Have you heard of the Bourbon Democrats? Chances are you have not, but if you had, you know they saved conservatism in the post-Civil War era. Led by Grover Cleveland, the Bourbon Democrats (a pejorative term created by their political opponents) stood up for “states’ rights, republican liberty, and economic temperance,” explains Daniel Bring at The American Conservative. He writes (abridged):
Known at the moment for its full-throated acceptance of socialism, it’s worth noting that the Democratic Party once represented the most conservative elements of American politics.
From 1861 to 1913, only one Democrat, Grover Cleveland, took office as president of the United States. Best known for his non-consecutive terms (1885 to 1889 and 1893 to 1897), Cleveland was a staunch conservative and an honest man who punctuated all those years of radical Republican rule.
The erstwhile governor of New York, Cleveland was the most successful member of a cohort, dubbed the “Bourbon Democrats” by their Republican enemies.
The critics intended the name to suggest Southern sympathies and counter-revolutionary pieties.
The Bourbons were a curious coalition of New Yorkers and Southerners. They saved the Democratic Party—and American conservatism—in the years immediately after the Civil War.
Defenders of states’ rights, republican liberty, and economic temperance, they opposed military Reconstruction, direct democracy, and redistributive measures.
It was Cleveland’s reputation for honesty, perseverance, and diligence that secured him the Democratic nomination in 1884.
Yet his unwavering commitment to his policy goals—the end of trade protectionism, for instance—came at a real political cost when he lost his bid for re-election to Benjamin Harrison in 1888. Harrison, the Republican nominee, enjoyed considerable support from domestic industrialists and their laborers, who favored high tariffs.
The recession of the early 1890s had vindicated Cleveland’s rejection of tariffs, and Harrison’s high spending had done little to improve economic conditions
Revealing himself as an anti-imperialist, Cleveland led the opposition to Harrison’s military spending and adventurist-imperialist foreign policy.
During his second term, Cleveland was not able to achieve his desired tariff reforms.
Triggered by high prices in international commodities and a shortage of gold, a stock market crash in May 1893 spiraled into an economic panic as bank runs caused a widespread scarcity of credit.
The sudden crisis was the worst in the country’s history up to that point.
In one of his greatest accomplishments, Cleveland rallied the stunned Congress to repeal the Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890.
That repeal destroyed Cleveland’s popularity with the burgeoning Free Silver movement, which sought the unlimited coinage of U.S. dollars in silver.
Despite his decisive actions, Cleveland’s political base deserted him, and many Americans blamed him for the crisis. Yet his repeal of Sherman and Cleveland’s decision to borrow $65 million in gold from private bankers probably shortened the depression by years. He did what he had to do to serve the nation.
Woodrow Wilson, the next Democratic president, became one of the most radical progressives and interventionists ever to occupy the White House.
Read more here.