Ugly Honest Grover Cleveland
Grover Cleveland went from law firm to the White House in three years–a new book on the former president explores the role of character in his meteoric rise.
by Troy Senik (Threshold Editions, 384 pp., $27.11)
With Donald Trump’s recent announcement that he is going to run for president despite his loss in 2020, he is seeking to boldly go where no former president has gone before . . . except for Grover Cleveland.
America’s 22nd president was elected in 1884, but lost his reelection bid in 1888. He then mounted a successful comeback in 1892, winning a second, non-consecutive term, which made him America’s 24th president as well as its 22nd.
It didn’t used to take a former president announcing a rerun for the White House to make Grover Cleveland relevant again. In 1948, Arthur Schlesinger tasked fifty-five historians with ranking America’s presidents in order of their greatness. Abraham Lincoln and George Washington, predictably, came in at first and second place. Franklin Roosevelt, who died four years before the poll was taken, came in third. The top-ten list holds few surprises to modern readers, except Grover Cleveland, who came in eighth place.___STEADY_PAYWALL___
One man trying to bring back Grover Cleveland is media executive and former presidential speechwriter Troy Senik. In his new book, A Man of Iron: The Turbulent Life and Improbable Presidency of Grover Cleveland, Senik explains why it was already time to revisit the two-time president, well before the events of the last few weeks. The book “does not claim that Cleveland had one of the greatest presidencies; but it does claim that, despite his many shortcomings, he was one of the greatest presidents.”
The difference between a great presidency and a great president can be a matter of character. Cleveland didn’t lead the nation through a great war, and he didn’t enact “great” new programs that changed the nature of the relationship between citizen and state. He was a plainspoken, ordinary man who consistently applied the same principles of hard work, honesty, and integrity both along his extraordinary path to the White House and also during his eight years in office.
Born into relative poverty, Cleveland was the fifth of nine children. He became the family breadwinner at age sixteen when his father, a Presbyterian minister, died. Though intelligent, he wasn’t an intellectual, and he was too busy paying the bills to go to college. However, without connections or patronage, he had one of the most rapid political rises in American history, working in a Buffalo law firm one year and becoming president of the United States three years later.
What made that remarkable ascent possible was Cleveland’s character. He was such a careful steward of taxpayer dollars that, as mayor of Buffalo, he nixed city funding for a Fourth of July celebration, believing the money would be of better use if returned to the people. As governor of New York, he vetoed anything that favored special interests. As voters got to know him, they saw that he was a man of integrity—a rare thing in any political age.
His timing was also lucky. Had he been born a few years earlier or later, Cleveland might not have made it to the presidency. The Democrats, out of the White House since the Civil War, didn’t have a leader in 1884, giving him an opening. The Republican Party was complacent after twenty years of being in power, and divided between the Stalwarts and Half-Breeds on the issue of patronage. Into the breach stepped “ugly honest” Grover Cleveland.
Promising sound money, low tariffs, and reforms to pensions and the civil service, Cleveland tried to deliver limited, honest government. In his bid for reelection four years later, he won the popular vote again but lost the electoral college. That was the price he’d pay for advocating for lower tariffs against special interests, and because the New York Party bosses weren’t behind him—Republican Benjamin Harrison won the Empire State, and with it the presidency, by less than 0.1 percent of the vote.
In the rematch in 1892, however, Cleveland won the electoral college and returned to the White House. Along with Andrew Jackson and Franklin Roosevelt, he’s one of three men in American history to win the popular vote in three elections in a row.
In his second tour of duty, Cleveland had successes repealing the Sherman Silver Purchase Act and on civil service reform. But a panic in 1893 precipitated the worst economic crisis the country would face until the Great Depression. Meanwhile, the Pullman Strike in Chicago shut down much of the country’s interstate commerce, which nearly threw America into class-based civil strife.
The situation abroad during this time was also complicated. As Senik notes, “foreign policy had not been a major focus of Cleveland’s first term.” Cleveland channeled George Washington’s “Farewell Address” and advocated for a non-interventionist approach, withdrawing a treaty from the Senate that would have annexed Hawaii, and delaying American involvement in the Cuban rebellion against Spain.
For such actions, Cleveland is rightly called an anti-imperialist. Senik’s book has elicited newfound respect for Cleveland from writers at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a Washington-based think tank named after John Quincy Adams that pushes for a more restrained U.S. foreign policy. But though an anti-imperialist—a cause Cleveland shared with the likes of Andrew Carnegie and Mark Twain—some of Cleveland’s policies make him a strange bedfellow for today’s Quincy Institute (as do the policies of the Quincy Institute’s own namesake).
Cleveland believed that, as 19th century ended, America was naturally going to take on a more global role in the 20th. In order to fulfill that role, Cleveland believed that the United States would need to build a world-class military. During his first Message to Congress in 1885, Cleveland said that he was “inspired…by the hope, shared by all patriotic citizens, that the day is not very far distant when our Navy will be such as befits our standing among the nations of the earth.”
On both the military and diplomatic fronts, America’s footprint on the world stage grew during the two Cleveland presidencies. Warren Zimmerman’s First Great Triumph notes Cleveland’s contributions to America’s military buildup, including transforming the Navy’s fleet into a modern fighting force by helping replace old wooden ships with seventeen steel-hulled cruisers. Kori Schake, director of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, believes Cleveland’s diplomatic legacy was even more profound. In Safe Passage, Schake returns to Cleveland’s role arbitrating the 1895 boundary dispute between Great Britain and Venezuela, which she calls “that moment when [America] realized and asserted its power” by successfully enforcing the Monroe Doctrine. The consequences of Cleveland’s actions were more significant than moving a line on a map. After the crisis, “the hegemon of the international order”—in this case Great Britain—“reassessed its strategy toward a rising America.” As Schake writes, the “ground had shifted in Anglo-American relations."
Beyond policy, Senik makes a compelling case that, as a man, Cleveland was one of the most fascinating individuals ever to occupy the White House. He’s the only local hangman to ever become president, and he personally pulled the lever to execute two murderers while serving as sheriff of Erie County (though the experience made him ill afterward).
Even more shocking, Cleveland survived a sex scandal that could have destroyed his reputation and his career. During the 1884 presidential election, it came out that he might have fathered a child out of wedlock with a woman named Maria Halpin, who at the time of the alleged dalliance was a widow in her thirties. Weeks before voting began, the revelations almost derailed his campaign.
The way Cleveland handled the Halpin revelations is instructive for politicians in any age. It provides a lesson both in character, and in the benefits of standing firm against scandalmongering in our own age.
Seniks recounts how Cleveland responded to the allegations “not with strategy, but with principle.” He advised an aide who asked how the party should spin the news: “Whatever you do, tell the truth.”
The truth was that Ms. Halpin and Cleveland had been intimately involved. He wasn’t certain about the paternity of the child in question, but he didn’t deny that he might be the father. And perhaps because Cleveland had such a well-established reputation as a man who could be trusted, the public took the time to hear him out, and to consider multiple investigations into what had happened. The inquiries revealed that, while right in the main, many aspects of the story, including those that accused Cleveland of abusive behavior toward Ms. Halpin, were false.
The candidate’s honesty may have even benefited him. Cleveland came across as a man who would “tell the truth, even when it hurt.” And he showed his spine when accused of having committed sins that were not true, denying them outright. In the end, he trusted voters’ judgments and believed that—armed with the facts—it was the public who should decide.
Politicians today would be well advised to follow Cleveland’s advice: “Whatever you do, tell the truth.” In 1884, voters reward the truth with the presidency.
Cleveland’s personal story became even more interesting once he was in the White House. As a forty-nine year-old bachelor, he surprised the nation a few months into his presidential tenure: He was in love with a twenty year-old undergraduate student named Frances Folsom, whose late father had been Cleveland’s law partner. Folsom would soon become the youngest First Lady in American history. Hers was the first White House wedding, and the entertainment on her wedding night was provided by John Phillip Sousa, who led the Marine Band.
As First Lady, Folsom was a trendsetter, the Jackie Kennedy of her day. Indeed, after Grover Cleveland died in 1908, Frances wed a Princeton archeology professor named Thomas Preston, making her the first First Lady ever to remarry. (Kennedy was the second.)
Cleveland did have other secrets, and not all of them about romance. Senik recounts how, in his second term, Cleveland discovered he had a tumor on the top of his mouth. If the public knew he was sick, it could cause chaos, and so secrecy was of paramount importance. Cleveland underwent emergency surgery on a wealthy friend’s yacht, so that the press wouldn’t find out what was happening. After the procedure, the president was fitted with a rubber jaw so that the shape of his face wouldn’t change. The doctors kept their mouths shut about what they did—until one of them wrote about it in 1917.
Sometimes, it’s best to tell the truth. Other times, it’s best to do everything you can to hide it. Cleveland knew the difference.
By the time the reader turns to the last page of Man of Iron, they will be hard-pressed not to agree with Senik’s contention that “Grover Cleveland’s lack of notoriety is, as an objective matter, inexplicable.” Cleveland possessed many of the qualities that voters say they want in their leaders. He had integrity, he didn’t seek power for its own sake, and he could honestly say in his last words on his deathbed, “I have tried so hard to do right.”
Today, Grover Cleveland has sunk from eighth place in polls of presidential greats to twenty-fifth in the latest C-Span survey. But such rankings have been known to change. Afterall, thanks to the efforts of historians like Ron Chernow, President Grant has gone from thirty-third place in the same 2000 C-Span analysis to twentieth in 2021.
Of all of America’s presidents, Grover Cleveland proved himself most capable of mounting a successful comeback. That’s what he did when he ran for president in 1892, after his defeat in 1888. With the help of Senik’s Man of Iron, Cleveland may get just the kind of bump in the polls he deserves.
Wilson Shirley served in the Office of Policy Planning as a speechwriter to the secretary of state and is a former U.S. Senate staffer. @wshirleyiv
Image: Drawing of President Grover Cleveland's and Frances Folsom's wedding in the White House, The President's Wedding - drawn by T. de Thulstrup, Thure de Thulstrup, 1886.
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