Inauguration 2013: Revisiting Grant and Cleveland's Inauguration Speeches

This article is an installment in an eleven-part series on the inaugurations of incumbent presidents who were elected to additional terms in office, culminating in an on-the-ground report of Obama's second inauguration.

Ulysses S. Grant (March 4, 1873) and Grover Cleveland (March 4, 1893): 

Grant:

Just as Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural was the greatest ever delivered by a president, so too was Ulysses Grant's the worst one. His first term in office had been a disgrace, from his wishy-washy policies toward the "reconstructed" Southern states to the outbreak of corruption thanks to Grant's terrible judgment in appointing associates and government officials. In light of this record, it makes sense that Grant's second inaugural focused primarily on grossly exaggerating his accomplishments and ignoring his administration's transgressions. All of that could have been forgiven - but the petulant outburst of self-pity in his final paragraph cannot.

Notwithstanding this, throughout the war, and from my candidacy for my present office in 1868 to the close of the last Presidential campaign, I have been the subject of abuse and slander scarcely ever equaled in political history, which to-day I feel that I can afford to disregard in view of your verdict, which I gratefully accept as my vindication.

Just to put this in perspective: Horace Greeley, the erstwhile newspaper editor who was nominated by both the Democratic Party and the nascent Liberal Republican Party as Grant's opponent that year, went insane from the vitriolic assault against him throughout the election ... so much so that the toll on his health led to his passing mere weeks after the ballots had been counted. Even if one didn't feel the criticisms levied against Grant were valid (which was far from the case), the insensitivity of this remark was in its own right scandalous.

Cleveland:

Grover Cleveland's re-election in 1892 is distinguished by the fact that it marked the first (and so far only) time in which a president was elected to inconsecutive terms. After winning the popular vote over Republican Benjamin Harrison in 1888 but being thwarted in the Electoral College, Cleveland vindicated his defeat from four years earlier by besting Harrison in a campaign that focused on tariff reduction and opposition to the Sherman Silver Purchase Act. By the time he was inaugurated, however, ominous economic portents had already emerged to foreshadow the economic depression that would ultimately define Cleveland's entire second term. In condemning protectionism, Cleveland's second inaugural extended that criticism to a larger philosophy of "paternalism" that he deemed un-American.

The verdict of our voters which condemned the injustice of maintaining protection for protection's sake enjoins upon the people's servants the duty of exposing and destroying the brood of kindred evils which are the unwholesome progeny of paternalism. This is the bane of republican institutions and the constant peril of our government by the people. It degrades to the purposes of wily craft the plan of rule our fathers established and bequeathed to us as an object of our love and veneration. It perverts the patriotic sentiments of our countrymen and tempts them to pitiful calculation of the sordid gain to be derived from their Government's maintenance. It undermines the self-reliance of our people and substitutes in its place dependence upon governmental favoritism. It stifles the spirit of true Americanism and stupefies every ennobling trait of American citizenship.

The lessons of paternalism ought to be unlearned and the better lesson taught that while the people should patriotically and cheerfully support their Government its functions do not include the support of the people.

Like Herbert Hoover more than three decades later, Cleveland would leave the presidency under a dark cloud due to the unpopularity and ineffectiveness of his laissez-faire philosophy in confronting a major economic depression. For better or worse, his speech at least served as a fair harbinger of the fact that he would implement those policies.