Cleveland, Grover (1837–1908)

Stephen Grover Cleveland was the 22nd (1885–1889) and 24th (1893–1897) president of the United States. He was born in Caldwell, New Jersey, on March 18, 1837. He died on June 24, 1908. His presidencies were known for advocating civil service, tariff reform, and the gold standard amid an era of cronyism, protectionist politics, and strong silver agitation.

Cleveland entered Democratic politics while a successful attorney in Buffalo, New York. In 1881, he was elected mayor of Buffalo, where he quickly acquired a reputation for principled stewardship and for avoiding political partisanship and

Grover Cleveland held office through partisan battles over civil service reform, the beginnings of the free silver controversy, and a devastating nationwide financial depression.

Grover Cleveland held office through partisan battles over civil service reform, the beginnings of the free silver controversy, and a devastating nationwide financial depression. (Library of Congress)

cronyism. The next year, he won the New York gubernatorial contest. Under his leadership, the state of New York instituted various civil service and regulatory reforms that earned him positive national attention. As a result, in 1884 he received the Democratic nomination for president as well as the backing of the influential Republican independents known as Mugwumps. Cleveland narrowly defeated the corruption-laden Republican presidential candidate, James G. Blaine, thereby becoming the first Democratic president since before the Civil War.

During Cleveland's first term, various regulatory reforms were enacted. The Interstate Commerce Commission was created in 1887, which is considered the first significant federal attempt to regulate industry. Cleveland also showed his modest support for American agrarians through his approval of the Hatch Act (1887) and by approving the raising of the Department of Agriculture to cabinet status (1889). Cleveland's regulatory and civil service reforms were perhaps only superseded by his willingness to veto what he considered excessive legislation, which even included pension bills for Civil War veterans and purchasing seed grain to help drought-ridden Texas farmers. He issued a total of a record 414 vetoes in his first term.

Cleveland had entered presidential office with the support of various reformers seeking an end to political cronyism, partisanship, and economic protectionism. Cleveland himself admitted to knowing little of economic matters upon entering office. He turned to Mugwump reformers such as David Ames Wells, Edward Atkinson, and R. R. Bowker for economic advice. By the end of his first term, Cleveland had become a staunch defender of the gold standard and an avowed advocate for tariff reform. His famous 1887 annual address focused upon the sole issue of reducing the tariff. His speech reverberated throughout the country as, along with the silver issue, the tariff issue dominated the national political scene in the Gilded Age.

Cleveland's Republican opponent in the 1888 presidential contest was Benjamin Harrison of Indiana, an avowed supporter of the Republican Party's protectionist plank. Cleveland chose as his vice presidential running mate Allen G. Thurman, a moderate on both the silver and tariff issues. When the final votes were counted, Cleveland had won a narrow plurality, but Harrison received the electoral majority. Despite Harrison's minority victory, Republicans nevertheless viewed Harrison's election as a referendum for the party's policy of protectionism. In 1890, the Harrison administration pushed for the passage of the high McKinley Tariff, as well as the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, to ensure the support of the Silver Republicans. Cleveland strongly condemned both acts of legislation as he geared up for the 1892 presidential elections. Having secured the Democratic presidential nomination, Cleveland's 1892 vice presidential running mate was Illinois's Adlai Stevenson, whose western sympathies earned Cleveland much-needed support from the Democratic Party's silver faction. The election, however, focused primarily on the tariff issue. Cleveland blamed Republican legislation, particularly the Sherman Silver Purchase Act and the McKinley Tariff, for the country's burgeoning economic ills.

His campaign was a success, but the troubling economic rumblings of the early 1890s erupted in the Panic of 1893 soon after Cleveland took office. Cleveland encouraged sound money and tariff reductions as the solution to the country's economic woes and turned his attention to first overturning the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, which had increased the outflow of the treasury's already dwindling gold supply. Democratic congressmen followed up this repeal measure with one of tariff reduction by replacing the McKinley Tariff with the more moderate Wilson-Gorman Tariff in 1894. Cleveland also resorted to floating bonds to further halt the run on treasury gold, which had the adverse effect of seemingly putting Cleveland in close alliance with J. P. Morgan and other eastern financiers who purchased the bonds.

Cleveland's popularity within his own party plummeted to new lows. Many western Democrats, along with Populists and Silver Republicans, believed Cleveland, through his unswerving support of the gold standard and dealings with eastern financiers, was involved in a conspiratorial plot concocted by Wall Street and the city of London. Furthermore, the Wilson-Gorman Tariff's income tax provision, which had earned the favor of the Populists, was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in Pollock v. Farmers’ Loan and Trust Co. in 1895, undermining whatever remained of Cleveland's Populist support. With the backing of Silver Republicans, Populists, and the silver wing of the Democratic Party, William Jennings Bryan thereafter easily defeated Cleveland for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1896. Cleveland retired from political office but remained active in American affairs. Following the Spanish-American War and American acquisition of the Philippines, Cleveland spent many of his remaining years as an outspoken critic of American imperialism until his death in 1908.

Marc-William Palen

See also: Bourbon Democracy ; Bryan, William Jennings (1860–1925) ; Coxey's Army ; Democratic Party ; Depression of 1893 ; Interstate Commerce Act (ICA) (1887) ; People's Party ; Sherman Silver Purchase Act (1890) ; Silver Republicans ; Wilson-Gorman Tariff (1894)


Calhoun, Charles W. Minority Victory: Gilded Age Politics and the Front Porch Campaign of 1888. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2008.

Merrill, Samuel. Bourbon Leader: Grover Cleveland and the Democratic Party. Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1957.

Nevins, Allan. Grover Cleveland: A Study in Courage. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1933.

Welch, Richard E., Jr. The Presidencies of Grover Cleveland. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1988.