Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 389
This is the grave of Grover Cleveland.
Born in 1837 in Caldwell, New Jersey to a minister father, he grew up in Fayetteville, New York, after his father became pastor at a church there and then moved to Utica, where his father died in 1853. He got a job teaching at the New York Institute for the Blind. His uncle in Buffalo decided to mentor the talented young boy and moved him into becoming a lawyer, which happened in 1859. In fact, he got a job at the same firm that had previously employed Millard Fillmore. Not sure what Buffalo does worse, football or presidents. In 1862, he started his own practice, then bought his way out of fighting in the Civil War. He hated Lincoln and so dedicated himself to Democratic Party politics. He ran for district attorney in 1865 but lost to the Republican. In 1870 though, he did win the position of sheriff of Erie County. Cleveland knew that there was corruption but did nothing about it. He returned to his law office after one term. He then had some sort of a relationship with a woman named Maria Halpin that ended up with a illegitimate child. She accused Cleveland of raping her while he basicallly said she was an alcoholic slut. The Brett Kavanaugh of his day.
Cleveland ran for mayor of Buffalo in 1881 and won. Unlike his time in the sheriff’s office, he made fighting corruption his top priority, forcing through lowest-bid contracts over the entrenched interests of the city council and asked the state to appoint an independent commission to improve the sewer system at a low cost. Given the overall corruption in American politics at this time, this was a good way to raise your political profile. Cleveland then became the Democratic candidate for governor in 1882 against a Republican party fighting internal divisions. He won. While he continued the anti-corruption mentality, he also snuggled up to the worst capitalists of the day. Jay Gould had taken over New York’s elevated train system. He wanted to raise the rates. This outraged many people, who already hated the man. So the state legislature passed a bill to reduce the rates. Cleveland vetoed it because he felt Gould could charge whatever he wanted. That kind of behavior would make Cleveland the rare Democrat truly trusted by the plutocracy. Cleveland had plenty of enemies in his own party, including Tammany, who of course hated the anti-corruption stuff, but he also made plenty of friends among Republicans, because he loved the rich as much as they did.
All of this made Cleveland, an utter obscurity three years earlier, the Democratic presidential candidate in 1884. He continued to benefit from Republican divisions, as they nominated James Blaine, who half the party despised. After losing every presidential election since 1856, Democrats smelled blood and Cleveland was the kind of DINO–truly he was the ultimate DINO–who could win. The only real opposition he had in a party divided on its own was Tammany, who supported Benjamin Butler, and Cleveland won on the second ballot of the convention. Cleveland did win by focusing on Blaine’s amazing levels of corruption and his own fight against corruption as mayor and governor. Blaine’s supporters uncovered the illegitimate child and used it against him, making him admit he was paying child support. It was a very tight election, but when a Republican gave a speech calling Democrats the party of “rum, Romanism, and rebellion,” which pissed off the Irish, who had been distrustful of Cleveland, and swung them to the Democrats, giving Cleveland New York and the election.
Cleveland as president was awful, unless you were a plutocrat. Sure, he pushed his reform agenda, which included vetoing a bill providing pensions for Civil War veterans who were becoming disabled as they aged from non-battle issues. Which, uh, was a terrible decision. But he was all-in on economic policies that increased inequality. He saw the poverty of Americans and was indifferent. His first term was basically a stalemate on many of these issues. From the tariff to the gold standard, neither Cleveland nor his opponents could get much in the way of a victory. He was a standard Democrat in being a stone racist. He appointed no black people to patronage positions except for someone to replace Frederick Douglass as recorder of deeds in Washington. He was more than happy to let southern states violently assert their power over African-Americans. He supported greater restrictions of Chinese immigration, not allowing Chinese in the U.S. to leave the country and then return. He pushed for the passage of the Dawes Act, which tore apart the reservations by allowing whites to buy land, further alienating Native people from being allowed to live. He nominated the former Confederate L.Q.C. Lamar to the Supreme Court and nominated Melville Fuller, probably the worst Supreme Court justice in the terrible history of that awful institution, as Chief Justice. He also married a 21 year old woman, Frances Folsom.
Cleveland lost his reelection bid to Benjamin Harrison in 1888 by losing New York and other pro-tariff northern states. He wiled away the next four years by moving to New York City, practicing a bit of law, and fishing, which was most of it. But when Harrison supported silver coinage and Congress passed the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, Cleveland was outraged, publicly criticized his successor, and became the frontrunner in 1892. He won the nomination easily. Despite Republicans pushing through a bunch of new states in the West they figured would help them win electoral votes, Cleveland managed to win relatively easily, partly because Harrison’s wife was dying and he was completely absent and partly because the silver issue and other issues of inequality had led to the rise of Populists, whose candidate James Weaver won some states like Iowa that were traditionally Republican states. With southern states openly suppressing the votes of Populists or just committing election fraud outright, all those states stayed with the Democrats.
Cleveland’s second term should mostly be remembered for he and his attorney general, the vile Richard Olney, calling out the U.S. military to crush the Pullman Strike. This action typified an administration that saw massive poverty and didn’t care. Cleveland had to deal with the Panic of 1893. His response was to do nothing except continue to fight silver coinage. The nation’s extremely tight money supply meant that this became the worst economic crisis the nation would ever face until 1929. He announced his opposition to the Lodge Bill, which would have increased federal supervision over elections and potentially allowed southern blacks to vote, which Cleveland didn’t want because he was a racist. Harrison, really the last Republican president to care about civil rights, had supported it, but Cleveland’s opposition doomed it. When Coxey’s Army arrived in Washington to protest unemployment, it was suppressed and Cleveland thought that was just dandy. All of this led to a midterm wipeout for Democrats in 1894 and Cleveland’s entire position in the Democratic Party being undermined. That William Jennings Bryan would win the 1896 nomination was horrifying to Cleveland, but the latter’s own indifference to poverty and suppression of labor struggles meant that Cleveland’s opponents in the Democratic Party would soon be dominant. The only good thing one can say about Grover Cleveland is that he opposed imperialism and refused to annex Hawaii after the sugar interests there had launched a coup against the royal family, expecting to be part of the United States. That would have to wait until William McKinley. Cleveland also had surgery for cancer; that it was successful and never came back has led to many to speculate that it probably wasn’t a malignant tumor at all.
Cleveland was so outraged by Bryan that he didn’t even support the Democratic candidate in 1896, backing a goldbug third party Democratic splitter ticket. He maintained influence in the party, but Bryan won the nomination again in 1900 and 1908. Alton Parker had Cleveland’s approval in 1904, but was blown out by Theodore Roosevelt. Cleveland was basically a total irrelevancy in his retirement. He made his views known, mostly his opposition to women’s suffrage. He wrote that “sensible and responsible women do not want to vote. The relative positions to be assumed by men and women in the working out of our civilization were assigned long ago by a higher intelligence.” Real surprising that a guy who had probably raped a woman into pregnancy early in life would close it by opposing women’s rights. There was some talk of getting him into the U.S. Senate from New Jersey, where he now lived, in 1906 but it didn’t really go anywhere. He died of a heart attack in 1908.
Grover Cleveland is buried in Princeton Cemetery, Princeton, New Jersey.
If you would like this series to visit more presidents, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Andrew Johnson is in Greeneville, Tennessee and Benjamin Harrison is in Indianapolis. Previous posts in this series are archived here.