Stephen Grover Cleveland was born on March 18, 1837, in Caldwell, New Jersey to Richard Falley Cleveland and Ann Neal Cleveland. Cleveland's father was a Presbyterian minister, originally from Connecticut. His mother was from Baltimore, the daughter of a bookseller. On his father's side, Cleveland was descended from English ancestors, the first Cleveland having emigrated to Massachusetts from northeastern England in 1635. On his mother's side, Cleveland was descended from Anglo-Irish Protestants and German Quakers from Philadelphia. He was distantly related to General Moses Cleaveland after whom the city of Cleveland, Ohio, was named.
Cleveland, the fifth of nine children, was named Stephen Grover in honor of the first pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Caldwell, where his father was pastor at the time, but he did not use the name Stephen in his adult life. In 1841, the Cleveland family moved to Fayetteville, New York, where Grover spent much of his childhood. Neighbors would later describe him as "full of fun and inclined to play pranks", and fond of outdoor sports. In 1850, Cleveland's father took a pastorate in Clinton, Oneida County, New York, and the family relocated there. They moved again in 1853 to Holland Patent, New York, near Utica. Not long after the family arrived in Holland Patent, Cleveland's father died.
Cleveland's elementary education came at the Fayetteville Academy and the Clinton Liberal Academy. After his father died in 1853, Cleveland left school and helped to support his family. Later that year, Cleveland's brother William was hired as a teacher at the New York Institute for the Blind in New York City, and William obtained a place for Cleveland as an assistant teacher. He returned home to Holland Patent at the end of 1854. An elder in his church offered to pay for his college education if he would promise to become a minister, but Cleveland declined. Instead, in 1855 Cleveland decided to move west. He stopped first in Buffalo, New York, where his uncle, Lewis W. Allen gave him a clerical job. Allen was an important man in Buffalo, and he introduced his nephew to influential men there, including the partners in the law firm of Rogers, Bowen, and Rogers. Cleveland later took a clerkship with the firm, and was admitted to the bar in 1859.
From his earliest involvement in politics, Cleveland aligned himself with the Democratic Party. In 1865, he ran for District Attorney, losing narrowly to his friend and roommate, Lyman K. Bass, the Republican nominee. Cleveland then stayed out of politics until 1870 when, with the help of his friend, Oscar Folsom, he secured the Democratic nomination for sheriff of Erie County. At the age of thirty-three, Cleveland found himself elected sheriff by a 303-vote margin, taking office on January 1, 1871. While this new career took him away from the practice of law, it was rewarding in other ways: the fees were said to yield up to $40,000 over the two-year term. The most well-known incident of his term took place on September 6, 1872. It involved the execution of Patrick Morrissey, who had been convicted of murdering his mother. As sheriff, Cleveland was responsible for either personally carrying out the execution or paying a deputy $10 to perform the task. Cleveland, in spite of reservations about the hanging, opted to carry out the duty himself. He hanged another murderer, John Gaffney, on February 14th, 1873.
After his term as sheriff ended, Cleveland returned to private practice, opening a law firm with his friends Lyman K. Bass and Wilson S. Bissell. Bass did not spend much time at the firm, being elected to Congress in 1873, but Cleveland and Bissell soon found themselves at the top of Buffalo's legal community. Up to that point, Cleveland's political career had been honorable but unremarkable. As biographer Allan Nevins wrote, "probably no man in the country, on March 4th, 1881, had less thought than this limited, simple, sturdy attorney of Buffalo that four years later he would be standing in Washington and taking the oath as president of the United States.
In the 1870s, the government of Buffalo had grown increasingly corrupt, with Democratic and Republican political machines cooperating to share the spoils. When, in 1881, the Republicans nominated a slate of particularly disreputable machine politicians, the Democrats saw the opportunity to gain the votes of disaffected Republicans by nominating a more honest candidate. The party leaders approached Cleveland, and he agreed to run for Mayor of Buffalo, provided that the rest of the ticket was to his liking. When the more notorious politicians were left off the Democratic ticket, Cleveland accepted the nomination. Cleveland was elected mayor with 15,120 votes, as against 11,528 for Milton C. Beebe, his opponent. He took office January 2nd, 1882.
As Cleveland's reputation grew, state Democratic party officials began to consider him a possible nominee for governor. Daniel Manning, a party insider who admired Cleveland's record, promoted his candidacy. With a split in the state Republican party, 1882 looked to be a Democratic year, and there were several contenders for that party's nomination. The two leading Democratic candidates were Roswell P. Flower and Henry W. Slocum, but their factions deadlocked, and the convention could not agree on a nominee. Cleveland, in third place on the first ballot, picked up support in subsequent votes and emerged as the compromise choice. The Republican party remained divided against itself, and in the general election Cleveland emerged the victor, with 535,318 votes to Republican nominee Charles J. Folger's 342,464. Cleveland's margin of victory was, at the time, the largest in a contested New York election, and the Democrats also picked up seats in both houses of the New York State Legislature.
The Republicans convened in Chicago and nominated former Speaker of the House James G. Blaine of Maine for president on the fourth ballot. Blaine's nomination alienated many Republicans who viewed Blaine as ambitious and immoral. Democratic party leaders saw the Republicans' choice as an opportunity to win the White House for the first time since 1856 if the right candidate could be found.
Among the Democrats, Samuel J. Tilden was the initial front-runner, having been the party's nominee in the contested election of 1876. Tilden, however, was in poor health, and after he declined to be nominated, his supporters shifted to several other contenders. Cleveland was among the leaders in early support, but Thomas F. Bayard of Delaware, Allen G. Thurman of Ohio, Samuel Freeman Miller of Iowa, and Benjamin Butler of Massachusetts also had considerable followings, along with various favorite sons. Each of the other candidates had hindrances to his nomination: Bayard had spoken in favor of secession in 1861, making him unacceptable to Northerners; Butler, conversely, was reviled throughout the South for his actions during the Civil War; Thurman was generally well liked, but was growing old and infirm, and his views on the silver question were uncertain. Cleveland, too, had detractors - Tammany remained opposed to him - but the nature of his enemies made him still more friends. Cleveland led on the first ballot, with 392 votes out of 820. On the second ballot, Tammany threw its support behind Butler, but the rest of the delegates shifted to Cleveland, and he was nominated. Thomas A. Hendricks of Indiana was selected as his running mate.
Soon after taking office, Cleveland was faced with the task of filling all the government jobs for which the president had the power of appointment. These jobs were typically filled under the spoils system, but Cleveland announced that he would not fire any Republican who was doing his job well, and would not appoint anyone solely on the basis of party service. He also used his appointment powers to reduce the number of federal employees, as many departments had become bloated with political time-servers. Later in his term, as his fellow Democrats chafed at being excluded from the spoils, Cleveland began to replace more of the partisan Republican officeholders with Democrats. While some of his decisions were influenced by party concerns, more of Cleveland's appointments were decided by merit alone than was the case in his predecessors' administrations.
Cleveland also reformed other parts of the government. In 1887, he signed an act creating the Interstate Commerce Commission. He and Secretary of the Navy William C. Whitney undertook to modernize the navy and canceled construction contracts that had resulted in inferior ships. Cleveland angered railroad investors by ordering an investigation of western lands they held by government grant. Secretary of the Interior Lucius Q.C. Lamar charged that the rights of way for this land must be returned to the public because the railroads failed to extend their lines according to agreements. The lands were forfeited, resulting in the return of approximately 81,000,000 acres.
One of the most volatile issues of the 1880s was whether the currency should be backed by gold and silver, or by gold alone. The issue cut across party lines, with western Republicans and southern Democrats joining together in the call for the free coinage of silver, and both parties' representatives in the northeast holding firm for the gold standard. Because silver was worth less than its legal equivalent in gold, taxpayers paid their government bills in silver, while international creditors demanded payment in gold, resulting in a depletion of the nation's gold supply.
Cleveland and Treasury Secretary Daniel Manning stood firmly on the side of the gold standard, and tried to reduce the amount of silver that the government was required to coin under the Bland-Allison Act of 1878. This angered Westerners and Southerners, who advocated for cheap money to help their poorer constituents. In reply, one of the foremost silverites, Richard P. Bland, introduced a bill in 1886 that would require the government to coin unlimited amounts of silver, inflating the then-deflating currency. While Bland's bill was defeated, so was a bill the administration favored that would repeal any silver coinage requirement. The result was a retention of the status quo, and a postponement of the resolution of the Free Silver issue.
Cleveland, like a growing number of Northerners (and nearly all white Southerners) saw Reconstruction as a failed experiment, and was reluctant to use federal power to enforce the 15th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which guaranteed voting rights to African Americans. Cleveland initially appointed no black Americans to patronage jobs, but did allow Frederick Douglass to continue in his post as recorder of deeds in Washington, D.C. When Douglass later resigned, Cleveland appointed another black man to replace him.
Although Cleveland had condemned the "outrages" against Chinese immigrants, he believed that Chinese immigrants were unwilling to assimilate into white society. Secretary of State Bayard negotiated an extension to the Chinese Exclusion Act, and Cleveland lobbied the Congress to pass the Scott Act, written by Congressman William Lawrence Scott, which would prevent Chinese immigrants who left the United States from returning. The Scott Act easily passed both houses of Congress, and Cleveland signed it into law on October 1, 1888.
Cleveland viewed Native Americans as wards of the state, saying in his first inaugural address that "This guardianship involves, on our part, efforts for the improvement of their condition and enforcement of their rights." He encouraged the idea of cultural assimilation, pushing for the passage of the Dawes Act, which provided for distribution of Indian lands to individual members of tribes, rather than having them continued to be held in trust for the tribes by the federal government. While a conference of Native leaders endorsed the act, in practice the majority of Native Americans disapproved of it. Cleveland believed the Dawes Act would lift Native Americans out of poverty and encourage their assimilation into white society, but its ultimate effect was to weaken the tribal governments and allow individual Indians to sell land and keep the money.
In the month before Cleveland's 1885 inauguration, President Arthur opened four million acres of Winnebago and Crow Creek Indian lands in the Dakota Territory to white settlement by executive order. Tens of thousands of settlers gathered at the border of these lands and prepared to take possession of them. Cleveland believed Arthur's order to be in violation of treaties with the tribes, and rescinded it on April 17th of that year, ordering the settlers out of the territory. Cleveland sent in Eighteenth Army troops to enforce the treaties and ordered General Philip Sheridan to investigate the matter.
Cleveland entered the White House as a bachelor. His sister, Rose Cleveland, moved into the White House and acted as hostess for the first two years of his administration. In 1885 the daughter of Cleveland's friend Oscar Folsom visited him in Washington. Frances Folsom was a student at Wells College; when she returned to school, President Cleveland received her mother's permission to correspond with her. They were soon engaged to be married.
On June 2nd, 1886, Cleveland married Frances Folsom in the Blue Room at the White House. He was the second president to marry while in office, and the only president to have a wedding in the White House. This marriage was unusual because Cleveland was the executor of Oscar Folsom's estate and had supervised Frances' upbringing after her father's death, but the public did not take exception to the match. At twenty-one years old, Frances Folsom Cleveland remains the youngest First Lady, and the public soon warmed to her beauty and warm personality. The Clevelands had five children: Ruth (1891–1904); Esther (1893–1980); Marion (1895–1977); Richard Folsom (1897–1974); and Francis Grover (1903–1995). British philosopher Philippa Foot was their granddaughter.
The debate over tariff reduction continued into the 1888 presidential campaign. The Republicans nominated Benjamin Harrison of Indiana for president and Levi P. Morton of New York for vice president. Cleveland was easily renominated at the Democratic convention in St. Louis. Vice President Hendricks died in 1885, so the Democrats chose Allen G. Thurman of Ohio to be Cleveland's running mate. The Republicans campaigned heavily on the tariff issue, turning out protectionist voters in the important industrial states of the North. Further, the Democrats in New York were divided over the gubernatorial candidacy of David B. Hill, weakening Cleveland's support in that swing state.
As in 1884, the election focused on the swing states of New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Indiana. Unlike that year, when Cleveland triumphed in all four, in 1888 he won only two, losing his home state of New York by 14,373 votes. More notoriously, the Republicans were victorious in Indiana, largely as the result of fraud. Republican victory in that state, where Cleveland lost by just 2,348 votes, was sufficient to propel Harrison to victory, despite his loss of the nationwide popular vote. Cleveland continued his duties diligently until the end of the term and began to look forward to return to private life.
As Frances Cleveland left the White House, she told a staff member, "Now, Jerry, I want you to take good care of all the furniture and ornaments in the house, for I want to find everything just as it is now, when we come back again." When asked when she would return, she responded, "We are coming back four years from today." In the meantime, the Clevelands moved to New York City where Cleveland took a position with the law firm of Bangs, Stetson, Tracy, and MacVeigh, a predecessor to the present-day firm Davis Polk & Wardwell. Cleveland's income with the firm was not high, but neither were his duties especially onerous. While they lived in New York, the Clevelands' first child, Ruth, was born in 1891.
The Harrison administration worked with Congress to pass the McKinley Tariff and the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, two policies Cleveland deplored as dangerous to the nation's financial health. At first he refrained from criticizing his successor, but by 1891 Cleveland felt compelled to speak out, addressing his concerns in an open letter to a meeting of reformers in New York. The "silver letter" thrust Cleveland's name back into the spotlight just as the 1892 election was approaching.
Cleveland's stature as an ex-president and recent pronouncements on the monetary issues made him a leading contender for the Democratic nomination. His leading opponent was David B. Hill, who was by that time a Senator for New York. Hill united the anti-Cleveland elements of the Democratic party - silverites, protectionists, and Tammany Hall - but was unable to create a coalition large enough to deny Cleveland the nomination. Despite some desperate maneuvering by Hill, Cleveland was nominated on the first ballot at the convention in Chicago. For vice president, the Democrats chose to balance the ticket with Adlai E. Stevenson of Illinois, a silverite. Although the Cleveland forces preferred Isaac P. Gray of Indiana for vice president, they accepted the convention favorite. As a supporter of using greenbacks and Free Silver to inflate the currency and alleviate economic distress in the rural districts, Stevenson balanced the ticket headed by Cleveland, the hard-money, gold-standard supporter.
The Republicans re-nominated President Harrison, making the 1892 election a rematch of the one four years earlier. Unlike the turbulent and controversial elections of 1876, 1884 and 1888, the 1892 election was, according to Cleveland biographer Allan Nevins, "the cleanest, quietest, and most creditable in the memory of the post-war generation", in part because Harrison's wife, Caroline, was dying of tuberculosis. Harrison did not personally campaign at all. Following Caroline Harrison's death on October 25, two weeks before the national election, Cleveland and all of the other candidates stopped campaigning, thus making Election Day a somber and quiet event for the whole country as well as the candidates. The issue of the tariff had worked to the Republicans' advantage in 1888, but the revisions of the past four years had made imported goods so expensive that now many voters shifted to the reform position. Many westerners, traditionally Republican voters, defected to James Weaver, the candidate of the new Populist Party. Weaver promised Free Silver, generous veterans' pensions, and an eight-hour work day. Finally, the Tammany Hall Democrats adhered to the national ticket, allowing a united Democratic party to carry New York. The end result was a victory for Cleveland by wide margins in both the popular and electoral votes, and it was Cleveland's third consecutive popular vote plurality win.
Shortly after Cleveland's second term began, the Panic of 1893 struck the stock market, and he soon faced an acute economic depression. The panic was worsened by the acute shortage of gold that resulted from the free coinage of silver, and Cleveland called Congress into session early to deal with the problem. The debate over the coinage was as heated as ever, but the effects of the panic had driven more moderates to support repealing the free coinage provisions of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act. Even so, the silverites rallied their following at a convention in Chicago, and the House of Representatives debated for fifteen weeks before passing the repeal by a considerable margin. In the Senate, the repeal of free coinage was equally contentious, but Cleveland convinced enough Democrats to stand by him that they, along with eastern Republicans, formed a 48–37 majority. With the passage of the repeal, the Treasury's gold reserves were restored to safe levels. At the time the repeal seemed a minor setback to silverites, but it marked the beginning of the end of silver as a basis for American currency.
The Panic of 1893 had damaged labor conditions across the United States, and the victory of anti-silver legislation worsened the mood of western laborers. A group of workingmen led by Jacob S. Coxey began to march east toward Washington, D.C. to protest Cleveland's policies. This group, known as Coxey's Army, agitated in favor of a national roads program to give jobs to workingmen, and a weakened currency to help farmers pay their debts. By the time they reached Washington, only a few hundred remained, and when they were arrested the next day for walking on the grass of the United States Capitol, the group scattered. Coxey's Army was never a threat to the government, but it showed a growing dissatisfaction in the West with Eastern monetary policies.
The Pullman Strike had a significantly greater impact than Coxey's Army. A strike began against the Pullman Company over low wages and twelve-hour workdays, and sympathy strikes, led by American Railway Union leader Eugene V. Debs, soon followed. By June 1894, 125,000 railroad workers were on strike, paralyzing the nation's commerce. Because the railroads carried the mail, and because several of the affected lines were in federal receivership, Cleveland believed a federal solution was appropriate. Cleveland obtained an injunction in federal court, and when the strikers refused to obey it, he sent in federal troops to Chicago and 20 other rail centers. "If it takes the entire army and navy of the United States to deliver a postcard in Chicago," he proclaimed, "that card will be delivered." Most governors supported Cleveland except Democrat John P. Altgeld of Illinois, who became his bitter foe in 1896. Leading newspapers of both parties applauded Cleveland's actions, but the use of troops hardened the attitude of organized labor toward his administration.
Just before the 1894 election, Cleveland was warned by an advisor:
"We are on the eve of very dark night, unless a return of commercial prosperity relieves popular discontent with what they believe Democratic incompetence to make laws, and consequently with Democratic Administrations anywhere and everywhere."
In the midst of the fight for repeal of Free Silver coinage in 1893, Cleveland sought the advice of the White House doctor, Dr. O'Reilly, about soreness on the roof of his mouth and a crater-like edge ulcer with a granulated surface on the left side of Cleveland's hard palate. Samples of the tumor were sent anonymously to the army medical museum. The diagnosis was not a malignant cancer, but instead an epithelioma.
Cleveland decided to have surgery secretly, to avoid further panic that might worsen the financial depression. The surgery occurred on July 1, to give Cleveland time to make a full recovery in time for the upcoming Congressional session. Under the guise of a vacation cruise, Cleveland and his surgeon, Dr. Joseph Bryant, left for New York. The surgeons operated aboard the Oneida, a yacht owned by Cleveland's friend E. C. Benedict, as it sailed off Long Island. The surgery was conducted through the president's mouth, to avoid any scars or other signs of surgery. The team, sedating Cleveland with nitrous oxide and ether, successfully removed parts of his upper left jaw and hard palate. The size of the tumor and the extent of the operation left Cleveland's mouth disfigured. During another surgery, Cleveland was fitted with a hard rubber dental prosthesis that corrected his speech and restored his appearance. A cover story about the removal of two bad teeth kept the suspicious press placated. Even when a newspaper story appeared giving details of the actual operation, the participating surgeons discounted the severity of what transpired during Cleveland's vacation. In 1917, one of the surgeons present on the Oneida, Dr. William W. Keen, wrote an article detailing the operation.
Cleveland enjoyed many years of life after the tumor was removed, and there was some debate as to whether it was actually malignant. Several doctors, including Dr. Keen, stated after Cleveland's death that the tumor was a carcinoma. Other suggestions included ameloblastoma or a benign salivary mixed tumor (also known as a pleomorphic adenoma). In the 1980s, analysis of the specimen finally confirmed the tumor to be verrucous carcinoma, a low-grade epithelial cancer with a low potential for metastasis.
Cleveland's agrarian and silverite enemies gained control of the Democratic party in 1896, repudiated his administration and the gold standard, and nominated William Jennings Bryan on a Silver Platform. Cleveland silently supported the Gold Democrats' third-party ticket that promised to defend the gold standard, limit government, and oppose high tariffs, but declined to accept their nomination for a third term. The party won only 100,000 votes in the general election, and William McKinley, the Republican nominee, triumphed easily over Bryan. Agrarians would later nominate Bryan again in 1900, but in 1904 the conservatives, with Cleveland's support, regained control of the Democratic Party and nominated Alton B. Parker.
After leaving the White House on March 4th, 1897, Cleveland lived in retirement at his estate, Westland Mansion, in Princeton, New Jersey. For a time he was a trustee of Princeton University, and was one of the majority of trustees who preferred Dean West's plans for the Graduate School and undergraduate living over those of Woodrow Wilson, then president of the university. Cleveland consulted occasionally with President Theodore Roosevelt (1901–1909), but was financially unable to accept the chairmanship of the commission handling the Coal Strike of 1902. Cleveland still made his views known in political matters. In a 1905 article in The Ladies Home Journal, Cleveland weighed in on the women's suffrage movement, writing that "sensible and responsible women do not want to vote. The relative positions to be assumed by men and women in the working out of our civilization were assigned long ago by a higher intelligence."
Cleveland's health had been declining for several years, and in the autumn of 1907 he fell seriously ill. In 1908, he suffered a heart attack and died. His last words were "I have tried so hard to do right." He is buried in the Princeton Cemetery of the Nassau Presbyterian Church.
In his first term in office, Cleveland sought a summer house to escape the heat and smells of Washington, D.C., but needed to remain near the capital. Acting in secret, he located a house, Oak View (or Oak Hill), in a rural upland part of the District of Columbia, and bought it in 1886. Although he sold Oak View upon leaving the White House (the first time), the area became known as Cleveland Park, which name it still bears. The Clevelands are depicted in local murals.
Grover Cleveland Hall at Buffalo State College in Buffalo, New York. Cleveland Hall houses the offices of the college president, vice presidents, and other administrative functions and student services. Cleveland was a member of the first board of directors of the then Buffalo Normal School. Grover Cleveland Middle School in his birthplace, Caldwell, New Jersey, was named for him, as is Grover Cleveland High School in Buffalo, New York, and the town of Cleveland, Mississippi. Mount Cleveland, a volcano in Alaska, is also named after him. In 1895 he became the first U.S. President who was filmed.
Cleveland's portrait was on the U.S. $1000 bill of series 1928 and series 1934. He also appeared on the first few issues of the $20 Federal Reserve Notes from 1914. Since he was both the 22nd and 24th president, he was featured on two separate dollar coins released in 2012 as part of the Presidential $1 Coin Act of 2005.
In 2006, Free New York, a nonprofit and nonpartisan research group, began raising funds to purchase the former Fairfield Library in Buffalo, New York and transform it into the Grover Cleveland Presidential Library & Museum.
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