The ﬁrst Democrat elected after the Civil War, Grover Cleveland was the only president to leave the White House and then return for a second term later.
One of nine children of a Presbyterian minister, Cleveland was born on March 18, 1837 in Caldwell, New Jersey. He was raised in upstate New York. As a lawyer in Buffalo, he became notable for his single-minded concentration upon whatever task faced him. At 44, he emerged into a political prominence that carried him to the White House in three years. Running as a reformer, he was elected mayor of Buffalo in 1881, and later, governor of New York.
Cleveland won the presidency with the support of Democrats and reform-minded Republicans, the “Mugwumps,” who disliked his opponent James G. Blaine of Maine.
The 1884 presidential contest was a no-holds-barred fight. The Democratic Party portrayed Blaine as an immoral and corrupt politician while stressing Cleveland's appeal as an honest civil servant. At the same time, Republicans accused him of avoiding military service during the Civil War, and called him "the hangman of Buffalo" for personally hanging two criminals while serving as sheriff. The most serious allegation against Cleveland revolved around his relationship with Maria Halpin. She accused Cleveland of assaulting and impregnating her in 1874. He never denied paternity and arranged for Maria to be institutionalized against her will so that he could take custody of the child, whom he named Oscar Folsom Cleveland. During the 1884 election, Democratic Party strategists insisted that Maria had slept with several men, including Cleveland’s deceased law partner, Oscar Folsom, and that Cleveland only claimed the child to protect Folsom’s marriage. However, there is no evidence to suggest Halpin ever had a relationship with Folsom. Nonetheless, the revelation did not sink Cleveland’s chances and he narrowly defeated Blaine. The campaign also inspired the famous ditty: "Ma! Ma! Where's my pa! Gone to the White House, Ha! Ha! Ha!"
Cleveland did not care for the extravagance of the Washington social scene; he asked his sister, Rose, to accompany him to the White House to serve as its hostess early on in his administration. He also began courting Frances Folsom, the young daughter of Oscar Folsom, and the two married on June 2, 1886 in the Blue Room of the White House. The couple had five children together.
Cleveland vigorously pursued a policy barring special favors to any economic group. Vetoing a bill to appropriate $10,000 to distribute seed grain among drought-stricken farmers in Texas, he wrote: “federal aid in such cases encourages the expectation of paternal care on the part of the government and weakens the sturdiness of our national character.”
He also vetoed many private pension bills to Civil War veterans whose claims were fraudulent. When Congress, pressured by the Grand Army of the Republic, passed a bill granting pensions for disabilities not caused by military service, Cleveland vetoed that as well. Until the administration of Franklin Roosevelt, Cleveland issued more vetoes than any other president in history.
He angered the railroads by ordering an investigation of western lands they held by government grant. He forced them to return 81,000,000 acres. He also signed the Interstate Commerce Act, the ﬁrst law attempting federal regulation of the railroads.
In December 1887 he called on Congress to reduce high protective tariffs. Told that he had given Republicans an effective issue for the campaign of 1888, he retorted, “What is the use of being elected or reelected unless you stand for something?” But Cleveland was defeated in 1888; although he won a larger popular majority than the Republican candidate Benjamin Harrison, he received fewer Electoral College votes.
Elected again in 1892, Cleveland faced an acute economic depression. He dealt directly with the Treasury crisis rather than with business failures, farm mortgage foreclosures, and unemployment. He obtained repeal of the mildly inﬂationary Sherman Silver Purchase Act and, with the aid of Wall Street, maintained the Treasury’s gold reserve.
When railroad strikers in Chicago violated an injunction, Cleveland sent federal troops to enforce it. “If it takes the entire army and navy of the United States to deliver a post card in Chicago,” he thundered, “that card will be delivered.” 150,000 railroad workers across the country supported the Pullman Strike. The arrival of the military sparked violence between troops and workers, resulting in dozens of deaths and millions of dollars in damage.
Some citizens appreciated Cleveland’s blunt treatment of the railroad strikers, but his aggressive approach drove many workers and labor activists from the Democratic Party. His policies to combat the country’s economic woes were generally unpopular, and as a result he declined to run for another term. After leaving the White House, Cleveland lived in retirement in Princeton, New Jersey. He died on June 24, 1908.
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