Cleveland and the Texas Seed Bill

Summary:

Cleveland understood his constitutional legislative responsibility as preventing harmful bills from becoming law, rather than promoting what he saw as beneficial ones. Using the veto, Cleveland stopped the federal government from taking on what he saw as a “paternal” role towards citizens. This eLesson focuses on Cleveland’s veto of the Texas Seed Bill, which would have provided seeds to drought-stricken farmers who had eaten their seed corn to survive.

Narrative:

 President Grover Cleveland once told a friend that he saw his chief legislative duty to be stopping bad bills from becoming law, rather than trying to convince Congress to pass what he thought would be good ones. Cleveland used the veto more than any other US President before or since.

One of Cleveland’s most famous vetoes was his veto of the Texas Seed Bill in 1887. A long and severe drought had stricken areas of Texas. With no grass to graze, eighty-five percent of cattle in the western part of the state died. Those cattle that remained were starving, often motherless calves. Many farmers were also close to starvation and had eaten their seed corn to survive. Congress authorized a special appropriation to send seeds to the drought-stricken farmers. The amount ($10,000, or approximately $223,000 in today’s dollars) was small and the need was great, but Cleveland vetoed the bill.

His veto message expressed his commitment to the Constitution and the importance of private charity. He said that while he thought the intentions of the bill were good, he had to withhold his approval. He wrote,

“I can find no warrant for such an appropriation in the Constitution, and I do not believe that the power and duty of the general government ought to be extended to the relief of individual suffering which is in no manner properly related to the public service or benefit. A prevalent tendency to disregard the limited mission of this power and duty should, I think, be steadfastly resisted, to the end that the lesson should be constantly enforced that, though the people support the government, the government should not support the people.”

Furthermore, Cleveland said, it would weaken the “bonds of a common brotherhood” for the government to provide assistance to individuals where individuals, families, communities and private charities otherwise would.

Finally, the veto message suggested that if Congress wanted to relieve the suffering of Texas farmers, Senators and Representatives from each state could voluntarily give up the share of grain distributed by the Department of Agriculture each year. “The constituents, for whom in theory this grain is intended, could well bear the temporary deprivation, and the donors would experience the satisfaction attending deeds of charity.” Cleveland’s principled stances won him the admiration of many. They also brought him many enemies. But he did not waver from his commitment to exercising only the powers warranted by the Constitution. One American author said that Cleveland’s “patriotic virtues have won for [him] the homage of half a nation and the enmity of the other half. This places [his] character upon a summit as high as Washington’s.”

Questions:

  1. What was the Texas Seed Bill?
  2. List two reasons for Cleveland’s veto of the Texas Seed Bill.
  3. How would you respond to Cleveland’s assertion that “the lesson should be constantly enforced that, though the people support the government, the government should not support the people”?
  4. One American author said that Cleveland’s “patriotic virtues have won for [him] the homage of half a nation and the enmity of the other half. This places [his] character upon a summit as high as Washington’s.” From what you know, which do you think he deserves? What else would you want to know to answer the question more completely?