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The Cleveland Record
President Grover Cleveland’s first administration (1885-1889) is remembered mainly for its record number of vetoes (414), more than double the number issued by all his predecessors combined.  The vetoes were aimed at curbing congressional spending, especially pension and relief bills for individual Union veterans whose claims had been rejected by the Pension Bureau as weak or fraudulent.  Therefore, the president incurred the wrath of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), an organization of Union veterans closely associated with the Republican Party.  In January 1887, Cleveland further angered the GAR when he vetoed a bill expanding pension coverage to veterans whose disability was not traceable to Civil War military service and to dependent relatives of deceased veterans.  The strain was exacerbated that June by an executive order directing the return of captured Confederate battle standards to their home states.  The order was rescinded two weeks later in the wake of an intense outcry from the GAR and sympathetic politicians. 

An important development during the first Cleveland administration was the ambitious shipbuilding program pursued by Navy Secretary William Whitney.  In foreign affairs, Secretary of State Thomas Bayard attempted to resolve a longstanding dispute between American and Canadian fishermen, but the resulting treaty (1888) was rejected by the Republican-controlled Senate.  That institution also came into conflict with the Democratic president over civil service reform.  Cleveland had introduced the reform to New York while governor and promised during the 1884 campaign to expand its application at the federal level.  When the new president began replacing Republican officeholders with Democrats, Republican senators threatened to expand the scope of the Tenure of Office Act, which required Senate approval for the removal of presidentially appointed officials.  Instead, Cleveland’s firm and well-argued stance gained him substantial backing among the press and public, and the law was repealed in 1887.  Cleveland did expand civil service coverage, but (like subsequent presidents) did so by securing members of his own party in office. 

In 1887, Congress passed legislation creating the first federal regulatory agency, the Interstate Commerce Commission, which was an attempt to make railroad rates and practices more equitable.  The Dawes Severalty Act offered citizenship and land to American Indians who gave up their tribal allegiance.  Congress established the Department of Agriculture as a cabinet department and passed the Hatch Act, which allocated federal funds for state colleges to conduct agricultural experiments.  Cleveland supported these measures, but they gained him little political advantage.  In December 1887, the president used his annual message to Congress to appeal for a reduction in the nation’s high tariffs, and an administration-backed bill was introduced into the House by Congressman Roger Mills in the spring of 1888.  Given the timing, the tariff became a key issue in the presidential election.

The Democratic Nomination
Since the Democrats were divided on the tariff issue, Cleveland and his advisors bolstered support for his renomination by undermining the power of Democratic Congressman Samuel J. Randall of Pennsylvania, former speaker of the House and leading tariff protectionist.  With the behind-the-scenes assistance of the White House, Congressman William Scott, a tariff reformer, gained control of Pennsylvania’s Democratic organization.  Cleveland’s home state of New York, a swing state, was even more important to his renomination and essential to his reelection.  Governor David B. Hill (Cleveland’s former lieutenant governor) had created a state political machine comprised mainly of anti-Cleveland groups led by New York City’s Tammany Hall.  Fearing a Hill challenge at the national convention, the president’s operatives ensured that the New York delegation was pro-Cleveland and that the governor was not given delegate-at-large status.  Hill chose not to attend the Democratic National Convention, which opened in St. Louis on June 5.  The event was ostensibly harmonious and renominated Cleveland unanimously on the second day. 

However, there was an intense backroom fight over the tariff plank of the platform.  Republicans had erroneously labeled Congressman Mills’s proposed legislation as “free trade”—i.e., the complete abolition of tariffs.  In response, Cleveland drafted a platform plank that rejected free trade, ignored the Mills bill, and supported moderate compromise legislation.  He had Senator Arthur Pue Gorman of Maryland, a trade protectionist, take it to the St. Louis convention.  The election of a leading trade reformer, editor Henry Watterson of the Louisville Courier-Journal, as chairman of the Resolutions Committee sparked a fierce debate on the topic.  The plank’s final language endorsed the 1884 platform call for a tariff-for-revenue-only (i.e., rates that raise money to meet federal expenditures, not to “protect” certain industries from foreign competition and create a large fiscal surplus).  It also argued that lower rates would reduce the cost of living for workers.  The plank’s passage was a victory for Watterson, as was approval of a resolution, introduced by Congressman Scott, endorsing the Mills bill. 

Since Cleveland’s vice president, Thomas Hendricks, had died in November 1885, the position was open.  The president’s campaign managers had surveyed party leaders from across the country, and the popular choice for the office was Allen Thurman, a former congressman and senator from Ohio.  At the Democratic National Convention, he easily defeated two favorite-son candidates on the first ballot.  Respected by all factions of the party and bringing geographical balance to the ticket, it was hoped that Thurman would help bridge divisions within the party.

 
 
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