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A New Biography Demonstrates Why He's More Than A Footnote to History


Friday, Nov. 1, 2002

Grover Cleveland is usually remembered as the only President to serve two nonconsecutive terms. In his concise new biography of Cleveland, however, Henry Graff explains why Cleveland should be considered to be much more than a historical footnote or trivia answer.

This excellent biography is the latest offering in a series of popular studies of every President, under the general editorship of historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.. Other studies include Garry Wills on Madison, E.L. Doctorow on Lincoln, and Douglas Brinkley on Ford.

A Life of Public Service

Elected for the first time in 1885, Cleveland lost in 1888 to Republican Benjamin Harrison, only to be elected again in 1892. His terms coincided with phenomenal social and economic changes in American society. In particular, his political career ushered in a new era of American politics, the legacy of which remains with us today.

Graff appropriately places Cleveland within the context not only of American political life, but also of the larger historical period. Born in 1837 - the same year as the accession of Queen Victoria - Cleveland died three years after the announcement by Einstein of the theory of relativity.

Stephen Grover Cleveland (he dropped use of his first name as an adult) was the fifth of nine children of the Presbyterian minister Richard Falley Cleveland and his wife, Ann, a native of Baltimore. His youth was spent in a number of towns in New York and New Jersey, as his ailing father moved their impoverished from one congregation to another.

As a young man, Cleveland visited Buffalo on his way to Ohio, where he intended to study law. An uncle, however, convinced him to stay in Buffalo, and set up his legal training with the most prominent law firm there, whose most famous member was former President Millard Fillmore.

After he settled in Buffalo, Cleveland's rise in public life was relatively steady. His first public position was assistant district attorney, to which he was appointed in 1863. He was sheriff of Erie County in 1870, was elected mayor of Buffalo in 1881, and was elected governor in 1882. Cleveland then defeated Republican James G. Blaine in the 1884 election for President, and the rest is history.

In between his public posts, Cleveland became an accomplished practitioner with his own law firm in Buffalo, Cleveland, Bissell & Sicard.

In some ways, the years of Cleveland's political career are among the most interesting in American history. They foreshadow much of what we now take for granted as part of the American political scene.

During that time, America was recovering from the Civil War, and the newly-united nation was engaged in an enormous industrial and economic changes. This enormous growth would result in both the Gilded Age of the 1890s, but also the Depression of 1893 and widespread labor unrest.

These years witnessed the Pullman Car strike and the emergence of farmers as a significant national constituency. Graff discusses these and the other major issues confronting Cleveland, such as tariffs and the treaty with Hawaii.

It was also the first period during which the links between money and politics were becoming more obvious, and more controversial. The great political bosses openly controlled elections and the power of patronage, and the railroads and the industrial trusts were deeply engaged in affecting elections for their own interests.

"Wall Street" became a term of abuse. Indeed, again as in our own day, the percentage of business figures in politics was for some a cause of suspicion. President Harrison's cabinet, for example, was so filled with corporate executives that it was called the "Businessman's Cabinet."

Great labor unrest and socialist influence were the other side of the rise of mass capitalism; the Sherman Antitrust Act, passed in 1891 and named after John Sherman, brother of General William T. Sherman and a foe of Cleveland, was passed partly in response to these changes.

The political process was changing as well. In the nineteenth-century, candidates were largely not expected to campaign for themselves. By the time Cleveland was running the second time, that prohibition was already disappearing. Not only were candidates campaigning, but large-scale advertising was just beginning to be used as a political tool: Cleveland's face, and that of his much younger wife, began appearing on everything from scarves to pitchers to bring his name to the public.

Just as importantly, Cleveland was the brunt of one of the most famous scandals of American political history. During his first Presidential campaign, Cleveland (then still a bachelor) was accused of being the father of the child of a woman named Anna Halpin, whom he had known in Buffalo.

"Ma, Ma, Where's my Pa?" became the rallying cry of the anti-Cleveland forces. It was the harbinger of a different kind of national politics, one in which personalities and personal controversy competed with political issues as the subjects of elections.

Cleveland and His Legacy

It is perhaps ironic that Cleveland spent his last years at Princeton University where he fell into a feud with Woodrow Wilson, who was then on the faculty. Wilson went on to serve as President during a war that brought to a definitive end the Victorian world that Cleveland had known, one that is barely recognizable to us. (To give just one example, there was no dancing or alcohol at Harrison's inaugural ball in deference to the President's Christian and temperance beliefs.)

In his own day, however, Cleveland was enormously respected for being outside the control of the party bosses and what we now would term "special interests." For these and other reasons, he deserves to be remembered.

Gerald J. Russello is a lawyer at Covington & Burling in New York City.

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