Grover Cleveland, born March 18, 1837, was a tough opponent of political corruption who fiercely guarded the integrity of the offices in which he served. He lost a second term as incumbent but won back the presidency four years later. He earned the nickname ”guardian president” for his record-breaking use of veto power and strengthened the executive branch, ushering in the modern presidential era.
Stephen Grover Cleveland was born on March 18, 1837, in Caldwell, New Jersey, the fifth of nine children born to Ann Neal and Richard Falley Cleveland, a Presbyterian minister. The family moved several times around central New York State for his father’s posts, but the reverend died when Grover was only 16, and the teen had to forgo finishing his education to go to work to support the family. Cleveland worked with his older brother at the New York Institute for Special Education, which would become an abiding concern, and then as a clerk and part-time law student while in Buffalo. The knowledge he gained from these experiences helped him pass the bar exam in 1858 without any structured formal study.
Grover Cleveland—he dropped his first name as an adult, perhaps because he had been called "Big Steve” by friends, due to his girth, at over 250 pounds—basically went with the flow of his career rather than hold any specific ambitions. He did evade military service in the Civil War by paying a substitute $300, which was not an uncommon practice at the time. Passing the bar exam led to a position as district attorney for Erie County, then sheriff, mayor of Buffalo and governor of New York from 1882 to 1884, when he became known “Uncle Jumbo.”
In his first term as president, 1885-89, Cleveland was uncomfortable in the White House, especially as a bachelor. He married his ward, the daughter of his deceased Buffalo law partner, making Frances Folsom America’s youngest first lady at 21. It was the first and only White House wedding of a president. The couple’s 27-year age difference was summarily lampooned. Children began arriving between his two terms, and three were born in the White house. The Clevelands had five children in all.
In his first term Cleveland also presided over the dedication of the Statue of Liberty, and saw Geronimo surrender, thus ending the Apache wars.
Cleveland’s presidencies bracketed one-term President Benjamin Harrison. He was not in favor of overthrowing the Hawaiian monarchy, which had been set in motion during Harrison’s time in office, but despite his opposition, Hawaii was annexed. Cleveland wrote: “I am ashamed of the whole affair.”
In general, he was not in favor of imperialistic moves and even declared a war on London when a boundary dispute arose between Britain and Venezuela. This revived use of the Monroe Doctrine, which had languished.
He was also against subsidies and special interests, which is how his record-breaking use of the veto came about. Cleveland believed that hardship built character. Being less a presser of his own agenda than a monitor of Congress earned him yet another nickname: “guardian president.” He exercised his veto power 584 times—more than double the number cast by all previous presidents, and the highest number of any president except Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who had been elected to four terms.
Overall, Cleveland’s second term, 1893-97, was more fraught, and saw him dealing with the Pullman strike and other outcroppings of the most severe depression the country had seen thus far. His hard line lost him the support of his party. After leaving office on March 4, 1897, he continued to weigh in on political issues, occasionally consulting with Theodore Roosevelt, but unlike TR, he was opposed to women’s suffrage, believing that sensible women didn’t want the vote.
Death and Legacy
Cleveland died of a heart attack on June 24, 1908, at the age of 71, at the family’s home in Princeton, New Jersey. The children were all away at the family country home in New Hampshire, but his wife Frances was at his bedside. Cleveland had been ill since the previous autumn, suffering from a weak heart and other ailments.
He was a hard worker, and idealistic, once saying, “I have tried so hard to do right.” Cleveland had an excellent memory, presenting his legal arguments extemporaneously. He was the only president to deliver his inaugural addresses without notes up to that point. He said, “Some day I will be better remembered,” but he is one of our lesser-known presidents.
An unusual aspect of his legacy: A body part of Grover Cleveland’s resides at the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia. It is his “secret tumor,” an epithelioma removed from the roof of his mouth during his second term.
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