Name:  Grover Cleveland

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Born:  March 18, 1837
Died:  June 24, 1908
Complete HarpWeek Biography:
Grover Cleveland was the 22nd and 24th president of the United States, the only president elected to non-consecutive terms. He previously served as governor of New York. He was born in Caldwell, New Jersey, the son of Richard Falley Cleveland, a Presbyterian minister, and Ann Neal Cleveland. The young Cleveland was christened Stephen Grover, but dropped his first name as an adult. He was educated at home until the age of eleven, after which he attended schools in Fayetteville and Clinton, New York, where his father had ministries. Upon his father’s death in 1853, he dropped out of school to support his mother and younger siblings by teaching for a year at the Institute for the Blind in New York City. He disliked teaching, so he moved to Buffalo, New York, where his uncle, a stockbreeder, gave him a job editing the American Shorthorn Handbook. He also began reading law and was admitted to the New York bar in 1859.

Although a Democrat and Douglas-backer in 1860, Cleveland supported Lincoln’s war policies, and may have voted for the president’s reelection in 1864. When drafted by the Union army in 1863, he hired a substitute to fight in his place. That was legal, but it later make him unpopular with Union veterans. Cleveland served as Erie County’s assistant district attorney, 1863-1865, but lost a bid for district attorney in 1865. He practiced law until 1870 when he was elected to a three-year term as sheriff, during which he cracked down on police corruption and earned a reputation for honesty and integrity. Again returning to private practice, he became a leading lawyer in the Buffalo area. Easily elected mayor of Buffalo in 1881 as a reform Democrat, he acquired the nickname “veto mayor” for consistently blocking bloated municipal contracts and spending projects. He worked diligently to improve the sewer system and to ensure that the city was run on efficient business principles.

In 1882, Cleveland was elected by a landslide as the governor of New York. He supported, and the legislature passed, the first state civil service reform law in the nation. It instituted procedures for merit hiring and promotion in the state bureaucracy in place of partisan patronage appointments. The governor’s strong stance on the issue alienated him from some in his party, including the powerful Tammany Hall organization. This breach widened when he supported state-imposed reforms of the New York City government that undermined the power of the city’s Democratic machine. Cleveland’s governorship also saw the designation of Niagara Falls as a state preserve, the creation of a bureau of labor statistics, and the setting of health and safety standards for milk. Furthermore, he continued to wield his veto authority against legislation he deemed unnecessary or unwise.

In 1884, delegates to the Democratic National Convention nominated Cleveland for president on the second ballot. When the Republicans selected James Blaine as their standard-bearer, a group of prominent Republicans (“Mugwumps”), repelled by Blaine’s alleged corruption and opposition to reform, bolted from their party and endorsed Cleveland. The contest was one of the nastiest in American political history, with each side flinging charges of moral impropriety against the other. Republicans revealed that Cleveland had earlier fathered a child out of wedlock, but the Democratic nominee’s prompt and honest admission blunted damage from the issue. In an extremely close race, Cleveland won a plurality of the popular vote and a slim majority in the Electoral College. He became the first Democrat elected president since James Buchanan in 1856.

On June 2, 1886, the bachelor-president married Frances Folsom, his ward since the death of her father, who was Cleveland’s former law partner. Frances Cleveland became very popular with the public, and her image appeared on various campaign tokens during her husband’s 1888 reelection campaign. The couple had five children.

President Cleveland’s first administration 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.

In early June 1888, Democrats nominated Cleveland for reelection, while the Republicans chose former U. S. Senator Benjamin Harrison, a proponent of high tariffs and defender of veterans’ pensions. Cleveland selected Allen Thurman of Ohio as his vice presidential running mate to replace Vice President Thomas Hendricks who had died in office. The campaign focused on the tariff question, but the president heeded tradition by not taking an active public role. Although Cleveland won a slim plurality of the popular vote, he lost the contest in the Electoral College when Harrison carried the swing states of New York and Indiana. After leaving office, Cleveland accepted a position with a venerable law firm, arguing one case before the U. S. Supreme Court.

Sweeping Democratic victories in the 1890 congressional elections whetted his political appetite again, prodding Cleveland to threw his hat into the ring and secure the Democratic presidential nomination for a third straight time in 1892. Convention delegates picked Adlai Stevenson of Illinois as the party’s vice-presidential nominee. After a lackluster campaign, due partly to the illness of First Lady Caroline Harrison (who died on October 25), Cleveland defeated the Republican president by a comfortable margin in the Electoral College, but won only a plurality (46%) of the popular vote due to the presence of the Populist nominee, James Weaver, who picked up 9%, against Harrison’s 43%.

Shortly after Cleveland assumed office in March 1893, the nation sank into a deep economic depression, which lasted the duration of his term. Almost 4 million Americans were unemployed, but the president rejected direct economic relief as outside the constitutional authority of the federal government. He did, however, attempt to thwart the depression through monetary policy. As a staunch defender of the gold standard, Cleveland believed that the Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890 was causing a severe drain on the nation’s gold reserve. At his request, a special session of Congress (1893) repealed the legislation. In another move to bolster the nation’s gold supply, on four occasions he sold U.S. bonds to New York bankers for gold under the claim of executive authority. The tactic provoked his political opponents to charge that the Cleveland administration was hostage to wealthy financiers.

President Cleveland also attacked the economic depression from the fiscal side by attempting to reduce the nation’s high tariffs. In 1893, he worked with Congressman William Wilson of West Virginia, a Democrat, to introduce into the U.S. House a bill lowering tariff rates. After the House passed a slightly revised version, Senator Arthur Pue Gorman of Maryland, a Democrat, and other senators radically altered it into a high-tariff bill that only reduced the overall rate from 48% to 41%. The president denounced the betrayal of genuine reform, but allowed it to become law without his signature.

The depression sparked social unrest, including riots in Chicago and a march of 500 unemployed, known as Coxey’s Army, to Washington, D.C., to demand (unsuccessfully) a public works program. In 1894, a strike began at the Pullman Palace Car Company due to reduced wages and higher prices at company stores. The strike spread to other railroad companies, interrupted the nation’s transportation system, and erupted into violence. At the request of railroad executive and against the wishes of Governor John Atgeld of Illinois, President Cleveland secured an injunction against the strikers and sent federal troops to Illinois, thereby ensuring transit of the U.S. mails and breaking the strike.

Foreign policy played a more important role during Cleveland’s second administration than the first. In early 1893, American business interests, with the help of a contingent of U. S. marines, had overthrown Hawaiian Queen Liliuokalani and requested that the United States annex the island chain. The outgoing Harrison administration had sent an annexation treaty to the U.S. Senate for ratification, but once in office President Cleveland rescinded it. When a border dispute arose between Venezuela and Great Britain, Cleveland’s secretary of state, Richard Olney, invoked the Monroe Doctrine and pressured Britain to the negotiating table. The onset of a Cuban revolt against Spanish rule in 1895, prompted Cleveland to declare American neutrality.

Cleveland did not seek reelection in 1896. Instead, the silver forces within the Democratic Party triumphed and nominated William Jennings Bryan for president. In disgust, Cleveland voted for John Palmer, nominee of the hard-money splinter faction of the Democratic Party called the National (or Gold) Democrats. In retirement, Cleveland became a lecturer (1899), trustee (1901), and president of the board of trustees (1904) of Princeton University, during which he clashed with Woodrow Wilson, the university president, over school policy. Cleveland campaigned for Democrat Alton B. Parker for president in 1904, and wrote numerous articles for The Saturday Evening Post (1900-1906). The former American president died at his home in Princeton, New Jersey, on June 24, 1908.

Source consulted: American National Biography; William A. DeGregorio, The Complete Book of U.S. Presidents; Vincent De Santis, “Grover Cleveland,” Encyclopedia Americana,; Richard E. Welch Jr., The Presidencies of Grover Cleveland (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1987); and, Robert F. Wesser, “Election of 1888,” in History of American Presidential Elections, ed. Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1985).











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