidential election...of 1888

By Lawrence W. Reed
web posted November 20, 2000

This year's presidential campaign was an inconclusive test of the popularity of two men. The tumultuous and as yet undecided election itself may prove to be a decisive test of each man's character. How George Bush and Al Gore handle the unfolding situation should reveal much of what each is made of. Will they place the country and its constitutional system of electing presidents above personal ambition? They certainly will-if they follow the example of our 22nd and 24th president, Grover Cleveland.

The last time a close election produced a split decision in the popular vote and the Electoral College was 1888. Cleveland, the incumbent Democratic president, had been through a close one once before. In 1884, he won New York by just 1,200 votes-and with it, the presidency-but a switch of barely 600 votes in that one state alone would have swung the election to Republican James G. Blaine. Four years later, Cleveland bested Benjamin Harrison by about 100,000 votes out of 11 million cast nationwide but he lost in the Electoral College 233-168. Because the contest was tight in a number of states, a slight shift in the popular vote plurality would have easily won it all for Cleveland.

Grover ClevelandAlyn Brodsky, in a superb biography published this year entitled "Grover Cleveland: A Study in Character, " records that when reporters asked to what he ascribed his defeat, Cleveland smiled and said, "It was mainly because the other party had the most votes." He did not equivocate. He did not whine and fret that he won more popular votes than Harrison. The "votes" to which he referred were the ones that really matter under the rules of the Constitution-Electoral College votes.

Cleveland handled his defeat with dignity. No recounts, no lawsuits, no spin, no acrimony. His grace in defeat was all the more remarkable considering that the loss meant he had to relinquish power he already possessed, not merely accept failure to attain it. He would not tolerate his political allies making an issue of the discrepancy between the popular and Electoral tallies. There was nary a hint of a "constitutional crisis" because the Constitution was Cleveland's "controlling legal authority."

Harrison took office as scheduled and Cleveland retired to private life until he ran again in 1892. In that year he beat Harrison decisively, becoming the only American president to serve two nonconsecutive terms.

One reason the American people accepted the 1888 outcome in stride was that the federal government of that era just didn't matter in their lives like the one of today does. Cleveland once vetoed a bill to send federal money to drought-stricken farmers in Texas with the admonition, "Though the people support the government, it is not the duty of the government to support the people."

Adjusted for inflation, the Clinton administration spends more in two average days than the first Cleveland administration spent in an entire year. Washington claims more than a third of national income today; in 1888, it got by on about a tenth of that. The two sides slugging out the 2000 election know that control of a gargantuan apparatus of money and power is at stake, and the temptations to pull out all the stops to win are immense.

Even more emphatically, it was the character of Grover Cleveland that made 1888 a virtual non-event. In so many ways, he was a political oddity even for the Victorian times in which he served. Time and again he refused to do the politically expedient. For example, he rejected the spoils of victory and appointed the best people he could find-often earning the wrath of friends and party bigwigs because they didn't get the nod. As biographer Brodsky puts it, "Here, indeed, was that rarest of political animals: one who believed his ultimate allegiance was to the nation, not to the party."

Cleveland never lusted for public office and was one of the few presidents carried forth on the shoulders of those who admired him for his character.

The New York Times endorsed Cleveland for president in 1884 by declaring "three reasons" for voting for him: "1. He is an honest man. 2. He is an honest man. 3. He is an honest man." He was, by all accounts, as utterly incorruptible when he left office as he was when he first assumed it. "Public office is a public trust" was an original Cleveland maxim.

Grover Cleveland was a genuine American political hero. He didn't shmooze and slither his way through smoky backrooms to political power; nor did he exercise power as if he loved it for its own sake. He did the public's business honestly and frugally and otherwise left us alone. He truly was "of the people" and it would not have occurred to him to so covet power as to fear private life. Trashing the system to obtain or hold on to public office was, to Grover Cleveland, unthinkable.

Will historians someday look back on 2000 and conclude that George Bush, Al Gore and the American people mustered the same high standards as did Grover Cleveland? We are about to find out.

Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Michigan. More information is available at

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