Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Life Before the Presidency

In his youth, no one would have thought it likely that Stephen Grover Cleveland would become President of the United States. He was born in Caldwell, New Jersey, on March 18, 1837, the fifth of nine children. His father, the Reverend Richard Cleveland, was a nearly impoverished, Yale-educated Presbyterian minister. Grover spent his boyhood in the central New York towns of Fayetteville and Clinton, where his father ministered until he died. Age sixteen at the time of his father's death, Cleveland had to forego his dreams of college and employment to help support his family. He worked with his older brother in New York City and then as a clerk and part-time law student in Buffalo. Although he never attended college, he was admitted to the bar in 1858 at age twenty-two.

During the Civil War, Cleveland served as assistant district attorney for Erie County. He had avoided military service in the war by hiring a substitute for $300. In later years, his enemies would castigate him as a "slacker" for having evaded the draft. Nevertheless, Cleveland soon earned the reputation as a hard-working lawyer, presenting his arguments from memory before judge and jury. As President, he would deliver his inaugural addresses without notes—something no President had ever done before.

In 1870, Cleveland was elected sheriff of Erie County, a position he held until 1873, when he returned to practicing law. By 1881, he had amassed a modest savings account of $75,000. He had also amassed a sizeable body girth. Because of his weight—over 250 lbs.—he was known to his friends as "Big Steve," a sobriquent from his earlier days. In the years before he entered politics, Cleveland was acknowledged as a frequenter of restaurant-saloons, a popular gent who loved to hunt and fish with his male companions, and good man to have as a friend. Thoroughly provincial, he never traveled, seldom read fiction or poetry, infrequently listened to music, and exhibited little interest in high culture of any sort. He enjoyed poker parties, Democratic organizational work, drinking with his buddies, and other simple pleasures.

Crafting a Political Image

Though he had served as sheriff of Erie County, Cleveland had avoided partisan politics. Thus, he was surprised when the Buffalo City Democratic Committee tapped him to run for mayor in 1881. As a new man among old faces, Cleveland pulled off an upset victory. In one year, Mayor Cleveland exposed graft and corruption in the city's municipal services (street cleaning, sewage, and transportation), vetoed dozens of pork-barrel appropriations, and set a pace for hard work and efficiency that impressed state leaders in the Democratic Party. Seeing the advantages of running a upright urban reformer, the Democratic Party nominated Cleveland for governor of New York.

The image appealed to voters and Cleveland (now referred to affectionately by some friends and relatives as "Uncle Jumbo") carried his 280 pounds into the governor's mansion. As New York's chief executive from 1882 to 1884, Cleveland used the same tactics that had worked in Buffalo. He vetoed what he perceived as extravagant and special-privilege legislation, such as bills that would have held down transit fares and regulated the hours of transit workers. He also challenged the substantially corrupt Tammany Hall, a political machine based in New York City that had supported him in the election. He worked harder and longer hours than anyone else in state government. Within a year, Democrats around the nation were touting him as a fresh face, a political outsider, and a pragmatic reformer who might win the presidency in 1884.