Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

A Life in Brief

Stephen Grover Cleveland fell into politics without really trying. In 1881, local businessmen asked Cleveland, then a young lawyer, to run for mayor of Buffalo, New York. He agreed and won the Democratic nomination and the election. As mayor, Cleveland exposed city corruption and earned such a reputation for honesty and hard work that he won the New York gubernatorial race in 1882. Governor Cleveland used his power to take on the Tammany Hall, the political machine based in New York City, even though it had supported him in the election. Within a year, the Democrats were looking to Cleveland as an important new face and pragmatic reformer who might win the presidency in 1884.

Three Campaigns for President

In the election of 1884, Cleveland appealed to middle-class voters of both parties as someone who would fight political corruption and big-money interests. Many people saw Cleveland's Republican opponent, James G. Blaine, as a puppet of Wall Street and the powerful railroads. The morally upright Mugwumps, a Republican group of reform-minded businessmen and professionals, hated Blaine and embraced Cleveland's efforts at battling corruption. Cleveland also had the popularity to carry New York, a state crucial to victory.

But Cleveland had a sex-scandal to live down: he was accused of fathering a son out of wedlock—a charge that he admitted might be true—owing to his affair with Maria Halpin in 1874. By honestly confronting the charges, Cleveland retained the loyalty of his supporters, winning the election by the narrowest of margins.

When he ran for reelection in 1888, the Republicans raised lots of money from the nation's manufacturers and spent it lavishly, helping to ensure victory for their candidate, Benjamin Harrison. The election thus marked the beginning of a new era in campaign financing. Though Cleveland actually won a larger share of the popular vote, Harrison defeated Cleveland in the Electoral College.

In 1892, however, after four years of Republican leadership, Cleveland quashed the reelection hopes of Harrison, who had alienated many in his own party. He thus became the only President to serve nonconsecutive terms, winning the office once again after losing as the incumbent.

Watchdog in the White House

Cleveland did not see himself as an activist President with his own agenda to pursue, but as a guardian or watchdog of Congress. While several important pieces of legislation became law during his terms—most notably bills controlling the railroads and distributing land to Native Americans—he did not initiate any of it.

During his second term, Cleveland also had to deal with the most severe depression the nation had ever suffered. By 1894, the U.S. economy was reeling from an 18 percent unemployment rate. When 150,000 railroad workers walked off the job in sympathy with the Pullman Car workers' strike in Illinois, Cleveland sent federal troops to crush the revolt and arrest its leaders. In this instance, he tilted toward the business community in the ongoing struggle between management and labor. This decision sparked a great deal of criticism at the time as well as later from historians.

Cleveland blamed the country's economic problems on the Sherman Silver Purchasing Act passed during the Harrison administration. His attempt to repeal the act split the Democrats, and his failure to deal with the depression ensured Republican victory in the congressional elections of 1894. He left office in 1897 feeling betrayed by his own party.

Social Issues and Foreign Affairs

Cleveland's opposition to temperence won the support of the Irish, German, and East European voters who migrated to the United States by the tens of thousands in the 1880s. He was inconsistent in his attitude toward racial issues, however. Although he spoke out against injustices being visited on the Chinese in the West, he sympathized with Southern reluctance to treat African Americans as social or political equals. Native Americans, he thought, should assimilate into white society as quickly as possible through federal aid for education and private land grants. Finally, though he was careful not to alienate women by speaking out against female suffrage, he never supported a woman's right to vote.

In foreign policy, Cleveland opposed territorial expansion and entangling alliances. His behavior was inconsistent, however, and he took a bellicose position when a dispute arose with Germany over Samoa. He adopted a similar stance with respect to Hawaii, where he believed that U.S. sugar planters had conspired in the Hawaiian revolution. His most controversial action was his interference in a boundary dispute between Venezuela and Britain. Claiming that the British were violating the Monroe Doctrine, Cleveland actually threatened London with war. While historians continue to debate the wisdom of Cleveland's action, the affair brought the Monroe Doctrine back to life as the basis of U.S. foreign policy in the Western Hemisphere.

End of Bachelorhood

After two years in office as a bachelor President, Cleveland announced his marriage to his twenty-one-year-old ward, Frances Folsom, the daughter of his former law partner. The press had a field day satirizing the relationship between the old bachelor and the recent college graduate, who quickly became the most popular first lady since Dolley Madison. Frances adhered to the prevailing ideal that separated the private lives of women from the public lives of men. Respecting the wishes of her husband, she never used her popularity to advance the political causes of the day.

Cleveland's Legacy

Cleveland will be remembered for protecting the power and autonomy of the executive branch. His record-breaking use of the presidential veto earned him the deserved moniker of the "guardian President" and helped balance the power of executive and legislative branches. But he did not think that the President should propose legislation and he disliked using legislative solutions to address America's growing social and economic difficulties.

Hard-working, honest, and independent, Cleveland nevertheless had no real vision for the future. At most, historians tend to see his presidency as strengthening the power of the executive branch in relation to Congress and leading to the emergence of the modern presidency that began with Theodore Roosevelt.