President Grover Cleveland is one of three Presidents to run in three consecutive races, alongside Andrew Jackson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He is the only one to serve two, non-consecutive terms. Known for his immovable principles, he rose to power by bucking his party and fell from grace for the same. Today, he has been largely forgotten or maligned as a rapist. A cautionary tale indeed…
President Grover Cleveland is both totally unique in American history and largely forgotten. He is unique for being the only President to serve two, nonconsecutive terms. He was victorious in 1884, lost in 1888, and won again in 1892, making him the 22nd and 24th President. He was also only one of three Presidents to run in three consecutive presidential elections, an elite group that includes Andrew Jackson, who lost his initial run after Congress awarded the presidency to John Quincy Adams in what he described as a “corrupt bargain” only to prevail in the next two cycles, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who won four consecutive victories. As the first Democrat elected President since the Civil War and also the first to enjoy a majority in both Houses of Congress, he might have earned a place in history as one of our all time greats. Instead, he ended his second term with a party and political movement in tatters, one which was swept from power while Cleveland was in office and would not win another presidential election for almost 20 years. He was not blameless in this electoral debacle, but as we shall see he was far more a victim of political greed, graft, and out of control party politics than anything else. Today, he shares an ignominious image as one of America’s only overweight presidents along with William Howard Taft, and his name rarely surfaces except to (falsely) shame him further: In 2011 and 2015, progressive publications claimed he was a rapist and called him a villain. At the same time, Cleveland’s rise, fall, and the false claims made against him to this day are all instructive for our highly polarized era, including both lessons to be learned and mistakes to be avoided.
Cleveland’s meteoric rise to the heights of political power was not preordained. Literally no one saw it coming, including the future President himself. He was not the scion of a political dynasty, the heir to an immense fortune, or a war hero. Instead, he was the ordinary son of a Congregational and Presbyterian minister, born in Caldwell, NJ on March 18, 1837, though he always considered himself a New Englander because of his family’s roots. He ultimately settled on a career in the law, and chose Buffalo, NY as his home, though he would return there only once after leaving for Albany. Buffalo itself was practically a frontier town at the time, one that combined a booming population thanks to the Eerie Canal, loose morals to the point where prostitutes were once referred to as “Buffalo gals,” and machine politics. By modern standards, few would want to live there, but by the standards of the day it was an ideal location for an enterprising young man with no family money and few connections. Law was also a good springboard for politics, and Cleveland made his first foray into elected office through the help of a friend, Oscar Folsom, who would die young in a carriage accident (he was a fan of racing them, drunk in the streets), but would figure prominently in Cleveland’s life for decades to come given he ultimately married his daughter. On January 1, 1871, Cleveland was elected Sheriff as a Democrat by 303 votes at 33 years old. Prior to taking office, the role of Sheriff was known largely for the lucrative graft and fees that came with it. By some estimates, these reached the equivalent of almost a million dollars over the two year term. Cleveland, however, was never one to compromise his morals, and quickly developed a reputation for incorruptibility – much to the chagrin of his fellow Democrats. For example, he immediately took the almost unprecedented step of personally measuring deliveries of supplies to ensure no one was skimming off the top, a common practice where vendors would deliver only a portion of what was paid for and then split up the spoils. He also began awarding contracts to the lowest bidder, rather than based on patronage. As a result, Cleveland would earn less than half of what his predecessors did. He also personally carried out two hangings, rather than assigning the gruesome task to an underling.
Cleveland departed office at the end of his term (the Sheriff was not a role one could be reelected for) and returned to the law, ostracized from his party because of his principles. He spent eight years in obscurity and, as luck would have it, it was only his penchant for taverns and beer that would rejuvenate his political career. On October 22, 1881, Cleveland chose Billy Dranger’s restaurant for a night out on the town, one of his favorite haunts. He had no way of knowing in advance, but in attendance that fateful evening was a group of men from the Democrat Party, deep in their cups and despondent over the upcoming mayoral election, another office known for its graft and corruption. They had only three days to pick their candidate, who everyone knew was likely to lose anyway in a city with a stronger Republican Party, though both were equally adept at fleecing their constituents. As they drank together, it dawned on them: Who better to take on the GOP than a man who’s fastidious principles already angered and alienated their own party? Cleveland was uniquely positioned to run as a reformer, and he did precisely that. As he put it, “I believe much can be done to relieve our citizens from our present load of taxation, and that a more rigid scrutiny of all public expenditures will result in a great saving to the community. I also believe that some extravagance in our city government may be corrected without injury to the public service. There is, or there should be, no reason why the affairs of our city should not be managed with the same care and the same economy as private interests. And when we consider that public officials are trustees of the people, there should be no higher inducement to a faithful and honest discharge of a public duty.” Over the years, this statement would be reduced to a simpler, far pithier message: A public office is a public trust.
Cleveland went on to win the election by some 3,500 hundred votes, largely because his own party had branded him as an outcast for his integrity. This appealed to disaffected Republicans, who’d grown tired of the political class growing wealthy from their hard work, even if they happened to be in the same party. The principle that a “A Democratic thief is as bad a Republican thief,” resonated and after putting that principle into action for single term as mayor, one which would see him strip his own party of lucrative street paving contracts, enact other reforms to the civil service payroll, and embark on a much needed sewer system for hundreds of thousands dollars less than planned, he found himself in the New York Governor’s mansion on January 1, 1883. There, he continued to demonstrate himself “an ugly-honest man of good purposes and undaunted courage,” as he was described by a mayoral colleague. He continued his penchant for bucking his own party, vetoing 44 bills in his first year in office, even though the state legislature was also controlled by Democrats, and refusing to concede to the Tammany Hall political machines patronage demands. As the Albany Evening Journal described a veto of the reorganization of the fire department favored by Democrats, Cleveland was “proving bigger and better than his party.” He did this by following a unique political philosophy: Taxpayer money should only be used “for a purpose connected with the safety and substantial welfare of the public,” meaning that the benefits of government largesse must be shared equally among all. Today, we would refer to it as being for the “public good,” which is that a person’s use of a benefit has no effect on another’s, and no individual can be excluded from reaping the benefits. Thus, he would veto even popular bills for everything from Fourth of July Celebrations to erecting statues with aplomb, believing them outside the purpose of government. No one could influence him otherwise.
As the election of 1884 neared, Democrats were all-too aware that they had not won the presidency since James Buchanan in 1856, a span of nearly 40 years dominated by Abraham Lincoln’s Republican Party. They were also aware that voters had grown disaffected with Republicans over that period, as the party in power frequently succumbs to delusions of grandeur and the seduction of graft. Essentially, it was the situation that confronted Buffalo and then New York Democrats writ large, making Cleveland’s penchant for bucking his own party with abandon possess the same appeal. As he noted during the campaign, “There should be no mistake about this contest. It is an attempt to break down the barrier between the people of the United States and those that rule them. The people are bound by a class of officeholders whose business it is to make money out of these positions. If you are to go on forever choosing your rulers from this class, what will be the end? This is a question every one of you can answer for himself.” Coming from a man with Cleveland’s reputation for integrity it was enough to survive spurious personal attacks that live on to this day (more on that in a moment), and propel him to the White House, albeit in an incredibly close race. So close, there were accusations of fraud and refusals to concede on both sides that some feared would erupt in another Civil War. Cleveland ultimately prevailed by 37 votes in the Electoral College, but 36 of them came from his home state of New York, which he won by only 1,149. He secured the other needed vote from neighboring Connecticut by fewer than 1,300. Still, he insisted that if Republicans refused to “yield peaceably,” he would have felt it his “duty to take [his] seat anyhow.”
President Cleveland was inaugurated on March 4, 1885 after paying his own train fare from Albany to Washington, DC, where his political assets to date would quickly prove liabilities. The feud with Tammany Hall persisted, and pressure to wheel and deal was such that he insisted, “Henceforth I must have no friends.” This came true quickly when he immediately began using the veto power like never before, killing 414 bills, more than double all previous Presidents combined. These vetoes included 228 Civil War pension bills, which he felt were based on fraudulent claims. Civil War veterans being a popular constituency, this did not increase his popularity, though he would prove prescient in that regard as he would with the other three other primary issues that dominated politics in the era: Civil Service reforms, the gold standard, and tariffs. Cleveland took a sledgehammer to the old spoils system, reducing patronage positions whenever he could, and putting in place a new system that would hire as many government employees as possible based on merit, something that earned him the ire of his own party who were eager for spoils after being so long out of power, but also something that continues in a more modern form to this day. It is perhaps his most lasting legacy. Also, at issue was a dilution of the gold standard as the government began purchasing silver in large quantities. The details are obscure from a modern perspective, but for our purposes, the gold standard was a classic double edged sword: Dollars backed by gold had real, intrinsic value, but also limited the money supply to the gold in circulation. Both Republicans and Democrats chafed at these limits, however, believing they reduced economic opportunity, and the discovery of massive silver deposits in the western United States offered a fresh supply of another precious metal. When Cleveland took office, the government was already purchasing between $2 million and $4 million worth of silver per month, but there was a problem. Silver was worth less than gold, and so there was pressure to pay in silver while stockpiling the more valuable commodity. This pressure was especially acute for the federal government, which had to issue payments in gold upon demand but was also required to accept payments in silver. This resulted in dangerously draining the federal stockpile of gold, threatening United States credit and the entire financial system.
Cleveland was acutely aware of the danger, and issued a statement before he took office in favor of suspending the purchases of silver entirely, claiming that “a financial crisis as these events would certainly precipitate, were it now to follow upon so long a period of commercial depression, would involve the people of every city and eerie state in the union in a prolonged disastrous trouble.” Cleveland, however, was in the minority even among his fellow Democrats. The federal government was also taking in a lot more money than it needed to operate, a surplus of over $60 million a year. This led Democrat Congressman William Rawls Morrison to propose a scheme to force the government to buy back bonds in gold, thereby further constraining the supply. Cleveland was appalled and enraged, but could do nothing to stop it. 143 Democrats supported the Morrison Resolution, and only 14 backed their President. The bill was diluted by Republicans in the Senate and Cleveland issued a pocket veto ending the matter, but found himself in the uncomfortable position of being on the losing political side of his own party and trapped in a stalemate in general. At the same time, there was a looming political controversy over tariffs, an analogue to modern taxes. Without an income tax, tariffs were the primary means to raise revenue, but the same as the income tax, there was no means to calculate the optimum rate and politicians had long used them as a means to favor constituents and manipulate behavior. What Cleveland knew was simple: The government was taking in $1.40 for every $1 it spent. Therefore, tariffs should be reduced. Politically, however, this was not so clear: Politicians used tariffs to protect favored industries, claiming higher tariffs helped workers by protecting them from foreign competition, and once again the issue split the Democrat Party. Oddly, Representative Morrison was on Cleveland’s side in this debate, but it was once again a stalemate, albeit one where Cleveland refused to back down.
Cleveland chose his annual message to Congress in December 1887 to lay down the gauntlet, even though there was no chance of any bill he wanted passing a Republican Senate. He was instead picking a massive, unwinnable fight with his own party, proposing the elimination of tariffs on raw materials, and relief across the board. Democrats were not pleased, and Republicans pounced, claiming their opponents had abandoned workers and were pushing what was “not an American measure. It is inspired by importers and foreign producers, most of them aliens.” Still, Cleveland declared that “if every other man in the country abandons this issue, I shall stick to it,” believing “What is the use of being elected or reelected unless you stand for something?” Cleveland, would not be reelected that cycle, losing to William Henry Harrison by 233-168 in the Electoral College despite winning the popular vote by a larger margin than his initial campaign. Once again, there were conspiracy theories and claims of fraud, but ultimately Cleveland left office and almost immediately began being proved correct in almost every regard. The Republicans would pass a universal pension bill that magically doubled the number of veterans almost thirty years after the war, and cost almost twice as much as anticipated. Further, it would go on for generations: The last person to receive a pension was Irene Triplet who passed away in 2020. The Republicans would also pass a truly awful tariff bill, increasing rates by over 30% while eliminating the tariff on sugar, costing the treasury almost $60 million. Prices went up across the board, people and businesses began hoarding goods to avoid the tariff, causing shortages around the country, and the midterm elections were a bloodbath. The economy would ultimately suffer a vicious, prolonged collapse as a result of the silver policy.
In 1892, Cleveland was once again the nominee, though ironically he prevailed this third time with his smallest margin in the popular vote and his largest in the electoral college. One might think his prescience on these issues would’ve encouraged Democrats, who enjoyed a majority in both Houses of Congress upon his return to office, to listen to their President, especially on monetary issues. While he succeeded in abolishing silver purchases, it proved too little, too late in what was then known as The Great Depression because the government’s supply of gold was too low to buy back bonds without depleting reserves too much. Once again, Cleveland completely failed on the tariff issue, stabbed in the back by his own party. Things did not start out that poorly, however. The tariff bill he preferred passed the House cleanly, losing only 10% of Democrats. The Senate, however, took it upon themselves to offer 400 amendments in committee and another 200 in the full chamber, as each member attempted to secure provisions for their favored constituents. As one disgruntled Senator described it, “this is a free lunch counter – walk up and help yourself.” The result was nothing like Cleveland wanted: Forget no tariffs on raw materials, many were revised upward. Raw sugar was at a frightening 40%. The best he could say was that rates were trimmed overall by about 15%. Cleveland was frustrated beyond all measure after being abandoned by his own party, writing “There never was a man in this high office so surrounded with difficulties and so perplexed, and so treacherously treated, and so abandoned by those whose aid he deserves, as the present incumbent.” The Democrats suffered the most devastating losses in midterm history (over 100 seats in the House) and by the end of the term, Cleveland’s humiliation was complete: They nominated Williams Jennings Bryant on a free silver and protectionist platform, publicly repudiating all Cleveland had fought for across 12 years, and moving towards full on progressivism rather than the light government, low footprint populism he espoused, though they would not win the White House again until Woodrow Wilson in 1912.
In a normal era, that would have been the end of it, but progressives had one more humiliation in store, more than a hundred years after his death. On May 23, 2011, The Daily Beast published, “Grover Cleveland’s Sex Scandal: The Most Despicable in American History” by Charles Lachman, a former tabloid television producer. Mr. Lachman claimed, “It’s true. In the annals of illegitimate children born to powerful politicians, President Grover Cleveland must rank uppermost. While Schwarzenegger made it with the maid and John Edwards betrayed his wife with a woman who picked him up in a bar, neither can touch the awful acts of Grover Cleveland.” Believing that he’d “spent three years investigating Grover Cleveland for [a] new book, A Secret Life, tracing the ways in which Cleveland and his keys aides lied about a sex scandal to save his presidential campaign from the career-ending allegations. It’s time to correct the record.” In the article, he accused President Cleveland of rape followed by stealing a woman’s child and having her committed based on an affidavit from one Maria Halpin. The purported affidavit claimed Cleveland assaulted her “[b]y use of force and violence and without my consent.” Further, Cleveland “told me he was determined to ruin me if it cost him $10,000, if he was hanged by the neck for it. I then and there told him that I never wanted to see him again [and] commanded him to leave my room, which he did.” After, “What happened to Maria Halpin next was a cruel injustice straight out of a Charles Dickens novel. Cleveland arranged to have the child forcibly removed from his mother and placed in the Buffalo Orphan Asylum. Maria Halpin was thrown into the Providence Lunatic Asylum.”
The only problem: Almost none of it was true. Mr. Lachman had been suckered by false political dirt thrown during Cleveland’s first campaign for the Presidency. Cleveland was a bachelor until his first term in office and he was intimately involved with Ms. Halpin, but the relationship was consensual. He did provide financial support for her child, but no one knew who the father was and some believed it was actually the President’s friend, Oscar Folsom. The source for the first version of the story, which did not include the accusation of rape, was a Republican minister who was trying to stop other Republicans from defecting by painting the upright Cleveland as a degenerate. The overall report included obvious falsehoods, including the claim that Cleveland was with Oscar Fulsom when he died in a carriage accident, something easily verifiable. Cleveland never conspired to steal her child and have her committed. He was worried about her drinking, and referred the matter to a retired judge. Ms. Halpin herself consented for the boy to be placed in the orphanage and herself sought treatment for alcoholism. Cleveland also gave her money to start a new life in Niagara Falls. Ms. Halpin then abducted her own child from the orphanage, and it was the orphanage itself that sought him back. Ultimately, she put the child up for adoption, moved to another part of the state and remarried. Mr. Lachman’s source for the story, the supposed affidavit by Ms. Halpin herself, was repudiated by none other than Ms. Halpin within days of its initial publication. She’d been tricked into signing a document she never read, having been told it was a defense of Cleveland and that he needed her to sign it for his benefit. As she put it, “I have no fault whatever to find in Mr. Cleveland.” This didn’t prevent Mr. Lachlan from ignoring the facts of her alcoholism, the truth of the orphanage situation, and how President Cleveland sought to help her. Instead, he concluded, she was “a chaste” not troubled woman, and “I don’t know how history will treat John Edwards’ ex-mistress, Rielle Hunter, or Arnold Schwarzenegger’s maid. But if Maria Halpin’s experience is any standard, they’d better brace themselves. By the way, the next time you’re at a cocktail party and somebody asks you who’s the biggest lowlife—Arnold Schwarzenegger or John Edwards—you can tell them the worst villain of all was Grover Cleveland.”
Hence, the three lessons: Sometimes, it’s good to buck your party, but that doesn’t mean it won’t come back to haunt you, even when you’re right, and some lies can live on over a hundred years after you’re gone.