Caldwell Councilman Jonathan Lace presents a proclamation and speaks at Grover Cleveland’s birthday celebration on March 18, 2018, which was Grover Cleveland’s 181 birthday. To see the proclamation click here. For those who could not attend below is the transcript of Jonathan Lace’s speech.
Thank you to the Board of the Grover Cleveland Birthplace Memorial Association for inviting me to say a few words today about the significance of President Cleveland for Caldwell. Today, at the beginning of Grover Cleveland Week as we celebrate his 181st birthday, I want to briefly mention two aspects of his legacy that I believe can serve as an example for us: his belief in political responsibility and his commitment to people before party.
I first became fascinated by the figure of Grover Cleveland 3 years ago, on my first visit to this historic site. I had lived in Caldwell for about 4 years, but never had visited the birth house. So, I brought my oldest daughter, Aubrey, with me, and we were given a wonderful tour by Sharon Farrell that included time to play with early 19th century toys in the parlor and the opportunity to see how people at that time lived day to day. On our way out of the house, we stopped by the gift shop where we purchased a parasol and a small book with the title “Good Citizenship.” The book is actually a collection of two speeches by Grover in Chicago, the first being from October of 1903, to the Commercial Club, and the second being from 1907, to the Union League Club. In the first, he lays out his vision of what politics is all about. After decrying those whose blind faith in seemingly “inevitable” American prosperity dulls their sense of duty and who distance themselves from political involvement by stating “I am not a politician”, President Cleveland states:
“Every citizen should be ‘politician enough’ to bring himself within the true meaning of the term, as one who concerns himself with ‘the regulation or government of a nation or state for the preservation of its safety, peace, and prosperity.’ This is politics in the best sense, and this is good citizenship.”
This quote grabbed my attention that day and has made quite an impact on me. It is an attempt to redeem a term that has become synonymous with corruption and to reclaim its actual meaning. It is a reminder to all of us that we should all be “politician enough” to get involved in issues of government at every level: local, county, state, and federal. We may not all decide to run for office, but we all can educate ourselves about public policy; we can all talk to a neighbor, we can all write a letter to the editor, we can all volunteer to serve on a municipal committee or at the food bank. We can all serve the public in some capacity. We can share our talents, our time, and our creativity with the world around us, starting right here in the Caldwells.
And all of us need the benefit of each other’s ideas. There are significant policy questions facing our local communities that urgently need all of our input. For example, should Caldwell merge its police department with West Caldwell? Should Caldwell sell its public water utility to a private company or bond the roughly 4.5 million dollars necessary to repair its hydraulic infrastructure? Should Caldwell repair the parking deck of the Community Center piecemeal or begin from scratch? These questions, that have already been touched on in Council meetings this year, need public input so that local officials can be held accountable to the people. In his first Inaugural Address, President Cleveland said that every American owed to the country a “close scrutiny” of public officials with a “fair and reasonable estimate” of their performance and that this was the “price of our liberty.” To continue the analogy, if we do not become aware of what is happening in government, we become guilty of stealing our liberty by not paying our fair share of attention to it. Given the availability of meeting records and the ability to watch meetings from the comfort of our homes, it is a relatively small price to pay. If you’ve never attended or watched a Council or other public meeting, this week would be a great time to begin.
People Over Party
Another aspect of Grover’s legacy is his commitment to people before party. In today’s often hyper-partisan, personally destructive political climate, that we see frequently in the news, in our mail, and online, President Cleveland offers a vision of politics that is grounded in the highest ideals of patriotism which transcend any type of partisan or personal agenda. In 1883, Grover Cleveland, a Democrat, was the Governor of New York looking for ways to reform the civil service system of that state. His ideas caught the attention of a young a Republican, who had just been re-elected as a Representative in the New York legislature. His name was Theodore Roosevelt. Despite their different labels, they found a way to work together for civil service reform, much to the anger of both of their respective party’s leadership. Perhaps more importantly, they cultivated a friendly respect for each other’s desire for better government. In his 2nd term, President Cleveland would later re-appoint Theodore Roosevelt to the United States Civil Service Commission. This is just one example of how Grover was committed to people before party. In his first Inaugural Address, he stated:
“…the best results in the operation of a government wherein every citizen has a share, largely depend upon a proper limitation of purely partisan zeal…and a correct appreciation of the time when the heat of the partisan should be merged in the patriotism of the citizen.”
Given the current political climate as reflected in national trends and social media, I believe that we can all agree that we live in such a time. Perhaps we should make a specific effort this week to remember that we are all Americans first and that parties are merely a means to a more perfect Union, knowing that we all want what’s best for our community, even if we may disagree on how to achieve it. Let the days be forever gone when we are criticized for extending (or even shaking) the hand across the aisle or acknowledging good ideas, regardless of which side or school of thought offers them. Let us emulate Grover’s commitment to people before party.
During this Grover Cleveland Week in Caldwell, the Borough encourages all residents who are able, to visit this birth house and learn more about his legacy. I hope you find his call to political responsibility and his commitment to people before party both motivational and inspiring. Perhaps President Grover Cleveland Week can become something more than encouraging residents to visit this birth house, as worthwhile as that always is. Perhaps it can become a week of celebration, education, and service for which Caldwell will also be known, enriching both our Borough and visitors from across the country.
In closing, I will leave you with a quote from President Cleveland’s speech in Chicago in 1907:
“…our nation lives in us – in our mind and consciences. There it must find nutriment or die. The land we live in is safe as long as we are dutifully careful of the land that lives in us.’”