Stephen Grover Cleveland

Twice elected president of the United States, Stephen Grover Cleveland (1837-1908) owed his early political successes to reformism. His efforts to stem economic depression were unsuccessful, and the conservative means he used to settle internal industrial conflicts were unpopular.

Grover Cleveland's political career developed while the wounds of the Civil War and Reconstruction were healing and just as the serious social and economic problems attendant upon industrialization and urbanization were unclearly emerging. Although a lifelong Democrat, Cleveland was not skilled in party politics; he had emerged from a reform wing of his party and had only a few years of public experience before becoming president. Interested in public issues, he used the presidency to try to shape legislation and public opinion in domestic areas. Yet, by his second term of office, the old, familiar debates over tariffs and currency had been called into question and traditional political alignments began to tear apart. Cleveland, however, was not sensitive to the problems of party harmony; instead, he stood on principle at the price of party unity and personal repudiation. In the depression of the 1890s, his concern for the flow of gold from the Treasury led him to force Congress to repeal the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, and this action caused division of the Democratic party. The depression worsened, and by his intervention in the Pullman strike of 1894 he alienated the laboring class, thus losing all effectiveness as president. In 1896 Cleveland was rejected by his party.

Cleveland was born in New Jersey but spent most of his life in New York. Despite the early death of his father, a Presbyterian minister, and his consequent family responsibilities, he studied law in a respected Buffalo firm and gained admission to the New York bar in 1859. He joined the Democratic party, acting as ward delegate and ward supervisor before being appointed assistant district attorney for Erie County in 1863. Diligent and devoted, Cleveland set a good, though not brilliant, record. Enactment of the Conscription Act of 1863 caught him in the dilemma of whether to serve in the Army or find a substitute. To continue supporting his mother and sisters, he took the latter option, remaining in Buffalo to practice law. This was a costly decision, for a military record was expected of almost any aspirant to public trust. Though without public office from 1865 to 1870, he steadily enlarged his law practice and gained stature in the community.

Cleveland became sheriff in 1870, a post which promised large fees as well as frustrating experiences with graft and corruption. Although he was respected for his handling of official responsibilities, he made many enemies and won few admirers, for most citizens looked with disfavor on the office of sheriff. After 3 years he returned to legal practice, concentrating now on corporate law. His legal aspirations (and fees) were modest. His qualities as a lawyer were a good index to the whole of his public service: he was thorough, careful, slow, diligent, serious, severe, and un-yielding. His sober approach to his career contrasted sharply with the boisterous humor of his private life, for he was a popular, if corpulent, bachelor.


Quickly Up the Political Ladder

In 1881 Buffalo Democrats, certain that a reform candidate could sweep the mayoralty election, turned to Cleveland. In his one-year term as mayor he stood for honesty and efficiency—exactly the qualities the New York Democrats sought in a candidate for governor in 1882. New York State was alive with calls for reform in politics; a trustworthy candidate was much in demand. Elected governor by a handsome margin, Cleveland favored reform legislation and countered the interests of the New York-based political machine called Tammany Hall and its "boss," John Kelly, to such an extent that it caused a rift between them. After one term as governor, Cleveland was seen as a leading contender for the presidential nomination of 1884. His advantages lay in his having become identified with honesty and uprightness; also, he came from a state with many votes to cast, wealthy contributors, and a strong political organization. Pitted against Republican nominee James G. Blaine, Cleveland even won the support of reform-minded Republican dissidents known as Mugwumps. Several forces favored him: Tammany's eventual decision to support him in New York State, blame for the depression of the 1880s falling on the Republicans, and temperance workers' ire with the Republican party.

Thus, in 4 years, riding a crest of reform movements on municipal, state, and national levels, Cleveland moved from a modest law practice in upstate New York to president-elect. The rapidity of this political success had several implications for the balance of his career—he had not had to make compromises in order to survive, he had not become identified with new programs or different systems, he owed fewer debts to special-interest groups than most new presidents, and he had come to the presidency on the strength of his belief in simple solutions of honesty and reform.


First Term as President

Cleveland's victory margin in 1884 was slim. His Cabinet appointees were men of substance, though not of prominence: Thomas Bayard as secretary of state, Daniel Manning as secretary of the Treasury, and William Endicott as head of the War Department. All shared the conviction that government should be neither paternalistic nor favorable to any special group and that contesting economic groups should settle their differences without government intervention. With little administrative experience and few reasons to think highly of party organization, Cleveland in his first term advocated improved civil service procedures, reform of executive departments, curtailment of largesse in pensions to Civil War veterans, tariff reform, and ending coinage based on silver. He failed to stop silver coinage but achieved at least modest success in the other areas. In one regard Cleveland was an innovative president: he used his office to focus attention on substantive issues, to pressure for legislation, and to define and determine the lines of congressional debate. Previously (and again after Cleveland), U.S. presidents left issues of legislation to Congress, spending most of their efforts on party leadership. Thus, in 1887 Cleveland took a strong position on tariff reform and later supported passage of the Mills Bill of 1888. Although the Mills Bill provided for only moderate tariff reductions, it was viewed as a step in the right direction, a way of reducing the embarrassingly large annual government surpluses.


Private Citizen

The Republicans mobilized to meet tariff reduction head on, stopping the Mills Bill and substituting a protective tariff measure, going into the election of 1888 with the tariff as the key issue. Renominated for the presidency in 1888 without challenge, Democrat Cleveland was opposed by Republican Benjamin Harrison of Indiana, who had the support of businessmen and industrialists favoring protective tariffs. Superior Republican organization, Democratic party feuding, and election fraud lost the 1888 election for Cleveland, although he won a plurality of the popular vote. He moved back to New York to practice law and enjoy his family.

Out of office, Cleveland withdrew from politics for a year but then began again to behave like an interested candidate. Stirred into attacking the McKinley tariff of 1890 and taking a strong position against currency expansion through silver-based coinage, he gained the Democratic presidential nomination in 1892.

Cleveland's campaign against incumbent President Harrison was a quiet one, with the Democrats aided by the 1892 Homestead strike, in which prominent Republicans were involved in the effort to break labor power and to maintain special benefits for the powerful steel magnates. The Democrats scored smashing victories in 1892, not only electing Cleveland but winning control of both House and Senate.


Second Term As President

To his second Cabinet, Cleveland named Walter Gresham as secretary of state, John G. Carlisle as secretary of the Treasury, Daniel S. Lamont as head of the War Department, and Richard Olney as attorney general. Like Cleveland's earlier Cabinet, these men agreed on extreme conservatism in handling economic issues. It was to Carlisle, Lamont, and Olney that Cleveland listened most closely, although in the final analysis he made his own decisions.

Policies in Time of Depression

Cleveland had scarcely taken his oath of office when the worst financial panic in years broke across the country. A complex phenomenon, the Panic of 1892-1893 had its roots in over expansion of United States industry, particularly railroad interests; in the long-term agricultural depression that reached back to the 1880s; and in the withdrawal of European capital from America as a result of hard times overseas. As the panic broadened into depression, the American public tended to focus debate about its cause and cure on one item: the money question. On one side the argument was that businessmen (alarmed by the Sherman Silver Purchase Act requiring a purchase of silver each month) had lost confidence in the monetary system and feared depletion of the gold reserves; to regain their confidence and a return to prosperity, the buying of silver by the Federal government had to be halted. On the opposite side of the argument, silver exponents maintained that what was needed was more money in circulation, which could be achieved only if more, not less, silver was purchased by the government and used as a basis for coinage.

Cleveland, long afraid of silver as a threat to economic stability, determined that repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act would stem the drain of gold reserves and end the depression by restoring confidence to businessmen; he called a special session of Congress for its repeal. Protracted and bitter debate ensued. The Democratic party divided along sectional lines, with western and southern Democrats standing against repeal. The repeal, however, was voted, but it was ineffective, and gold reserves continued to dwindle. Meanwhile the depression became worse during 1893 and 1894.

Wounds that had opened during the silver-repeal debate were not healed when Cleveland's administration turned to the long-promised issue of tariff reform. Cleveland had been identified for many years with downward revision of tariffs and more equitable distributions. Pressured by sectional interests, the Democrats in Congress were more divided than united over tariff legislation. In addition, the silver battle had virtually torn the party in half, leaving many Democrats with nothing but hatred for the President. The Wilson bill, from the viewpoint of the President, a fairly satisfactory measure for tariff reduction, was amended almost beyond recognition as it passed through the Senate, emerging with tariff rates only slightly lower than previous ones and carrying a host of provisions for special-interest groups. Highly dissatisfied but unsuccessful in his attempts to improve it, Cleveland allowed the Wilson-Gorman Act to become law without his signature.

To avert what he viewed as financial disaster, Cleveland became involved with four bond issues to draw gold into the Treasury. Not only was this effort to maintain gold reserves unsuccessful, but Cleveland was charged with having catered to Wall Street millionaires when other governmental policies had failed.

Beset by currency and tariff failures and hated by a large segment of the general population and by many in his own party, Cleveland further suffered loss of prestige by his actions in the Pullman strike of 1894. Convinced that the strike of the American Railway Union under Eugene V: Debs against the Pullman Company constituted an intolerable threat to law and order and that local authorities were unwilling to take action, Cleveland and Olney sent Federal troops to Chicago and sought to have Debs and his associates imprisoned. Although Cleveland prevailed and order was enforced, laborers throughout the country were angered by this use of Federal force.


Foreign Policies

The congressional elections of 1894 marked a sharp decline in Democratic power. Bitter at Cleveland and disheartened by worsening depression, American voters turned against the Democrats. Although Cleveland felt betrayed by his party and misunderstood by his constituents, he remained confident that his money policy had been correctly conceived and reasonably executed. Perhaps his party had split, but for him the defense of principle was more important than political harmony. Confronted with possibilities for compromise, Cleveland spurned such options and withdrew into isolation.

More successful in foreign policy, Cleveland exhibited the same determination and toughness. He would not be drawn into the Cuban rebellion against Spain; he would not sanction the Hawaiian revolution engineered by American commercial interests. Yet he took an equally stern posture vis-á-vis the boundary dispute between Venezuela and Great Britain in 1895-1896. Concerned about European influence in the Western Hemisphere, Cleveland and Olney carried the United States to the brink of war by insisting that the dispute be arbitrated. Business interests, clamoring for guarantees of open markets for their products, had considerable influence in shaping Cleveland's policy, which succeeded when Great Britain accepted arbitration.

Again a Private Citizen

Distrusted now and detested, Cleveland was convincingly repudiated by the Democratic Convention of 1896, which nominated William Jennings Bryan on a platform demanding free and unlimited coinage of both silver and gold at the rate of 16 to 1. Cleveland took no role in the campaign. He retired to Princeton, N.J., as soon as his term ended. He occupied himself with writing, occasional legal consultation, the affairs of Princeton University, and very occasional public speaking, but after 1900 he became less reluctant to appear in public. Sympathetic crowds greeted his appearances as the conservative Democratic forces with which he had been identified took party leadership from William Jennings Bryan. Briefly stirred into activity in 1904 to support Alton B. Parker's candidacy for the presidency, Cleveland spent most of his retirement years outside political battles, increasingly honored as a statesman. After offering to assist President Theodore Roosevelt in an investigation of the anthracite coal strike of 1902, he was active in the reorganization of the affairs of the Equitable Life Assurance Society in 1905. His death in 1908 was the occasion for general national mourning.

Further Reading on Stephen Grover Cleveland

There is an abundant literature on Cleveland. Allan Nevins, Grover Cleveland: A Study in Courage (1944), is the best overall treatment. A less sympathetic portrayal of Cleveland is Horace S. Merrill, Bourbon Leader: Grover Cleveland and the Democratic Party (1957). Robert Wiebe, The Search for Order, 1877-1930 (1967), credits Cleveland's efforts to shape legislation, whereas J. Rogers Hollingsworth, The Whirligig of Politics: The Democracy of Cleveland and Bryan (1963), criticizes him as a party leader. Cleveland's diplomacy is discussed in Walter LaFeber, The New Empire: An Interpretation of American Expansion, 1860-1898 (1963). A detailed account of the 1892 campaign is George H. Knoles, The Presidential Campaign and Election of 1892 (1942), and of the 1896 campaign, Stanley L. Jones, The Presidential Election of 1896 (1964). Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., ed., History of Presidential Elections (4 vols., 1971), is valuable as a source on the four campaigns of 1884-1896.