Book Review: The Forgotten Conservative by John M. Pafford

The conservative historical revisionism of recent years continues with a re-evaluation of President Grover Cleveland.

As someone who doesn’t particularly care for attempts to rewrite history to fit a political ideology (whether liberal or conservative), this book was a challenge for me to review.  On the one hand, the author is a (presumably) libertarian who teaches history at Northwood University, a business school in Midland, Michigan, and is a scholar for the libertarian Mackinac Center think tank.  So I read with skepticism.

On the other hand, we can’t let our prejudices cloud our analysis of scholarly work.  We’re all human and all bring our own biases to our research, but we have to try to avoid becoming a mere “hired hand” for an ideological interest.  So I had to evaluate whether Professor Pafford was sufficiently independent in his work.  And then I had to evaluate the book on the actual research and writing quality.  I hope I succeeded fairly.

The Forgotten Conservative Book Cover

The Review

The Forgotten Conservative (2013) is a short book, clocking in at around 200 pages for the main text and some additional pages for an appendix and notes.  Covering an entire lifespan in such a short amount of pages means that we will only get a cursory overview of Cleveland’s life.  And in situations like that, writing usually suffers.  Pafford’s writing is functional, lacking flair, and the broad strokes he paints don’t shed any new light on Cleveland’s life or presidencies.  In fact, his presidencies are limited to a chapter apiece.

Instead of a penetrating glimpse into the mind of Grover Cleveland, The Forgotten Conservative simply cites events during his life when he took a conservative line.  There is no real analysis.  What is more, the little analysis contained within is filled with anachronisms when Pafford tries to connect Cleveland with modern libertarian trigger words like “multiculturalism” and “relativism.”  There is no real attempt to place Cleveland in the context of his times, and that is a shame.  The era he lived through was rife with social and political unrest and nuanced philosophical differences between politicians.  He tried to paint Cleveland as a reformer, but when stacked up next to his contemporary Theodore Roosevelt and even a young Henry Cabot Lodge he pales in comparison.

Instead of scholarly research the book reads more like a libertarian pamphlet with historical facts thrown in.  The language is too judgmental and not distanced enough from the subject.  There are paeans to the gold standard, something that would make Ron Paul proud, and barely disguised praise of a Christian government (pages 34-35). He resurrects the idea that strife between labor and corporate bosses was only due to violent strikers and a “rapacious few” corporate leaders.  There is little mention of the horrible working conditions and child labor conditions that various states worked to stamp out.

And for all the praise about Cleveland’s steadfast hold on his principles, Pafford rarely taps into the racial aspect of Cleveland’s Democratic Party.  Several times he states that the end of Reconstruction heralded the moment white people regained their right to vote in the South, subtly referencing old constructs about Reconstruction being a terrible event in U.S. history (page 42).  He seems not to realize that whites could vote in the South, but that after 1877 conservative whites could regain control of the legislatures and restore liberal-minded whites and blacks back to the bottom rung of society.

Hero-worship is nothing new in historical biographies, and Pafford has committed no heinous crime here.  There are so few books on Grover Cleveland that it wouldn’t be a terrible introduction to the man, but it’s biases stand out as unnecessary and unhelpful.  As a contribution to the historiography of Cleveland, this has very little value, unlike Amity Shlaes’ Coolidge, which embraces similar principles and has a similar purpose.  Yet Shlaes (so I’ve heard, I have yet to read Coolidge) still writes a valuable historical  contribution.

There is nothing new in this book, perhaps necessary considering the short length.  But the only thing that sets this book apart from the short overviews of the American Presidents Series is it’s political message.  Which is fine, history is about the sharing of ideas, but The Forgotten Conservative is a poor attempt to resurrect a hero for libertarians and has few ideas of its own.

Skip it.

But to show no hard feelings, I’m more than happy to direct you to the purchase link for the book if you decide to give it a go.

The Forgotten Conservative at Amazon.com.