Pre-service occupations: attorney, sheriff, mayor and governor
Key events during his administrations: 1st term: veto of pension bills, Geronimo campaign (1885-86), Haymarket Riot (1886), Interstate Commerce Act (1887), Dawes Act (1887); 2nd term: Chicago Exposition (1893), Panic of 1893, Pullman strike (1894), rejection of Hawaii annexation and subsequent recognition of the Republic of Hawaii (1893-1894), repeal of Sherman Silver Purchase bill (1893), J.P. Morgan gold purchase syndicate (1895), Olney Interpretation (1895), Utah admitted to the Union (1896)
Presidential rating: First term: Mildly successful and mixed on popularity. Second term: mildly unsuccessful and unpopular
He’s been called unfailingly honest. A dull speaker. The “Buffalo Hangman.” A man above party.
Grover Cleveland was all that and more. The 22nd and 24th president was unique in more ways than one. First, and most obvious, he was the only non-consecutive two-term president. Second, was the only Democrat elected president between 1860 and 1912. Third, he was the only president during the last half of the 19th century to not serve in the Civil War. And fourth, before Franklin Delano Roosevelt, he was the reigning champion for winning the popular vote in presidential elections, in 1884, 1888—when he lost the electoral vote—and 1892.
Of course, there’s far more to the man, and there’s a lot I like about him. Cleveland has undergone something of a reassessment of late, and one thing floats to the top that many historians like: his unfailing honesty. That honesty, which his contemporaries acknowledged and admired, elevates Cleveland to the upper tier of presidents.
Understanding Grover Cleveland is not easy. For decades, writes biographer Richard E. Welch, historians though they had him pegged as the paragon of political honesty amid a sea of Gilded Age corruption and a political wasteland. Later reassessments removed Cleveland closer to the bottom of the heap, as he was labeled a “Bourbon” Democrat who deserved scorn for failing to live up to those historians’ new theories on the social and political movements of the era. For example, Cleveland was no supporter of suffrage (women’s voting rights), but few other people were, either. Cleveland needs assessing by the terms of his own era.
Nowadays, Cleveland is enjoying a reassessment that more or less places him back where he started: an honest, often contradictory and practical man who took things as they came.
President Cleveland foreshadowed the coming progressive movement in words, if not in actual deeds. He was tightly frugal with the public’s money and believed in, to use the modern cliché, a level playing field. Companies and barons that horded most of their profits without elevating those who brought them the profits earned his particular scorn. But likewise, he refused to place people under the government’s charge, believing that the people supported the government, not the other way around.
He was the last president to take a largely hands-off approach to most aspects of national and public life, fully embracing the original concept that the president was the nation’s chief executive, meaning he was the executor of the nation’s laws and policies. His administrations bracketed the first truly activist presidency (Benjamin Harrison’s) and was, in some ways, a fitting coda to the 19th century. A man of deep principle and privacy would soon be forced to give way to nation demanding much more from government, much more from media and much more from the president himself. Yet at the same time, Cleveland continued the expansion of executive power in subtle ways.
Cleveland, it can be said, was the last of the old guard while simultaneously being the first of the new guard.
The rise of a “Bourbon” Democrat
Stephen Grover Cleveland, born in 1837, stopped in Buffalo when he was 17 looking for work. His father had died recently and he needed to help support the family. His uncle, Lewis Allen, was influential in Buffalo and introduced him to a career in law. The young Cleveland took a clerkship, read law and was admitted to the bar in 1859. (The firm Cleveland joined was Rogers, Bowen, and Rogers. Previously it was known as Fillmore, Hall and Haven, and is known today as Hodgson Russ LLP, the only firm in the country that can boast of having had two presidents as partners, the other being Millard Fillmore, of course.)
Meanwhile, Cleveland entered the politics of the Democracy (as some referred to the Democratic Party back then) in his native New York when he was 19. He campaigned for James Buchanan and ran for his for office in 1865—and lost. His uncle was a staunch Whig, but Cleveland believed firmly in the ideals of the Democratic Party, especially his ideological heroes, Jefferson and Jackson. He would eventually become associated with the “Bourbon” Democrats (See: Explaining the Cleveland approach to government), especially after his terms as president.
He remained at his law practice during the war until January 1863, when he accepted the post of assistant district attorney for Erie County. When Cleveland received a draft notice in 1863, he hired a replacement to fight in his stead. In 2008, such a move would have been political suicide, but Cleveland would suffer politically only partially for not wearing the uniform, and then only after he became president the first time. His strength of character and a combination of events—and different times—was more than enough to override such concerns.
Cleveland was a playful young man who liked the outdoors. He frequented pubs and taverns, relishing good food and good beer. The pubs and taverns, though, were not just places to satisfy his thirst and hunger: before the age of mass communication, they served as the meeting places for political meetings. Young Cleveland whet his chops on more than just beer and mutton at these places: he’d stand on a crate or barrel and speak his political mind to would whoever listen. And listen they did. He wasn’t a great stump speaker, but—to use the word most often applied to him—Cleveland was an honest one.
His single-minded devotion to whatever tasks were set before him led Cleveland to be elected to his first office in 1871: sheriff of Erie County, which includes Buffalo.
A fast track from hanging judge to presidential nominee
Many people today look for “experience” on the resume of presidential contenders. On paper, Grover Cleveland had an impressive resume: A lawyer, sheriff, mayor of Buffalo and governor of New York. Sounds good. However, the future president wasn’t in the elective positions for a relatively long period of time—at least by the modern understanding of “experience.”
He served as sheriff, mayor and governor for one term each. But in each of those terms, Cleveland earned—truly: earned—a reputation for honesty and strength of character and devotion to duty that was astounding. During his term as sheriff, Cleveland executed two condemned criminals himself. Later, political enemies tried to sneer at the “Buffalo Hangman,” but Cleveland, nonplussed, explained he wouldn’t have anyone do something he couldn’t do himself.
In 1882, Buffalo elected him mayor. “Public office is a public trust” was his campaign slogan, and he proved true to his word. His reputation for honesty and trustworthiness with the public’s money and public responsibility took root during his mayoral service, through such actions as refusing to award contracts to the highest bidder, instead of the lowest bidder. He took on the local machine politicos and won.
The next year, his fame as Buffalo’s mayor elevated him to the governor’s mansion. He defeated an ally of President Arthur for the office—exposing major weaknesses in the Republican Party’s New York machine—and proceeded to operate the same way as governor as he had as Buffalo mayor.
Governor Cleveland had embraced the reform sweeping the nation, but not wildly so. His approach was practical: reform, but with limits that would not totally destroy the political structure. Biographer Henry F. Graff explains:
“In addition to being morally offended by the excesses of the spoils system, Cleveland understood the change in the requirement of government in the 1880s. The political tradition that “to the victor belongs the spoils” was plainly out of date and had to be abandoned. Still, Cleveland was not unmindful of the need to nourish the political parties, but in his appointments he balanced as honorably as he could the demand for both party loyalty and professional competence. For example, he appointed the assistant in the insurance department to be its director. In filling the ranks of the Railroad Commission, Cleveland chose so carefully that it became a judgment on his stewardship that as well as a feather in his political cap that New York State had less organized hostility to the behavior of the railroads than any other state in the Union.” (p.36)Balancing the needs of party and competence was but one of many good marks he carried into the presidency.
It is noteworthy that a Cleveland ally in the New York legislature was a young Republican named Theodore Roosevelt, who approved of Cleveland’s conservation efforts at Niagara Falls and words against corporations.
Cleveland’s term as governor was cheered throughout the state—except the anti-reformers of the old Boss Tweed’s Tammany Hall, taken down by one of Cleveland’s predecessors, Samuel Tilden, and, of course, by many of the Republicans. But not all: Some Republicans grudgingly admitted that Cleveland kept his promises and did what he said he would do.
National party leaders took note of this newest New York governor as a strong contender for the 1884 election.
The election of 1884; or, how to handle a scandal
Republicans and Democrats put fourth platforms in 1884 that were remarkably similar: they both favored protective tariffs, they both favored a stronger currency backed by gold, they both favored limits on immigration (especially the Chinese). Both parties even held their conventions in the same hall in Chicago, two weeks apart. The election, therefore, turned on personality—and ugly campaigning.
Republicans were for once without a truly nationally appealing candidate who could unite all factions of the party. President Arthur made only a halfhearted attempt at the nomination. Grant was ailing and would be dead the following year. The promising meteor Garfield was dead. Roscoe Conkling had greatly overreached and was gone, and his Stalwarts were fading. Famed Union general William T. Sherman told the party to take a hike, famously remarking “If nominated I will not run. If elected, I will not serve.” That left James G. Blaine of Maine, last seen as Garfield’s secretary of state. Blaine wanted the nomination, and after beating back Arthur’s half-hearted attempt, won the nomination.
Although a forceful personality and full of vision, Blaine turned off enough Republicans who defected to the Democrats. These “mugwumps” would not vote for the “corrupt” Blaine, who had been accused of shady railroad funding (that had derailed his previous run for the presidency in 1880). Although Blaine was a strong and talented man, his candidacy bore the flavor of so many men who run for the presidency on their party’s ticket because it is “my turn.”
Cleveland won his nomination after his supporters beat back an anti-Cleveland attempt, but the outcome was not seriously in doubt. However, his was a fresh face—literally in one way, because Cleveland did not have a beard. (Of the presidents from 1860 on, Grant, Hayes, Garfield and Arthur and Harrison sported full whiskers; Johnson and McKinley were clean-shaven. Lincoln had only a beard while Cleveland had only a mustache. William Howard Taft would be the last president to have any kind of facial hair.)
The campaigning is where things got interesting—more specifically, when supporters and sympathetic press began making speeches, marches and running editorials. This was still the era when candidates usually didn’t themselves campaign, but Blaine was an exception. He made hundreds of speeches that summer and fall. Cleveland ran his campaign from his home in Albany. Cleveland wasn’t even at the convention.
Shortly after the Democratic convention in early July, a Buffalo scandal sheet ran a story claiming Cleveland had fathered a child out of wedlock, the child had been sent to an orphanage and the mother was in an asylum. When a respectable paper ran with the story, Republican press and supporters immediately pounced on the story as proof that “honest” Cleveland had no morals and was unfit for the presidency. Republican rallies were soon filled with baby carriages and the chant, “Ma, ma, where’s my pa? Gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha!”
Rather than deny the charges, Cleveland said simply, “Tell the truth,” which has become the gold standard for dealing with scandal. The “truth” was very close to what the rag had printed. Cleveland had had an “intimate” relationship with Maria Halpin, but it was not known who the father was. Apparently, his married law partner, Folsom, may have also had relations with the woman. When she turned up with a child, Cleveland assumed financial responsibility both to do the right thing and to prevent any possible embarrassment for his partner. When Halpin developed a serious drinking problem, however, Cleveland had her committed and the child sent to an orphanage—whose expenses he continued to pay.
Cleveland made a smart move, because by owning up to what was going on, he negated a lot of the charges’ impact. He was, however, completely humiliated and angered by the intrusion into private affairs, and also angered at his treatment by certain people in Buffalo. He rarely returned to the city after that.
The campaign remained close until the end, when Blaine failed to counter a New York preacher speaking on his behalf against the Mugwumps as not real Republicans for joining the party of “rum, Romanism and rebellion” (e.g., the Democrats). The perceived slur against Irish and Catholics made it seem as if the Republicans were once more waving the bloody shirt, biographer Graff writes, and it made sure New York went for Cleveland. At that time, if you won New York, you won the presidency, too. Graff says it’s not known how many votes switched because of the fabulous flub, but it was enough.
Cleveland won 219 to 182 electoral votes and by a mere 20,000 popular votes.
Gleeful Democratic editors now had an answer to “Ma, ma, where’s my pa”: “Hurrah for Maria! Hurrah for the kid. I voted for Cleveland, and I’m damned glad I did.”
Explaining the Cleveland approach to government
Cleveland would eventually be known as a “Bourbon” Democrat—in fact, the term is closely identified with him more than anyone else. The oddly named Bourbons supported business interests, opposed the protectionism manifested in the high tariffs, supported railroads, opposed imperialism, supported sound money (gold standard) and opposed bimetallism (free silver). But as we’ll see, the term Bourbon Democrat doesn’t quite fit with Grover Cleveland.
As alluded to earlier, Grover Cleveland believed that the president’s primary duty was to execute the legislative branch’s laws, but he also believed that the chief executive, being the only official elected by all the people, needed to curb the excesses of the Congress. He freely used the veto to slap down—often unsuccessfully—bills that went against what he believed constituted the government’s true functions.
No deep thinker or theorist, Cleveland instead was a pragmatist who approached issues one at a time. He sometimes contradicted himself, a tendency which added to his reputation of being “above party.” Toward the end of his second term, this caused great distress in his party, because he believed he was right and those with different views were at best wrong and at worst party heretics. He talked a great game about fighting corporations and monopolies in favor of the common man, but critics charged that he was a faithful ally of those same business magnates. The appearance was deceiving, because while the president was not an adherent to laissez faire (despite the label of Bourbon Democracy), he was a firm believer that the federal government should not have any favorites. In fact, during a veto message in 1896, biographer Welch explains that Cleveland wrote that the federal government’s purpose was “the enforcement of exact justice and equality” and not to spread favors to one group or another. (p.14) Welch further explains:
“A consistent theme throughout both administrations…was his conviction that governmental paternalism could only encourage a dangerous dependence on the federal government, destroy the American tradition of local charity and self-help, and undermine the independence and therefore the virtue of the citizenry. Governmental paternalism could, indeed, erode the very foundations of popular government if ever the electorate could see the government not as an instrument of their creation demanding their loyalty but as a source of gifts and privileges. Paternalistic government could only change the relation of the citizen to the government: instead of being a sovereign, the citizen would become a dependent.” (p.13-14)Cleveland’s ideological heroes, Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, would probably agree. Cleveland, however, often seemed to draw on Jefferson’s polity principles when needed and Jackson’s strong-armed executive when needed. For example, the president certainly changed his mind between his first and second administrations. During the first term, Cleveland adhered to the 1884 Democratic platform, which called for less centralization and more state sovereignty. Yet during the second, he willfully used federal soldiers to break the Pullman strike over the strong objections of the Illinois governor—asserting executive authority to perverse law and order. Welch explains:
“Like his hero Andrew Jackson, Cleveland could simultaneously speak against the centralization of power in the federal government and expand the power of the federal executive. Cleveland’s interpretation of the traditions of the Democratic Party was, at the least, flexible. He quoted Jefferson when denouncing federal interference in local elections, but acted like Jackson when he overrode Governor Altgeld and claimed supremacy for the federal government and its chief executive during the Chicago railroad strike.” (p. 147)In simpler terms, Cleveland took a little from column A and a little from column B and produced what could be termed Cleveland Democracy.
It would certainly be odd to find Grover Cleveland celebrated in today’s modern, liberalized Democratic Party, considering he opposed the very mentality the party now stands for. In fact, Welch relates how in 1979 JFK intimate Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. argued that “conservative” President Jimmy Carter should be dumped in favor of liberal Ted Kennedy, using Cleveland as a Carter archetype!
Modern conservatism, though, should find much to admire in some of Cleveland’s anti-paternalism beliefs.
The first term begins
With the Democrats back in the White House for the first time since 1857 (the Andrew Johnson aberration notwithstanding), the Democrats were naturally eager to take their share of what for so long had been denied: federal appointments. The fitful civil service reforms of the previous administrations had changed only so much, and Democrats wanted—demanded—offices.
Cleveland wanted to put the best men possible in all available posts. The trouble was, Graff explains, the quarter-century Republican run on the presidency conversely produced a dearth of Democratic talent in high government places. Cleveland wound up recruiting cabinet and other officials from business and railroad interests (while inadvertently snubbing some old friends) and from the party. Two were former Confederates, appointed in part to be a symbolic gesture of a healed nation.
The result was a respectable, if not outstanding, cabinet. However, it contained no representatives from laborers, farmers and others on the lower end of the political, social and economic spectrum. While that may seem like a modern-day, squishy multi-cultural lament, it proved to be an oversight, because President Cleveland would prove to have something of a tin ear when it came to matters that concerned the agrarian Midwest, South and West.
President Cleveland soon ran afoul of the self-anointed reformers, who demanded a justification for every dismissed officeholder. The “justification” was simple enough: they were Republicans and Cleveland was a Democrat, and now the Democrats were in office and Cleveland was doing what had been done since the age of Jackson. The President ignored the reformers’ demands, though, and he actually made fewer office changes than his predecessors (who were all Republicans).
Cleveland’s vice president would not last the term: Thomas Hendricks, who had been Samuel L. Tilden’s running mate, died in November 1885.
The vetoes and the railroads
President Cleveland began exercising his right to veto legislation almost at once. It’s possible that a more eloquent president, or a man who had the advantage of modern mass communications, could have better explained himself, because some of his vetoes would cause him unnecessary woe. For example, he vetoed hundreds of pensions for Union veterans, most of which were put fourth by northern and western congressmen as favors for people in their home districts. Many of the bills were frivolous. Cleveland denounced the pensions as raids on the public treasury. He also vetoed Congress’ bill granting a pension to all Union veterans for disabilities not stemming from the Civil War. Southerners didn’t care, naturally, but many Northerners were furious at the Democrat Cleveland, a man who hadn’t served, denying the benefits (and with sometimes sarcastically worded veto messages)—even though he was technically right.
The president, however, did not just veto pension bills and relief bills to farmers whose crops were ruined by drought. He struck down any bill he believed contained measures and funding arrangements not authorized by the Constitution—as he believed was his duty. The “little guy,” so to speak, was not the only one to feel the wrath of Cleveland. The president targeted railroads for investigation of fraud for holding onto government land grants that they never used. This land was ripe for settlement and, Cleveland and his Interior minister argued, was rightfully the government’s.
Angry railroad investors complained, albeit fruitlessly. In all, 81,000,000 acres of land grants returned to government control—equivalent to the size of New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania and New York, if put together in one lump.
But Cleveland was not done with the railroads, and neither was Congress. Finally responding to longstanding complaints from westerners, especially farmers (who were organizing into “Granges”), Congress created and Cleveland signed the Interstate Commerce Act in 1887, which also created the Interstate Commerce Commission, the first true regulatory agency in American history. The ICC’s specific mission was to regulate prices on the railroads and eliminate abuses and discrimination in hauling freight and passengers.
Although a welcome addition on the Plains and in the west, the ICC didn’t exactly endear Cleveland to non-Eastern Democrats. Nor did he help himself much with labor relations during his first term, mainly because of his “no favors” philosophy.
For decades, the laboring, wage-earning class had been growing in numbers and growing restless. By the mid-1880s, there truly seemed to be a clear dividing line between the haves and have-nots. The great strikes of the summer of 1877 during President Hayes’ term were just the beginning. In 1885, the American Federation of Labor formed under the leadership of Samuel Grompers.
In May 1886, tensions in Chicago literally exploded when a bomb was thrown into the midst of police marching to break up a peaceful meeting of strikers, which had just ended. A policeman was killed and they fired on the crowd. More people were killed and many more injured in the subsequent Haymarket riot.
Haymarket would, in a way, provide the rallying cry for the 8-hour work day. Cleveland played no role in the chaos in Chicago—this time. The next time Chicago witnessed chaos and bloodshed and strikes, Cleveland sent in the troops.
Geronimo campaign and the Dawes Act
The second-to last great campaign in the west came during Cleveland’s first term. Chiricahua Apache led by Geronimo (or Goyaale) resisted government attempts to enforce reservation life. Apache lived in the New Mexico and Arizona territories. For a while, Geronimo and his followers acquiesced to the entreaties Gen. George Crook and lived on a reservation for a short while. But they broke out again in 1885. Crook was replaced with Gen. Nelson A. Miles—the same general who had fought the Nez Perce.
President Cleveland authorized a major campaign against Geronimo. In 1886, Miles did just that, using up to one-fourth of the army to capture the Apache and his few dozen followers. A Lt. Charles Gatewood negotiated a peace where the Apache would be transferred to a Florida reservation. (Miles, in one of the most dishonorable actions of the 19th century army, shipped Apache Army scouts off with the Geronimo renegades too.)
The Geronimo campaign mattered little as far as Cleveland’s presidency was concerned, for he would miss the final “battle” on the frontier. His successor/predecessor Harrison would bear that ignominy.
On a different note, Congress passed the Dawes Act in 1887 that authorized President Cleveland (and his successors) to survey and allot tribal lands to individual native families. The overall effect of this short-sighted act was negative, as it wound up costing many tribes and families their lands. It was actually a good deed attempt (possible noble, but I wouldn’t go that far) that just wasn’t thought through.
Foreign policy—first term
President Cleveland’s foreign policies during 1885-1889 were benign and isolationist. He had no intention of involving the United States in the European powers’ game of gobbling up colonies. He backed away from the “entangling alliances” of involvement with England and Nicaragua over a canal and a treaty with Berlin over a trade agreement in the Congo.
The president, though, foresaw the need for a better navy. Building upon what Chester A. Arthur started, Cleveland and Navy secretary William Whitney pressed for continued modernization of the navy. Cleveland had no aggressive designs for the navy; however, his modernization program would greatly assist his second successor’s aggressive use of said navy.
He also sought appropriate coaling stations for ocean-going squadrons, especially in places like Hawaii—a place that would figure prominently in his second term. The navy buildup would more or less continue through McKinley’s terms.
The tariff battle
In keeping with his nature of being against a government of favors, President Cleveland urged Congress to reduce the protectionist high tariffs. In a highly unusual step for a president, he devoted his entire third annual message to Congress (in 1887) to the issue. He directly confronted Republicans and protectionist Democrats in blunt language, warning that disaster was pending and the blame would rest with Congress if it didn’t act.
Cleveland charged that “When we consider that the theory of our institutions guarantees to every citizen the full enjoyment of all the fruits of his industry and enterprise... it is plain that the exaction of more than [the minimal amount of taxes] is indefensible extortion and a culpable betrayal of American fairness and justice.” Therefore, the high tariffs had to go. Besides, he argued, the high tariffs prevented foreign competition, and lower tariff would satisfy business and labor alike by making raw materials and finished products cheaper, thereby opening more markets and making labor happier.
Cleveland was correct in his pointed, if caustic, assessment. Like his immediate predecessor, Arthur, he believed the high tariff was bad news for the economy and the country. Cleveland did not persuade Congress, and a reduction bill failed to pass. The Harrison administration and Rep. William McKinley would tackle the tariffs, but not in a way Cleveland approved. When the Panic of 1893 hit, Cleveland’s warnings seemed to have come true.
A White House wedding—and a meddlesome press
Grover Cleveland, as we have seen, was a workaholic who rarely took breaks. Occasionally he and a companion would go fishing, although on one occasion he made the political mistake of doing it on Decoration Day.
The old cliché of “love at first sight” bears real weight for Grover Cleveland. In a tale too strange for fiction, Cleveland loved his future bride from when he first set eyes on her as a baby. Frances Folsom—his partner’s daughter—was more than two decades his junior, a fact he was painfully conscious of.
But the socially awkward Cleveland came to love Frances—Frank, he called her—as she grew to young womanhood. When his partner died and he took his widow and Frances under his care, his love grew stronger until finally, in 1886, they were married in the first and only wedding ceremony held in the White House.
The Clevelands took a holiday in western Maryland where, to his dismay and disgust, the press easily found them the next morning. The president decried the reporters’ “colossal impertinence” for intruding on his honeymoon, but as Graff writes, was helpless to do anything about it (p. 80). The opulent tastes of Chester A. Arthur had given reporters a thirst for the private lives of presidents that wasn’t easily slaked. And the intrusion into the Clevelands’ happy moment was but the first of countless unwelcome media impositions that in a later age would be justified under the catch-all phrase, “the right to know.”
However, Cleveland wasn’t blameless before reporters. He bore a grudge against the media because of the whole Halpin mess, and he maintained an aloof stance from honest reporter inquires. Consequently, his image suffered. Never a brilliant communicator, Cleveland eventually turned off even friendly media in his second term.
1888 and defeat—for the moment
Grover Cleveland felt confident going in to the 1888 election. But in an odd twist, for the third time in American history the man who won the popular vote was not the same man who got the most votes in the electoral college. (The two prior occasions were in 1824 and 1876, both of which were decided in the House under much different circumstances.)
The Democrats quickly renominated Cleveland at the convention in St. Louis. The Republicans nominated Benjamin Harrison, grandson of the former (and short-lived) president.
By now, politics had become the national pastime. Although the duotone had yet to transform media and pictures were still rendered via gorgeous woodcuts or color lithographs, images of the Clevelands and the Harrisons appeared everywhere on trinkets, souvenir items, broadsides, and so on. Pictures of Frances were particularly favored—no great surprise.
Cleveland and the party ran a “disjointed” campaign, full of “lifeless leadership,” according to Graff. He was also prey to a dirty trick by an ally of the Harrison campaign, where a man posing as “Muchison,” a former English citizen, wrote to the British ambassador in America who he would suggest supporting in the coming election. The ambassador said Cleveland was probably the best as far as England was concerned. The phony “Muchison” published the letter, and it apparently had the same effect on New York as the “rum, Romanism and rebellion” crack had on Blaine’s campaign four years earlier.
Cleveland lost New York and Harrison barely eked out an electoral victory over the president, who nevertheless won more than 90,000 more votes than Harrison. There is some evidence that fraud may have helped Harrison win, too. Cleveland was nonplussed, and bowed to the electoral defeat. Francis Folsom told White House staff that they would return in four years.
The Clevelands retired to New York City, where the ex-president finally relented and lent his name to a law firm. In exchange for the prestige of his name, Cleveland indulged in his favorite pastime: work. Although the happy couple were by no means wealthy, they were comfortable. During this interim period, they began having children, including Ruth, who, according to some accounts, was the inspiration for the Baby Ruth candy bar (others claim that baseball hero Babe Ruth was the source).
Cleveland watched the events of the Harrison era with dismay and also the grim satisfaction that he believed he was right. Harrison, while not exactly an anti-Cleveland, approached government differently, and with a willing Congress, promoted an activist federal government. Harrison approved pensions for all Union veterans, approved “pork-barrel” bills and other things Cleveland abhorred—especially the highest tariff in American history. The McKinley Tariff, passed in 1890 with President Harrison’s support, helped the Democrats in the fall elections. That, and Harrison’s dealings with his party and fractured relationship with his secretary of state, James G. Blaine, made Democratic prospects seem rosier in 1892.
Biographer Graff writes (p.100) that it’s not entirely known whether Cleveland decided to throw his hat in the ring in 1892 out of a desire for political vindication, a need to finish his work as president or sheer boredom. Regardless, he began making speeches again in 1891 to various clubs and organizations on economic issues, and emerged as the party favorite to win back the presidency.
Ex-president Cleveland made history in 1892 by becoming the first—and so far, the only—former president to run and win a non-consecutive term to the White House. (Note: only Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush could do so as of this publishing. Bill Clinton and G. W. Bush are prevented from serving again by the 22nd amendment.)
Cleveland won his nomination rather handily, while President Harrison, though seeming damaged goods, easily won re-nomination despite a challenge from Blaine. The campaign that year centered on the tariff as well as hard money versus silver. In another close election, Cleveland defeated Harrison 46% to 43% of the popular vote and 227 to 145 electoral votes (a Populist party candidate took 8% and 22 electoral votes).
I’ll say much more about this election in my write-up on President Harrison, because the reasons for the election’s outcome have more to do with Harrison’s defeat than Cleveland’s victory.
Regardless, Fannie’s words to the White House staff four years earlier had come true: The Clevelands were back.
The second term—not the same as the first
President Cleveland’s second term had a much different flavor than the first. He was still the same man—men of his character don’t change—but the country had shifted in his four-year absence. The tariff was still a major issue, what with the McKinley Tariff pushing levels even higher. But dirt farmers and laborers were better organized and wanted much more than the power-brokers of the East were doing. He might argue for sound money and the gold standard, but backers of “free silver” would soon find a ready target in the president. The Progressive movement was starting to take baby steps, but Cleveland would not be joining the movement.
The president appointed a cabinet that had no members from the first. This time, he found a post for an old friend from New York, Wilson Bissel, naming him postmaster general (Cleveland had inadvertently snubbed him the first time.
Early in his second term, the newspaper-loathing Cleveland had an operation on board a boat in the middle of the Potomac, done in secret to avoid turmoil in the markets. The president had contracted cancer in his mouth. The operation was a success, although part of his jaw had to be removed. A second operation was done to attach a prosthesis, and no one was the wiser until the secret was revealed after his death.
The second Cleveland administration was in trouble almost from the start, thanks to the severest depression to ever hit the nation (yet). The agricultural sections of the nation had not really recovered from the last depression in the 1870s—giving rise to the Granger movement and feeding into the Populist and fee-silver movements. The nation’s banking system was woefully inadequate. The McKinley Tariffs also appeared to be having the opposite affects, with some imports—and import revenue—declining. And Harrison administration largess didn’t help matters, either. Plus, American gold was flowing into Europe, which was experiencing its own market crisis.
The declining supply of government gold triggered the collapse. The Sherman Silver Purchase Act, passed during the Harrison administration, required the government to buy more silver for backing currency—using gold that was now dwindling. The Panic began in early May when the National Cordage Company went bankrupt followed by the fall of several stock prices the following day. Welch writes that:
“Banks began to call in their loans, credit dried up, and business failures increased week by week. Depositors withdrew their money from state and national banks, six hundred of which closed their doors, a majority of them in the West and the South. Railroads proved particularly susceptible to the financial panic. Before the year was over, The Philadelphia and Reading, the Erie, the Northern Pacific, the Union Pacific, and the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railroads had been forced into receivership. They were joined in bankruptcy by fifteen thousand other businesses.” (p.116)
Unemployment totals rose to 20 percent that winter, the worst in the nation’s history up to that point. The worst hit were the agrarian regions, giving fuel to their rallying cry of free silver: the more silver-backed dollars, the more dollars would be printed. The more money in circulation, then the more dollars would be in their pocket because economic activity would increase. The president completely disagreed.
It’s interesting to note the different responses to severe depression enacted by President Cleveland and one of his successors, President Franklin Roosevelt. The latter’s response was to radically alter government and forever change the relationship between the citizens and the federal government. It is safe to say that Grover Cleveland would have been horrified at and condemned Roosevelt’s solutions to economic depression. Cleveland’s solutions were not to give fireside chats (he couldn’t have done that even if it were possible), put the nation back to work, create new government agencies and regulations and taxes, like FDR. Instead, his response was more like Grant’s: secure the nation’s credit and money supply.
Cleveland believed that the Panic was caused by unsound silver practices and the high tariffs, as well as a lack of business confidence in the government’s ability to meet its obligations. To fix the problem, he asked Congress to repeal the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, which it did by year’s end. But he couldn’t make gold magically appear in the Treasury. For that, he did one of the most unorthodox moves any president had ever done up to that time: he asked the private sector for a loan.
In 1895, the president approached his friend and one-time dining companion J.P. Morgan to create a syndicate that would supply the government $65 million in gold, including some from Europe, through the sale of $100 million in bonds to the public. Morgan and his partners made a killing, but the end result was a hefty gold surplus in the Treasury.
Cleveland was raked over the coals by many in the Democratic Party, the media and the budding Progressives for being in the back pocket of the “money trust,” which was pure baloney. Although he restored the nation’s money, he damaged himself in the eyes of the west.
Meanwhile, the president pushed Congress for a lower tariff. He wanted the McKinley Tariff gone, believing it to be one of the major causes of the Panic. Congress responded, but not entirely to the president’s liking. The resulting replacement tariff had hundreds of amendments attached to it, including a two percent income tax. Cleveland hated the bill and called it an abomination. He let it become law anyway, without his signature.
The nation began to climb out of the Panic in 1896. Politically, though, Cleveland took the blame.
The Pullman strike
The Panic sparked problems nationwide. None was more spectacular than the Pullman strike in Chicago in 1894. George Pullman, creator of the railroad passenger cars bearing his name, was a generous and paternalistic industrialist who built a splendid company town in what is now southern Chicago. He ruled it like a benevolent feudal master, though, and treated his well-paid employees almost like serfs. A large number of Pullman employees lived in this model town.
When the Panic hit and railroads started coming unglued, rail shipments dropped, causing the demand for Pullman cars to fall. Pullman cut wages by 28%, but workers complained that rents and costs in the company town weren’t cut as well, leaving them with little money. Pullman didn’t budge. Neither did employees: about 80% walked off their jobs in protest. Pullman then shut down all the factories.
The trouble would have remained in the Pullman family except many employees were also members of Eugene Debs’ American Railway Union. Word spread across the nation, and soon railroad workers refuse to handle any train containing a Pullman car. About 125,000 railroad workers in 27 states and territories struck. Railroads responded with strikebreakers. Although the strikes never reached the intensity of the 1877 strikes, they did lead to violence in some places. By July, only 10% of pre-strike rail traffic was getting into and out of Chicago. Railroad owners and the union blamed each other.
The impasse was broken when nationwide demands for action led to Cleveland’s attorney general, Richard Olney, obtaining a court injunction that forbade interference with federal mail. It was a strange injunction, though, because Olney, Welch explains, worked with the railroad managers’ group to not only break the strike, but also break the union. While a legally questionable collusion, the injunction went forward. If the mail was interfered with and private property was destroyed, federal soldiers would be used to restore order.
President Cleveland, who believed in law and order—recall that he was once the “Buffalo Hangman”—was not in not the Onley arrangement and was actually reluctant to use troops. But he would do it if necessary. And according to the injunction, it became necessary following a one-day riot south of Chicago; the federal attorney in Chicago wired that marshals could not enforce the injunction; only soldiers could. So, Cleveland sent in the troops—over the strong objections of the state’s governor, as previously noted.
Unlike the 1877 strikes, when President Harrison only sent in soldiers to keep the peace at the request of governors, President Cleveland sent troops to Chicago and other strike areas to break the strikes in collusion with business and regardless of the state and local governments’ wishes. Cleveland reportedly said that “If it takes the entire army and navy of the United States to deliver a postcard in Chicago, that card will be delivered," but the statement is probably apocryphal. Most governors sided with Cleveland—except Altgeld—and accepted his explanation that he did what he did for “the public safety.”
Labor, of course, thought that was hogwash, and probably never gave the president another look, even though Cleveland established a commission to study the Pullman strike in an effort to make recommendations on the federal government’s role in future management-labor issues. The commission made one interesting recommendation: a federal arbitrary panel, which Cleveland had recommended to Congress in his first term.
Hawaii, or the Sandwich Islands, as they were once called, had long figured into the designs of American presidents. During President Harrison’s last months in office, a cabal of Americans, Europeans and Hawaiians calling themselves the “Committee of Safety” overthrew Queen Liliuokalani and established a new government. (It’s a long story: see here for a neutral account). President Cleveland sent a former congressman named Blount to investigate what happened.
Blount concluded that the overthow of Liliuokalani was quite illegal, and that the U.S. minister and even American soldiers had acted wrongly. In response, President Cleveland withdrew from the Senate the treaty annexing Hawaii (placed there in the waning days of the Harrison administration). He offered to return Liliuokalani’s throne in exchange for amnesty for the members of the coup, but the queen refused, and reportedly demanded their execution (although that is dispuited). Cleveland sent the matter to Congress, which conducted its own investigation—and came to the opposite conclusions, finding everyone non guilty, except for the queen! Figure that out.
Somewhere in between the truth lay, but Cleveland never found out. He dropped support for the queen following a Congressional resolution of “non-interference” in internal Hawaiian affairs. Hawaii’s provisional government declared a republic, the president and Congress recognized it as such and declared it a U.S. protectorate in 1894. The ex-queen was later arrested, sentenced to hard labor, had her sentence commuted, and was eventually given a pension on which to live out her days.
Meanwhile, President Cleveland engaged in a strange bit of foreign policy that involved a border dispute between Venezuela and Great Britain in 1895. The Harrison Administration had led the establishment of the Pan-American Union, and member state Venezuela was under pressure from England on its border. Congress—and Venezuela—wanted Cleveland to do something about it.
During his first term, the president had been unable to invite “John Bull” to arbitration over anything. But now Cleveland had as his secretary of state Richard Olney (who replaced the late Walter Gresham). Olney had become secretary only a few months before. He had already taken the step of elevating all U.S. ministers to ambassadors, giving notice to the world that the United States was no longer a mere junior on the world stage.
Throughout the 19th century, England had been America’s great boogeyman. If you wanted to insult someone, chances are, calling them pro-British would have been fighting words in most decades. By the 1890s, hostility towards England had faded, but it was still present, mainly because England was still the greatest economic threat. S, when the border dispute arose, Olney sent a strongly worded—impertinent, even—letter to Lord Salisbury that if England took by force disputed territory in Venezuela, the U.S. would respond per the Monroe Doctrine.
The “Olney Interpretation” claimed that the Monroe Doctrine gives the United States the right to mediate border disputes in the Western Hemisphere. The original doctrine, however, was established to tell Europe that the Western hemisphere was closed to their colonization. This was a major expansion in foreign policy and, in my opinion, incredibly arrogant.
A mild war fever spread across the depression-ridden country. President Cleveland, though wary of going to war, nevertheless asked Congress to make ready in case England did not back down.
But the British did. Enmeshed in their own troubles in South Africa and not really wanted to spar with an upstart America, they agreed to arbitration. The war fever subsided—was quickly forgotten, in fact. But a new dimension was added to American foreign politics. For the first time, America was acting abroad in a serious manner. Three years later, one year after Cleveland left office, America would flex her muscles in a much more deadly way.
Losing control: the party splits
The Democratic Party had won full control of Congress between 1890 and 92, but when the Panic hit in 1893, they bore the brunt of the blame. As usual, the party and person in power bear the blame for bad times, justly or unjustly. Just like Martin Van Buren took the hit for the Panic caused in part by Andrew Jackson’s polices, or George W. Bush took the hit for the recession caused by conditions at the end of Bill Clinton’s term, the Democrats bore the brunt of the public’s fury over the panic. Their majority would be short-lived—and Cleveland’s inability to be the party’s leader during a time when the party needed it would help fracture the party.
President Cleveland and the Democratic Party were in trouble in 1894-96. The depression deepened the despair against the president and increased his detractors, including among Democrats, who believed his policies and lack of bold action was doing nothing to alleviate the problems. He seemed more aloof than ever. His actions, especially using federal soldiers to smash the Pullman strike and a seemingly half-hearted drive against the trusts, gave him the appearance of the robber barons’ best friend to people in the agrarian west and south.
A series of Supreme Court decisions helped to reinforce this view, including one decision that all but crippled the government’s ability to prosecute monopolies and trusts under the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. Why did this hurt Cleveland? He had appointed the pro-business Melville Fuller as chief justice during his first term, and the Fuller court’s rulings were quite unpopular in the west and south.
Worse, the party finally split—more or less for a generation—over the backing of currency. Sound money versus free silver sounds like a dull topic that only economists would savor. Yet this issue and its foundations wrecked the second Cleveland administration, caused the Democrats to lose control of Congress again and divided the party between the Cleveland Democrats and the Bryan Democrats.
William Jennings Bryan is remembered today in popular history only as the hapless defender of creationism in Inherit the Wind, the play and movie about the 1920s Scopes trial. Yet Bryan was a powerful orator and strong leader of the Progressive movement (Cleveland would scoff at that label) who would challenge Cleveland’s leadership of the Democracy. He gained national prominence in 1896 with his “cross of gold” speech prior to the convention, in which he pilloried western and eastern money interests for adhering to the gold standard at the expense of western and southern farmers and laborers. Bryan and his supporters wanted free silver, meaning far more money backed by the readily available silver than the government already allowed.
Cleveland and sound money supporters—meaning, all non-silver Republicans—opposed free silver, because they viewed it as an inflationary tactic that would not only harm their own interests, but also worsen economic conditions and devalue the dollar and labor. Silverites disagreed, and the issue was a central part of the combined Democratic, Progressive, radical and Silver Republican platform in 1896, 1900 and 1904. Silver ceased to be a Democratic issue with the candidacy of Woodrow Wilson.
Regardless, the youthful Bryan wrested the Democratic party away from Cleveland in 1896. Cleveland didn’t intend to seek a third term; it was beneath his dignity to announce as much, so his name was submitted at the convention. His “candidacy” sank quickly, which suited Cleveland just fine.
He detested Bryan and what he saw as phony populism and his ruinous platform—a repudiation of his second term. But when the Republican nominee, William McKinley, trounced Bryan in the election, Cleveland was grimly pleased, for McKinley was a protectionist and sound money man just like Cleveland.
Post-presidency: the elder statesman
One final item occupied Cleveland’s attention before leaving the White House for good. A bloody insurrection had begun in Cuba. Secretary of State Olney had sent a note to Spain suggesting concessions, which was rejected. When the president and president-elect met shortly before McKinley’s inauguration, they both expressed the desire to avoid involvement in Cuba. Both men expressed mutual admiration, but Cleveland’s admiration would vanish in two years when America went to war over Cuba.
Cleveland served for a time as a trustee at Princeton University, where he clashed with Princeton’s president, future U.S. president, Woodrow Wilson. He got along much better with President Theodore Roosevelt, whom he had known from and worked well with during his term as New York’s governor. A few times, Cleveland consulted with the young Republican.
Cleveland performed one final public service: he served on the board of the Equitable Life Assurance Society to reorganize it and restore the confidence of those it insured. For this he was paid handsomely. He died in 1908.
For almost 20 years, Grover Cleveland was a major force in American politics, and his understanding of the Democratic Party traditions and the proper role of the president had a significant impact.
His reputation for honesty survives to this day, and he certainly deserves much better than to be remembered merely as the man who served two non-consecutive terms.
He wasn’t a brilliant thinker or bold president, nor a great party leader by any stretch of the imagination. He didn’t chart new directions or reorganize government in radical ways. Instead, Grover Cleveland served with a constant eye on the public’s money, making sure that no one was favored. Taking away the people’s “sovereignty” and making them wards of the state—which is where he believed “favors” would lead—was abhorrent to him. His approach to tackling the problems of a crushing depression are starkly different than those of FDR, the only other Democrat to win the popular election three times in a row.
He’ll never be in the ranks of the greats, but he is significant and unavoidable. His approach to government is definitely worth studying—and, in many ways, replicating.
Final assessment: First term: Mildly successful and mixed on popularity. Second term: mildly unsuccessful and unpopular
For this study, I primarily used The American Presidents series’ biography written by Henry F. Graff, as well as The Presidencies of Grover Cleveland (part of the University of Kansas’ American Presidency Series) by Richard E. Welch, Jr. (1988).
I did not, however, use Alyn Brodsky’s Grover Cleveland: A Study in Character (2000), which I threw down in absolute disgust before getting very far. Brodsky goes to great pains to elevate Cleveland by attacking most every other president’s character, as if the others are unworthy to stand in Cleveland’s shadow. That’s not biography; that’s hagiography, and pretty slimy stuff at that.
Illustrations (all pictures will be added 2/4/08)
All illustrations are in the public domain and taken from the Library of Congress Photographs and Prints Division unless otherwise noted.
1. Anders Zorn painted President Grover Cleveland in 1899, three years after he left office for good.