Grover Cleveland had some interesting views on immigration. His quarrel with the Republicans may have relevance in our own time. 

He Halted Immigration Reforms

Though he ran as a Democrat, Grover Cleveland, held many beliefs associated with today’s Republican party.  He opposed taxes, subsidies and inflationary policies. As a reformer he also worked against political corruption and quid pro quo favoritism. He despised the backroom deal-making that Rudy Giuliani would now call the “Chicago Machine” (a remnant of Tammany Hall).  He hated systems centered around powerful big city “bosses” and unions.  Cleveland’s policies needed a “Republican” ring in order to get anything done, for he was the only Democrat elected to the presidency in an Abe Lincoln Republican era that lasted from 1860 to 1920. 

On 2 March 1897, outgoing President Grover Cleveland vetoed the (Republican-controlled) House Bill No. 7864. President-elect William McKinley would be inaugurated two days later.

A full transcript of President Cleveland’s veto can be found here. I have provided a summary of President Cleveland’s  veto for your perusal:

The House Republicans submitted a bill that would exclude illiterate immigrants from entering the country.  The Republicans did not really care what language the foreigners used; they simply wanted “quality” immigrants who could read and write.  Fear arose that the uneducated foreigners would become a heavy burden on an ailing American economy.  The President considered this a “radical departure” from national policy. He believed that America always welcomed anyone insofar as the candidate could prove that their moral or physical conditions or [personal] history was not a threat to the country’s welfare and safety.  So long as the immigrant could prove he or she was “patriotic” toward America and was willing and able to work, all were welcome said the President. “Sturdy” immigrants could only benefit our nation, he added.

Cleveland noted that no argument was made by the Republicans to use HR 7864 as a method to prevent overpopulation. Instead, he observed, that the new legislation was to hinder an influx of “undesirables.”  The President argued that all immigrant groups were considered “undesirables” at one time or another, but were not all previous “undesirables” now considered our country’s best citizens?

While the Republicans never worried that the “illiterates” would overpopulate America, they did worry that immigrants endangered the cities by settling there instead of the frontier. The immigrants’ preference toward urban life would encourage them to remain idle and unproductive; they might even rise up in a “vicious” or “dangerous” mob.  Cleveland did not refute the mob theory, but instead argued that their attraction toward an easy city life was only a temporary condition that would sooner or later resolve itself. Cleveland seems to acknowledge that a potential problem exists, but believed that any rush to remedy the situation would not warrant a reversal of the current policy.

Opponents to liberal immigration policies have always contended that foreign laborers deprived Americans of jobs.  The case was also made in HB 7864. With an unemployment rate over 10% and labor groups restless, Cleveland could not refute the reasoning.  Instead he sympathized with the unemployed and conceded to the Republicans.  The President assured the Republicans that this problem, too, would remedy itself once the recession was over.  America’s economic woes were about to end, Cleveland promised, but if the recession continued the country could simply “deplete the ranks of the [immigrants] already here.”  In other words, if things did not turn around Cleveland promised to deport them.  The Republicans never thought to ask how he would do this with only two days left in his term.

The 55th Congressional Republicans wanted a literacy test to establish immigration eligibility.  Again, they did not care what language they used; the successful immigrant simply had to read and write “the English language or some other language.”  Furthermore, in order to protect America against degeneration, disorder, and to preserve our national peace the Republican bill would require the immigrant to read and write twenty words or more of the United States Constitution in the language of their choice.  Any immigrant who could not pass the literacy and Constitution tests would be deported to the country of their origin at the expense of the travel agency which brought him.  Cleveland did not think the constitution test would prevent these “evils.”   The President maintained that the greater danger is the educated agitator already living here who could incite rebellion. Violence and disorder do not originate with illiterate workers.  Cleveland wanted to deal with sedition on a case-by-case basis.

The Republicans worried that illiterate relatives would show up after a “qualified” candidate had settled in. They wanted provisions to prevent that scenario too. Cleveland maintained that those who could support themselves and not burden others would be welcomed.

The fourth and fifth sections of the bill stated that it was unlawful for any male alien or any corporation to employ such a person to engage in gainful employment without a declaration of intent to become a US citizen.  Stress was added to the language in regard to working on public projects.  Cleveland agreed that HB 7864 would be in agreement with existing laws preventing foreign workers to apply for federal jobs.  But he thought that private corporations should be able to hire whoever they wished.  Workers were still needed in the frontier. Who among the Americans would agree to move there and do this work? Cleveland believed in free enterprise and the uninhibited interchange of labor would benefit everyone. The President did not believe in interfering with the general welfare of its corporate citizens by proposing “unfriendly legislation.”   After all, such a measure might incite retaliation and boycotts of American workers living overseas. Undoubtedly he had Hawaii in mind.  Just a few years before a group of Americans overthrew Queen Liliuokalani and established a provisional government.  Opposition to American annexation was intense beginning in 1893 and was not resolved until June 1897. Looming was a conflict in Cuba that would lead to the Spanish-American War.

All this sound familiar?  What can we learn from Cleveland and the early Republicans?

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  1. Perry Samuels April 3, 2014 at 7:21 AM #

    Error on your assertion that Cleveland was the only Democrat elected from 1860-1920. You missed Woodrow Wilson’s two elections. Maybe you meant from 1860-1912?


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