The 22nd and 24th President of the United States, Grover Cleveland is the only president in U.S. history to serve two non-consecutive terms in office. The son of a Presbyterian minister and one of nine children in his family, Cleveland was born in New Jersey and raised in New York State, where much of his career took place.
Cleveland began his career as a lawyer. After a brief stint out West, Cleveland was offered a clerical job at a law firm by his uncle. He went on to accept a clerkship at former President Millard Fillmore’s previous law firm, and after studying the law and being admitted to the New York State Bar Association, began his own law firm. He was well-known as a concentrated, dedicated lawyer who believed in the efforts of hard work. During his time in New York, he was also elected to office as Sheriff of Erie County, Mayor of Buffalo, and Governor.
Grover Cleveland aligned himself with the Democratic Party from the beginnings of his career, and he served as the leader of the pro-business Bourbon Democrats. Despite his Democratic status, Cleveland was revered by conservatives of the era for his commitment to broad reform and fiscal conservatism. His reputation as a reformer defined his presidency so much so that when Cleveland ran for office again in 1884, the Republicans backed his campaign.
Cleveland ran in his first campaign as a reformer. He was dedicated to instituting change and nixing the rampant corruption in the government. One of his first actions as President was to disregard the spoils system of cabinet appointments. Instead of merely hiring friends and supporters, Cleveland kept on staff the Republicans who were doing their jobs well and appointed others based on their actual work ethic and politics, not their party alliance.
Cleveland was also opposed to imperialist intervention in foreign countries, was an advocate for the gold standard, and sought a reduction in tariffs, as the U.S. government was running on a surplus due to exorbitant tariff revenue.
However, despite his love affair with the power of veto and his formidable policymaking skills, Grover Cleveland also signed into law many policies that decimated Indigenous communities and excluded minority groups.
Cleveland lobbied for the Scott Act, which stated that any Chinese immigrant to the United States who left the country could not return to it; he viewed Native Americans as wards of the state and pushed for the Dawes Act, which encouraged total assimilation of Native American communities and ultimately weakened tribal governments.
Disaster struck Cleveland’s presidency when the Panic of 1893 rushed in a severe economic depression which Cleveland was powerless to stop or reverse. As a result, the Republican Party gained a landslide in 1894, and Cleveland’s version of the Democratic Party was effectively ruined. Cleveland also angered labor unions around the nation after he intervened in the Pullman Strike and forced railways to continue to operate despite the demands of their workers.
Grover Cleveland is widely considered to be one of America’s more successful, if average, leaders. While most scholars do not rank him among the upper echelons of U.S. presidents, his two terms were marked with strength and real change.
These seven fascinating facts about Grover Cleveland will help bring the president to life in your imagination.
Grover Cleveland was the first president to get married at the White House.
Elected to office while unmarried, Grover Cleveland became the first president to actually get married at the White House while in office. His sister assumed the duties of First Lady for the first two years of his term while Cleveland was single. However, in 1885, Cleveland met Frances Folsom, a student at Wells College. The two married in the White House’s Blue Room the next year.
Grover Cleveland personally executed two men.
During Cleveland’s tenure as Erie County’s Sheriff, it was his duty to execute convicted murderers or pay a fine to avoid the responsibility. Notoriously stingy, Cleveland chose to hang Patrick Morrissey in 1872 and John Gaffney in 1973 rather than pay the $10 fine to have a deputy do the gruesome deed.
Grover Cleveland actually won the popular vote in his unsuccessful 1896 reelection campaign.
While much attention has been brought in recent years to disparities between electoral and popular vote counts, Grover Cleveland was one of the first to lose his election due only to the Electoral College. In 1888, Cleveland was defeated by Republican Benjamin Harrison.
Harrison’s victory was based solely on electoral votes in three swing states, although Cleveland had won the majority in the popular vote. Voter fraud was later discovered in Indiana. Despite this, Cleveland accepted the result without complaint.
Grover Cleveland had surgery for cancer while President, but it was kept secret for many years.
In 1893, Cleveland contacted the White House doctor about soreness and an ulcer on the roof of his mouth. Afraid to cause a panic or worsen the economic depression, Cleveland underwent a secret surgery to remove the tumor. Originally diagnosed as benign, it was discovered in the 1980s that the growth had actually been a malignant cancer. Cleveland lived for many years after the surgery.
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Grover Cleveland was one of only seven U.S. Presidents who never attended college.
Grover Cleveland received an elementary education at the Fayetteville Academy and Clinton Liberal Academy. However, while at Fayetteville, the Cleveland family financial situation soured. Cleveland left school in order to support the family by working as a clerk at a small store and for an even smaller salary.
Cleveland eventually returned to school, but when his father passed away, he left again to find a way to make money and take care of his mother. His brother got him a position as an assistant teacher, and Cleveland never attended college before jumpstarting his career in law.
Grover Cleveland paid to avoid conscription in the U.S. Army during The Civil War.
The American Civil War waged on from 1861-1863. In 1863, the Enrollment Act was passed which required all able-bodied men to serve in the Army or else hire a substitute in their place. Cleveland had just been appointed as Assistant District Attorney to Erie County and decided to pay $150 to hire another man, Polish immigrant George Beninsky, to serve in his place. Cleveland’s two younger brothers served in the war.
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Grover Cleveland may have fathered an illegitimate child.
In one of the biggest sex scandals in American history, widow Maria Crofts Halpin accused Grover Cleveland of illegitimately fathering her child (whose surname was Cleveland) and corrupting her morals.
Republicans seized upon the allegations, hoping they would ruin Cleveland’s bid for the Presidency in 1884, but Cleveland admitted to an affair and the possibility of the child being his own. He claimed paternity and began to pay child support. It was a move that likely saved his campaign.
Halpin had also accused of Cleveland of raping her and committing her to a mental institution to gain custody of their child. Although Cleveland's decision to support his child turned the tide of public opinion, these further accusations remain in question to this day.
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