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American President Essays: Grover Cleveland

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Grover Cleveland: Life in Brief

Stephen Grover Cleveland fell into politics without really trying. In 1881, local businessmen asked Cleveland, then a young lawyer, to run for mayor of Buffalo, New York. He agreed and won the Democratic nomination and the election. As mayor, Cleveland exposed city corruption and earned such a reputation for honesty and hard work that he won the New York gubernatorial race in 1882. Governor Cleveland used his power to take on the Tammany Hall, the political machine based in New York City, even though it had supported him in the election. Within a year, the Democrats were looking to Cleveland as an important new face and pragmatic reformer who might win the presidency in 1884.

Three Campaigns for President

In the election of 1884, Cleveland appealed to middle-class voters of both parties as someone who would fight political corruption and big-money interests. Many people saw Cleveland's Republican opponent, James G. Blaine, as a puppet of Wall Street and the powerful railroads. The morally upright Mugwumps, a Republican group of reform-minded businessmen and professionals, hated Blaine and embraced Cleveland's efforts at battling corruption. Cleveland also had the popularity to carry New York, a state crucial to victory.

But Cleveland had a sex-scandal to live down: he was accused of fathering a son out of wedlock—a charge that he admitted might be true—owing to his affair with Maria Halpin in 1874. By honestly confronting the charges, Cleveland retained the loyalty of his supporters, winning the election by the narrowest of margins.

When he ran for reelection in 1888, the Republicans raised lots of money from the nation's manufacturers and spent it lavishly, helping to ensure victory for their candidate, Benjamin Harrison. The election thus marked the beginning of a new era in campaign financing. Though Cleveland actually won a larger share of the popular vote, Harrison defeated Cleveland in the Electoral College.

In 1892, however, after four years of Republican leadership, Cleveland quashed the reelection hopes of Harrison, who had alienated many in his own party. He thus became the only President to serve nonconsecutive terms, winning the office once again after losing as the incumbent.

Watchdog in the White House

Cleveland did not see himself as an activist President with his own agenda to pursue, but as a guardian or watchdog of Congress. While several important pieces of legislation became law during his terms—most notably bills controlling the railroads and distributing land to Native Americans—he did not initiate any of it.

During his second term, Cleveland also had to deal with the most severe depression the nation had ever suffered. By 1894, the U.S. economy was reeling from an 18 percent unemployment rate. When 150,000 railroad workers walked off the job in sympathy with the Pullman Car workers' strike in Illinois, Cleveland sent federal troops to crush the revolt and arrest its leaders. In this instance, he tilted toward the business community in the ongoing struggle between management and labor. This decision sparked a great deal of criticism at the time as well as later from historians.

Cleveland blamed the country's economic problems on the Sherman Silver Purchasing Act passed during the Harrison administration. His attempt to repeal the act split the Democrats, and his failure to deal with the depression ensured Republican victory in the congressional elections of 1894. He left office in 1897 feeling betrayed by his own party.

Social Issues and Foreign Affairs

Cleveland's opposition to temperence won the support of the Irish, German, and East European voters who migrated to the United States by the tens of thousands in the 1880s. He was inconsistent in his attitude toward racial issues, however. Although he spoke out against injustices being visited on the Chinese in the West, he sympathized with Southern reluctance to treat African Americans as social or political equals. Native Americans, he thought, should assimilate into white society as quickly as possible through federal aid for education and private land grants. Finally, though he was careful not to alienate women by speaking out against female suffrage, he never supported a woman's right to vote.

In foreign policy, Cleveland opposed territorial expansion and entangling alliances. His behavior was inconsistent, however, and he took a bellicose position when a dispute arose with Germany over Samoa. He adopted a similar stance with respect to Hawaii, where he believed that U.S. sugar planters had conspired in the Hawaiian revolution. His most controversial action was his interference in a boundary dispute between Venezuela and Britain. Claiming that the British were violating the Monroe Doctrine, Cleveland actually threatened London with war. While historians continue to debate the wisdom of Cleveland's action, the affair brought the Monroe Doctrine back to life as the basis of U.S. foreign policy in the Western Hemisphere.

End of Bachelorhood

After two years in office as a bachelor President, Cleveland announced his marriage to his twenty-one-year-old ward, Frances Folsom, the daughter of his former law partner. The press had a field day satirizing the relationship between the old bachelor and the recent college graduate, who quickly became the most popular first lady since Dolley Madison. Frances adhered to the prevailing ideal that separated the private lives of women from the public lives of men. Respecting the wishes of her husband, she never used her popularity to advance the political causes of the day.

Cleveland's Legacy

Cleveland will be remembered for protecting the power and autonomy of the executive branch. His record-breaking use of the presidential veto earned him the deserved moniker of the "guardian President" and helped balance the power of executive and legislative branches. But he did not think that the President should propose legislation and he disliked using legislative solutions to address America's growing social and economic difficulties.

Hard-working, honest, and independent, Cleveland nevertheless had no real vision for the future. At most, historians tend to see his presidency as strengthening the power of the executive branch in relation to Congress and leading to the emergence of the modern presidency that began with Theodore Roosevelt.

Grover Cleveland: Life Before the Presidency

In his youth, no one would have thought it likely that Stephen Grover Cleveland would become President of the United States. He was born in Caldwell, New Jersey, on March 18, 1837, the fifth of nine children. His father, the Reverend Richard Cleveland, was a nearly impoverished, Yale-educated Presbyterian minister. Grover spent his boyhood in the central New York towns of Fayetteville and Clinton, where his father ministered until he died. Age sixteen at the time of his father's death, Cleveland had to forego his dreams of college and employment to help support his family. He worked with his older brother in New York City and then as a clerk and part-time law student in Buffalo. Although he never attended college, he was admitted to the bar in 1858 at age twenty-two.

During the Civil War, Cleveland served as assistant district attorney for Erie County. He had avoided military service in the war by hiring a substitute for $300. In later years, his enemies would castigate him as a "slacker" for having evaded the draft. Nevertheless, Cleveland soon earned the reputation as a hard-working lawyer, presenting his arguments from memory before judge and jury. As President, he would deliver his inaugural addresses without notes—something no President had ever done before.

In 1870, Cleveland was elected sheriff of Erie County, a position he held until 1873, when he returned to practicing law. By 1881, he had amassed a modest savings account of $75,000. He had also amassed a sizeable body girth. Because of his weight—over 250 lbs.—he was known to his friends as "Big Steve," a sobriquent from his earlier days. In the years before he entered politics, Cleveland was acknowledged as a frequenter of restaurant-saloons, a popular gent who loved to hunt and fish with his male companions, and good man to have as a friend. Thoroughly provincial, he never traveled, seldom read fiction or poetry, infrequently listened to music, and exhibited little interest in high culture of any sort. He enjoyed poker parties, Democratic organizational work, drinking with his buddies, and other simple pleasures.

Crafting a Political Image

Though he had served as sheriff of Erie County, Cleveland had avoided partisan politics. Thus, he was surprised when the Buffalo City Democratic Committee tapped him to run for mayor in 1881. As a new man among old faces, Cleveland pulled off an upset victory. In one year, Mayor Cleveland exposed graft and corruption in the city's municipal services (street cleaning, sewage, and transportation), vetoed dozens of pork-barrel appropriations, and set a pace for hard work and efficiency that impressed state leaders in the Democratic Party. Seeing the advantages of running a upright urban reformer, the Democratic Party nominated Cleveland for governor of New York.

The image appealed to voters and Cleveland (now referred to affectionately by some friends and relatives as "Uncle Jumbo") carried his 280 pounds into the governor's mansion. As New York's chief executive from 1882 to 1884, Cleveland used the same tactics that had worked in Buffalo. He vetoed what he perceived as extravagant and special-privilege legislation, such as bills that would have held down transit fares and regulated the hours of transit workers. He also challenged the substantially corrupt Tammany Hall, a political machine based in New York City that had supported him in the election. He worked harder and longer hours than anyone else in state government. Within a year, Democrats around the nation were touting him as a fresh face, a political outsider, and a pragmatic reformer who might win the presidency in 1884.

Grover Cleveland: Campaigns and Elections

The Campaign and Election of 1884:

Grover Cleveland carried four advantages into the 1884 presidential campaign. First, his battles with Tammany Hall had won the support of middle-class voters from both parties. Second, his reformism emphasized hard work, merit, and efficiency, reinforcing his appeal to Republicans as well as to Democrats. Third, and most importantly, he seemed poised to carry the state of New York; in 1884, every politician worth his salt understood that the Democrats had to carry the entire South and New York to win. Lastly, the candidate nominated for the Republican ticket, the irascible James G. Blaine of Maine, had almost as many enemies within the Republican Party as supporters. The morally upright Mugwumps, a Republican faction of reform-minded businessmen and professionals, hated Blaine but admired Cleveland because of his willingness to challenge corrupt political organizations and businesses.

When the two candidates squared off in the summer of 1884, Blaine immediately promoted tariff protection as the centerpiece of his campaign. Cleveland preached honesty and efficiency in government. He talked about the need for federal "corrective action," to which Blaine countered with demands for "constructive action." Democrats tried hard to paint Blaine as politically immoral, a blackmailer who, as Speaker of the House, had used his influence to obtain favors from railroads. The press made the most of these images in their political cartoons. Mass demonstrations sprang up on Wall Street ridiculing Blaine as a tool of the moneyed interests. The Democrats challenged Blaine's integrity further in an effective campaign slogan:

"Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine,The continental liar from the State of Maine."

For his part, Cleveland gave only two campaign speeches in 1884. In both, he characterized the Republican Party as a "vast army of office holders"—corrupt, extravagant, and subservient to the rich. When Republicans charged Cleveland with fathering an illegitimate child by a woman whom he had then sent to an insane asylum, Cleveland immediately admitted the possibility of his paternity. Like hungry animals scenting blood, the Republican press charged Cleveland with debauchery and immorality. These publications argued that a choice between Cleveland and Blaine was a choice between "the brothel and the family, between indecency and decency, between lust and law." A popular Republican cartoon caption read: "Ma, Ma, Where's my Pa?"Cleveland responded to these attacks by urging his supporters to "Tell the Truth." After instructing telegramming his Buffalo friends by telegram to follow this dictum, he ignored the scandalmongers and left his defense to his closest associates. He privately told them to avoid all cringing and to make it clear that he had, in fact, fallen to temptation, but just that once. A supporter deflected the morality issue with the following argument: "We are told that Mr. Blaine has been delinquent in office but blameless in public life, while Mr. Cleveland has been a model of official integrity but culpable in personal relations. We should therefore elect Mr. Cleveland to the public office for which he is so well qualified to fill, and remand Mr. Blaine to the private station which he is admirably fitted to adorn."Cleveland admitted to having sexual relations with Maria Halpin in 1874. She later gave birth to an infant boy and named Cleveland as the child's father. He had agreed to name the child Oscar Folsom Cleveland after himself and his law partner, who, as it happened, could also have been the responsible party. When the mother suffered a mental collapse, the child was adopted by a couple living in the western part of the state. Cleveland never again saw the child or the mother.

Cleveland won the 1884 election by the narrowest of margins. He received 4,879,507 votes (48.5 percent) to Blaine's 4,850,293 votes (48.2 percent). If Blaine had won a few more votes in New York—which he lost to Cleveland by only 1,200 votes out of the more than one million cast, he would have taken that state's huge electoral slate and won the presidency. As it was, Cleveland received 219 electoral votes to Blaine's 182.

The Campaign and Election of 1888

Renominated as the Democratic candidate in 1888, Cleveland met the Republican nominee, Benjamin Harrison—former Civil War general and senator from Indiana, and grandson of President William Henry Harrison—with dignity and understatement. The two men ran campaigns that focused on the issues. The Republicans aggressively defended protective tariffs—raising an unprecedented campaign war chest of $3 million from the nation's manufacturers. They also attacked Cleveland's numerous vetoes, especially those that denied pension increases to Civil War veterans, portraying them as arrogant displays of presidential power. To counteract these charges, Cleveland campaigned on his record of civil service reform and tariff reduction, feeling certain that he would again carry the day. While Harrison lost the popular vote to Cleveland (47.9 percent to 48.6 percent), he easily won the Electoral College (233 to 168). Cleveland lost New York as well as Indiana, but by very narrow margins. His failure to win his own state of New York was related to the callousness that he demonstrated toward workers' rights and his failure to support a high tariff. Republican victory reflected a focused and well-funded campaign that concentrated on the crucial big-vote states. Most importantly, the Republicans won majorities in both the House and Senate. Some historians say that Harrison's victory marked the beginning of a new era, one in which lavish funds were raised and spent freely to insure political victory.

The Campaign and Election of 1892

In 1892, after four years of Republican leadership, the parties once again ran Harrison and Cleveland. This time, it was the Republican Party that stood in disarray and on the defensive. Moreover, a third party had emerged on the scene: the People's Party (or Populist Party), composed of western populists and southern supporters of the Farmers' Alliance. The Populists gave their nomination to James B. Weaver of Iowa, who had run previously as a Greenbacker (a party that favored the printing of paper currency with no gold backing).

Although the Populist surge carried five states and more than 8 percent of the total vote, Cleveland won with 46 percent of the popular vote to Harrison's 43 percent. The electoral tally gave Cleveland 277, Harrison 145, and Weaver 22. The Democrats also regained both houses of Congress.

In assessing the 1892 election, the Republicans' poor showing in the Midwest among ethnic voters, including Germans and Irish, probably reflected the party's identification with temperance. Also, Republican votes had plummeted in the South as African Americans were disfranchised by various Jim Crow laws (poll taxes, literacy tests, and residency requirements). Additionally, the McKinley Tariff of 1890, a Republican piece of legislation, led to higher prices and wage cuts in select industries, infuriating large segments of the public.

Grover Cleveland: Domestic Affairs

When Grover Cleveland became President in 1885, he was the first Democrat to occupy the White House since James Buchanan was elected just prior to the Civil War. For most of his first term, Cleveland was more concerned with preventing Congress from granting privileges to special interests than with pursuing his own legislative agenda. He did not see himself as an activist President. Beyond making speeches, he did not send much legislation to Congress or demonstrate much leadership. Instead, he focused on making the federal government more efficient by appointing officials based on merit. Cleveland's management style was to name qualified cabinet members, delegate authority to them, and use them for advice and counsel.

Legislative Impact

Cleveland did push two legislative initiatives, during his first term, however: the repeal of the Bland-Allison Silver Purchase Act of 1878 and tariff reduction. His efforts, however, were ineffective and poorly presented. Always a hard-currency advocate (he thought that paper money should be backed by gold), Cleveland believed that inflating the money supply through the purchase and coinage of silver undermined confidence in the American dollar and punished creditors by paying them money less valuable than the dollars they had originally loaned. On this issue Cleveland stood apart from his constituency, especially in the South and West. The Bland-Allison Act remained law until the Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890 replaced it. Tariff reduction, on the other hand, had the support of many Democrats. However, Cleveland's ineffective leadership generated little change in the tariff structure.

Consistent with his actions as governor of New York, Cleveland was not shy about using his veto power. For example, he turned away hundreds of veterans' pension bills because he thought they were fraudulent. He also vetoed a bill to provide drought relief to farmers in the West owing to his belief that such assistance was not the province of national government.

In one area, however, Cleveland exhibited tact and effective energy. Almost as soon as he assumed office, Cleveland's congressional opponents attempted to limit his power to remove Republican-appointed federal officials. They argued that the Tenure of Office Act of 1867 required congressional consent for the dismissal of executive branch office-holders. Cleveland refused to accept this interpretation, made speeches in opposition, and forced the Republicans to back down. His decisive action in this matter stands as the exception rather than the rule when it came to his leadership of Congress.

Race, Ethnicity, and Immigration

Although a reformer, Cleveland used patronage and party organization to win elections. He stood with his party in opposition to temperance, thus winning the support of others who opposed it—including the Irish, Germans, and East Europeans who had migrated to the United States by the tens of thousands in the 1880s. On the issue of race, he agreed with white southerners in their reluctance to treat African Americans as social and political equals, and made special efforts to reach out to Democrats and former Confederates in the South to assure them that they had a friend in the White House. He also opposed integrated schools in New York and saw African Americans as essentially inferior. In believing that government should not interfere with what he regarded as a social problem, he opposed efforts to protect the suffrage of African Americans.

In his first term as President, Cleveland condemned the "outrages" being committed against the Chinese on the nation's west coast. He soon concluded, however, that prejudice towards the Chinese in the region was so deep and their culture so alien that America could not absorb this immigrant group. Thereafter, he worked to limit Chinese immigration and to prohibit those who had left the United States to visit relatives in China from returning. The principal difference between Chinese and European immigrants, he believed, was the unwillingness of the former to assimilate into American society.

When Cleveland took office, 204,000 Native Americans were scattered among 171 reservations on 135 million acres of land. In Cleveland's view, the Native Americans were wards of the nation, like wayward but promising children in need of a guardian. Regarding himself as an Indian reformer, Cleveland sought to persuade Native Americans to forego their old tribal ways. He sought to be assimilate them into white society by means of education, private land ownership, and parental guidance from the federal government. Though he did not campaign for the bill, he eagerly supported and signed into law the Dawes Act of 1887, which empowered the President to allot land within the reservations to individual Indians—with all surplus land reverting to the public domain. It was a disastrous policy that robbed Native Americans of much of their land and did little to improve their way of life.

Women's Rights

Cleveland was mostly silent on the issue of women's suffrage. He understood the value of women's clubs and political organizations in drumming up the vote of husbands and fathers, and was careful not to alienate either group by speaking out against female suffrage. Neither, however, did he speak in favor of it. His one stance in support of women's rights was to criticize polygamy.

Economic Crisis

Cleveland's second administration began in 1893, just as the nation entered the most severe depression in its history. By 1894, nearly 18 percent of the nation's workers were unemployed. One-third of the wage earners in manufacturing and 25 percent of urban workers stood idle and hungry. Confidence in the economy was low, as one out of ten banks had shut their doors to depositors. Railroad construction had fallen by 50 percent, and the market for steel rails fell by one-third, forcing dozens of steel companies into bankruptcy. Charities and relief societies were unable to cope with the overwhelming demand for aid.

One response to the depression came by way of Ohioan Jacob Coxey, who organized unemployed workers from the Midwest to march to Washington, D.C., and appeal to the government for provide public works projects and relief. Known as Coxey's Army, thousands of workers tramped across the nation to its capital, though only 500 actually arrived. The press gave the march wide coverage. Ultimately, however, Coxey's efforts were unsuccessful. Cleveland did not believe that the government should sponsor work projects to relieve the depression, and the march did nothing to change his mind.

Labor unrest continued to haunt Cleveland during his second term. In 1894, 150,000 railroad workers from all over the nation struck in support of the Pullman Car workers' walk-off at a company town outside of Chicago. Even though the governor of Illinois, John Altgeld, did not want Cleveland to use federal troops to break the strike, the President did so anyway. Many observers wondered whether the nation was on the brink of either anarchy or presidential tyranny. Cleveland's handling of the strike alienated many Northern workers from the Democratic Party.

Cleveland's most forceful response to the depression was to blame the Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890, passed during the Harrison administration, for the nation's economic troubles. This law required the Treasury to purchase 4.5 million ounces of silver a month to be coined as silver dollars. As a result, the production of silver increased while the supply of gold fell, making gold more expensive. By 1893, the gold value of the silver dollar fell to 60 cents.

In successfully calling for repeal of the Purchase Act, Cleveland split the Democratic Party down the middle. He lost the support of western and southern Democrats, who thereafter looked upon Cleveland as more Republican than the Republicans. Upon repeal of the act, holders of U.S. government bonds (and the silver certificates the government once used to purchase silver) began cashing them in for gold. By 1892, the nation's gold reserves dipped below $100 million. Between 1894 and 1896, Cleveland authorized four new government bonds to raise enough gold to prevent the government from defaulting on its international obligations. He was forced to turn to investment banker J. P. Morgan to support the bonds. In relying on Morgan, Cleveland was derided for allying with powerful Wall Street interests instead of helping the average American. The President, however, felt that he had no choice but to replenish the country's gold reserves.

In the congressional elections of 1894, Cleveland's failure to deal with the depression instigated the greatest realignment of voters since the Civil War. The Democrats lost everywhere but in the Deep South. One Missouri Democrat said that the election was "the greatest slaughter of innocents since Herod," referring to the King of Judea under the Roman regime who was infamous for his tyranny, violence, and wickedness. Cleveland felt besieged, surrounded by enemies, and beset by hecklers at every turn. He left the White House in 1897 as an embittered but arrogant man, convinced that he had been betrayed by the "agrarian radicals" and "Silverites" within his own party.

Grover Cleveland: Foreign Affairs

Grover Cleveland's principal agenda in foreign policy was to oppose territorial expansion and entangling alliances. With these purposes in mind, he decided to withdraw the Frelinghuysen-Zavala Treaty from senatorial consideration. This treaty gave the United States the right to construct a canal in Nicaragua that was to be owned jointly by the two nations.

Cleveland's first term also found him enmeshed in the complex issue of U.S. fishing rights in the North Atlantic off Canada and Newfoundland. He also worked on the disputed boundary between Alaska and British Colombia and the problem of the diminishing fur-seal population in the Bering Sea. In all of these cases, Cleveland moved with tact and delicacy.

Alliances and Power in the Pacific

Samoa was another matter altogether. Because the United States had treaty rights to establish a naval base on the island, Cleveland reacted strongly when Germany tried to install a puppet monarch. The President dispatched three warships to Samoan waters, a bellicose action that eventually produced a tripartite protectorate over the islands signed by Germany, Britain, and the United States. After he left office, Cleveland criticized the agreement as an entangling alliance with European monarchies.

In his second term, the situation in Hawaii caught Cleveland off guard. He was concerned that the Harrison's administration and American sugar planters on the islands had conspired during the Hawaiian revolution of 1893 to overthrow the Hawaiian monarchy. Cleveland tried to pressure the revolutionary government into handing power back to Queen Liliuokalani. When the American sugar planters threatened to resist by arms and the defiant Queen refused to grant amnesty to the revolutionary leaders—she wanted them beheaded—Cleveland washed his hands of the affair in frustration. In a final act of pique, he handed the problem to Congress, where it remained until President McKinley affirmed a joint congressional resolution that made Hawaii an American territory in 1900.

Disputes in the Americas

Cleveland's interference in the Venezuelan boundary dispute was his most controversial foreign policy decision. Britain, which had amassed holdings in British Guiana since the early nineteenth century, laid claim to the Orinoco River—and thus a vast interior trading region reaching into Venezuela. When Venezuela asked the United States to arbitrate the dispute, Cleveland eagerly accepted. The British balked at U.S. involvement, leading Cleveland to write a "twenty-inch gun" missive in which he threatened Britain with war. To force the point, he sent U.S. naval vessels to confront British warships near Venezuela. Amidst a wave of war hysteria in America, Britain agreed to accept arbitration. Historians debate Cleveland's motivations here as well as the outcome of the episode. What is not in dispute is Cleveland's responsibility for bringing the Monroe Doctrine back to life as the basis of U.S. foreign policy in the hemisphere.

Other foreign policy issues occupied Cleveland's attention during his two terms. In 1885, he sent a small detachment of marines to Panama (then a Colombian province) to help quash a rebellion. He also dispatched U.S. troops to Rio de Janeiro in defiance of a blockade of its harbor by pro-monarchists rebelling against the Republic of Brazil. In Cuba, Cleveland wanted to remain neutral, refusing to support the insurrection against Spanish rule and urging instead that Spain adopt reforms that would lead to gradual independence. On this issue, he stood in opposition to the Senate, which had adopted resolutions urging Cleveland to recognize the belligerency of the Cuban rebels. Congress then moved to defy the President by threatening to recognize Cuban independence. Cleveland responded flatly, saying he would characterize any such resolution as a usurpation of presidential authority. The matter remained unresolved at the end of his second term.

Grover Cleveland: Life After the Presidency

Following Cleveland’s retirement from political office in 1897, he played the stock market and practiced law in order to support his substantial family—though it is estimated that by 1896 he had amassed a moderate personal fortune of $350,000. He moved to a spacious house in Princeton, New Jersey, where he was treated like royalty by the town's inhabitants. He also became a trustee of Princeton University and began writing essays and political commentary, including a book—Presidential Problems (1904)—which focused on some of his most controversial decisions. He never wrote his autobiography, however. Cleveland also served on several corporate boards and gave public speeches. The death of his oldest daughter Ruth, in 1904, visibly aged the old Democrat. Some of his friends said that he never fully recovered.

Grover Cleveland died as he had lived: determined to be in control. In the grip of a gastro-intestinal disease complicated by an ailment of the heart and kidneys, Cleveland suffered great pain in the spring of 1908. A severe attack hit him while on vacation in late March of 1908, causing him to think that the end was near. With great secrecy, he was rushed by automobile to Princeton, where he died early on June 24. "I have tried so hard to do right" were his final words. Two days later, he was buried. Venezuela indicated that its nation's flags would be flown at half-mast. Theodore Roosevelt's eulogy compared him to a "happy warrior"—one who had served on honorable terms and who understood that the presidency was a "public trust" bestowed upon him by the people.

Grover Cleveland: Family Life

In the White House, Grover Cleveland became one of the hardest working Presidents ever, doing his own paperwork and routinely working past midnight, often until two or three in the morning. He paid his own expenses, dispensed with luxuries such as the presidential yacht, cussed openly, and bemoaned the fancy White House cooking. "I must go to dinner," he wrote one evening in disgust, "and I wish it was to eat a pickled herring, Swiss cheese and a chop instead of the French stuff I shall find." After his first two years in office as a bachelor President, Cleveland married Frances Folsom in 1886, becoming the first President to be married in the White House. Although Frances was almost thirty years younger than her husband, the two had a seemingly happy marriage and five children. As President and First Lady, they attracted considerable attention. Frances quickly became one of the most popular First Ladies since Dolley Madison and Julia Tyler. Millions of scarves, ornamental bottles, postcards, and other items bearing both their faces—or hers alone—appeared in public. Cleveland chaffed under the media crush and disliked his wife and family being subjected to such scrutiny. Frances, however, handled the attention with grace. During his second term, Cleveland faced a medical scare that threatened to disrupt his presidency. He discovered a lesion in his mouth that his doctors diagnosed as cancer. So as not to panic the American people and the financial markets, Cleveland kept the ensuing operation a secret. In June 1893, aboard a friend's yacht, doctors removed the lesion while he was seated in a chair tied to the mast. A second, brief operation was performed in mid-July, after which Cleveland returned to his summer house to recuperate. He spent the rest of his life wearing an artificial jaw on his left upper side, which left his appearance and speech remarkably unaffected. The public did not learn of the President's medical scare until one of his doctors published an article about the episode in 1917, almost ten years after Cleveland's death.

Grover Cleveland: The American Franchise

Most historians see the Grover Cleveland years as the last phase of a political era that ended with the election of 1896. It was an age in which eligible males voted strict party tickets, electing candidates whom the parties had nominated in party caucuses. Elections resembled battles in which the two main armies threw the maximum number of troops into the fight on Election Day. Typically, 70 percent or more of the eligible voters cast ballots in presidential elections. Many Americans considered intense party loyalty to be a matter of duty and honor, and they wore their party insignias proudly, prepared to fight over party differences. Party machines commanded membership loyalty—usually along ethnic, religious, and racial lines—and their presence was a fact of everyday life. Class differences were far less important a gauge of party differences in the 1880s and early 1890s.

Only males above the age of twenty-one were eligible to vote. Nineteen states had extended the vote to aliens who had declared their intention to become citizens. In some cities, state laws that linked voting to citizenship were simply ignored. In any case, citizenship for immigrants required only five years of residency, enabling male immigrants to vote shortly after their arrival. A massive wave of more than 5 million immigrants—the largest influx ever—poured into the United States in the 1880s. These new arrivals strengthened the ethnic character of the popular vote.

In the South, state constitutions, registration laws, literacy tests, and poll taxes disfranchised many African Americans who had been given the vote through the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments. Women were given the right to vote in Wyoming, which had granted women's suffrage as a territory in 1869. Colorado followed suit in 1893, as did Utah and Idaho in 1896.

Introduction of Secret Ballot

One big change in the election process came in 1892, with most states outside the South adopting the secret ballot. In this system, the government printed and distributed ballots that listed all candidates; voters were then able to select secretly from among this slate in a private voting booth. No longer could party activists see which party's brightly colored ballot was dropped into the ballot box. Thereafter, voters could split their tickets, and nonpartisan or independent candidates were assured that every voter would get a ballot listing their names.

Grover Cleveland: Impact and Legacy

Historians do not rank Grover Cleveland as a great President. Even as a party leader, the consensus is that he achieved mixed results at best. Cleveland did help to create a Solid South for the Democrats by encouraging former Confederates to believe they had a friend in the White House; his return of captured Confederate battle flags and his decision to go fishing on Memorial Day—a Civil War holiday—aided in this regard. He also strengthened the party outside the South by linking it to civil service reform. On the other hand, his stubborn enmity toward the Silverites and agrarian populists nearly split the Democrats and contributed to their defeat in 1896. He distanced himself from party machines by insisting that the President had a special relationship with the people that superseded any obligation to party workers. This was a concept of the presidency as monarchical if not imperial. He viewed the cabinet as his privy council rather than as a party council representative of the leadership of the Democratic Party. Not opposed to using patronage, he insisted that the appointed Democrats be qualified and honest.

Although not a great President, Cleveland almost single-handedly restored and strengthened the power and autonomy of the executive branch. Notable in this regard was his use of executive privilege in refusing to hand over department files to Congress in the fight over presidential appointments. No President prior to Richard M. Nixon had ever made such an extreme assertion of executive privilege in peacetime. His record-breaking use of the presidential veto also enabled him to reestablish the equilibrium between the executive and legislative branches, another precedent-setting example of presidential power. Equally important, Cleveland laid claim to a strong presidency in ways that had lasting impact. His assertion of authority in calling out federal troops during the Pullman strike, sending warships to Panama, and threatening Britain with war over the Venezuelan boundary dispute set the tone for the modern energetic executive. Regarding social policy, Cleveland comes across as much more racially intolerant, and certainly when compared to Presidents such as Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Franklin Roosevelt. In the final analysis, Cleveland thought more in terms of command than leadership. As the nation's chief executive, he had no real vision for the future, nor was he interested in articulating one, suggesting that his was still a pre-modern presidency. His lack of a college education—almost unique among the nation's Presidents—left him largely unfamiliar with the great ideas of history. Indeed, his reluctance to provide the country with a clear, ideological direction or to bend Congress to his will indicated his conception of his duties. In his mind, it was enough for him to be hard working, honest, and independent. These are virtues in a small town mayor, perhaps, and necessary attributes in a President in times of political corruption—but no real basis for greatness in an era of severe economic depression, populist insurgency, and increasing prominence on the world scene. That he placed so much stock in a reduced tariff, for example, reflected his simplified understanding—widely shared, nonetheless—of the nation's needs. At the most, historians tend to see Cleveland's presidency as an essential preface to the emergence of the modern presidency that began with Theodore Roosevelt.

Citation Information

Consulting Editor

Henry F. Graff

Professor Graff is a professor emeritus of history at Columbia University. His writings include:

Grover Cleveland (Times Books, 2002)

The Presidents: A Reference History (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1984)

This Great Nation: A History of the United States (Riverside Publishing, Co., 1983)