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date: 29 June 2022

Cleveland, Groverfree

(18 March 1837–24 June 1908)

Cleveland, Groverfree

(18 March 1837–24 June 1908)
  • Ballard C. Campbell

Grover Cleveland.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-91490 DLC).

Cleveland, Grover (18 March 1837–24 June 1908), twenty-second and twenty-fourth president of the United States, was born Stephen Grover Cleveland in Caldwell, New Jersey, the son of Richard Falley Cleveland, a Presbyterian minister, and Ann Neal. The fifth of nine children, Grover Cleveland grew up in the household of an itinerant clergyman whose profession called him to Fayetteville, New York, in 1841 and to Clinton, New York, in 1850. He attended the local academy in both communities until the death of his father in 1853 impelled him to abandon schooling in order to help support his mother and his younger sisters, who then resided in Holland Patent, New York. After spending a year as assistant teacher at the New York Institution for the Blind, young Cleveland set out for the West in 1855 but got no farther than Buffalo, where an uncle persuaded him to remain as his assistant registering the pedigrees of Shorthorn cattle. By the end of the year Cleveland had begun reading law in the Buffalo firm of Rogers, Bowen, and Rogers in preparation for a legal career.

Cleveland was admitted to the bar in 1859 and practiced law with his mentors’ firm until he accepted a position as an assistant district attorney in 1863. That year, two years into the Civil War, his name was called in the military draft, but he hired a substitute as the law permitted. By 1869, when he formed a law firm with two partners, Cleveland had acquired a reputation as a hard-working attorney who possessed abundant common sense and boundless energy. He also entered politics, representing the Second Ward in Buffalo’s Democratic City Convention in 1862. He was elected a ward supervisor of the party in 1863 and was selected as a delegate to the state Democratic convention in 1868. Two years later he won a close race for sheriff of Erie County, a position whose fees doubled his income. Cleveland returned to private practice at the end of the three-year term, forming a partnership with Lyman K. Bass and Wilson S. Bissell, and advanced to the front ranks of Buffalo’s legal establishment.

Cleveland’s legal reputation and his standing with Buffalo Democrats led to his nomination for mayor in 1881, a race he won handily. The victory presented him with the problems of a growing industrial city when public health arose as a civic concern. His willingness to put “engineering skill” and “the principle of economy” ahead of cronyism and partisan politics in handling sewerage and other municipal operations earned him praise throughout the state and boosted his appeal among feuding factions of Democrats, who nominated him for governor. Without campaigning directly, Cleveland won election in 1882 to a three-year term.

Cleveland’s budding reputation rested considerably on his battle against excessive partisanship. He reiterated this commitment in his first annual message as governor, in which he recommended that appointments be based on “fitness and efficiency.” Lawmakers complied by passing the nation’s first state civil service law. Cleveland quickly staffed the new commission, which established merit procedures for hiring state governmental employees. The reform annoyed politicos in Tammany Hall, the Democratic party stronghold in New York City. Cleveland’s refusal to knuckle under to their demands for patronage caused a running feud during his administration. The governor rubbed salt in these wounds in 1884 by approving legislation that enlarged the power of New York City’s mayor over appointments and reformed other aspects of local government, measures championed by Theodore Roosevelt, then a young state legislator. Cleveland also signed legislation that created a bureau of labor statistics, formed a commission to plan a state preserve at Niagara Falls, reorganized the militia, abolished the hiring-out of state prisoners, established milk standards, and placed a discriminatory tax on oleomargarine. The governor’s proclivity to reject measures of dubious merit or shoddy drafting, however, won him the most notoriety. His 1883 veto of the Five Cent Bill, which mandated a fare reduction for users of Jay Gould’s elevated railroad in New York City, captured the most attention. Cleveland argued that the legislation violated the terms of the company’s contract with the state and unwisely undermined private investment in public services.

Election to the Presidency (1884)

New York’s large bloc of electoral votes automatically assured governors of the state consideration as potential presidential nominees. Cleveland’s second asset in his quest for the presidency was his well-publicized opposition to blatant partisanship and political corruption. This reputation won him the support of Mugwumps, who supported civil service reform. In 1884 careful planning by Daniel Manning, chairman of New York’s state party, brought Cleveland the nomination at the Democratic convention in Chicago on the second ballot. Building on the party monopoly in the South, the Democracy’s strategy targeted key northern states, where the close division between Democrats and Republicans held prospects for picking up enough electoral votes to carry the election. Indiana was one of these states, so the Democrats chose Thomas A. Hendricks as the nominee for vice president.

The Republicans ran James G. Blaine of Maine, hero to many party faithful but morally suspect to Mugwumps. Cleveland took little part in the campaign, which party activists managed within each of the states. Although his 48.5 percent of the vote was less than a popular majority, Cleveland carried New York, Indiana, New Jersey, and Connecticut and with them the election. A moderate downturn in the economy probably helped Democrats in some states and perhaps offset negative reaction to the charge that Cleveland had fathered a child out of wedlock in 1874. Several years later Cleveland had accepted responsibility for the child without admitting paternity. In New York, Blaine’s failure to repudiate a prejudiced characterization of Democrats as the party of “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion” (referring to liquor, Catholics, and the former Confederacy); rain in upstate New York, which depressed voter turnout; and Republican defections to the Prohibition party helped tip the scales toward Cleveland.

Cleveland was the first Democrat to occupy the White House since James Buchanan left office in 1861. With the executive transition came a crush of requests for positions. Assisted by his private secretary, Daniel Lamont, Cleveland gave careful attention to appointments. The mainstays of his cabinet were Thomas Bayard as secretary of state, Manning as head of the Treasury, and William C. Whitney as secretary of the navy. A priority in his administration was correction of the mismanagement in the Navy Department, to which Congress had assigned the task of building a modern, steel-plated navy during the preceding Chester A. Arthur administration. Cleveland’s support of this goal in his first and second administrations was critical to the American naval victory in the Spanish-American War. In 1888 he appointed Melville W. Fuller as chief justice of the Supreme Court, a position Fuller held for twenty-two years.

At home, Cleveland sought to prevent fraudulent acquisition of the nation’s public lands, prohibited unlawful fencing of grazing areas, and forced railroads to return unused land grants. The Supreme Court’s rejection (1886) of the Illinois law that regulated railroad charges convinced Cleveland that national controls for carriers engaged in interstate commerce were necessary. Congress agreed and in 1887 created the Interstate Commerce Commission, which represented the federal government’s first significant regulation of an industrial business. Cleveland also approved the Hatch Act (1887), which authorized national subsidies of state agricultural experiment stations. He signed a measure that elevated the Department of Agriculture to departmental status (1889) and supported agricultural science. While he demonstrated less concern for industrial workers, Cleveland did urge Congress to consider an arbitration board in the wake of a major railroad strike. On several occasions, moreover, he echoed the unease that many citizens expressed about the growing power of business. But neither Cleveland nor any other president during the Gilded Age recommended a labor program.

As chief executive, Cleveland continued to scrutinize legislation closely and reject measures he regarded as indefensible. Congress’s habit of passing pension bills for individual Civil War veterans, many of whose applications had been turned down by pension officials, particularly incurred his hostility. He also rejected a general pension bill that would have assisted veterans whose disabilities were acquired after their service. The president turned down river and harbor appropriations and, in one of his most famous vetoes, an appropriation of $10,000 to buy seed grain for Texas farmers devastated by a drought. Cleveland called these spending measures unsupportable public “paternalism” that exceeded the proper functions of the national government. His 414 vetoes during his first administration set a record for a single term.

The president’s personal life changed dramatically during his first administration. He arrived in Washington a bachelor, and on 2 June 1886, after a secret engagement, he married Frances Folsom (Frances Folsom Cleveland) in the Blue Room of the White House. Cleveland had acted as her guardian since the death of her father, Oscar Folsom, with whom Cleveland had practiced law. The couple honeymooned in western Maryland, hounded by a “carload of reporters.” The following year the Clevelands purchased a home just north of Georgetown, which neighbored Washington. Frances Cleveland became a capable and admired first lady, taking over responsibilities that Cleveland’s sister Rose Cleveland had performed. Grover and Frances Cleveland had five children, one of whom, Esther Cleveland, was the first child of a president to be born in the White House in 1893, during Cleveland’s second term.

Attack on the Tariff

Cleveland surprised the country midway in his first term by launching a frontal attack on the tariff. He devoted his entire message of 1887 to the issue, an unprecedented use of the State of the Union Address. Cleveland warned that “unnecessary taxation” imposed by existing customs duties were a “peril” to the nation. Reflecting classical American political thinking, he regarded taxation as potentially hazardous to individual liberty. Amassing revenue in excess of “the just obligation of the Government,” he wrote in his 1886 message, “becomes ruthless extortion and a violation of principles of free government.” He also argued that tariff duties formulated to shield certain industries from foreign competition conveyed unjustifiable “favoritism.” Furthermore, “unnecessary taxation” generated surplus revenue, which tempted the national government to stray from its proper mission and raised the cost of living.

The House Committee on Ways and Means drafted legislation that embodied Cleveland’s recommendation to reduce tariff duties. Named after the chair of the committee, Roger Q. Mills, the bill became lawmakers’ primary preoccupation in the Fiftieth Congress (1888). Exhorted by the president, Democrats marshaled virtually their entire delegation to pass their proposal over united Republican opposition. Arguing that the tariff stimulated economic growth and prosperity, the GOP killed the Mills Bill in the Senate, where Republicans held a slender majority. It was a bitter defeat for the president, but he had given his party a clear issue on which to campaign for his reelection.

The presidential contest of 1888 pitted Cleveland against Benjamin Harrison of Indiana, a former U.S. senator and supporter of the Republicans’ high tariff position. In the absence of Vice President Hendricks, who had died in 1885, Cleveland picked as his running mate 75-year-old Allen G. Thurman, a moderate on tariff reform and the volatile currency issue. Cleveland hoped the Ohioan would help him win one or two of the crucial midwestern states, and Thurman was willing to campaign for the ticket while Cleveland tended to presidential business. Once again neither party commanded a majority of the popular vote, although Cleveland won the plurality, raising his percentage slightly over 1884. But the distribution of the returns favored Harrison, who took Ohio, Indiana, and New York and thus the election. Cleveland’s cool relations with New York governor David Hill, whom Mugwumps disdained; veterans’ denunciation of Cleveland’s pension vetoes; and Republicans’ success in raising campaign contributions from businessmen, many of whom feared tariff revision, handicapped the president.

[left to right] Grover Cleveland and Allen G. Thurman. Presidential campaign poster, 1888.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZC4-2110).

Returning to private life, Cleveland accepted an offer to join Bangs, Stetson, Tracy, and MacVeagh, a New York City law firm, where he served primarily as a court-appointed referee. In 1890, he argued one case before the Supreme Court, the second former president to do so at the time. With profits earned from the sale of his Georgetown home, Cleveland purchased “Gray Gables” near Bourne, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod, where he relished slow-paced summer days, relaxing with his family, socializing with his well-to-do neighbors, and fishing in Buzzards Bay. But the ex-president had not abandoned politics. The sweeping Democratic victory in the congressional elections of 1890 whet his appetite for another try for the presidency.

Campaign for a Second Term (1892)

Under the management of Whitney, Cleveland forces outmaneuvered Hill, the ambitious governor of New York, and then coasted to the Democratic party nomination in 1892. Turning a third time to the Midwest for a running mate, Cleveland approved Adlai E. Stevenson of Illinois, a former Greenbacker with appeal among the growing silver wing of the party. With the South solidly Democratic and upper New England and much of the West loyal to Republicans, the race centered on the competitive counties that lay between Hartford and Chicago. Cleveland scored a solid victory over President Harrison, regaining New York, holding reliable Connecticut, and capturing Illinois, four other northern states, and California. Aggressive Republican support for prohibition and other social issues that alarmed the members of some ethnic groups, the dissatisfaction of some voters with the high rates of the McKinley Tariff of 1890, and several strikes by workingmen contributed to the Democratic victory. Populist candidate James B. Weaver, who won four western states, helped to depress Cleveland’s popular vote to 46.1 percent.

Besieged once again by office seekers, Cleveland’s key appointments put Walter Gresham in charge of the State Department, former Speaker of the House John Carlisle in the Treasury, his old law partner Bissell in the post office, and his former secretary Lamont in the War Department. Richard Olney of Massachusetts became attorney general. Shortly after these appointees took office, the panic of 1893 inaugurated the worst economic depression of the century. Depositors withdrew their savings and hoarded gold, hundreds of banks failed and the remainder restricted their loans, joblessness reached a third of the workforce in some cities, and agricultural prices plummeted, pushing some farmers into foreclosure. These hard times threw a pall over Cleveland’s second administration and colored most aspects of governance between 1893 and 1897. Given his constitutional views, Cleveland felt that the national government could do little to relieve the distress. The president retained a stoic faith in the economy’s natural capacity to correct itself.

Cleveland’s Sound Currency Policy

Cleveland’s most emphatic response to the depression was defense of the gold standard as the basis for the nation’s currency. The money question had simmered since the late 1860s, fed by an inflexible currency, a cumbersome banking structure that restricted credit available to westerners and southerners, and persistent price deflation throughout the late nineteenth century. Many individuals, debtors especially, saw the purchase of silver by the U.S. Treasury as a monetary solution for raising prices and regenerating the economy. The idea was particularly appealing to western and southern farmers, most of whom had been debtors at some point in their lives. The emergent urban middle class, most large merchants and industrialists, and eastern bankers, on the other hand, saw currency inflation as economically harmful and morally repugnant. Cleveland counted himself among the latter group. During his first administration he had warned against the abandonment of the gold standard, which he saw as crucial to maintaining business confidence, and had taken steps to prevent the Treasury from adopting a bimetallic standard for the nation’s currency.

By 1893 the Treasury’s supply of gold dwindled rapidly. The primary cause of the outflow, the president reckoned, was the Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890, which obligated the government to purchase a fixed amount of silver each month. Cleveland called a special session of Congress to repeal the statute. At this critical moment in the nation’s monetary history, Cleveland left the capital ostensibly because of illness but in actuality to have a cancerous growth removed from the roof of his mouth. After surgeons conducted the secret operation aboard a borrowed yacht anchored in New York’s East River, the president recuperated at Gray Gables, where he was fitted with a vulcanized prosthesis to replace the removed portion of his jaw. Five weeks later Cleveland was back at work in Washington, but he lived with discomfort the remainder of his life.

With cooperation from Republicans, Congress repealed the Silver Purchase Act. When this action failed to halt the drainage of gold, the president decided that the government must replenish the reserve through borrowing. Rebuffed in the effort by Congress, the president floated four bond issues between 1894 and 1896 to finance the acquisitions, claiming executive authority to carry out the transactions. The third bond sale, placed in the care of the financier J. P. Morgan, earned Cleveland the enmity of western Democrats, who denounced his collusion with eastern money kings. Still, the president observed in his annual message, whose domestic sections concentrated on the currency issue, the “perplexing and delicate predicament” of the nation’s finances persisted through the end of 1895. By then Cleveland faced a full-scale revolt within his party.

The depression presented Cleveland with additional challenges. George Pullman, the Chicago manufacturer of railroad sleeping cars, cut wages but not dividends or the cost of housing for his employees. The affront provoked a walkout of Pullman workers in 1894 that escalated into a nationwide railroad strike under the leadership of Eugene Debs. With transportation in Chicago paralyzed, Attorney General Olney, a railroad lawyer and foe of labor unions, backed a consortium of railroad managers who were intent on breaking the strike. His key weapon was a federal court injunction that commanded workers to cease their disruption of rail service on grounds that they impeded the delivery of the U.S. mails. To emphasize the point, Olney had Debs arrested and gained Cleveland’s permission to position federal troops in Chicago, setting the stage for violence and fatalities. Cleveland rebuffed a protest from Governor John Altgeld of Illinois, who charged that the president had exceeded his power in authorizing the federal intervention into local affairs without a request for assistance from state officials. Cleveland replied that he had ample authority to act unilaterally “in the emergency” and asserted, “If it takes the entire army and navy … to deliver a postal card in Chicago, that card will be delivered.” Perceiving civic order at stake, Cleveland did his duty as he saw it.

Tariff Reform

Whereas the Pullman strike earned Cleveland a reputation as a union buster, his handling of tariff reform in 1894 incurred criticism from other quarters. Cleveland had reiterated his opposition to the “burden of federal taxation” at the onset of his second administration and encouraged Congress to reduce tariff rates. But he handled the matter clumsily, and the resulting Wilson-Gorman Bill, laden with special interest provisions, became law without his signature. One innovative section of the legislation that Cleveland supported was a 2 percent tax on incomes over $4,000, a levy judged unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in Pollock v. Farmers’ Loan and Trust Co. (1895).

Cleveland’s interest in tariff reduction was predicated both on a desire to reduce customs rates and on distaste for special interest favoritism. But the president was a foe neither of business nor its uncritical mouthpiece. He accepted the premises of private enterprise and watched over his personal investments. Yet on several occasions he expressed alarm at the widening gulf between the wealthy and wage earners and at the growth of corporate power. When Olney’s antimonopoly case against the Sugar Trust was rebuffed by the Supreme Court in 1895, Cleveland asked Congress to reexamine the nation’s antitrust statute. He also believed that some of the responsibility to regulate business lay with state government, but the political climate did not favor new regulation in 1895. The depression decimated the Democrats in the 1894 elections and installed a Republican majority in the House and a plurality in the Senate.

Cleveland devoted little time to external affairs during his first administration, but events in Hawaii, Venezuela, and Cuba forced greater attention to diplomacy during his second term. Hawaii had been drawn closer to the orbit of the United States during the Gilded Age, as the American minority on the island gained commercial influence and the navy’s interest in the island grew. Prodded by fear of a native challenge to their position and the loss of favorable status for sugar under the tariff of 1890, Americans led by Sanford Dole overthrew the native Hawaiian regime of Queen Liliuokalani in 1893. The intervention of a small contingent of U.S. marines materially assisted the coup. The Harrison administration acquiesced in the American islanders’ request for annexation, but Cleveland recalled the proposed treaty from the Senate days after assuming office. He objected to the collusion of the U.S. military with the conspiracy to overthrow the queen, which he termed “an abuse of power.” Annexation, to his mind, was contrary to American traditions. With public opinion split over the issue, he placed the matter with Congress, which recommended recognition of the provisional government controlled by local Americans. The matter lingered in this limbo for the remainder of his administration.

Cleveland took a more decisive posture regarding the Caribbean. When a dispute over the boundary of British Guiana threatened war between Venezuela and Great Britain, Cleveland in 1895 sent a stern warning to the British, asserting that “the United States is practically sovereign” in the Western Hemisphere. Britain noted the bellicose tone and opted for a negotiated settlement. Cleveland’s position toward Spain was only slightly less assertive. Following the outbreak of a revolt against Spanish rule in Cuba in 1895, the president declared American neutrality and attempted to restrain assistance to Cuba from the United States. Responding to an aroused public, Congress became adamant that Spain grant home rule to the island, a position the president implied in his annual message of 1896. Thirteen months after Cleveland left office, Congress declared war against Spain.

By then Cleveland was watching events from his retirement home in Princeton, New Jersey. He had expressed disgust as silverites captured the Democratic party in 1896 and denounced the administration’s sound currency policy, which Cleveland refused to abandon. Although he took no active part in the campaign of the Gold Democrats, Cleveland voted for this rump faction of his party. He preferred William McKinley over William Jennings Bryan for the presidency, but he did not embrace McKinley’s imperialism following the defeat of the Spanish. A few years into retirement Cleveland became a trustee of Princeton University, a role he took seriously. He helped block a plan by Woodrow Wilson, Princeton’s president, that would have reorganized undergraduate residences along the British model. Cleveland died in Princeton.

Legacy of Strong Presidential Authority

An outpouring of tributes at his death indicates a recovery of Cleveland’s reputation since the Democratic debacle of 1896. These eulogies probably sprang as much from admiration of Cleveland’s personal integrity as from agreement with his political philosophy, which was rooted in Jacksonian principles. Cleveland favored a strict reading of the Constitution and the traditional homily that the activities of the federal government should be limited. Deviation from these principles threatened to convey special interest favoritism and upset the balance of power between the states and the nation. Economy should temper public spending, excessive taxation was morally unpalatable, and the gold standard was the only acceptable basis for the currency. He thought government should be run according to business methods and civil service principles, although he recognized that parties were a fact of political life.

Cleveland argued that the president’s role lay in executing the will of Congress, not in fashioning legislative programs. While he made recommendations to Congress, he seldom pressed for their adoption, and his style was clumsy and often unsuccessful when he did. His cold relationship with the press, to which he rarely granted interviews, hindered his legislative leadership. Despite his general philosophy about the presidency, Cleveland asserted his independence of Congress from time to time. His refusal to comply with a demand from the Senate for documentation of his removals from office constitutes his most aggressive defense of executive prerogative during his first term. Congress relented in 1886 by repealing the Tenure of Office Act, on which the Senate had justified its requests. Cleveland’s action to break the Pullman strike and to maintain the gold standard represent his most forceful use of presidential authority during his second term. Coupled with his unprecedented number of vetoes, these actions prepared the foundation for the rise of autonomous presidential leadership later.

Cleveland’s personal style contributed to these assertions of presidential authority. All of his biographers have noted the president’s distinctive temperament. “He possessed honesty, courage, firmness, independence, and common sense,” wrote Allan Nevins (Grover Cleveland, p. 4) who subtitled his classic biography A Study in Courage. Nevins also notes that Cleveland’s conscientious devotion to detail outran his capacity to articulate a vision of the future. More critical, Horace Merrill argues that Cleveland failed “to supply effective leadership” (Merrill, p. 183). Richard Welch’s conclusion that Cleveland embodied “a tangle of contradictions” (Welch, p. 17) gets closer to the man. Despite describing him as a person of “little charisma” and “less eloquence,” more admired than beloved, Welch saw Cleveland as “the dominant figure in United States politics for more than a decade” (Welch, p. 213). Welch believed that Cleveland’s willingness to temper his ideology with political practicality and his forthright moralism helps to explain this achievement. Richard Hofstadter observes that Cleveland was “the ideal bourgeois statesman for his time” (Hofstadter, p. 185). The president’s public persona epitomized middle-class steadiness and Victorian manhood.

Such attributes offered reassurance to a public apprehensive of the rapid changes in society. Cleveland’s moderate course radiated a sense of stability and caution at a time when government began to confront these new circumstances. During his administrations the municipal, state, and federal governments adopted numerous new laws, anticipating the reforms of the Progressive Era. By and large Cleveland viewed this legislation as practical responses to contemporary problems. In his willingness to accept most incremental reforms, Cleveland exhibited an eminently American approach to statecraft.


The major collection of Cleveland’s papers is in the Library of Congress. These manuscripts have been microfilmed and are listed in Index to the Papers of Grover Cleveland (1965). Allan Nevins, ed., Letters of Grover Cleveland, 1850–1908 (1933), is the most important publication of his private correspondence. Nevins’s magisterial Grover Cleveland: A Study in Courage (1932) is the classic biography. Richard Welch, The Presidencies of Grover Cleveland (1988), offers a short, balanced analysis. More critical is Horace Samuel Merrill, Bourbon Leader: Grover Cleveland and the Democratic Party (1957). Robert McElroy, Grover Cleveland: The Man and the Statesman (1923), has limited utility. Cleveland’s formative years are reviewed in Geoffrey Blodgett, “The Emergence of Grover Cleveland: A Fresh Appraisal,” New York History 73 (1992): 132–68. Robert Kelley, The Transatlantic Persuasion (1969), appraises Cleveland’s Presbyterian background and his personality. Aspects of Cleveland’s presidencies are discussed in Blodgett, “The Political Leadership of Grover Cleveland,” South Atlantic Quarterly 82 (1983): 288–99; Louis Fisher, “Grover Cleveland against the Senate,” Capitol Studies 7 (1979): 11–25; and Gerald G. Eggert, Richard Olney: Evolution of a Statesman (1974). Richard Hofstadter, The American Political Tradition, chap. 7 (1948), and R. Hal Williams, Years of Decision: American Politics in the 1890s (1978), comment on Gilded Age politics. Ballard C. Campbell, The Growth of American Government: Governance from the Cleveland Era to the Present (1995), locates Cleveland within the evolution of American government. An obituary is in the New York Times, 25 June 1908.