Biography of Grover Cleveland
Grover Cleveland was the 22nd and 24th President of the United States. He is the only person who was elected twice, in non-consecutive terms, to the office. He became a lawyer when he was 22 and joined the Democratic Party. During the Civil War, he avoided serving in the Union Army by paying an immigrant to serve in his place. In 1863, he started his political career and developed a reputation for being an honest man. He was elected Mayor of Buffalo and then Governor of New York prior to running for President in 1884 — an election that he won. His term as President was controversial for several reasons, including his veto of a bill that would have provided pensions for Civil War veterans. Cleveland ran for re-election in 1888 but lost to Benjamin Harrison. He returned to his law practice and ran for President again in 1892 when he defeated Harrison. The Panic of 1893, which led to an economic depression, plagued Cleveland’s second term. Cleveland was forced to borrow money from J.P. Morgan in order to keep the government operating, and his economic policies failed to improve economic conditions. In 1896, the Democratic Party nominated William Jennings Bryan as its candidate for the Presidency. Cleveland retired to his estate in New Jersey and passed away on June 23, 1907.
Quick Facts About Grover Cleveland
Life and Career of Grover Cleveland
Stephen Grover Cleveland was born in Caldwell, New Jersey on March 18, 1837. He was the fifth of nine children born to Richard and Ann (Neal) Cleveland. Richard Cleveland was an ordained Presbyterian minister educated at the Princeton Theological Institute. The Clevelands named their son in honor of Stephen Grover, who was the original pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Caldwell. However, everyone called the child Grover.
Cleveland spent his boyhood in the central New York towns of Fayetteville and Clinton, where his father accepted pastorates in 1841 and 1850, respectively. He attended the Fayetteville Academy and the Clinton Liberal Academy as he prepared to enroll at Hamilton College in Clinton. However, his father’s death shortly after moving to Holland Patent, New York, in 1853 dashed Cleveland’s hopes of attending college.
Soon after his father died, Cleveland joined his older brother, William, in New York City, where he worked as a bookkeeper and teacher at the New York Institute for the Blind until 1854. The next year, Cleveland moved west in search of better financial opportunities. His travels took him only as far as Buffalo, where his influential uncle, Lewis F. Allen, gave him a job. In the autumn of 1855, Allen secured a clerkship for his nephew at the law firm of Rogers, Bowen, and Rogers in Buffalo. For the next four years, Cleveland studied law when he was not attending to his official duties. During his clerkship, Cleveland dabbled in politics and became an active member of the Democratic Party. In 1859, Cleveland passed the bar exam and joined the New York State Bar at age twenty-two, even though he never attended college.
After being admitted to the bar, Cleveland stayed on as office manager for the Rogers law firm for three years. In 1862, he left to start his own practice. A year later, because of the declining number of men volunteering to serve in the Union Army during the Civil War, the United States government instituted the Conscription Act. The legislation required states to furnish a prescribed number of soldiers based on each state’s population. States had to implement conscription—a draft—only if they could not secure their required quota of soldiers through other recruitment efforts. The legislation also allowed drafted men to hire substitutes to serve in their place or to pay a fine of $300 to avoid military service. Because Cleveland was still providing financial support for his mother and other siblings, he paid a Polish immigrant named George Benninsky $150 to serve in his place. Cleveland’s political enemies later used that decision against him when he ran for public office, referring to him as “Draft-Dodging Grover.”
Early Political Career
In 1863, Cleveland assumed his first public office when he received an appointment as an assistant district attorney of Erie County, New York, which included the City of Buffalo. Two years later, he entered the political arena, losing a close election for district attorney. His next foray was in 1870 when Erie County voters elected him as their sheriff. Serving from 1871 to 1873 Cleveland received mixed reviews, but few questioned his honesty in office. In one of the more distasteful duties of his job, Cleveland served as the executioner of two men convicted of capital crimes.
After leaving office in 1873, Cleveland returned to his law practice. In 1881, Democratic Party leaders sought to capitalize on Cleveland’s reputation for honesty by convincing him to run for Mayor of Buffalo. Cleveland accepted the nomination with the proviso that some less-than-savory candidates be left off of the Democratic ticket. Cleveland won the election on November 8, 1881, by a wide margin over his Republican opponent, Milton C. Beebe. Taking office on January 2, 1882, Cleveland immediately went to work cleaning up the city figuratively and literally. One of the first items on his agenda was improving Buffalo’s sewage and sanitation system. While doing so, Cleveland ruffled the feathers of local politicians by awarding contracts to low-bidders rather than political cronies. He soon earned the nickname “Veto Mayor” because of his penchant for rejecting bloated municipal contracts.
By June 1882, Cleveland’s accomplishments in Buffalo began catching the eye of reform-minded Democrats at the state level. In September, delegates at the party’s state convention in Syracuse nominated Cleveland for Governor of New York. On November 7, 1882, Cleveland defeated his Republican opponent, Charles J. Folger, by over 200,000 votes. Two weeks later, on November 20, Cleveland resigned as Mayor of Buffalo.
Cleveland served as Governor of New York from January 1, 1883, to January 6, 1885. Throughout his two-year term, Cleveland used his authority to fight corruption and waste at the state level. During his first two months in office, the new governor put unscrupulous politicians in the legislature on notice by vetoing eight bills that he believed violated the public trust. By the end of his first year in office, the number of vetoes escalated to forty-four. Refusing to appoint political partisans to state offices, Cleveland also alienated New York City’s powerful Tammany Hall political machine. Challenging Tammany Hall was a bold move that earned Cleveland bipartisan political respect within the state. It also boosted his promising political prospects on the national stage.
1884 Presidential Election
When delegates assembled in Chicago for the 1884 Democratic National Convention on July 8, they sensed an opportunity to end the stranglehold the Republican Party held on the presidency since the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860. The Republicans had already nominated former Secretary of State, Speaker of the House of Representatives, and U. S. Senator from Maine, James G. Blaine. Blaine’s nomination disenchanted a large block of Republicans — known as Mugwumps — because of accusations that Blaine had sold his influence in Congress to several businesses. The Mugwumps vowed to cross party lines and support a Democrat if the opposition party nominated a reputable candidate. Grover Cleveland filled the bill perfectly. Although, or perhaps because, he lacked the support of the most powerful political machine in his home state, many convention delegates viewed Cleveland as an honest politician who would restore integrity to the federal government. Consequently, they nominated Cleveland on the second ballot.
It did not take Republicans long to uncover an episode in the past of “Grover the Good” to bring his virtue into question. On July 21, 1884, the Buffalo Evening Telegraph published a story disclosing that Cleveland had fathered an illegitimate child before he became the Mayor of Buffalo. Making matters worse for the Democratic candidate, the child’s mother, Maria Halpin, alleged that Cleveland impregnated her when he forced himself upon her on December 15, 1873. She claimed Cleveland threatened to ruin her if she informed the authorities. According to Halpin, after the child was born on September 14, 1874, Cleveland used his political connections to have her unlawfully committed to an insane asylum. By the time officials released her a few days later, after doctors could find no evidence of insanity, Cleveland had spirited the child away to be adopted and raised by the asylum’s attending physician Dr. William G. King.
Fortunately for Cleveland, the charges came early enough during the campaign for his supporters to mount a defense of their candidate. Cleveland admitted that he may have fathered the child, but his account of the sordid affair differed from Halpin’s. He maintained that their sexual encounter was consensual. Cleveland’s defenders painted Halpin as a woman of loose morals who was spreading favors among several of Cleveland’s associates, including his law partner Oscar Folsom, after whom Halpin named the child. Unsure of who the real father was, Cleveland, who was a bachelor, accepted responsibility for the pregnancy to avoid implicating his friends, who were all married. Cleveland’s followers conceded that their man was guilty of a youthful indiscretion. Still, they argued, he did the right thing by accepting responsibility for the child and ensuring that he received a proper upbringing.
On November 4, 1884, over ten million American voters went to the polls to determine if Cleveland’s indiscretion outweighed Blaine’s alleged misconduct. Cleveland won by an eyelash. collecting 4,914,482 votes compared to 4,856,903 ballots cast for Blaine. Cleveland’s margin of victory was only 57,579 votes — less than one-half of one percent of all ballots cast. Cleveland’s Electoral College victory was only slightly more comfortable. He defeated Blaine by thirty-seven votes, 219 to 182 to win the presidency.
First Presidential Term
Cleveland was the first Democratic candidate elected to the presidency since James Buchanan in 1856. Like other Democratic presidents before him, Cleveland subscribed to the Jeffersonian-Jacksonian philosophy of limited government. He did not, however, embrace the spoils system that Andrew Jackson had cultivated. He made most of his political appointments based on merit rather than political partisanship.
Cleveland held a narrow view of his presidential duties. As opposed to creating policy, Cleveland believed his responsibilities were to execute the will of Congress and to act as a check on Congressional abuses of authority. Similar to his tenure as governor, Cleveland was not reluctant to use his veto power. Often butting heads with a Republican Senate, Cleveland vetoed hundreds of bills during his first term.
Cleveland’s use of his veto power sometimes diminished his popularity. Vetoing pension bills for Civil War veterans cost him the support of members of the Grand Army of the Republic. He also fell out of favor with farmers by vetoing a bill to aid drought-stricken farmers in Texas in 1887. Although he sympathized with the farmers’ plight, Cleveland reasoned that “the people should support the government, the government should not support the people.” Using similar logic, Cleveland did little to protect the civil rights of post-Reconstruction African Americans in the South, arguing that the federal government had no role in resolving social injustices.
Despite Cleveland’s narrow view of his powers, he used his office to promote a few programs. In 1887, Cleveland urged Congress to reduce protective tariffs because they unfairly favored some members of society at the expense of others. Likewise, he championed the gold standard because he believed that bimetallism punished creditors. His actions, however, did not always favor big business. Cleveland actively challenged railroad companies that had fraudulently secured massive grants of public land in the West. During his administration, the government restored over eighty-one million acres to the public domain.
Cleveland entered the White House as a bachelor but left a married man. On June 2, 1886, he married Frances Folsom, the daughter of his former law partner Oscar Folsom, who died thirteen years earlier. Their wedding remains the only marriage ceremony to take place in the White House. Affectionately known as Frank, the bride was twenty-one years old and Cleveland was forty-eight. Despite their twenty-seven-year age difference, the couple enjoyed a happy marriage that produced five children, Ruth (1891–1904), Esther (1893–1980), Marion (1895–1977), Richard Folsom (1897–1974), and Francis Grover (1903–1995).
1888 Presidential Election
When delegates assembled for the Democratic National Convention in St. Louis on June 5, 1888, it was a foregone conclusion that they would select Cleveland as their presidential candidate. On the second day of the proceedings, they officially nominated the incumbent president. Cleveland’s reelection, however, was not such a sure thing.
Later in June, the Republicans nominated former U.S. Senator from Indiana Benjamin Harrison as their presidential candidate. Despite the former Civil War general’s popularity among veterans, Harrison seemed unlikely to unseat Cleveland in November. However, Cleveland’s positions on veterans’ pensions and reducing the tariff had angered voters who supported him in 1884. Still, when election officials tabulated the results, Cleveland received over 90,000 more votes than Harrison. Regardless, the peculiarities of the Electoral College made Harrison the ultimate victor, receiving 233 electoral votes to Cleveland’s 168. Thus, Harrison became the third chief executive (to date) who lost the popular vote but won the presidency (the others were John Quincy Adams (1824), and Rutherford B. Hayes (1876). George W. Bush (2000) and Donald J. Trump (2016) later became the fourth and fifth.
Cleveland completed his term on March 4, 1889, and returned to New York City to resume practicing law. Reportedly, when Mrs. Cleveland left the White House, she instructed the staff to take good care of the presidential mansion because she and President Cleveland would be back in four years.
1892 Presidential Election
When Republican delegates convened for their national convention at Minneapolis in 1892, they nominated President Harrison as their nominee on the first ballot. Although Harrison was the incumbent president, his reelection was no certainty. He lacked the support of some influential Republicans because he rebuffed their recommendations for political appointments after his election in 1888. In addition, Harrison’s support of the unpopular McKinley Tariff diminished his popularity.
The Democrats held their National Convention in Chicago from June 21 through June 23, 1892. Cleveland was once again the frontrunner, but his nomination was not as certain as it was in 1888. He lacked the support of Western states because he opposed the coinage of silver, and New York City’s political bosses still disliked him. Despite the opposition, the delegates selected Cleveland on the first ballot. This marked the first time that a major political party renominated a former president.
The declining health of First Lady Caroline Harrison limited the campaigns of both candidates. Neither man actively campaigned after her death in the White House from tuberculosis on October 25, 1892.
When voters went to the polls on November 8, 1892, Cleveland emerged victorious, collecting 46% of the popular vote compared to 43% for Harrison. In the Electoral College tabulation, Cleveland reversed his losses in New York and Harrison’s home state of Indiana during the previous election, garnering 277 votes compared to Harrison’s 145.
Second Presidential Term
Shortly after Cleveland began his second term as president, on March 4, 1893, the stock market crashed, sending the nation’s economy into a severe depression. As the crisis worsened, over one-fourth of the nation’s urban workforce lost their jobs. Given his beliefs about limited government, Cleveland’s reaction to the Panic of 1893 was predictable.
Cleveland maintained that the Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890, enacted during the Harrison administration, caused the depression. Thus, he lobbied Congress to repeal the law that required the treasury to purchase 4.5 million ounces of silver a month to be coined as silver dollars. When Congress agreed and rescinded the act, Cleveland and the Democratic Party lost much of their support in western states where silver was mined. When the repeal produced a rush on gold, Cleveland resorted to borrowing money from financier J. P. Morgan to keep the government afloat. See Free Silver and the Free Silver Movement.
Amid his efforts to end the depression, Cleveland began experiencing soreness in the roof of his mouth. Upon examining the president, doctors discovered a tumor and recommended surgery. Wishing to avoid heightening the economic panic gripping the nation, Cleveland opted to have the surgery performed secretly. In late June 1893, Cleveland left Washington for New York under the pretense of taking a vacation cruise aboard the Oneida, a yacht owned by Cleveland’s friend E. C. Benedict. On July 1, 1893, doctors aboard the ship removed parts of the president’s upper left jaw and hard palate. During a subsequent surgery, doctors fitted Cleveland with a hard rubber dental prosthesis that corrected his speech and masked signs of the original operation. Cleveland’s aides then released a story that the president had to have two teeth removed during the cruise. Nearly a quarter of a century passed before the public learned the true details of the surgery.
After his recovery, Cleveland did little to relieve the plight of the working class. As a result, labor unrest plagued his second term. When thousands of railroad workers staged a sympathy strike to support Pullman Car workers near Chicago, Cleveland dispatched federal troops to Illinois to stop the Pullman walkout.
Ultimately, Cleveland’s modest economic policies failed to improve the economy. By the end of his second term, the president had lost the support of his own party and the electorate. In 1896, the Democrats nominated the Silverite William Jennings Bryan to replace Cleveland. In the November election, Republican candidate William McKinley soundly trounced Bryan.
After leaving the White House on March 4, 1897, Cleveland moved his family to Westland Mansion, a retirement estate he had purchased in Princeton, New Jersey. He continued to practice law to support his large family. Cleveland also became an active member of the Princeton University community, presiding over the Princeton-Yale debates and other campus meetings and offering lectures periodically. In 1901, the former president became a trustee and took an active role in the university’s affairs until his death seven years later. When not engaged in his formal duties, Cleveland authored several political essays. An avid sportsman, Cleveland spent his leisure time hunting and fishing.
During his later years, Cleveland suffered from heart, kidney, and gastrointestinal ailments. At 2:00 p.m., June 23, 1907, the former president suffered a heart attack at his home. After rallying briefly, Cleveland succumbed at 8:30 a.m. on June 24, at age seventy-one. Reportedly, his last words were, “I have tried so hard to do right.” Cleveland’s remains were buried in the Princeton Cemetery of the Nassau Presbyterian Church.
See Gilded Age Politics for more on Cleveland’s Presidency.
Significance of Grover Cleveland
Grover Cleveland was an important historical figure because he served as the 22nd and 24th President of the United States (1885-1889, and 1893-1897) and was the only president to serve two non-consecutive terms. Cleveland was a Democrat who campaigned on a platform of political reform and economic conservatism, and he is remembered for his efforts to reduce the size of the federal government, promote free trade, and maintain a balanced budget. He also played a significant role in shaping American foreign policy, and he was known for his efforts to promote peace and stability around the world. Cleveland is also notable for his strong commitment to the rule of law and his efforts to promote honesty and integrity in government. Despite his reputation as a conservative, Cleveland is also remembered for his support of civil rights, including his veto of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which would have prohibited Chinese immigration to the United States. Despite his mixed legacy, Cleveland remains an important figure in American history.