When Grover Cleveland defeated Benjamin Harrison in the presidential election of 1892, he became the first former president in American history to be placed back into office. Technically, the people had never actually voted him out - President Grover Cleveland received more popular votes than Benjamin Harrison in 1888, but was struck with the misfortune of having lost several of the larger states by very slight margins, thus pushing Harrison over the edge with an Electoral College victory.
Even so, the trend prior to 1892 was that an American president, once removed from office, would never regain his seat. Cleveland had now broken that political rule of thumb, and Americans celebrated the return to power of a man who had spent his first term reasserting the strength of the executive branch over Congress, bravely fighting for tariff reductions and fiscal restraint and serving as a model of integrity and adherence to the values of classical liberalism.
Yet the nation Cleveland inherited would not be kind to him. A massive economic depression had occurred shortly before he took office and worsened soon after his inauguration. Consequently, one of history’s perennial principles was demonstrated to President Cleveland - that the greater one is loved, the more virulently one is capable of being hated. Before long, Cleveland already looked like a lame duck, and Democrats hoped he could find a way to get on the good side of the American people.
Finally a possibility presented itself. The farthest reaches of the American nation had been explored, settled, and thoroughly integrated into the larger national culture. Within the confines of the North American continent, there was no more frontier to sate the hunger of the American spirit. Our nation had to either make do with what it had, or attempt to throw its hat into the international arena as an aspiring imperialist superpower.
Sanford B. Dole and the sugar plantation nabobs on the small Polynesian nation of Hawaii set out to capitalize on the American spirit of exploration for the advancement of their business interests. A desire to lower tariffs on their own product and a simultaneous frustration with the desire of that nation’s Queen, Liliuokalani, to reassert both her rights and the rights of her people against the tyranny of Dole’s imposed “Bayonet Constitution” prompted them to overthrow the royal government in the hope of annexing the province into the American system and thereby transform an imported product into an American product.
The outgoing President Harrison had assured Dole that he would have the support of his administration in all of their endeavors, and with the onset of a massive depression, it was assumed that a politician like Cleveland would need something to quickly and easily boost his popularity - something like the acquisition of a new territory.
Yet Grover Cleveland was no mere politician. He was also a statesman, and as such was horrified at the prospect of imperial conquest. Thus he took it upon himself to make sure that justice was done to the Hawaiian people and commissioned James Henderson Blount, a former congressman, to visit Hawaii and investigate the circumstances surrounding the revolution. Upon discovering that his worst fears had been correct, he immediately offered Queen Liliuokalani her throne, rejected the treaty of Hawaiian annexation, and expressed his abject disgust at the entire situation to Congress - disgust that was derived not merely out of the wrongs which had been done to the Hawaiian people, but also at the fact that such an act of imperialism was antithetical to what Cleveland believed were vital American political values:
“I suppose that right and justice should determine the path to be followed in treating this subject. If national honesty is to be disregarded and a desire for territorial extension, or dissatisfaction with a form of government not our own, ought to regulate our conduct, I have entirely misapprehended the mission and character of our Government and the behavior which the conscience of our people demands of their public servants.”
Tragically, President Cleveland did not have the constitutional power to single-handedly use the military as a means of forcing Sanford Dole to relinquish his ill-gotten power; that would require congressional consent, and the hostile legislature had no reason to assist him in this matter. Dole simply declared himself president of “The Republic of Hawaii” and waited until Cleveland’s term expired, so that a more friendly administration could confirm him. Yet when Grover Cleveland was on his deathbed, nearly a decade and a half later, he could feel sincerity behind his final utterance: “I have tried so hard to do right.”
Matt Rozsa is a graduate student in the College of Arts and Sciences. He writes a column of historical vignettes for The Eagle.