Our 22nd/24th president was probably the most boring of the so-called Lost Presidents. He didn’t have the Civil War background of Rutherford Hayes or James Garfield, nor did he have the personality of Chester Arthur. He also lacked the pedigree of Benjamin Harrison, whose father made his mark in Congress and grandfather, who might have died a month into his term, had his own colorful military and frontier career, as well as a Founding Father for a father. When people think of this unusually honest man, he’s often the answer to a Trivial Pursuit question: Which US president is the only one to serve two non-consecutive terms. Cleveland’s most famous relative was Connecticut land speculator Moses Cleaveland, for whom my old hometown was named. Ironically, Cleveland himself almost ended up there before settling in Buffalo.
So who was this man? And how was he elected twice to the White House?
Stephen Grover Cleveland was the son of a New England minister and was born in New Jersey during the Jackson Era. After his family bounced around the East Coast, they settled in the Syracuse, New York area, taking advantage of the economic boom brought by the Erie Canal. As a young man, Cleveland dropped his first name and headed west to follow his father into the ministry. He instead stayed in Buffalo, where a cousin got him a job with Millard Fillmore’s law firm, to date, still the only law firm to have employed two presidents. Cleveland eventually joined the bar and found himself drawn into local politics, running for sheriff of Erie County. He became a Democrat at a good time. The Civil War had left the party reeling, perceived as the party of slave holders and of Southern sympathizers. Shut out of the White House and in a minority in Congress since Lincoln, the Democrats were ripe to become a new opposition party as the Republicans became entrenched and complacent.
His term as sheriff led him to become mayor of Buffalo, then governor of New York. During his governorship, a number of young Democrats and Republicans began sounding the drum beat of political reform. Among them was the young State Assembly minority leader, Theodore Roosevelt.
After Ulysses Grant departed office, the calls for reform grew louder. Rutherford Hayes offended both factions of his party by weakening the time-honored spoils system, only to be followed by an Ohio Congressman, James Garfield, running on a more aggressive platform of reform. More dramatically, Chester Arthur turned his back on Roscoe Conkling, a Republican king-maker and political boss, by gutting the patronage system Arthur himself had benefited from. When the Republicans ran another party hack in 1884, a public fatigued by party shenanigans were ready for a new party and a new voice. Grover Cleveland fit the bill.
That’s not to say Cleveland did not have his own baggage. He was accused, during the campaign, of fathering a child out of wedlock. The most likely explanation is that Cleveland, a bachelor when he first ran for president, took responsibility for the child to shield a married law partner.
Once in the White House, Cleveland used something rather liberally that even Andrew Jackson showed some restraint with: His veto pen. Cleveland further gutted the patronage system and shot down any bill that might add to the country’s alarming deficit. (One wonders what he would think of the last decade of American politics.) But Cleveland also butted heads with America’s burgeoning mass media. During his first term, he married 21-year-old Frances Folsom, a family friend. The couple tried to have a private wedding only to find hordes of reporters waiting for them at their honeymoon cabin. While the new Mrs. Cleveland proved a capable First Lady, the couple’s response to the crush of nosy reporters was to buy a secluded cottage near Washington. Reporters hated it.
And it might have cost Cleveland. In a situation similar to 2000, Cleveland lost the White House to Benjamin Harrison, an even more colorless senator from Indiana. Harrison won the electoral college, but Cleveland won the popular vote. Mrs. Cleveland told the staff she and her husband would be back in four years.
She was right. Not only could Cleveland not stay out of politics, but the Democrats could not find a viable candidate for the 1892 election. Harrison’s administration was so lack luster that Cleveland handily defeated him. And once again, Cleveland flipped the press the bird. A story was planted in the press about Cleveland needing major dental surgery while visiting New York City. In reality, Cleveland was taken out on a boat where his upper jaw was replaced. A cancerous growth had been found in the roof of his mouth. In the wake of the fiasco surrounding Garfield’s medical care after he was shot, Cleveland felt he needed to keep the tumor from the public so as not to worry them. Plus it satisfied his need for privacy.
Cleveland ended his days in Vermont after a tenure at Princeton University, where he served on the Board of Regents. During that time, a professor who became a rising star in Progessive Era politics served as president. His name was Woodrow Wilson.