An Honest President: the Life and Presidencies of Grover Cleveland

An Honest President: the Life and Presidencies of Grover Cleveland


Grover Cleveland
President Grover Cleveland

(A Book Review of Jeffers on Grover Cleveland from my Second book, Economics 101 and Other Thoughts).

Grover Cleveland was the last Jeffersonian Democrat to hold the presidency, a man who believed government was the servant of the people and not their master.  In today’s political world, Grover Cleveland would be an anomaly, a politician with strongly held beliefs, willing to sacrifice his political career for those strongly held beliefs.

Cleveland held that government frugality was essential to America’s continued freedom and integrity and truth were precious commodities.  Once squandered, trust could not be recovered.  The son of a Preacher, Cleveland arrived in Buffalo as a penniless teen in 1855.  Through hard work, Cleveland became a successful lawyer.  He began his career in Buffalo politics as a ward captain, but rose to become sheriff, assistant district attorney, and finally, mayor.

During the Civil War, Grover Cleveland supported his mother and younger sisters while his older brothers were off fighting the Civil War.  During the Civil War, an individual could pay up to $300 to purchase a substitute to fight on his behalf and Grover Cleveland exercised this option, paying $150 to George Benninsky.  The young Mr. Benninsky injured his back in a non-combat accident and spent the rest of the war out of harms way. This event along with his sexual affair with Maria Halpin would be the two events his political opponents used to tar him when he first ran for President.

The Halpin Affair

The affair with Ms. Halpin began after his election as sheriff.  A long time bachelor, Mr. Cleveland was attracted to Ms. Halpin’s intelligence and beauty.  In 1874, Ms. Halpin had a son out of wedlock and told Mr. Cleveland that the baby was his, but the allegation remained unproven.  Paul Jeffers contends she was familiar with many of Cleveland’s close friends, and the father could easily have been one of those friends.  Nonetheless, he reluctantly assumed responsibility for paternity, providing for the baby financially.

The story does not end there.  Grover Cleveland found out Maria Halpin was drinking heavily, and there was evidence of child neglect.  Grover Cleveland had the mother committed and the child put in an orphan home, assuming all financial responsibility.  He also helped Maria find work in Niagara Falls after treatment.  This arrangement proved satisfactory for all until Maria sued for custody. Mr. Jeffers contends Maria realized that once she lost control of the child, she also lost an important bargaining chip with Cleveland.  Her objective may have been marriage to the bachelor.

Arguably, Cleveland should have taken more responsibility.  But Maria Halpin later admitted there was no understanding of marriage between Cleveland and herself.  Unfortunately for him, the affair became public when he hit the national political scene.  Cleveland also provided and cared for the wife and daughter of his law partner Oscar Folsom, who died in a tragic accident.  Oscar died without leaving a will, but Cleveland’s legal work on the matter assured the widow and her young daughter would be provided for.  The young daughter, Francis, would later be the first woman married in the White House with her legal guardian, Grover Cleveland during his first administration.

Grover Cleveland Before The White House

Cleveland’s first elected job was sheriff of Buffalo, where his performance established his reputation as an honest politician, willing to take responsibility for his actions.  On two different occasions, he personally pulled the lever to hang criminals, though he was not sure either man deserved the death sentence.  He would not allow others to be saddled with any guilt.  Much to the dismay of the local crowd, he closed down public hanging.

He returned to private practice after his stint as sheriff, before becoming mayor of Buffalo.  His election as mayor put Cleveland on the fast track in the political world.  For the next two years, he would go from the mayor’s office to the governor’s mansion in Albany.  Then, it was the White House.  In the meantime, he earned his reputation as an honest politician.  As both mayor and governor, he instituted honest government, reforming civil service, protecting taxpayers and irritating various political machines on both sides of the aisle.  This assured him the presidential nomination in 1884.  It also some lifetime political enemies.

In 1884, corruption in government was the single major issue.  Civil service reform was designed to eliminate corruption within the federal government.  The previous Republican Chester A. Arthur promoted civil service reform by backing efforts to end partisan patronage.  For his support of civil service reform, Arthur was denied the nomination at his own presidential convention in favor of James Blaine.  Blaine’s reputation was sullied by profiting from his political positions.

Jeffers chronicles examples of Republican Party corruption that attended its dominance in the wake of the Civil War.  Since Grant’s presidency, special interests gained access to land grants, favorable tariffs, various governmental subsidies and generous pensions.  Democrats sensed their first post-bellum chance to recapture the White House. Cleveland’s reputation for probity in government was the rationale for his nomination.  The race began.

The Election of 1884

This election set a new low in campaign rhetoric.  Cleveland’s past indiscretion with Maria Halpin and his non-service in the War became central to the Republican campaign against him.  The slogan, “Ma, Ma, Where’s My Pa?” referred directly to his out of wedlock child.  In a  country where the Civil War was a recent memory, his purchase of a substitute hurt his standing with Civil War veterans.

His own reaction to the airing of his private life, as he told supporters, was to tell the truth.  He admitted his role in the Maria Halpin affair and explained his reason for buying the substitute.  Meanwhile, James Blaine’s history of corruption became a counter issue.  The election was a nail biter.  One of Blaine’s supporters declared a vote for Cleveland would be a vote for “Rum, Romanism and Rebellion.” This anti-Catholic slur helped the Democratic machine mobilize New York City’s Catholic vote.  Cleveland’s razor thin margin in New York clinched the electoral campaign.

Cleveland spent his administration fighting government spending.  He reduced unnecessary pensions, which was the biggest element in the budget and cut excessive tariffs, anachronisms from the Civil War.  His administration began making progress on both of these fronts.  This did not stop his defeat in 1888.  Despite winning the popular vote, he lost the Electoral College.  He failed to carry Indiana and New York; two states he carried in 1884.  Indiana was the home state of Republican nominee, Benjamin Harrison.  His refusal to bestow patronage cost him the support of his home state Democratic machine.

Cleveland’s Second Term

As the titular head of the Democratic Party, he watched from the side as Republicans debased the currency with the Sherman Silver Act.  Then, they increased taxes with the McKinley tariffs.  The G.O.P also hiked government expenditures by expanding pensions.  This set the stage for the Depression of 1893, which the re-elected Cleveland had to cope with.  As Grover Cleveland took office, his party was changing amid these economic storms.  The populist wing of his own party supported inflation inducing silver policy to court debtor-farmers, their Midwest constituents.  As a sop to his party’s populist wing, Cleveland had accepted Adlai Stevenson as his vice-president.  But he was not about to let his populist Veep determine policy.  This could collapse the currency and deepen the depression.  Cleveland began his new administration defending the integrity of the dollar from populists in his own party.  Personal discomfiture made the period even more difficult.

As gold reserves dwindled to dangerous levels, Cleveland had a cancerous growth removed from his jaw, unbeknownst to the public.

Throughout his second administration, Cleveland had tariff trouble.  His efforts to reduce these exorbitant burdens on American consumers barely made a dent due to Republican opposition.  Congress forced Cleveland to accept an income tax in exchange for a minimum reduction in tariffs.  Cleveland allowed this bill to become law without his signature.  A “tiny” income tax, the reformer’s nostrum of the day, was a distasteful compromise to ensure some relief from tariffs, then a major burden.  The Supreme Court did Cleveland’s job for him, declaring the income tax unconstitutional.

On the foreign scene, Cleveland, an anti-imperialist, refused to annex Hawaii.  He forced Britain to stop meddling in Latin America.  As the 1896 election loomed, populists wrestled control of the Democrats from Cleveland’s “Bourbons”.  Declaring that Americans would not be “crucified upon a cross of gold,” William Jennings Bryan led the party away from its Jeffersonian roots.  William McKinley became the defender of sound money.  The campaign actually revolved around monetary policy and its relation to prosperity.  Democrats split with the conservative wing deserting Bryan to run as the “Gold Party.”  This gave McKinley a landslide victory.  Cleveland was not disappointed over Bryan’s defeat.  He left politics and retired to his home in Princeton, New Jersey.

As America recovered from the Depression, Republicans got the lion’s share of the credit for returning America to economic health.  By the turn of the century America had joined the world’s economic elite.  Cleveland was a 19th century man in a country racing toward a new century.  Yet, his defense of the dollar stabilized the economy and helped prepare the recovery which ensued after he left office.  Cleveland was an unusual politician.  He was not driven by personal ambition.  Instead, he wanted to reform and limit government.  Cleveland was incorruptible in his public life, willing to confront politicians of either party when they crossed his line of demarcation.  He was willing to pay the political price of challenging the special interests of his day.

Great presidents are defined by great crisis.  While historians may criticize his performance during the 1893 depression, Cleveland’s stewardship allowed the depression to run it’s course.  This prepared the stage for the next recovery.  Compare his stewardship to that of Herbert Hoover and FDR who similarly transferred a downturn into a decade long depression.  You will come away with a new appreciation of Grover Cleveland’s statesmanship.  It was his misfortune that unlike Ronald Reagan, he was not in office to enjoy the popularity associated with the prosperity he helped foster.

Cleveland’s Legacy

Jeffers tells a compelling story about the under appreciated leader.  Grover Cleveland was no saint but he was honest and willing to admit his shortcomings.  Contrasted with William Jefferson Clinton, Cleveland showed how a strong, confident man takes his medicine when he strays from ethical behavior.  Despite his personal vulnerabilities, Cleveland won the popular vote in three successive presidential elections in an era when the opposition party dominated the national political scene.  He was the sole Democrat to hold the presidency between James Buchanan and Woodrow Wilson.  For 12 years, he was the nation’s dominant Democrat.

There was a movement in 1904 to push the old political warrior back into the national spotlight, but his own reluctance ended it.

Cleveland died in 1908 as his old populist rival, William Jennings Bryan lost his third attempt at the presidency.  It was during Cleveland’s tenure that the Democratic Party began its long descent into its modern day form as the party of the Left.  But it was despite Cleveland, not because of him.

A free trader and sound money advocate, Cleveland believed in a frugal government restrained by the Constitution.  In the end, Cleveland would be the Bill Buckley of his age, standing astride a historical wave, yelling for it to stop.  But the prophet disregarded by one era may look better thereafter.  At the beginning of the 21st century, Cleveland seems not a reactionary, but a seer.  H. Paul Jeffers’ clear elegant biography reminds us of a president underestimated in his time-but one whose qualities are sorely missed today.

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