Men of Mark in America/Volume 1/Grover Cleveland
CLEVELAND, GROVER. Among the presidents of the United States Grover Cleveland holds a singular and interesting position. First, from the extraordinary rapidity with which he rose from the rank of an inconspicuous lawyer to the exalted position of an American president; second, from the fact that he is the only president elected by the Democratic party during nearly half a century; third, from his having the entirely unique experience of returning to the presidential office after the lapse of four years; fourth, from his being the only man who has been three times nominated for the presidency. That his striking progress was the legitimate outcome of unusual traits of character this brief story of his life will go far to show.
Descended from the sturdy Puritan stock of Massachusetts, to which colony his ancestors emigrated from Sussex county, England, in 1635, Grover Cleveland was born in Caldwell, Essex county, New Jersey, March 18, 1837, the son of Richard Falley Cleveland, a Presbyterian clergyman of that place. His mother, Anne Neal, was the daughter of a Baltimore merchant, of Irish birth, and their son was named after Stephen Grover, a Presbyterian minister of Caldwell. When he was four years of age the family moved to Fayetteville, New York, and later on to Clinton, in that state, his education being obtained in common schools supplemented by scant academic advantages. That he was a diligent and capable scholar appears from the fact that he entered the academy at an unusually early age, and while there he made it his ambition to be at the head of his class. His actual school life ended at fourteen, when he entered the store of one of his father's parishioners in Fayetteville, expecting to enter college two later years. The death of his father in 1853 prevented this, and in October of that year he became a teacher in the New York Institution for the Blind. Eager to make his way in the world more rapidly he left this institution in 1854 and set out for the West, his purpose being to settle at Cleveland, Ohio (perhaps attracted by the community in name), to undertake any respectable
work that should promise him a living, though he clung to the hope of ultimately making the law his profession. As it happened, his journey ended at Buffalo, New York. Near this city dwelt an uncle, Lewis F. Allen, who was then engaged in compiling an "American Herd Book," in which task he asked his nephew to help him. After completing this work he succeeded in securing through the assistance of his uncle a place with the law firm of Rogers, Bowen and Rogers, of Buffalo. He worked for a number of months without any compensation save the opportunity to study for the legal profession. There is a story told of some especial interest and significance in illustrating his earnestness in the study of the law. It is to the effect that in his first day's reading he became so absorbed in a law book and his presence in the office was so little regarded that when the dinner hour arrived he looked up from his book to find the office empty and that he was locked in. As a boy he evidently possessed the capacity for steady work and the resolute purpose which marked his later life and so often insured success. With these were a practical wisdom and a sturdy devotion to what he considered his duty which were his chief characteristics in his remarkable career.
He was admitted to the bar in 1859, but remained with Rogers, Bowen and Rogers as their managing clerk until 1862, when advancement came, through his appointment as assistant district attorney of Erie county. He entered upon the duties of this position on the first of January, 1863. The Civil war was then in progress and the ranks of the army were being filled by conscription. His father had died ten years before, two of his brothers were in the military service, and the duty of supporting his mother and sisters fell upon him; and that they might not he left in destitution when he was drafted for military service, he borrowed the money necessary to hire a substitute, thus incurring a debt which it took him several years to pay.
In 1865 he was candidate for the office of district attorney, but was defeated. He now formed a legal partnership with Isaac V. Vanderpool, this firm being followed in 1869 by that of Lanning, Cleveland and Folsom. Diligence, intelligence and practical knowledge of the law had by this time won him a successful practice, while he had gained a prominence in the councils of his party, the Democratic, which brought him in 1870 the nomination for sheriff of Erie county. His election followed, and during his three years in this office he made a favorable impression upon all with whom he had dealings, and added largely to his standing and popularity in the community. On his return to practice in 1874 he entered the firm Bass, Cleveland and Bissell, subsequently Cleveland and Bissell, and continued in practice until 1881, which year brought him to the great turning point in his career. It would then have seemed beyond the bounds of possibility that this plain Buffalo lawyer, whose name was scarcely known beyond the borders of Erie county, should within three years become President of the United States.
Cleveland's Democracy seemed to exclude him from office in a Republican city such as Buffalo, but there was just then a popular demand for a change in the municipal administration which had been deeply invaded by corrupt practices. He was overpersuaded by his party to accept the nomination for mayor, and was elected by the largest majority Buffalo had ever given a candidate, although the Republican state ticket was successful in the city that year. Now was the opportunity to put into effect that sturdy devotion to public duty which has been a living principle in his character. He had declared that if elected he would endeavor to conduct the business of the city as a goodmanaged his private affairs, and this he earnestly sought to do, going fearlessly to work to check corruption and prevent illegal use of the public funds. In the first few months of his term of office he saved Buffalo $1,000,000, and by his impartial attention to the best interest of the city he won for himself the honorable title of the "The Veto Mayor."
Grover Cleveland has never been blindly subservient to party machinery, but has rather been predisposed against political manipulation. His nomination for governor in 1882 was brought about by a group of young men, many of whom were lieutenants of Samuel J. Tilden, impressed with his belief that Democratic national success could be obtained only by advocacy of the policy of rigid economy in public expenditures and low taxation. Mayor Cleveland's brief record made him the most conspicuous practical exponent in the state at the time of that policy. Although his antagonist, Judge Charles J. Folger, then secretary of the treasury, was among the state's most highly respected citizens, Cleveland's plurality for governor reached the then unprecedented total of 192,854. To this result, as to his election as mayor in the past and to his later election as president, direct Republican support and dissensions among Republicans contributed. On the day of his election as governor he wrote to his brother that his policy would be "to make the matter a business engagement between the people of the State and myself, in which the obligation on my side is to perform the duties assigned me with an eye single to the interests of my employers." Disinclined to the pomp of an inauguration, he walked, with a friend, from the governor's house to the Capitol, on January 1, 1883, to take the oath of office. Grover Cleveland's love of work, his dislike for display, and his determination to perform scrupulously each duty as it presented itself, regardless of possible consequences to his political future, throughout his career have appealed to the good sense rather than to the imagination of the country. The independence of the executive, and its equality of responsibility with the legislative branch, have found in him their firmest defender of recent years.
In one of his earliest acts as governor, disapproving a bill to reorganize the fire department of Buffalo in the interests of Democratic partisanship, he said: "I believe in an open and sturdy partisanship which secures the legitimate advantages of party supremacy, but parties were made for the people, and I am unwilling, knowingly, to give my assent to measures purely partisan, which will sacrifice or endanger their interests." Governor Cleveland's course was a consistent development of the policies he had carried out as mayor. His acts frequently aroused partisan resentment, but they appealed to the popular appreciation of fair play and independence.
The national political situation in 1884 was not dissimilar to the situation in New York state in 1882. The nomination of James G. Blaine divided the Republican party on issues partly personal and partly political. Samuel J. Tilden declined to be a candidate for the Democratic nomination and the Tilden forces in his own and other states supported Cleveland as the exponent of Tilden policies. These forces, his great majority as governor, and his courage in two responsible executive positions, brought the Democratic leadership to him. The ensuing campaign was exceptionally bitter, and the result very close, turning on New York state, which gave Cleveland barely one thousand plurality over Blaine.
With the inauguration of President Cleveland on March 4, 1885, the Democratic party, after a lapse of twenty-four years, resumed control of the federal administration. In both branches of congress the party had long been represented by men of commanding ability and wide experience in national affairs. Relatively the new president was untried and he had but a limited acquaintance with the national leaders of the party. Its rank and file not unnaturally expected that after their long exclusion from power the entire personnel of administration would be changed, or, as bluntly put, there would be a "clean sweep." The Pendleton Civil Service Reform Law was barely two years old. That it is now the fixed policy of the country is due in large measure to the firmness of Grover Cleveland during 1885. As governor he had recommended and was first to enforce the Civil Service Reform Law of New York state. The passage of that law had been helped by Theodore Roosevelt, then an assemblyman. In his inaugural address, President Cleveland declared "Civil service reform should be in good faith enforced." The pledge was followed by performance through his two administrations, and although this embittered some of the leaders and many of the followers of his party, it thoroughly uprooted the "spoils system." Again he was aided in this work by Theodore Roosevelt, then a United States civil service commissioner. The brunt of the struggle for this foundation of good government was borne by Grover Cleveland.
The keynote of his annual message of 1887 was "the simple and plain duty which we owe to the people, is, to reduce taxation to the necessary expenses of an economical operation of the Government." The message was devoted exclusively to tariff reduction. Mr. Cleveland was not a profound student of economic questions. The abstract issue between free trade and protection did not then especially interest him. He saw in excessive revenues, produced by a relatively high tariff, a temptation to extravagance, and as an administrator he recommended the obvious remedy. The tariff message of 1887 had two immediate effects. It raised economic questions again after nearly two generations to the first place in American politics, and it imperiled the reelection of President Cleveland, a risk consciously faced. Cleveland was defeated in 1888 by 65 electoral votes, although he had 100,000 plurality on the popular vote. New York state again decided the result.
Upon the inauguration of President Harrison, Mr. Cleveland removed to New York city and quietly resumed the practice of the law. On July 2, 1886, he had married Miss Frances Folsom, the daughter of his former law partner, a young lady whose personal beauty, affable manner and graces of mind and character added much to the popularity of his administration. The ceremony was the first wedding of a president in the White House, and his daughter, Esther, born in 1893 during his second term, was the first child of a president to be born in the president's official home. The home life of Mr. Cleveland and his wife and children at the White House and in New York, at Buzzard's Bay and later at Princeton, has been happy, unostentatious, and sheltered from publicity as far as he could effect that desired end. "Those who are selected for a limited time to manage public affairs" he said in his first inaugural address "may do much by their example to encourage, consistently with the dignity of their official functions, that plain way of life which among their fellow citizens aids integrity and promotes thrift and prosperity."
His amusements have been duck shooting and fishing, which for years he has enjoyed with the genial actor, Joseph Jefferson; and he plays billiards for exercise.
The tariff message of 1887 gave the Democratic party its issue and its candidate in 1892, when Cleveland, in spite of minor dissatisfied factions, on the first ballot, was a third time nominated for president. He was elected by a majority of 110 electoral votes, his plurality of nearly 500,000 on the popular vote carrying with it Democratic majorities in both branches of congress and complete Democratic control of federal affairs for the only two years since 1861.
In August, 1893, President Cleveland called congress in special session, stating that while tariff reform had lost nothing of its immediate and permanent importance, the financial conditions of the country should at once and before all other subjects be considered. The repeal of the Act of 1890, which had been a somewhat timid concession to the free silver theory, and the establishment of the gold standard, were recommended. The Democratic representation in congress, especially from the West and South, was pronounced for free silver, and the essential reestablishment of the gold standard was effected only after a long and bitter struggle. It was the great substantial achievement of President Cleveland's second administration, as civil service reform had been of the first.
The tariff bill, passed by the Democratic Congress, was so far from meeting the views of President Cleveland that he declined to approve it, allowing it to become a law without his signature. Without doubt, the most exceptional act of his two administrations, in its moral courage, was his message of December, 1893, concerning Hawaii. "By an act of war," he said, "committed with the participation of a diplomatic representative of the United States and without authority of congress, the government of a feeble but friendly and confiding people has been overthrown. A substantial wrong has thus been done which a due regard for national character, as well as the rights of the injured people, requires we should endeavor to repair." The position thus taken rendered invincible two years later during the dispute with Great Britain touching the Venezuelan territory, the strongest declaration of the Monroe Doctrine ever made. "It will, in my opinion, be the duty of the United States to resist by every means in its power, as a willful aggression upon its rights and interests, the appropriation by Great Britain of any lands or the exercise of governmental jurisdiction over any territory which, after investigation, we have determined of right belongs to Venezuela."
At the end of his second term on March 4, 1897, Grover Cleveland purchased a home in Princeton, New Jersey, where he lives in dignified retirement.