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Profile - Hangman in the White House: Grover Cleveland

Grover Cleveland (1837-1908) has several unique distinctions among the presidents.  He is the only Chief Executive to have served as a mayor, the only one to have supervised a hanging, the only man ever to serve two non-consecutive terms as president (forever confusing students trying to learn the presidents), and the only president to have been married in the White House.

Cleveland’s family migrated to America from England in 1635.  Like many pioneer American families, they moved around a good deal, from Massachusetts to New York to New Jersey, and so on, before settling in New York.  During the American Revolution, Aaron Cleveland, the president’s great-grandfather, was politically active in the Patriot cause, and while there is no record of military service on his part, since New York had a compulsory militia law, he probably did serve.  This may also be the case for the president’s grandfather, William Cleveland, and perhaps even his father, Richard F. Cleveland, though the latter was a Presbyterian minister.  Although his father died when he was still a teenager, the future president – who was actually named Stephen Grover Cleveland – was raised in comfortable circumstances in western New York.  He worked for a time as a teacher and magazine editor before becoming a lawyer in Buffalo in 1859.

During the “Secession Winter” in 1860-1861, Cleveland, an active Democrat and the newly appointed Assistant District Attorney of Erie County, New York, along with a number of other Buffalo citizens arranged for 1st Lt. William Passmore Carlin, the army recruiting officer for western New York, to provide some informal instruction in drill and tactics.  When the Civil War came, however, Cleveland did not serve.  According to family tradition, shortly after Ft. Sumter, Cleveland and two of his brothers drew straws to determine who would remain home to care for their mother and their two sisters, and who would enlist.  Cleveland drew the short straw, and his brothers served as officers in the volunteer army, Richard Cecil Cleveland in the 24th Indiana and Lewis Fredrick Cleveland in the 32nd New York.  Although some critics have questioned Cleveland’s claim, similar arrangements were made in other families.  

In mid-1863 Grover’s name was drawn at Buffalo in the first day of the new national draft.  His brother Lewis Frederick (who had by then been discharged after two years of service) offered to re-enter the Army as a substitute, but Grover instead paid $150 to 32-year old Polish immigrant George Benninski (sometimes given erroneously as Brenske) to enlist as his substitute.  Benninski served for a time in the 76th New York Volunteers, but after injuring his back in an accident was assigned as a hospital orderly, and never saw combat.

During and after the war, Cleveland continued to work as a lawyer in Buffalo.  In 1870 he was elected sheriff of Erie County and personally supervised the hanging of at least two condemned criminals.  His rise to national prominence was surprisingly swift.  Elected to a two-year term as Mayor of Buffalo in 1880, he was then elected Governor of New York in 1882 and ran for president in 1884.  Although the opposition tried to make an issue of his lack of service in the Civil War, Cleveland won. It helped that his opponent James G. Blaine had also purchased a substitute during the war, and then, during the campaign, made disparaging remarks about Catholics. In addition, many Republican voters saw Cleveland as a man of staunch integrity who might help the nation out of the protracted depression that had begun in the mid-1870s. 

Cleveland’s first term (1885-1889) was a moderate success, but plagued by a weak recovery, and he lost his bid for re-election in 1888.  In 1892 Cleveland was renominated to run against Benjamin Harrison, who had defeated him in 1888, and managed to win, partially due to defections from the Republican Party to the Populists.  Hardly had Cleveland assumed office, however, when the “Panic of 1893” plunged the nation into a new depression, leading to widespread hardship, battles over “Free Silver”, the Tariff, and workers’ rights, which plagued Cleveland’s efforts at civil service reform and other progressive measures.  However, Cleveland’s second term was one of increasing military reform, and rising international tensions.

During Cleveland’s first term, the “New Navy” began taking shape as ships laid down in the early 1880s started entering service and more ships were authorized.  In Cleveland’s second term, the fleet came to comprise five new first- and second-class battleships, plus a dozen new armored and protected cruisers and many new smaller warships.  This naval buildup occurred at a time the U.S. was facing increasing problems in foreign relations.

In Hawaii in 1893, a coterie of American and European businessmen (with some illegal assistance from the U.S. Navy) overthrew the monarchy, established a republic, and began actively seeking annexation.  Although this proved popular, Cleveland, who during his first term had maintained friendly relations with Hawaii and managed to secure basing rights, opposed the measure and managed to prevent annexation.   Meanwhile, Cleveland backed Venezuela in a boundary dispute with British Guiana, which led to rising tensions, particularly as some other European powers, notably Germany, were supporting Britain to further their own imperial ambitions in the Caribbean.  Cleveland succeeded in getting the issue tied up in lengthy negotiations, which were not resolved until 1899, long after he had left office.

The most critical foreign policy problem of Cleveland’s administration, however, was the Cuban War for Independence.  In 1895 a nationalist uprising took place in Cuba against Spanish rule.  As a deliberate war aim, the nationalists sought U.S. intervention.  They began a propaganda campaign against Spain, supplying atrocity stories to the “Yellow Press”, and initiated a policy of striking at American economic interests as a way of forcing intervention.  Despite increasing popular support for the rebels in the U.S., Cleveland sought to avoid intervention and tried to work out a peaceful resolution.  The crisis remained unresolved at the time Cleveland handed the presidency over to William McKinley, in March of 1897. 

After leaving office, Cleveland remained somewhat active public life, serving as a trustee for Princeton University, writing occasionally on various issues (such as women’s suffrage, which he opposed) and even served as an unofficial advisor to Theodore Roosevelt.  Beginning about 1905 his health began to decline, and he died in 1908. 

Cleveland had been a bachelor when he was inaugurated in March of 1885. In 1886 he married Frances Folsom, who had been his ward, in a White House ceremony.  Ruth (the first of their five children) died young.  Esther (their second) was the only presidential child actually born in the White House and served a volunteer nurse during World War I, in England, where she met and married Capt. William Bosanquet of the Coldstream Guards.  They became the parents of Philippa Ruth Bosanquet Foot, a noted English philosopher and ethicist and one of the founders of Oxfam. Philippa was for a time married to Michael Richard Daniel Foot, who served in Royal Artillery during the Liberation of France, Belgium and the Netherlands in 1944-1945, rose to major, and later became an historian with an abiding interest in special operations and resistance movements.  Cleveland’s third child, Marion Cleveland Dell Amen, was married twice, secondly to John Harlan Amen, a noted U. S. Attorney who served on the legal staff for the Nuremberg war crimes trial.  Richard, the president’s fourth child and oldest son, was an officer in the Marine Corps during World War I, but his youngest son, Francis, who died in 1995, did not serve.

BookNotes: There have been several recent biographies of Cleveland, notably Henry F. Graff’s Grover Cleveland, a volume in the “American Presidents Series”, and  Alyn Brodsky’s Grover Cleveland: A Study in Character .  

 


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