John A Garraty. Presidents: A Reference History. Editor: Henry F Graff. 3rd edition. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2002.
Of all the presidents, Grover Cleveland is unique in several ways. Only he, having been defeated in a bid for reelection, again won the highest office in the land; thus, he was both the twenty-second president and the twenty-fourth. Actually, he “won” all three of the presidential elections in which he was a candidate, for while Benjamin Harrison carried the Electoral College in 1888, Cleveland had a popular plurality of about 100,000 votes. Cleveland also has the distinction of having won a presidential contest by the smallest popular margin in history—about 30,000 votes in 1884.
Cleveland was unusual, if not unique, in the rapidity of his rise from obscurity to the White House. In 1881 he was a Buffalo lawyer. He was a diligent worker and modestly successful, but he did not appear to be particularly ambitious. When offered a substantial retainer by a railroad official, he refused on the ground that he already had a comfortable income. “No amount of money would tempt me to add to or increase my present work,” he explained. As for politics, he had been an assistant district attorney for a brief period during the Civil War and had served a three-year term as sheriff in the early 1870s. But it was eight years since he had last held office. Outside Buffalo he was unknown.
Cleveland was a bachelor and at forty-four showed no sign of marrying. He spent most of his free time with what was known at the time as a “coarse crowd”—men who frequented saloons and racetracks. He spent weekends and holidays hunting and fishing. Physically he was a squat, bull-like man with a thick neck and a great chest and belly. Although of only medium height, he weighed more than 250 pounds. He was without important intellectual interests.
There were also two skeletons in Grover Cleveland’s closet that might have been expected to prevent his achieving important public office. During the Civil War he had hired a substitute when drafted into the army. This was perfectly legal but certainly a disadvantage at a time when most successful northern politicians made much of their military achievements in defense of the Union. More serious still, Cleveland was the father of an illegitimate child. He had provided for the support of the child, but in those Victorian times knowledge of his transgression, should it become widely known, seemed sure to cost him heavily at the polls. Yet three years later he was elected president of the United States.
One of Cleveland’s biographers, Horace Samuel Merrill, has explained his political rise simply: “He was lucky—almost unbelievably lucky!” This is true enough, but scarcely an explanation; no one gets to be president without being more than ordinarily favored by Dame Fortune. And his good luck was not merely the kind that comes to the person with a winning lottery ticket. He had the right qualities (and they were not common) for the situations and opportunities that came to him by chance.
A Swift Rise to the Presidency
For years the city government of Buffalo had been corrupt and badly managed, and it seemed to make no difference whether it was run by Democrats or Republicans. In 1881 a group of substantial Buffalonians, seeking a candidate for mayor who was both honest and efficient, hit upon Cleveland, whose record as sheriff was unbesmirched. The current administration was Republican. Cleveland was a Democrat, though unconnected with the then-current Democratic organization. He was not eager for the office but responded to the call to perform his civic duty. He was easily elected.
The reformers sought no more than honesty and efficiency; Cleveland shared their desire, promised to satisfy it, and made good on his promise. In office he devoted himself almost entirely to keeping the fingers of local spoilsmen out of the public till. He did this principally by vetoing measures that misappropriated and wasted city funds, such as a bill giving a street-cleaning contract to a company whose bid was more than $100,000 higher than those of two others. This was enough to bring him statewide fame. Soon Buffalo’s “Veto Mayor” was a candidate for governor of New York. Being an upstater, he was independent of the notorious Tammany Hall Democratic machine in New York City. When the Republicans nominated for governor a candidate handpicked by President Chester A. Arthur, the Democrats turned to what one Democratic leader called the “buxom Buffalonian.” In November 1882, Cleveland won by nearly 200,000 votes, which in those days of closely contested elections amounted to a landslide.
As with his service as mayor, Cleveland proved to be an enormous, if anything but brilliant, success as governor. His success was the result mainly of his indifference to narrow political advantage. He vetoed a bill lowering fares on the New York City elevated railway because it was a violation of contract. Another measure limiting the hours of streetcar conductors received his veto on similar grounds. Both these bills had wide public support. Yet Cleveland’s uncompromising rejection of them, so clearly in disregard of possible political consequences, actually added to his stature in the public eye. His equally uncompromising refusal to grant any patronage to Tammany Hall, despite Tammany’s demonstrated ability to swing the balance in state elections, had a similar effect.
Cleveland’s achievements as governor were almost entirely negative, but within a matter of months he was being considered a serious candidate for the 1884 Democratic presidential nomination. Of course, more was involved than his reputation for honesty and political courage. Since the Civil War, most of the northern states had voted Republican in presidential elections, and the southern states Democratic. The balance was delicate; victory had depended on carrying a handful of closely contested states—in particular, New York and Indiana. It usually made political sense for the parties to choose candidates from these states because voters tended to favor local men over less-well-known ones. Except in 1880, the Democrats nominated a New Yorker for president in every election from 1868 through 1892.
Although Cleveland fought corrupt machine politicians without regard for party, he was shrewd enough to make solid political alliances with respectable New York Democratic leaders, such as Daniel Manning, a close associate of the aging Samuel J. Tilden, the party’s standard-bearer in 1876, and William C. Whitney, another anti-Tammany Democrat. At the national convention in Chicago, Cleveland was nominated on the second ballot. The convention then chose Thomas A. Hendricks, who was a former governor of another key state, Indiana, as the Democratic vice presidential candidate. (Hendricks had run for vice president on the ticket with Tilden in 1876 and was credited with having had much to do with the Democrats carrying Indiana in that contest.)
The 1884 presidential contest was exciting at the time and has fascinated historians ever since. The Republican candidate, James G. Blaine of Maine, was Cleveland’s mirror image. Where Cleveland had little previous political experience, Blaine had been Speaker of the House of Representatives, United States senator, and secretary of state. Where Cleveland was blunt, somewhat stiff, unimaginative, and scrupulously honest, Blaine was colorful, hail-fellow-well-met, a font of interesting ideas, and not averse to using his political influence to line his pockets.
Because of this last quality, many Republicans, known as Mugwumps, supported Cleveland. On the other hand, Blaine was popular with Irish-Americans, who usually voted Democratic, because he was thought to be anti-British. Their votes in New York City, where, in addition, the Tammany machine was suspected of giving Cleveland only lukewarm support, might swing the state to the Republicans despite Cleveland’s appeal as a native son.
The Democratic strategy was to describe Blaine, who in the face of much hard evidence blandly denied that he had sold political favors, as “the continental liar from the State of Maine” and to stress Cleveland’s honesty and efficiency. In this way they hoped to appeal to the Mugwumps and other voters dismayed by Blaine’s unsavory reputation and to paper over divisions within their own ranks on issues such as the tariff and currency reform. The Republicans countered by calling Cleveland “the hangman of Buffalo” because, while sheriff, he had personally hanged two criminals rather than turn the task over to an assistant. More important, they exposed his fathering of an illegitimate child: “Ma! ma! Where’s my pa? Gone to the White House, Ha! Ha! Ha!” The candidate made the best of this bad situation in typical fashion. “Whatever you do, tell the truth,” he advised a friend who asked him how the charge should be dealt with.
Exactly how this and other incidents in an incident-filled campaign affected the result is beyond knowing. Suffice it to say that the election turned on New York’s electoral vote, that Blaine did well in Irish-American districts in the state, that there was much Mugwump support for Cleveland, and that Cleveland carried the state by fewer than 1,200 votes. In other words, a shift of 600 votes would have made Blaine president.
First Presidential Term
Cleveland gave the country exactly the sort of administration that might have been expected—honest, conservative, and unimaginative. His cabinet was made up of hardworking and public-spirited men who ran their departments efficiently. Thomas F. Ba-yard of Delaware was secretary of state, and Daniel Manning of New York, secretary of the treasury. The other members were William C. Whitney, secretary of the navy; William C. Endicott, secretary of war; Augustus H. Garland, attorney general; William F. Vilas, postmaster general; and L. C. Q. Lamar, secretary of the interior. Lamar, who came from Mississippi, and Garland, a resident of Arkansas, were the first southerners appointed to cabinet posts since the Civil War. As the first Democrat in the White House since the Civil War, Cleveland also appointed many other southerners to lesser federal posts.
The change from Republican to Democratic control of the government meant that Cleveland was subjected to enormous pressures from members of his party seeking government posts. Yet, his campaign promises had encouraged Mugwumps to expect him to expand the scope of the new Pendleton Civil Service Act and refrain from discharging Republicans merely to make places for his own supporters. The president found it impossible to satisfy both points of view, in part because he had no clear idea of how the civil service should be staffed. He announced that no one would be fired without cause and that only properly qualified people would replace those who were discharged. In his usual, conscientious way, he devoted much time to going over the records of applicants and weighing the merits of candidates for both major and minor posts. The task both bored and distressed him. He was soon complaining of “the damned, everlasting clatter for office.”
His concept of what it meant to be properly qualified was partisan and (still worse) out of date. “Reasonable intelligence” and a decent grade-school education were the only “credentials to office” that most federal jobs required, he told the head of the Civil Service Commission. He also believed in the old Jacksonian system of rotation in office. Since public service was a privilege and a duty in a democracy, any officeholder might be “rotated” after four years to make room for someone else. Starting with what he called “offensive partisans,” which in practice came even to include Republicans whose offense had consisted only of campaigning for Blaine, the administration gradually removed most of the government workers who had not been given job security under the Pendleton Act. Mugwumps and others who had hoped that Cleveland would greatly expand the coverage of the act were bitterly disappointed.
Like the other presidents of the era, Cleveland had a rather narrow view of the scope of presidential authority. “The office of the President is essentially executive in its nature,” he said. He did not believe it proper “to meddle” with proposed legislation. “It don’t look as though Congress was very well prepared to do anything,” Cleveland wrote in December 1885. “If a botch is made at the other end of the Avenue, I don’t mean to be a party to it.” This attitude was a convenient way to avoid getting involved in politically controversial matters, especially for a Democrat, since the party was made up of many disparate and often antagonistic groups. But in his case the attitude was heartfelt.
He was, nonetheless, perfectly willing to resist congressional actions he disapproved of. Just as he had in Buffalo and Albany, he vetoed bills he disliked with evident relish. He repeatedly rejected private bills and pork-barrel legislation. His most significant action of this sort was probably his veto of the Dependent Pension Bill of 1887, a measure that would have granted pensions even to the needy parents of men who had died while in service.
Although a number of important laws were passed during his term, Cleveland had little to do with most of them other than to add his signature after Congress had acted. These included the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887; the Dawes Severalty Act of 1887, which invested Indians with American citizenship and assigned plots of reservation lands to individual, rather than tribal, Indian ownership; and a law of 1889 raising the Department of Agriculture to cabinet status. Cleveland favored these measures but did little to shape them.
Aside from his attitude toward presidential power, which was common in his day, Cleveland lacked some other qualities that make a good leader. He really did not much enjoy being president, and he found the give-and-take necessary for success in politics positively objectionable He got on badly with reporters, resenting their inquisitiveness and tendency to sensationalize the most trivial events. He was poor at delegating authority. Despite—or perhaps because of—his earlier convivial habits, he was something of a loner in the White House. He had no taste for speechmaking and handshaking, or for crowds, official social gatherings, and the punctilio of receptions. Some of this changed after his marriage in 1886 to Frances Folsom, the daughter of his former law partner. He was forty-nine and the bride only twenty-three, but the marriage proved to be happy and fruitful.
The most difficult issue that Cleveland faced during his first term involved the government’s finances and their effect on the condition of the nation’s economy. The country was expanding in wealth and population at a rapid rate, but the supply of money in circulation was not keeping up with this growth. The result was a steady and apparently relentless deflation that injured anyone who was in debt, a classification that included large numbers of farmers who worked mortgaged land, often with machinery purchased with borrowed money. To deal with this problem, Congress passed the Bland-Allison Act of 1878, which increased the amount of money in circulation by purchasing and coining large amounts of silver. Many conservatives, Cleveland among them, feared that “inflating” the currency in this manner would so frighten investors and businessmen that it would cause a depression.
Cleveland proposed to deal with the problem by ending government purchases of silver and reducing tariffs on foreign goods. Lower duties would mean lower prices for consumers and would reduce the embarrassing surplus that had accumulated in the treasury, which was a further drain on the amount of currency in circulation. When Congress failed to act on the tariff, Cleveland decided to force the issue. He summoned what became known as the Oak View Conference, a series of meetings with Democratic congressional leaders at Oak View, his summer residence outside Washington. At these meetings he persuaded the congressmen to draft an effective tariff-reduction bill. Then he took an unprecedented step: he devoted his entire annual message to Congress on 6 December 1887 to a call for tariff reduction. The current rates were a “vicious, inequitable, and illogical source of unnecessary taxation.” Protected by these high duties, manufacturers were making “immense” profits. If the duties were lowered, “the necessaries of life used and consumed by all the people … should be greatly cheapened.”
Normally the annual messages to Congress required of presidents by the Constitution were routine summaries of the activities of the various departments and grab bags from which the legislators might draw suggestions for future actions. By centering on one important issue, Cleveland focused national attention on that issue.
Unfortunately he failed to follow up on this dramatic step. In July 1888, Roger Q. Mills of Texas, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, introduced a bill removing the duties on raw wool, lumber, salt, copper ore, tinplate, and several other products, and reducing the duties on such important items as iron and steel, sugar, and woolen cloth. But Cleveland did nothing to press the issue after the bill was introduced. He did not use his influence with congressmen. He refused even to make speeches on the subject or to issue further statements explaining what he thought should be done. The Mills bill passed the House of Representatives but was defeated in the Senate. The tariff question therefore became the main issue in the presidential election of 1888.
Loss to Benjamin Harrison and Subsequent Reelection
The Republicans responded to Cleveland’s challenge. Nominating Senator Benjamin Harrison of Indiana for president and Levi P. Morton of New York as his running mate, they waged an aggressive campaign in which they boldly defended the principle of protective tariffs. Whereas Cleveland considered it beneath his dignity to campaign actively, Harrison made nearly a hundred speeches covering every subject from the tariff and veterans’ pensions to the sterling character of Abraham Lincoln and his own fondness for small children. Much money was spent on the campaign, and there was perhaps more than the usual amount of corruption and trickery. A clever Republican wrote a letter to the British minister in Washington, Sir Lionel Sackville-West, in which he pretended to be a naturalized citizen of British birth named Murchison. In it he asked the minister if he thought Cleveland would pursue a pro-British policy if reelected. Sir Lionel incautiously responded, his letter (released to the press by the gleeful Republicans) indicating a preference for Cleveland. This “Murchison letter” was thought to cost the Democrats heavily among Irish-American voters. But the tariff was clearly the main issue on which the election was contested.
The outcome was monumentally frustrating for Cleveland and for his party. By carrying both New York and Indiana by narrow margins, Harrison obtained a majority in the Electoral College (233–168) and thus the presidency. But Cleveland won the states of the Deep South by exceptionally large margins. This gave him about 100,000 more popular votes than his opponent.
Some Democratic observers thought that Cleveland would have won if he had waited until after the election to bring forth the tariff issue. He responded to this argument in typical fashion. “I did not wish to be reelected without having the people understand just where I stood,” he said. “Perhaps I made a mistake from the party standpoint; but damn it, it was right.” After leaving office he settled his growing family in New York City, where he joined a prominent law firm. He made occasional innocuous speeches and maintained his contacts with prominent politicians, mostly through correspondence.
Under Harrison, the Republicans proceeded to raise the tariff and to deal with the surplus by appropriating large sums for pensions and for public works of various sorts and other pork-barrel projects. They also put through the Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890, which committed the government to buying 4.5 million ounces of silver a month. Altogether, Congress spent over $1 billion in 1890, by far the largest one-year outlay in the nation’s history up to that time.
Public reaction to the work of the “Billion-Dollar Congress”—especially to the new McKinley Tariff, which appeared to raise the cost of many goods—was profound. In the 1890 congressional elections the Democrats swept the House of Representatives and made large gains in the Senate. It seemed likely that they would win back the presidency in 1892.
The McKinley Tariff and the free-spending legislation of the “Billion-Dollar Congress” made Cleveland eager for another term. His identification with tariff reduction and economy in government gave him made-to-order issues. But when large numbers of Democrats voted for a bill providing for the unlimited coinage of silver in 1891, he spoke out strongly against the measure, despite warnings that he would alienate southern and western members of the party. Once again, his frankness in tackling a controversial issue head-on probably helped more than it damaged his chances. In any case, the 1892 Democratic convention nominated him on the first ballot. Adlai E. Stevenson of Illinois was its vice presidential choice.
The campaign of 1892 was a three-cornered contest, for the new Peoples, or Populist, party had entered the race. The Populists nominated James B. Weaver of Iowa and came out for a long list of reforms ranging from the direct election of United States senators and a federal income tax to government ownership of the railroads. The Populist plank that attracted the most attention called for the unlimited coinage of silver.
As was his fashion, Cleveland did not campaign actively. He mended his fences with most of the important Democratic politicians and on election day won a sweeping victory. The electoral vote was 277 to 145, and he polled nearly 400,000 more popular votes than Harrison, the largest plurality in a presidential election since Grant defeated Greeley in 1872—this despite the fact that Weaver received over a million popular votes on the Populist ticket. The Democrats also won control of both houses of Congress.
Cleveland named Walter Q. Gresham of Indiana as his secretary of state. The rest of his second-term cabinet consisted of John G. Carlisle as secretary of the treasury, Daniel S. Lamont as secretary of war, Hilary A. Herbert as secretary of the navy, Wilson S. Bissel as postmaster general, Hoke Smith as secretary of the interior, and J. Sterling Morton as secretary of the new Department of Agriculture.
Domestic Policy in the Second Term
This great victory was partly the result of a serious economic depression, but that depression did not go away merely because the Democrats now controlled the government. The first weeks of the new administration were marked by bank failures, the collapse of important corporations, and a rapid shrinking of the supply of gold in the treasury as worried citizens exchanged paper currency for the precious metal. Unemployment mounted.
Cleveland believed that all would be well if “confidence” could be restored and that the way to restore it was to repeal the Silver Purchase Act of 1890. The steady addition of silver-based money was, he believed, threatening the country with inflation and inhibiting investment. “You cannot prevent a frightened man from hoarding his money,” he said. “I want … our currency so safe and reassuring that those who have money will spend and invest it in business and new enterprises, instead of holding it.”
In Congress resistance to repeal was strong. The Democratic party was badly split on the question, since many southern and western Democrats were being squeezed by the continued price deflation and saw in silver the one hope of ending it. Particularly in the Senate, where the sparsely populated western silver-mining states had more influence than in the House, pressure on the president to accept some compromise grew rapidly.
Cleveland would not yield an inch. Repeat became for him a matter of principle, and opposition to it “shameful.” He, who had so vigorously denounced influence peddling and the use of patronage to compel political obedience, used his power to grant or withhold offices and other favors ruthlessly. When Democratic Congressman Willam Jennings Bryan of Nebraska warned him that repeal of the Silver Purchase Act would “injure the party” in his state, Cleveland responded by refusing to appoint Bryan supporters to local offices. “One thing may as well be distinctly understood by Democrats in Congress who are heedless of the burdens and responsibilities of the incoming administration,” he explained to a friend. “They must not expect us to ‘turn the other cheek’ by rewarding their conduct with patronage.” In the end he had his way, but only after splitting his own party and reducing drastically his ability to influence later legislation.
The repeal of the Silver Purchase Act on 30 October 1893 marked as fateful a turning point in Cleveland’s career as his election as mayor of Buffalo. What he saw as a stand for principle and a do-or-die defense of sound economic policy, others considered stubbornness and arrogance. One Arkansas Democrat called him a “360-pound tool of plutocracy.” The governor of South Carolina compared his “betrayal” of the Democratic party to Judas’ betrayal of Jesus. A senator predicted that if Cleveland were running for president at that time, he “could not have carried a single electoral vote south of the Potomac.” All these charges were as exaggerated as the Arkansan’s estimate of the president’s weight, which had never much exceeded 250 pounds. (Cleveland’s weight was somewhat below that figure in 1893 because he had recently undergone an operation for cancer of the mouth and had lost a considerable amount during his convalescence.)
Cleveland was conservative and he fought hard for what he believed right, but he was not a tool of the rich or an opinionated tyrant. He was certainly not arrogant. His fault was more narrowness of vision than simple stubbornness. He was unable to grasp the fact that others felt as deeply as he about what should be done—that, for example, the farmers in Willam Jennings Bryan’s Nebraska district were far more concerned with how their congressman voted on silver than with whether or not he had a few federal jobs to hand out. He could not see beyond the immediate issue of repeal of a bad law or appreciate the possibility that repeal might, on the one hand, have unforeseen bad effects or, on the other, have no effect at all on the nation’s economic problems. The historian Stanley L. Jones goes so far as to say that Cleveland failed “to understand the … social and economic changes that were taking place in the nation.”
Stopping the purchase of silver did not end the drain of gold from the treasury. Since the silver certificates already in circulation could be exchanged for gold, frightened citizens continued to take advantage of that fact. Several times Cleveland had to authorize the sale of gold bonds by the treasury to replenish the reserve. But the drain continued until early 1895, when Cleveland negotiated the sale of $62 million in gold bonds with a syndicate dominated by J. P. Morgan, one of the terms being Morgan’s personal promise to find at least half of the gold abroad. This Morgan bond deal brought down a new wave of criticism on the president, the charge being that it was demeaning to make the credit of the United States dependent on the cooperation of a private banker.
More seriously, repeal of the Silver Purchase Act did not restore the confidence of investors or anyone else. The economic situation got worse instead of better. Cleveland might plausibly have argued that the depression had begun before he took office and was caused by the policies of his predecessor. Instead, he continued to insist that no government could do much about the depression beyond making sure that the nation’s currency was “sound.” His attitude was not unusual. It was probably shared by a large majority of the citizenry. Certainly most of Cleveland’s opponents had no better understanding of what could or should be done about the depression than he, but Cleveland seemed to go out of his way to stress his administration’s impotence. In his second inaugural address he said, “While the people should patriotically support their Government its functions do not include the support of the people.” This was both trite and bad psychology. Experience in office had taught Cleveland that presidents have a great deal of power. He had learned to wield that power but not how to use it constructively.
In forcing through the repeal bill, Cleveland exhausted a good deal of his influence with members of Congress who disagreed with his policies. His heart was set on lowering the tariff and the unpopularity of the high McKinley Tariff of 1890 seemed to make reduction easy. A new bill that embodied the kind of changes he desired was passed by the House early in 1894. But in the Senate, protectionists attached hundreds of amendments that undermined what the House had accomplished. Though Cleveland strove mightily against these changes, he could not command the support of many Democratic senators. He accused these deserters of “party perfidy and party dishonor,” but that only caused them to dig in their heels more firmly. In the end the new Wilson-Gorman Tariff became law without his signature.
Cleveland’s political ineptness was also demonstrated by his handling of the great Pullman strike that occurred during the spring and summer of 1894. The Pullman company manufactured and operated sleeping and dining cars used on all the nation’s railroads. Its workers went on strike in May, in protest against a wage cut. That strike would not have been of concern to the federal government but for the fact that the American Railway Union, responding to the strikers’ appeal, refused to move trains carrying Pullman cars. Soon rail traffic west of Chicago was paralyzed.
Cleveland was deeply involved at the time with efforts to reduce the tariff, so he delegated dealing with the strike to Attorney General Richard Olney. Olney, a former railroad lawyer, considered all labor unions undesirable and was determined to break the strike. After consulting with representatives of the railroads, he sought and obtained from a federal judge an injunction forbidding the strikers from interfering with the movement of mail. But the strike continued. The situation in and around Chicago became increasingly tense. Olney had arranged for army units to be sent to the Chicago area, and on 3 July, the day after the issuance of the injunction, Cleveland ordered these troops into the city to preserve order.
The governor of Illinois, John Peter Altgeld, who was personally sympathetic to the strikers, bitterly resented Cleveland’s action. He believed that local and state authorities were capable of preserving order. He dashed off a telegram to the president denying his right to use troops without gubernatorial consent.
Cleveland’s response was categorical. “I have neither transcended my authority nor duty … In this hour of danger and public distress, discussion may well give way to active efforts on the part of all in authority to restore obedience to the law and to protect life and property.”
Cleveland’s action was understandable, and he was not a dupe of Olney, as some historians have claimed. Furthermore, his stern defense of the use of troops won wide public support. But the decision to use force was a mistake on two grounds: it did not preserve order, and it further disrupted the already divided Democratic party. For two days mobs rampaged in Chicago, burning railroad cars and buildings. Governor Altgeld, furious at Cleveland both because the president had failed to consult him before sending in troops and because of the federal government’s favoritism toward the rail-road owners, threw his formidable influence against the administration. The strike was effectively broken, as perhaps was necessary after the injunction was ignored by the leader of the union, Eugene V. Debs. But the “solution” was entirely too extreme for anyone’s good: Debs was thrown in jail, the American Railway Union collapsed, and middle-class opinion turned sharply against organized labor to the ultimate disadvantage of both labor and the middle class.
Foreign Policy in the Second Term
By 1895, Cleveland was almost without a friend in the southern and western wings of the Democratic party. More and more he was identified with the ultraconservative, or Bourbon, faction that dominated the party in the Northeast. Only in matters of foreign policy did his tendency to take an uncompromising stand for what he considered morally right bring him any real popular support.
Shortly before Cleveland’s second term began, a group of Americans in the Hawaiian Islands had staged a successful coup, ousting the Hawaiian ruler, Queen Liliuokalani, with the aid of marines from the USS Boston. The new government sought annexation by the United States. American public opinion seemed enthusiastic, and a treaty was negotiated and sent to the Senate shortly before Cleveland’s inauguration.
Cleveland asked the Senate to delay action until he had time to study the question. He sent a special commissioner, James H. Blount, to the islands to look into the circumstances surrounding the revolution. When Blount reported that the American minister in Hawaii had cooperated with the rebels and that the native population appeared to oppose the new government, Cleveland withdrew the treaty.
Once again Cleveland had taken an “unpopular” stand as a matter of principle, and once again his political courage paid off. Most Americans may have favored the idea of expansion into the Pacific, but they accepted the president’s reasoning that it was wrong to overthrow the Hawaiian government in order to do so. One editor described the so-called revolution as an example of “the cheat-your-washerwoman style of diplomacy.”
Cleveland’s second important diplomatic foray was of a far different character. For many years the boundary between Venezuela and the South American colony of British Guiana had been in dispute. The British government, insisting that there was no substance to the Venezuelan claim, refused to submit the case to arbitration, despite somewhat sporadic pressure to do so by the United States. The territory in question was an almost uninhabited jungle, but when gold was discovered there, it suddenly became important—in part because pressure for coining silver in the United States might ease if the world supply of gold were significantly increased.
In any case, in 1894 and 1895 the Cleveland administration was taking an increasingly stern tone in its communications on the subject with Great Britain. By early 1895 these messages included such phrases as “palpably unjust” and “call a halt.” Finally, in July 1895, Cleveland authorized the dispatch of a note drafted by Richard Olney, who was then secretary of state. This note warned that if Britain took or held any territory that was rightfully part of Venezuela, the United States would consider that act a violation of the Monroe Doctrine. If Britain refused to arbitrate the dispute, Cleveland hinted, the United States might well declare war.
The tone of this message was particularly offensive, but the British government was neither offended nor moved by it. The idea of a war between the United States and Great Britain over a relatively minor piece of South American real estate seemed preposterous. The British delayed answering the note until November and then flatly refused arbitration. They denied that the Monroe Doctrine gave the United States any special interest in the matter.
No president could accept such a slap in the face, least of all one like Cleveland. He therefore took the even more extraordinary step of asking Congress for an appropriation to finance an American investigation to determine the proper boundary between Venezuela and British Guiana. After that had been done, the United States would “resist by every means in its power as a willful aggression … the appropriation by Great Britain of any land … we have determined of right belongs to Venezuela.”
Despite its boldness, this strategy was really quite shrewd. No American superpatriot could have asked for a stronger response. Yet by calling for an investigation, Cleveland was postponing indefinitely the possibility of having to enforce his threat. The affair “cannot become serious for some time,” one British official noted.
Nevertheless, the threat was there, and faced with it, the British backed down. Obviously, they had not taken Cleveland’s original blustering to heart, in part because they had interpreted it as designed primarily for domestic purposes—an attempt to curry favor among Irish-American voters. When they realized that the president was not bluffing, they agreed to arbitration of the boundary dispute.
In the end the affair had a happy resolution for both the United States and Great Britain, though not for Venezuela, because the arbitration tribunal awarded nearly all the disputed territory to Britain. Cleveland, as his biographer Allan Nevins wrote, had been “determined to get a prompt settlement of the question in harmony with his principles of justice and his interpretation of the Monroe Doctrine, and by his smashing blow on the table he got it.” The British learned that they must take the United States seriously as a world power; and the Americans, sobered by the thought of an Anglo-American war, ceased to practice so blithely the political sport known as twisting the British lion’s tail. Secretary Olney, with Cleveland’s approval, was soon mentioning “our inborn and instinctive English sympathies” in communications with British officials.
Whether or not Cleveland took the position he did on the Venezuela boundary in hopes of restoring his political fortunes and papering over the split that had developed in his party over the silver issue is a question still in dispute among historians. If he did so, the tactic failed. By early 1896 his adamant stand against any plan for inflating the currency was rapidly causing him to lose control over his own party. The prolonged depression, the worst the nation had suffered up to that point, made things difficult for the party in power to begin with. But southern and western Democrats, in debt and suffering heavy losses as the prices of farm products sank lower and lower, were turning to leaders who were calling for the free coinage of silver.
The more strident this call, the more determined Cleveland was to resist it. “The line of battle is drawn between the forces of safe currency and those of silver monometallism,” he said. He could draw such a line, but he could not hold it. In July the Democrats nominated Willam Jennings Bryan for president and adopted a campaign platform calling for the free coinage of silver.
The Republicans nominated William McKinley and came out squarely for the gold standard. So profound was Cleveland’s opposition to free silver that he preferred to see McKinley elected. He heartily approved of the Bourbon Democrats’ decision to form what they called the National Democratic party and nominate their own presidential candidate, Senator John M. Palmer of Illinois. Palmer was seventy-nine years old, and no one, least of all Palmer, expected him to do anything except draw off votes of diehard Democrats who opposed Bryan but who were unwilling to vote for a Republican.
Cleveland expressed relief “that the glorious principles of the party have found defenders who will not permit them to be polluted by impious hands.” He made no public statement only because he feared that, if he did, he would “further alienate” the pro-silver Democrats in Congress and limit his effectiveness in dealing with other issues.
After McKinley’s election—which, Cleveland said, gave supporters of “the cause of sound money . . . abundant reason for rejoicing”—Cleveland eagerly awaited the end of his term. His last significant act was to veto a bill excluding immigrants who could not read and write some language.
After he left the White House, Cleveland settled in Princeton, New Jersey. He continued to follow political events closely. During the controversy about annexing the Philippine Islands, he spoke out strongly against the “craze” and “mad rush” for colonial expansion. In 1898 he was one of the original honorary, vice presidents of the Anti-Imperialist League. Over the years he wrote many magazine articles on aspects of his own presidency and on current issues. Some of these were published in his book Presidential Problems, but none is memorable. On most questions, as Allan Nevins put it, Cleveland’s position was a combination of common sense and conservatism. By far the most interesting of his retirement writings are his articles on hunting and fishing, collected in his Fishing and Shooting Sketches.
Cleveland enjoyed a long and happy retirement. The Princeton academic community gave him a warm welcome, and soon he was taking as deep an interest in the affairs of the school as the most enthusiastic alumnus. He accepted an honorary degree (while president he had refused all such honors) and in 1901 was elected to the Princeton board of trustees.
In 1904, Cleveland became chairman of the trustee committee of the graduate school. This made him a central figure in the conflict over the location of the graduate school that developed between Woodrow Wilson, then president of Princeton, and the dean of the graduate school, Andrew Fleming West. In this controversy Cleveland supported West. The dean had been instrumental in bringing Cleveland to Princeton, and the two were fast friends. (Cleveland even named his Princeton home Westland.) But he would probably have opposed Wilson’s policies in any case; on university matters, as in nearly all others, he was a staunch conservative.
Cleveland died in Princeton on 24 June 1908. By that date he was admired and almost revered by the public; the bitter feelings generated by his sound-money policies in the 1890s had evaporated. Since his death his reputation has fluctuated with changing national tastes and interests. In the 1920s and 1930s it was at a high point; in the eyes of most historians, he stood among the near-great American presidents. After the Great Depression and World War II, his reputation fell because his deep commitment to limited government and his obsession with maintaining the gold standard seemed hopelessly reactionary. In recent years his place in the presidential hierarchy has risen somewhat, as the national mood has swung again in a conservative direction.
Popularity, of course, was never as important to Cleveland as doing what he considered right. And this commitment and the courage to maintain it remain his most admirable qualities. Cleveland was in many ways remarkably limited; he certainly lacked imagination, and he found it difficult to expose his inner self to all but a handful of close friends. He was anything but creative. But in industriousness and in devotion to principle and to the public good as he saw it, he has had few equals among American presidents.