Cleveland, (Stephen) Grover (b Caldwell, NJ, 18 Mar 1837; d Princeton, NJ, 24 June 1908). Governor and US president.
Son of a Presbyterian clergyman, Cleveland grew up in Fayetteville (Onondaga Co) and Clinton (Oneida Co) before moving to Buffalo in 1855. He was admitted to the bar in 1859 and appointed assistant district attorney for Erie Co in 1863.When drafted that year, he avoided service by hiring a substitute, an action that, while legal, dogged him throughout his career. In 1870 he was elected sheriff of Erie Co, where, among his other duties, he twice served as hangman. After one term he returned to his more lucrative legal practice, where he remained until elected, with a large plurality, mayor of Buffalo in 1881.Acquiring a reputation as the “veto mayor,” one who put civic advancement over partisan politics and expunged the city administration of corruption, he attracted the attention of reform-minded Democrats and was nominated and elected governor of New York State in 1882.
As governor Cleveland battled machine politics by breaking with Tammany Hall leader John Kelly and supporting civil service bills. His tenure was marked by legislation creating a bureau of labor statistics, abolishing the hiring-out of state prisoners, and reorganizing the militia.
He continued his active and well-placed use of the veto. By 1884 he was a national figure and was nominated as the reform candidate for president to oppose the scandal-tainted James G. Blaine. The campaign was notoriously bitter, marked by Cleveland’s admission that he accepted responsibility for an out-of-wedlock child in 1874 (though he always denied paternity).
Blaine’s inability to disavow a clergyman’s remark that the Democrats were the party of “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion” offended Catholics and helped Cleveland squeak through with a 2,000-vote victory in New York State, thereby ensuring him of his election. With the help of breakaway reform Republicans known as Mugwumps, Cleveland became the first Democratic president elected since 1856.
In his first term, he helped rebuild the navy, elevated the Department of Agriculture to cabinet status, and approved the Interstate Commerce Commission (1887). As a Democrat, he fought continually with the Republican-controlled Congress; his 414 vetoes during his first administration set a record. In 1886 he married Frances Folsom, his former ward and the daughter of his former Buffalo law partner. In 1887 he singled out a lower tariff as his main issue, but the position hurt him in the 1888 election, when he lost both New York State and the general election to Benjamin Harrison. Cleveland retired to New York City as a lawyer, but opposition to the McKinley Tariff of 1890 brought him a new political following. In 1892 he defeated Harrison, becoming the only US president to serve nonconsecutive terms. Cleveland’s second term was not a success and earned him the title the Great Obstructionist because of his failure to act to relieve the nation’s distress after the panic of 1893.
More radical Democrats saw salvation in free coinage of silver, but Cleveland sided with conservative Republicans by supporting the gold standard and seeking to repeal the Sherman Silver Purchase Act. Despite his belief in limited government, Cleveland and his attorney general broke the Pullman strike through federal injunctions, the arrest of strike leader Eugene V. Debs, and the deployment of federal troops. In 1896 the populist wing of the Democratic Party took control and repudiated him by nominating William Jennings Bryan. After his second term, he moved with his wife and young family to Princeton, NJ. Throughout his career, Cleveland’s independence and conscientiousness marked him as a man of courage and personal integrity.
Brodsky, Alyn. Grover Cleveland: A Study in Character
(New York: St.Martin’s Press, 2000)
Jeffers, Harry. An Honest President: The Life and Presidencies of Grover Cleveland (New York:William Morrow, 2000)
Welch, Richard. The Presidencies of Grover Cleveland (Lawrence: Univ Press of Kansas, 1988)
Peter Eisenstadt, ed., The Encyclopedia of New York State
(Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2005), [p. 344-45].
© Syracuse University Press. Reproduced with permission from the publisher.