Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Domestic Affairs

When Grover Cleveland became President in 1885, he was the first Democrat to occupy the White House since James Buchanan was elected just prior to the Civil War. For most of his first term, Cleveland was more concerned with preventing Congress from granting privileges to special interests than with pursuing his own legislative agenda. He did not see himself as an activist President. Beyond making speeches, he did not send much legislation to Congress or demonstrate much leadership. Instead, he focused on making the federal government more efficient by appointing officials based on merit. Cleveland's management style was to name qualified cabinet members, delegate authority to them, and use them for advice and counsel.

Legislative Impact

Cleveland did push two legislative initiatives, during his first term, however: the repeal of the Bland-Allison Silver Purchase Act of 1878 and tariff reduction. His efforts, however, were ineffective and poorly presented. Always a hard-currency advocate (he thought that paper money should be backed by gold), Cleveland believed that inflating the money supply through the purchase and coinage of silver undermined confidence in the American dollar and punished creditors by paying them money less valuable than the dollars they had originally loaned. On this issue Cleveland stood apart from his constituency, especially in the South and West. The Bland-Allison Act remained law until the Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890 replaced it. Tariff reduction, on the other hand, had the support of many Democrats. However, Cleveland's ineffective leadership generated little change in the tariff structure.

Consistent with his actions as governor of New York, Cleveland was not shy about using his veto power. For example, he turned away hundreds of veterans' pension bills because he thought they were fraudulent. He also vetoed a bill to provide drought relief to farmers in the West owing to his belief that such assistance was not the province of national government.

In one area, however, Cleveland exhibited tact and effective energy. Almost as soon as he assumed office, Cleveland's congressional opponents attempted to limit his power to remove Republican-appointed federal officials. They argued that the Tenure of Office Act of 1867 required congressional consent for the dismissal of executive branch office-holders. Cleveland refused to accept this interpretation, made speeches in opposition, and forced the Republicans to back down. His decisive action in this matter stands as the exception rather than the rule when it came to his leadership of Congress.

Race, Ethnicity, and Immigration

Although a reformer, Cleveland used patronage and party organization to win elections. He stood with his party in opposition to temperance, thus winning the support of others who opposed it—including the Irish, Germans, and East Europeans who had migrated to the United States by the tens of thousands in the 1880s. On the issue of race, he agreed with white southerners in their reluctance to treat African Americans as social and political equals, and made special efforts to reach out to Democrats and former Confederates in the South to assure them that they had a friend in the White House. He also opposed integrated schools in New York and saw African Americans as essentially inferior. In believing that government should not interfere with what he regarded as a social problem, he opposed efforts to protect the suffrage of African Americans.

In his first term as President, Cleveland condemned the "outrages" being committed against the Chinese on the nation's west coast. He soon concluded, however, that prejudice towards the Chinese in the region was so deep and their culture so alien that America could not absorb this immigrant group. Thereafter, he worked to limit Chinese immigration and to prohibit those who had left the United States to visit relatives in China from returning. The principal difference between Chinese and European immigrants, he believed, was the unwillingness of the former to assimilate into American society.

When Cleveland took office, 204,000 Native Americans were scattered among 171 reservations on 135 million acres of land. In Cleveland's view, the Native Americans were wards of the nation, like wayward but promising children in need of a guardian. Regarding himself as an Indian reformer, Cleveland sought to persuade Native Americans to forego their old tribal ways. He sought to be assimilate them into white society by means of education, private land ownership, and parental guidance from the federal government. Though he did not campaign for the bill, he eagerly supported and signed into law the Dawes Act of 1887, which empowered the President to allot land within the reservations to individual Indians—with all surplus land reverting to the public domain. It was a disastrous policy that robbed Native Americans of much of their land and did little to improve their way of life.

Women's Rights

Cleveland was mostly silent on the issue of women's suffrage. He understood the value of women's clubs and political organizations in drumming up the vote of husbands and fathers, and was careful not to alienate either group by speaking out against female suffrage. Neither, however, did he speak in favor of it. His one stance in support of women's rights was to criticize polygamy.

Economic Crisis

Cleveland's second administration began in 1893, just as the nation entered the most severe depression in its history. By 1894, nearly 18 percent of the nation's workers were unemployed. One-third of the wage earners in manufacturing and 25 percent of urban workers stood idle and hungry. Confidence in the economy was low, as one out of ten banks had shut their doors to depositors. Railroad construction had fallen by 50 percent, and the market for steel rails fell by one-third, forcing dozens of steel companies into bankruptcy. Charities and relief societies were unable to cope with the overwhelming demand for aid.

One response to the depression came by way of Ohioan Jacob Coxey, who organized unemployed workers from the Midwest to march to Washington, D.C., and appeal to the government for provide public works projects and relief. Known as Coxey's Army, thousands of workers tramped across the nation to its capital, though only 500 actually arrived. The press gave the march wide coverage. Ultimately, however, Coxey's efforts were unsuccessful. Cleveland did not believe that the government should sponsor work projects to relieve the depression, and the march did nothing to change his mind.

Labor unrest continued to haunt Cleveland during his second term. In 1894, 150,000 railroad workers from all over the nation struck in support of the Pullman Car workers' walk-off at a company town outside of Chicago. Even though the governor of Illinois, John Altgeld, did not want Cleveland to use federal troops to break the strike, the President did so anyway. Many observers wondered whether the nation was on the brink of either anarchy or presidential tyranny. Cleveland's handling of the strike alienated many Northern workers from the Democratic Party.

Cleveland's most forceful response to the depression was to blame the Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890, passed during the Harrison administration, for the nation's economic troubles. This law required the Treasury to purchase 4.5 million ounces of silver a month to be coined as silver dollars. As a result, the production of silver increased while the supply of gold fell, making gold more expensive. By 1893, the gold value of the silver dollar fell to 60 cents.

In successfully calling for repeal of the Purchase Act, Cleveland split the Democratic Party down the middle. He lost the support of western and southern Democrats, who thereafter looked upon Cleveland as more Republican than the Republicans. Upon repeal of the act, holders of U.S. government bonds (and the silver certificates the government once used to purchase silver) began cashing them in for gold. By 1892, the nation's gold reserves dipped below $100 million. Between 1894 and 1896, Cleveland authorized four new government bonds to raise enough gold to prevent the government from defaulting on its international obligations. He was forced to turn to investment banker J. P. Morgan to support the bonds. In relying on Morgan, Cleveland was derided for allying with powerful Wall Street interests instead of helping the average American. The President, however, felt that he had no choice but to replenish the country's gold reserves.

In the congressional elections of 1894, Cleveland's failure to deal with the depression instigated the greatest realignment of voters since the Civil War. The Democrats lost everywhere but in the Deep South. One Missouri Democrat said that the election was "the greatest slaughter of innocents since Herod," referring to the King of Judea under the Roman regime who was infamous for his tyranny, violence, and wickedness. Cleveland felt besieged, surrounded by enemies, and beset by hecklers at every turn. He left the White House in 1897 as an embittered but arrogant man, convinced that he had been betrayed by the "agrarian radicals" and "Silverites" within his own party.