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THE PRESIDENTS of the United States
Biographical Sketches

Twenty-Second President • 1885-89
Twenty-Fourth President • 1893-97
Grover Cleveland
Grover Cleveland

Cleveland, who had been a prominent upstate New York lawyer and politician, was the first Democratic Chief Executive after the Civil War and the only one ever elected to nonconsecutive terms. Disdaining paternalism for either the powerful or the weak, he vetoed more bills than any previous President. He rejected governmental interference with the economy, fought protective tariffs and inflationary monetary schemes, and continued the reform programs of his immediate predecessors. A severe economic depression and industry-labor strife plagued his second term.

Born in 1837 at Caldwell, N.J., Cleveland was christened as Stephen Grover, but stopped using his first name early in his life. He was the fifth of nine children sired by a Presbyterian pastor. In 1841 a ministerial reassignment resulted in a family move to Fayetteville, in central New York. There, the boy received an education at home and in village schools until he was 13 years old.

At that time, his father's failing health and financial problems forced Grover to work as a clerk in a local store. When his father took a job as district secretary of a missionary society and moved in 1850 to nearby Clinton, N.Y., the youth briefly enrolled at a college preparatory academy there, but soon had to return to his clerk position at Fayetteville. The death of his father in 1853, shortly after taking a parsonage in Holland Patent, N.Y., ended the young man's hopes of going to college.

campaign poster
This 1888 broadside pictures Cleveland, his wife, and Vice-Presidential candidate Allen G. Thurman. (Benjamin Harrison won the election. Copyrighted by the Waring Hat Manufacturing Co., Library of Congress.)

After teaching in 1853-54 at Gotham's New York Institution for the Blind, Cleveland headed west to seek better economic opportunity. By the spring of 1855, however, he had ventured only as far as the stock farm of his uncle, Lewis F. Allen, near Buffalo, N.Y. After a summer of assisting in compiling Allen's American Shorthorn Herd Book, Cleveland entered a Buffalo law office as an apprentice clerk. In 1859 he was admitted to the bar and began practice. Lacking a martial spirit and still burdened by family financial responsibilities, during the Civil War (1861-65) he hired a substitute, as did many others, to perform his military service.

Cleveland had shown a predilection for Democratic politics as early as 1858, and first worked for the local party organization. Four years later, he was elected as a city ward supervisor, and the following year was appointed as assistant district attorney of Erie County, which included Buffalo. In 1865 he lost a race for district attorney. For the next 5 years, he devoted himself to his law practice. Then he was elected as county sheriff (1871-73), after which he resumed his legal activities. By the mid-1870's, he had attained recognition as one of the leading lawyers in the western part of the State. In 1881 he was elected as mayor of Buffalo, in which position he launched attacks on machine politics that irritated even his own party.

Frances Cleveland
Frances Cleveland
Rose Cleveland
Rose Cleveland

This untainted record helped Cleveland win the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 1882 and a record plurality over a Republican machine candidate. The new Governor exhibited a bipartisan independence in office that gained him national recognition, but his resolute exercise of the veto to curb corruption and patronage angered New York City's Tammany Hall Democratic organization. Aided by Republican assemblyman Theodore Roosevelt, he also passed municipal reform legislation. On the other hand, he blocked reformers' attempts to lower rates of the privately owned New York City commuter railway because he felt they violated the company's right of contract.

Cleveland gained the Presidential nomination in 1884 without Tammany support. The campaign was close, and much mud was slung. Some Republicans claimed Cleveland had fathered an illegitimate son. The Democrats, who were backed by a splinter group of antimachine Republicans, charged James G. Blaine, the Republican candidate, with corruption because of his implication in the Credit Mobilier scandal. He also lost some of the Catholic vote by not repudiating a supporter's charge that the Democrats were the party of "rum, Romanism, and rebellion."

Cleveland entered office firmly convinced he should only administer, execute, and react to congressional laws, but before long chose to exert leadership. Throughout his two terms, he opposed favoritism, no matter on whose behalf it was instigated. He opened thousands of acres of land to homesteaders that the railroads had falsely claimed had been granted to them. He appointed unbiased and able men to the first Federal commission to regulate railroads, created by the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887. He also returned to the Indians almost 500,000 acres of reservation land that President Arthur's administration had opened to settlement.

Moreover, Cleveland vetoed numerous bills granting pensions to individual Union Civil War veterans and their dependents, as well as a Grand Army of the Republic-sponsored act designed to compensate ex-Union soldiers for non-service incurred disabilities or old age. He championed legislation to lower tariffs, which he felt unduly benefited industry and harmed farmers and workers, but he was unable to get the legislation he wanted through Congress during either of his stints in office.

"Deadeye Dick" (Senator Richard P.) Bland and other mutinous "sailors" in his own party try to force gold-standard-supporter Cleveland to walk the "Free Silver" plank of the ship Democracy. (Drawing by G. Y. Coffin, Library of Congress.)

Fellow Democrats hounded Cleveland for appointments. Although he replaced two-thirds of the Federal bureaucracy in his first term, he irritated machine politicians by urging repeal of the Tenure-of-Office Act (1867), which had enhanced senatorial control over Presidential removals of previously confirmed officeholders. His strong support of the Civil Service Commission led to a doubling of the number of merit positions, but failed to satisfy all the civil service reformers.

In 1886 Cleveland married 21-year-old Frances Folsom, daughter of a former law partner who on his death had left her as Cleveland's ward. This was the only wedding of a President that has ever been held in the White House, and the bride was the youngest of all First Ladies. She was to bear two sons and three daughters.

Business opposition to his tariff position and intraparty squabbles over patronage probably cost Cleveland reelection in 1888. Although he captured a plurality of the popular vote, he lost the decisive electoral votes of New York and Indiana that he had carried in 1884 to Republican Benjamin Harrison.

After spending 4 years practicing law in New York City, in 1892 Cleveland was easily reelected over Harrison and the Populist, or "People's Party," candidate James B. Weaver. The year Cleveland reentered office, the Panic of 1893 hit the country. Companies went bankrupt, Treasury gold reserves fell, some 500 banks failed, mortgages were foreclosed, and unemployment rose drastically. Advocating deflationary gold-standard policies to insure business confidence and restore prosperity, he led the congressional fight for repeal of the mildly inflationary Sherman Silver Purchase Act (1890). In 1895 he bolstered Treasury reserves and strengthened the gold standard by obtaining a governmental loan from Wall Street tycoons J.P. Morgan and August Belmont.

Cleveland's second inauguration, March 4, 1893. (Library of Congress.)

Meanwhile, growing unemployment, low wages, and excessively long working hours had created domestic turmoil. In the spring of 1894, Jacob S. Coxey and his "army" marched from Ohio to Washington, D.C., to petition for unemployment relief. Cleveland approved Attorney General Richard Olney's use of police to disperse the protesters.

Late that same year, the American Railway Union, led by Eugene V. Debs, boycotted the cars of the Chicago-based Pullman Palace Car Company, whose workers were striking over wage cuts and the company's paternalistic policies. Olney appointed a small army of special deputies to continue railroad operations. After violence erupted, in a bitterly controversial move Cleveland ignored the objections of Illinois Gov. John P. Altgeld, and sent Federal troops to restore order. An injunction against labor to insure mail deliveries and prevent interference with interstate commerce brought an end to the strike and resulted in the imprisonment of Debs.

Conservation-minded like Harrison, in 1897 Cleveland created a number of additional forest reserves containing more than 21 million acres. Three years earlier, he had also signed the first Federal legislation designed to protect wildlife on Government lands, the Yellowstone Act.



Foreign affairs claimed a share of Cleveland's attention. He reached agreement with Great Britain and Canada over fishing rights in waters adjacent to the latter. He favored Samoan autonomy over British, German, and even American intervention and control. He scuttled the treaty Harrison had negotiated for the annexation of Hawaii and checked further attempts in that direction. When rebellion broke out in Cuba against Spain, beginning in 1895, Cleveland, against rising public sentiment and the provocative actions of U.S.-based arms dealers and volunteer expeditions, maintained official neutrality. During a boundary dispute between Venezuela and Great Britain over the boundary of British Guiana, he invoked the Monroe Doctrine and convinced the parties to submit the issue to arbitration.

Cleveland's conservative economic policies failed to end the depression and alienated many Democrats, especially in the South and West. In 1894 the Republicans won landslide victories in the congressional elections. Two years later, the Democratic convention repudiated Cleveland's administration and nominated silverite William Jennings Bryan, whom the Populists also endorsed.

Cleveland spent an active retirement at Westland, his recently purchased home in Princeton, N.J. He sat on the board of trustees of the university and the Equitable Life Assurance Society. Although President Theodore Roosevelt appointed him as chairman of a coal strike commission in 1902, the body never met. Presidential Problems, a collection of his speeches, was published 2 years later. He also wrote various magazine articles and authored Fishing and Shooting Sketches (1906). In 1908 he passed away at Princeton.

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Last Updated: 22-Jan-2004