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  • Discovering historical trends in presidential vetoes

    BY Eliza Keller

    (Originally published on Feb. 18, 2010)

    We work hard to make sure every data set in one of our visualizations tells a compelling story. In these last few months, we’ve been collecting data and finalizing design for our next print, A Visual History of the American Presidency. Liz, one of our hardworking and fabulous research assistants, recently collected a data set relating to presidential vetoes. The research quickly became much more complicated (and interesting!) than we predicted; Liz’s thoughts on the subject are below.

    As I began to conduct in-depth research regarding the political and social context of high-profile presidential vetoes, it struck me how similar the past debates are to current controversies over policies like bank bailouts, economic stimulus plans, and the role of government in the free-market economy. In looking at the data and its context, it’s possible to clearly trace the progress of arguments for and against government intervention in economic affairs—arguments that are now at the forefront of our political culture.

    Struggles between Congress and the executive have often centered on fiscal policy: President Monroe was the first to veto spending on infrastructure; Andrew Jackson used the veto to dismantle the federal bank established by his rival, Alexander Hamilton; Grover Cleveland, citing corruption in the request system, actually vetoed more than 200 (!) congressional requests for pensions for veterans.

    Perhaps the most revealing vote, at least for those following the current economic debate, is Ulysses S. Grant’s veto of the 1874 Inflation Bill. In 1873, the banking and financial system collapsed after speculators in railroad schemes caused several major banks to fail. Grant, a believer in limited government, expected the economy to right itself without government intervention. With unemployment at 25 percent, Congress disagreed; it introduced the Inflation Bill to stimulate the economy and ease the frozen credit market by releasing nearly $44 million in paper money from the treasury.

    Grant did not take the decision to veto lightly, wavering before finally sending the bill back to Congress (which was unable to override the veto). The 1873-1896 era following the veto featured high unemployment and a series of financial panics leading to severe, long-lasting recessions. The nation’s significant corporate and technological expansion during this time, however, is a reminder of the strength of America’s entrepreneurs and innovators—even during trying economic times.

    (Congressman Benjamin Butler is pictured here as an evil genie threatening "The cradle of liberty" with the Inflation Bill.)

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