Grover Cleveland by Henry F. Graff

President #22 and #24, C-SPAN Historians Ranking #21

I’m only telling you this once!

clevelandOften just regarded as a numerical oddity, Grover Cleveland served eight years as President during one of the most turbulent times in American history. America was still recovering from the Civil War. The nation was beset with violent labor strife. The economy  teetered on the brink of collapse. European powers were stretching out their empires and there was pressure for the U.S. to join in the fun.

And the man in the middle of much of this change was Grover Cleveland, a man who had vaulted from being mayor of Buffalo in 1881 to the White House in 1885. And is the story of this man an inspirational one for all of us?

From reading Henry F. Graff’s slim (only 138 pages if you don’t count the notes or index) book about Cleveland, the answer is no. Graff, a former professor at Columbia, tries his best to make us believe that Grover Cleveland had some special attributes that made him an especially great president. But, for the most part, Graff writes about a man who moved up the political ladder, mostly because he appeared to be more honest than most politicians of the era. This is a very low standard considering the state of American politics at the time.

Stephen Grover Cleveland (he dropped Stephen when he was young) was born in Caldwell, New Jersey in 1837, but spent most of his formative years in upstate New York. In 1854, after his father’s death, Cleveland decided it was time to go off and start a career. He was going to go to Cleveland, Ohio (my law career has been stymied by having no city named Timmermann) to study law as an apprentice to another lawyer. However, Cleveland ended up going to Buffalo to study after an uncle there gave him some financial help.

Cleveland was set up with a position in Buffalo’s most prestigious firm: Rogers, Bowen, and Rogers. The firm was famous because former president Millard Fillmore used to be a partner in it. And to this day, it is the only law firm to produce two presidents.

After passing the bar, Cleveland worked as an assistant district attorney for Erie County, but lost an election for the D.A. job. During the Civil War, Cleveland hired a substitute to take his place in the Union Army (which was perfectly legal and above board at the time).

In 1870, Cleveland won his first race when he was elected sheriff of Erie County. Cleveland presided over two executions, throwing open the trap door for two different men who were hanged. At the end of his term, Cleveland started a successful private law practice.

In 1881, Cleveland was elected mayor of Buffalo. And one year later, New York Democrats, soured by scandals among Tammany Hall Democrats in New York City, nominated Cleveland to run for governor. And Cleveland won that race.

Suddenly, Cleveland was placed in one of the most high profile state government jobs in the nation. It made him a contender for the White House in 1884.

However, it didn’t take much to be a Presidential contender in 1884. American politics was not producing its finer candidates at the time. Cleveland’s opponents at the Democratic convention were Thomas Bayard, Allen Thurman, and Benjamin Butler. Cleveland won on the second ballot.

The 1884 election would be fought on many topics. None of them were particularly germane to the problems of the country, however.

The Republican nominee was former Speaker of the House and Secretary of State James Blaine. The Republicans still liked to use the Civil War as a campaign issue (it was known as “waving the bloody shirt”). This time out, they were thwarted in an attempt to capitalize on that issue. First, Blaine, like Cleveland, had not served in the Civil War. Second, Civil War veterans were starting to age and die off and no longer as powerful as a voting bloc for the Republicans. A spike in immigration added new voters with no memory of the Civil War.

The Republicans did turn up a potential problem for Cleveland. Namely, Cleveland was suspected of fathering an illegitimate child, and then taking that child from his mother. Cleveland was prepared for this issue, and had told Democratic party officials about it. When asked for advice about what to do, Cleveland famously replied, “Tell the truth.”

And in this case, honesty was the best policy. The child was likely not Cleveland’s, but the offspring of a married friend of his, Oscar Folsom. Cleveland, as a bachelor, let his name be used as the father to avoid scandal. Cleveland also had provided for the child’s upbringing, and also made sure that the child was adopted into a good home. (The mother likely suffered from mental illness or an addiciton.)

The Democrats countered the Republicans bastard charges by accusing Blaine of corruption for receiving kickbacks from an Arkansas railroad in 1876 in exchange for political favors. There were incriminating letters to back this up, one of which was marked “Burn this letter.” The Democrats would derisively chant that phrase during any Republican rally.

Finally, a few days before the election, Blaine was being introduced at a rally in New York by a Presbyterian minister who described the Democrats as the party of “rum, Romanism, and rebellion.” Blaine quickly tried to dissociate himself from the comments, but it was too late. The large number of Irish voters in New York were incensed, and they swung in favor of Cleveland.

Cleveland carried New York by a little over 1,000 votes. He won nationwide by 32,000 votes, with a healthy lead in the Electoral College, 219 to 182.

Cleveland was the first Democrat to assume the Presidency since the Civil War (if you count Andrew Johnson as a Republican, which he sort of was.) There were going to be changes.

However, the Democrats expected Cleveland to engage in wide scale firings of Republicans in government jobs. But Cleveland eased up a bit, angering many supporters who were hoping to have favors cashed in. Cleveland, following the lead of Presidents Hayes and Arthur, tried to continue to reform the Federal Civil Service, although such reforms were hard to get through a Congress used to dealing in political patronage mixed with a dash of corruption and a pinch of graft.

Cleveland angered veterans groups by vetoing numerous pension bills, many of which were pushed through Congress as political favors for men who did little or no fighting during the Civil War. Cleveland also ordered the Army to return all captured Confederate battle flags (to whom is unclear to me.)

In May of 1886, a bomb thrown into the crowd at a labor rally in the Haymarket section of Chicago killed seven police officers. This event would presage other violence surrounding attempts by workers to organize for the next 50 years.

Although he was a bachelor when he entered the White House, Cleveland wouldn’t remain one for long. He had developed a fondness for the daughter of his friend Oscar Folsom. This young woman was born with the name Frank, which she changed to Frances, because life is hard for a girl named Frank. Cleveland had known this woman since birth. He bought Frank  her first crib.  When she was 21, Cleveland married Frank. And in the White House no less.

Perhaps today if there were a 49-year old bachelor president marrying a 21-year old woman that he had known since she was an infant, people might be a bit put off. But in 1886, this wasn’t considered that unusual. And the Clevelands went on to have a long and happy marriage that produced five children. Cleveland would always call his wife Frank also.

Toward the end of his first term, Cleveland pushed for a lower tariff. He felt that the system in place was hampering trade (tariffs tend to do that.) And the current tariff was making more than enough money for the country as the Treasury actually had a surplus.

Although Cleveland didn’t exactly negotiate anything remotely like today’s NAFTA, the tariff dropped enough to anger the American business establishment. And that, in turn, caused a flood of money to pour into Republican campaign coffers.

In 1888, Cleveland would win the popular vote over Republican Benjamin Harrison by 90,000 votes. But, he lost the electoral vote by a 233-168 margin. New York proved to be the key state, as Harrison won it by 15,000 votes.

The election of 1888 was also marred by some political chicanery. A California Republican wrote a letter, using the pseudonym “Murchison”, to the British minister to the U.S., Lord Lionel Sackville-West, asking him who he thought would be the best candidate for British interests in the upcoming election. Sackville-West wrote back saying that he thought Cleveland would better serve England.

When this news (The Murchison Letter) hit the papers, Cleveland, who had prided himself on his independence, looked like a tool of the British. And his Irish supporters in New York moved over to the Republican side.

Historical legend says that Frances Cleveland told the White House staff  in 1889 not to move around the furniture. Frances Cleveland said that she and her husband would be back in four years. Whether this was true is unclear, but the Clevelands did indeed return in 1893.

Harrison’s presidency was marred by a Populist uprising from rural interests, who demanded that the Federal Government start issuing more currency backed by silver* (which was being produced in mass quantities compared to gold.) This was combined with the Republicans imposing a very high tariff. So, there were fewer cheap goods coming into the country, and there was a lot of inflated currency around to spend (silver certificates). Hilarity did not ensue.

* To give you an idea of the problem, silver advocates wanted to maintain the arbitrary ratio of the price of gold being 16 times the price of silver. In 2009, the price of gold is about 65 times the price of silver. The disparity wasn’t as great in the 1890s, but it was still substantial. I’d explain this better, but I’m not paid to be an economist.

Another major labor action marred by violence, the Homestead Steel Strike of 1892, occurred a few months before the election. The Carnegie Steel Corporation hired Pinkerton detectives (Graff calls them “detectives”) as strikebreakers. Striking workers fired on the Pinkertons, killing ten of them.

The Democrats, with few other prospects on the horizon, trotted out Cleveland again in 1892. He was still popular, and he had still won the most popular votes the last time out. In the rematch, Cleveland bested Harrison by over 400,ooo votes, and won 277 electoral votes to 145 for Harrison and 22 for Populist Party candidate James Weaver. Cleveland became just the second president to win the popular vote three straight times, joining Andrew Jackson.

Cleveland’s second term began inauspiciously. The weather was bitterly cold on Inauguration Day and a small crowd came out to watch the ceremonies and parade.

Soon after taking office, a major financial crisis, the Panic of 1893, set in. All of the silver currency that was floating around was wreaking havoc with the financial system. Foreign creditors were demanding payment in gold. But, Western interests didn’t want to give up their silver. There wasn’t enough gold to pay foreign creditors.

To further complicate matters, Cleveland was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor on his soft palate. Since Cleveland’s vice president, Adlai Stevenson (grandfather of this guy), was a silver money supporter (unlike Cleveland who backed the gold standard), there were grave concerns that the financial markets would collapse further upon the news of Cleveland’s illness.

Cleveland had his surgery done in secret, on a yacht that was floating up and down the Hudson River. First, surgeons removed the tumor, and then later a dental appliance was formed so that Cleveland’s mouth looked normal. His speech would be unaffected. News of Cleveland’s illness would not be made public until 1917.

The economy did recover. However, Cleveland used a method that would not be associated with the Democratic Party of today. Cleveland asked New York bankers, principally J.P. Morgan, to supply the government with enough gold (3.5 million ounces) to build up its reserves and help ease the credit markets. Morgan likely made millions of dollars from deals he negotiated with foreign suppliers. Morgan would later be asked by Congress to reveal how much he made on the deal. Morgan wouldn’t say.

Cleveland faced two major foreign policy crises in his second term:

The first was a border dispute between Britain and Venezuela. The British argued that the border of their colony, British Guyana, stretched much further west than what Venezuela thought. This would have given Britain a considerable chunk of the Orinoco Valley.  Ships and soldiers prepared to fight before the two sides apparently realized that no one really cared about this border (and Britain was caught up in the Boer War).

The second problem was with Hawai’i. In 1893, a group of American plantation owners dethroned Queen Liliuokalani and established a provisional government, hoping for annexation by the United States. However, Cleveland refused to annex the islands. He rejected the idea that the U.S. Government would sponsor the overthrow of a legitimate government. Cleveland’s objections only served to postpone annexation until 1898, when he was out of office.

Cleveland faced another labor problem in 1894 when Pullman workers went on strike. This led to a strike by nearly all railroad workers in the country, crippling the transportation system.

The center of the crisis was in Chicago, where union leader Eugene Debs promised that the strike would prevent all trains, even those carrying the mail, from travelling through Chicago. Cleveland reacted by sending in soldiers to operate the train. His Attorney General, Richard Olney, received an injunction against the strikers. Once Debs violated the injunction, he was arrested and the strike was crushed.

The kindly mayor from Buffalo now appeared to be nothing more than a tool of Eastern capitalists. He was no longer the honest reformer of government.

In 1896, Cleveland toyed with the idea of another term. This time, the Democrats tried to tap into the Populist movement, nominating William Jennings Bryan, who made “free silver” (aka inflated currency), his platform. Cleveland watched his party go down to defeat, although he wasn’t broken up by it, as he thought Bryan would have ruined the country.

Cleveland retired to Princeton, New Jersey and did typical ex-president jobs, such as writing his memoirs, giving speeches, and picking up a lot of cash. He passed away in 1908.

Grover Cleveland’s time is a fascinating era in American history, with many different sociological and political changes. But from reading Graff’s book, it doesn’t seem that Grover Cleveland was nearly as interesting as the time he lived in. He was a man who was along for the ride. Graff describes Cleveland as man without charisma and without any knowledge of handling public relations (Cleveland made White House reporters wait outside for stories.). Grover Cleveland was not a person who defined his era. He just tried his best to get through it.

Other stuff: The Grover Cleveland Birthplace is located in Caldwell, Jersey. It is operated by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.

Cleveland’s unique status as the 22nd and 24th Presidents wasn’t decided officially until the 1950s. According to a New York Times article from January 10, 1950, the Congressional Directory identified Cleveland as both the 22nd and 24th President for the first time, changing Harry Truman from being the 32nd President to the 33rd. Truman believed he was the 32nd President, however. But, when Dwight Eisenhower was inaugurated in 1953, he identified himself as the 34th President. The 1950 article cites an opinion by an anonymous “State Department legal adviser” in 1945 that said that Cleveland had to be the 24th President as well as the 22nd because, logically, you couldn’t have the 22nd President serving in office after the 23rd.

Cleveland had a different running mate in each of his three presidential campaigns. Thomas Hendricks was his first Vice President (he also ran as Samuel Tilden’s running mate in 1876), but he passed away in 1885. Thurman was Cleveland’s running mate in 1888. Stevenson was his running mate in 1892. Stevenson would run for Vice President again in 1900 alongside Bryan.

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9 Responses

  1. Nice article Bob. I remember him mainly as the namesake of Grover Cleveland Alexander.

  2. Grover Cleveland is far and away my 5-year old’s favorite President. I don’t know if it is the name, the mustache, or the fact that he appears twice on his placemat of the Presidents, but he loves that guy.

  3. I always like him as a kid as well, and I guess I always wondered why he was not more of a “figure” in US histroy, after all, as you say he won the popular vote three times in a row. Your book report helps explain that a bit more.

  4. I still like Grover Cleveland. Yeah, he wasn’t a great President, but he really stands out in his era for his competence. I’d say that he is probably the best President between Lincoln and Roosevelt.

  5. The professionals don’t seem to like him all that much, as he ranks in the middle of the pack (and not a glorious pack at that) at 21. This is slightly better than Grant at 23 and Taft at 24. By the way, Grant jumped up from 33rd in 2000 (and Cleveland fell from 17th). Perhaps Bob’s report on Grant will shed some light on this significant reassessment by the group of historians.

  6. Please revise your reference to the Cleveland Scandal. The child WAS his. The mother WAS NOT mentally ill. Cleveland DID mistreat her horribly.

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