Saturday, March 5, 2011

An Honest President: The Life and Presidencies of Grover Cleveland

An Honest President: The Life and Presidencies of Grover Cleveland
By H. Paul Jeffers
Copyright 2000

Most would call Grover Cleveland one of the obscure presidents. Most moderately educated people can name him as the one president that served two, non-consecutive terms. Students of history know that he was the first president to admit have possibly fathered a child out of wedlock. Very few know anything about his policies or the times over which he presided.

Jeffers’ biography sketches out much of this, but provides no detailed analysis of Cleveland’s thinking, his interaction with his cabinet, members of Congress, or his political contemporaries.

Stephen Grover Cleveland was born to a family headed by a Presbyterian minister, the fifth of nine children. Grover Cleveland is a direct descendant of Moses Cleaveland, founder of the Mistake by the Lake.

His education was limited by the need to work to help support the Cleveland family who struggled with the burden of so many mouths to feed. He was always large for his age and his childhood friends called him “Big Steve.” Friends recall that he was not a great conversationalist, rather introverted, and enjoyed being outdoors.

When his father died in 1853, he had to forego his education to help support his large family. He worked briefly for his brother, William, who as the headmaster of a school for the blind in New York City. He left there, headed for Cleveland. But, during a stopover in Buffalo, he visited with his uncle that offered him a clerkship in a law office and the promise of the opportunity to “read” law as law study was called in those days.

Jeffers describes Cleveland as the “happy bachelor” while living in Buffalo. He formed no strong attachments to any particular women, although he never wanted for female companionship. Strong, robust, and attractive when he arrived in Buffalo, he slowly developed into a portly, rotund bear of a man. Still, the fairer sex found him good companionship and he courted a number of ladies, but none seriously.

One lady he did court with some degree of seriousness was the one who would give him trouble for years to come. Maria Crofts Halpen, a widow with two children who worked in a dry goods store. When Maria became pregnant, she declared Cleveland to be the father, naming the child Oscar Folsom Cleveland. Other men in Maria’s life were candidates for father, but they were married. Cleveland, being the bachelor, seemed to be the best pick for Maria. Science did not allow for paternity testing then, so Cleveland assumed responsibility for the child. It was not a light burden, for Maria had mental problems – alcoholism not being the least of them. She was in and out of asylums. Meanwhile, Cleveland saw to the financial support of the child even though he never sought out a relationship with him, perhaps feeling that the unbalanced Maria was trying to trap him into marriage.

His status in the legal community rose, first through his work with his private law firm, then as a district attorney. While serving as district attorney, he committed another act for which he’d have to answer when he ran for public office. On the eve of an era when Civil War heroes were prime political candidates, Cleveland paid someone to serve in his place. Later, his opponents would always use this to contrast him to heroes like Grant, Hayes, Garfield, and McKinley and find him wanting.

He excelled as a district attorney. Here, Jeffers gives us some insight into Cleveland’s character. Cleveland was a man with the physical and mental stamina, in the vernacular of our day, to play hard and work hard. While he was never one for physical exertion (fishing being his primary form of recreation), he did enjoy time in Buffalo taverns with friends and cronies. Yet, he had no difficulty working through the wee hours of the morning preparing cases.

When Buffalo Democrats needed a candidate for sheriff, it was Big Steve they asked to run. It was during his short tenure as Sheriff of Erie County that he earned his reputation for earnest honesty. Erie County and Buffalo were open to graft and corruption as much as any city in the United States. Yet Cleveland, who never set out to clean up the city, did run the jail and the sheriff’s office free of corruption and graft. He did not pursue corruption within his department with the zeal of Teddy Roosevelt when he was New York City police commissioner, but did not tolerate it when he saw it. This put him far ahead of most New York politicians of his era.

He completed on term as Erie County Sheriff and decided to go into private practice to make some money. His reputation and hard work with his new law firm propelled him to the upper echelons of the Buffalo legal community and the minority Erie County Democratic party. When the time came for Erie County Democrats to take on the Republican establishment in the mayoral election, it was Grover (as he called himself now) they turned to.

I found it a bit disappointing that when marking Cleveland’s name change, Jeffers never gives us a reason for the man, having established a name for himself, changing it.

Whether he be monikered Steve or Grover, Cleveland’s reputation carried him into the mayor’s office in Buffalo. Jeffers offers us few details on Cleveland’s works as mayor. Jeffers does describe how Cleveland took on the machines of both parties in the city council and followed his normal course of fighting the corruption before him, but never seeking and destroying it.

His reputation for honesty and hard work moved beyond Erie County and soon the Democrats, were considering him as a candidate for governor. Halfway through his first term as Buffalo’s mayor, he was elected New York Governor.

Jeffers gives us more substance and detail in chronicling Cleveland’s term as Governor. He quickly came to respect the Republican minority leader in the New York House, Teddy Roosevelt, who was just in his mid twenties and getting underway with his political career. He fought members of his own party as well as the Republicans in operating and maintaining an honest government. While he led no great initiatives while leading the state, he did maintain a strong and efficient government.

His stellar reputation as head of the nation’s most populous state made him a natural contender for the Democratic nomination for the presidency. The 1884 Democratic convention that nominated Cleveland was an interesting one with so many issues and old regional conflicts dividing the party. Jeffers provides few details and scant narrative of the events of the convention.

The campaign of 1884 was perhaps the most bitter and hard fought since John Quincy Adams defeated Andrew Jackson. Mudslinging dominated the campaign. Cleveland’s forces renewed old charges of Republican nominee James Blaine’s corruption on behalf of railroad interests. Having been called before Congress and eventually cleared of corruption, the old allegations stuck. Also resurrected was an old campaign ditty from Blaine’s run at the 1876 Republican nomination, invented by the forces of Rutherford B. Hayes, that went, “Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine, the continental liar from the state of Maine.”

Republicans, hoping to strike at Cleveland’s high moral standing, put it out that Cleveland had sired a child out of wedlock. Republicans drafted a little jingle of their own that went, “Ma, ma, where’s my pa? Down in Washington, ha ha ha.”

Despite the fact that the child bore the last name of his law partner, Cleveland had seen to the child’s well being through his entire life. Voters seem to take this into account as well as Blaine’s less than stellar character. Of particular importance to Cleveland’s election was a group of dissident Republicans known as Mugwumps. Mugwumps were reform minded Republicans who rejected corruption and made civil service reform their primary goal. Seeing Cleveland as the candidate most likely to help them achieve these goals, they helped elect him. Jeffers acknowledges this, but lays little groundwork for the acknowledgment, providing no background on the development of the Mugwump movement.

Cleveland was handily elected president over James Blaine in 1884. Jeffers does a nice job in describing the transition of power, something we Americans take great pride in. Cleveland received a warm greeting from outgoing president, Chester Arthur. The met the evening prior to the inauguration and discussed the transition and enjoyed each other’s company. The next day, Arthur accompanied the president-elect to the Capitol for his inauguration.

Cleveland immediately found himself besieged by job seekers. Arthur had signed into law in 1883 the Pendleton Act which was the first step toward civil service reform and keeping qualified people in government positions without the fear of political reprisal. However, civil service at that time only covered 10 percent of the federal workforce.

Cleveland announced that he would not deliberately remove Republican office holders who were otherwise doing their jobs in a competent manner. Jeffers points to this as another example of Cleveland’s unabashed hatred of political corruption and the spoils system. Other historians, with whom I agree, see this as a sly political move on Cleveland’s part to keep New York’s Tammany Hall at bay. Too many New York Democrats owed too many favors to Tammany. Tammany would be able to place too many people too close to him for Cleveland’s liking.

Most of Jeffers’ chronicling of Cleveland’s first presidency discusses how he dealt with the silver coinage issue, which was the prominent issue of the day. Jeffers narrative and analysis of Cleveland’s response to this issue are well crafted. However, he provides no background nor explains why this rose to be such an important issue in the 1870s and 1880s. Cleveland stood with the more conservative Democrats who favored the gold standard or at least minimal bimetalism. He actively pursued a policy of reduced silver coinage, earning him the scorn of western Democrats, but winning him some Republican allies in Congress. This issue was fought to a stalemate and just as the issue of slavery did, it lied waiting to be fought another day.

The issues that dominated Cleveland’s first presidency demonstrate that the mid 1880s were a peaceful and prosperous time in our nation. No great wars needed to be fought. No great foreign crisis confronted us and no enemy threatened our borders. Industrialization had passed from infancy and was now moving forward at a rapid pace. Cleveland fought with Congress over such issues as tariff reform, silver coinage, and the “Indian problem” of resettling the remainder of the nation’s Indian population onto reservations. Times were tranquil.

With so few crises confronting him, it’s no wonder that the lifelong bachelor finally took the time to seek out a wife. Washington wags thought that Cleveland was pursuing his old law partner’s widow, Emma Folsom. However, most were surprised when it was revealed to Washington society that Cleveland would wed Folsom’s daughter, Frances, who was just 20 at the time of the announcement.

Although the lives of the Folsom’s and the Cleveland’s was closely interwoven for decades, Jeffers provides little information on the Folsoms and Cleveland’s interpersonal relationship with his law partner and his widow and daughter whom Cleveland took care of as legal wards. The marriage of Grover Cleveland to Frances Folsom is one of the most interesting of all presidential marriages, but Jeffers tells us little of the courtship or Cleveland’s relationship with his young wife.

We learn that Frances was well educated, charming, and dutiful. She carried out her duties as a social hostess with great aplomb, charming guests with her wit. When it was announced that she was with child, Washington society was delighted and waited with bated breath for the child’s arrival.

Ruth Cleveland was born on October 3, 1891. It is a popular misconception that the Baby Ruth candy bar was named for the infant Ruth. However, the timeline of the candy bar’s name and Ruth Cleveland’s birth make this unlikely. She was born in 1891. The Baby Ruth Bar was named in 1921 (having been named “Kandy Kake” prior to that). The name change marks the time that young Babe Ruth was making himself into a legend as a baseball player.

When Cleveland ran in 1888, the tariff reform issue was at the fore. Republicans wanted high tariffs to protect American industries. Democrats wanted lower tariffs to reduce the costs of imports and to create foreign markets for American goods. While this same debate of protectionism versus free trade goes on today, one must keep in mind that the tariff was the primary source of revenue for the federal government in the 19th century. Therefore, the issue was large.

As was the style of the day, Cleveland campaigned little. His vice presidential nominee, Allen G. Thurman of Ohio, was in ill health and did little to help the campaign. Meanwhile the forces of Benjamin Harrison of Indiana were deftly raising their candidate’s fortunes in important swing states. On election day, Cleveland would carry the popular vote. However, strategic targeting of swing states had swung the Electoral College to Harrison.

Cleveland’s four years in exile were unremarkable. He returned to Buffalo law practice, but did not work hard at it, lending his name and occasional court appearances to raise the status of his law firm and to make money. He spent a great deal of his time in leisure. Already overweight, he packed on more pounds as he lounged about. However, his mind was never far from political events of the day.

In 1892, Democrats came to court Cleveland for another run at the presidency and Cleveland was eager to go at it. The 1892 campaign was quiet and docile. Cleveland was not an energetic man and Harrison was tending to a dying wife. Just as he had in 1884, Cleveland relied on disaffected Republicans to propel him into the White House. This time, instead of bolting for Cleveland, reform minded Republicans went with the Populist Party which promised easy money in the coinage of silver and labor reforms. Cleveland prepared to return to Washington.

Unfortunately for Cleveland, Harrison dealt him a hand very much like Calvin Coolidge dealt Herbert Hoover. Just as Cleveland assumed the presidency for the second time in 1893, a major economic upheaval hit the American economy. The Panic of 1893 devastated the nation’s economy and inflicted misery across the country the likes of which had never been seen.

Again, Jeffers provides no illustration of what brought about the panic. Just as most panics start, this one was triggered by an economic bubble. In this case, it was railroads. The nation’s railroad barons, in a headlong drive to enrich themselves and their investors, expanded too rapidly and were undercapitalized. They started failing which caused their investor banks and investment houses to fail. This touched off bank runs and more failures.

The crisis hit the government as well. There was a run on the nation’s gold reserves, forcing the president to go on bended knee before financier J.P. Morgan and ask him to shore up the nation’s gold reserves.

The crisis was met in a bipartisan fashion. Silver coinage was repealed to stabilize the currency. This long term fix caused short term agony as the amount of currency dropped. Cleveland pursued tariff reform and also enacted the nation’s first income tax on all income above $4,000.

It was during Cleveland’s second administration that the first march on Washington occurred. Ohio Civil War veteran Jacob Coxey started agitating for a public works program for Civil War veterans and all workingmen. He set out from Massillon, OH with 100 men and grew his army as he proceeded toward the capital. When he arrived, he and his men were arrested for walking on the grass of the capital. After a brief detention, they were set free and disbanded. But the spontaneous rise of Coxey’s Army demonstrated the depth of the pain felt by the working class as the Panic of 1893 stretched into 1894 and beyond.

Cleveland’s second presidency was eventful on a personal level as well. His second child, daughter Esther was born in the White House. She was and is the only child born in the Executive Mansion. He also had cancer surgery. A prodigious cigar smoker, Cleveland developed throat cancer. Surgery was necessary to remove it. Cleveland decided to keep the matter private as to not create more fear in the country. He boarded a private yacht and it set sail on the Potomac. Cleveland had a portion of his hard pallet removed in the cabin of a yacht.

Unlike his first term, Cleveland was forced to deal with foreign crises. He fought American imperialists who had facilitated the overthrow of a popular queen and established a Republican government on the island chain with the hopes of American annexation. His deft handling of the Hawaii issue kept the native population from being hostile to American interests while maintaining a stable enough government within the independent Republic to assure American shipping interests continued unfettered.

The ongoing financial crisis made Cleveland exceptionally unpopular with voters and within his own party. He decided not to run in 1896, citing George Washington’s precedent of not seeking more than two terms. However, he was struck dumb when his party completely repudiated the platform upon which the Democrats had run for decades and embraced William Jennings Bryan and his silver coinage issue. He split with his party entirely and supported a pro gold Democratic ticket. Republican William McKinley would go on to defeat the bombastic Bryan.

Jeffers best writing comes in chronicling Cleveland’s post presidential pursuits. The striking resemblance between Cleveland’s post presidential career and those of Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter cannot be overlooked.

All three left office exceptionally unpopular. All three were still relatively young and in good health. They’d each held the highest office in the land. All three deemed commercial pursuits on their behalf to be degrading to the presidency. All three were at a loss as to what to do with themselves in their post White House years.

All three took to writing.

Nixon and Carter both wrote memoirs. Cleveland did not. He did write for the leading publications of the day, offering his opinions on political matters of the time. He served as a trustee a on the board of Princeton University. He worked with government leaders at all levels to improve the effectiveness of government.

He also got to spend more time with his family. This is always a blessing to presidents with young children. However, even while serving as president, Cleveland made a priority of spending time with his family. They did not even reside in the White House for the largest part of Cleveland’s presidencies, instead choosing to rent homes in Washington.

His heart broke when his daughter Ruth died at the age of 12. But he would go on to father three more children.

Years of overeating and living a life of leisure took a toll on Cleveland’s health. His weight dropped and rose with regularity. He continued to smoke. Finally, the bad life habits caught up with him and he had a heart attack. Cleveland died at the age of 70 on June 24, 1908. As had Nixon, Carter, and Harry Truman, Cleveland’s stature in the eyes of his countrymen had risen greatly in his post presidential years. Cleveland, who morosely regarded himself as the most unpopular man in America at the end of his presidency, was hailed as a great man by the great men of his times.

As I’ve noted in several sections, Jeffers book falls woefully short on providing requisite information to put into context the behavior of Grover Cleveland. While historians know of the events that Jeffers fails to describe, students reading this book will find themselves baffled by the narrative, or they will have to do further research. That is the chief failing of this book and why I rank it among the weakest presidential biographies I’ve ever read.

History has been kind to Grover Cleveland – perhaps kinder than it should. He ranks in the top half of all American presidents according to the Schlesinger poll. However, there’s nothing about his presidencies that can be called successes. His first term would be best termed as an average man serving in uneventful times. His second term would best be described as an abysmal failure since he failed to meet the country’s financial crisis and was utterly rejected by his own party.

Although Jeffers’ title would lead one to believe that he is going to lay out a case the Cleveland was a great man and a great president, he fails to make it. He leads the reader to no conclusions and compounds the error by not providing his reader with enough information to reach their own conclusions.

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