On this day in 1837, Grover Cleveland, the only president to serve two non-consecutive terms in the office, is born. Cleveland served as the 22nd president from 1885 to 1889 and as the 24th president from 1893 to 1897.
As a young man, Cleveland left his native New Jersey to study law in New York. He went on to serve as Erie County sheriff, mayor of Buffalo and governor of New York before running for president. A Democrat known for the qualities of honesty and hard work—seen as rare among politicians–Cleveland made anti-corruption the cornerstone of his first presidential campaign. Die-hard Republicans were so impressed with Cleveland’s integrity and fiscal responsibility that they abandoned their own party to help elect him president in 1885. Even revelations he had sired an illegitimate child while mayor of Buffalo did not sway substantial public opinion against him. When the secret came out during his first presidential campaign, Cleveland told his press secretary to just tell them the truth and the scandal quickly dissipated. Cleveland won his first campaign for the presidency in 1884. He ran again in 1889, but lost to Benjamin Harrison, primarily over the issue of tariff revisions.
Cleveland beat Harrison the second time around in the election of 1892, but his second term was not as well-received as his first. His stubborn commitment to appointing officials based on merit rather than political connections infuriated the Washington political establishment and alienated him from even his own party. Cleveland’s second term also coincided with a major economic panic that led to a deep recession in the United States. He became truculent with the press, stubbornly kept the U.S. on the gold standard during the recession and angered the working class when he sent troops to put down the Pullman railroad strike of 1894. Cleveland’s popularity headed further downhill when another episode from his past surfaced. He was harshly criticized by citizens all along the political spectrum when it was revealed that Cleveland avoided serving in the Civil War by paying someone $150 to take his place–a then-legal, but seemingly cowardly option.
Cleveland’s presidencies were also notable for a pair of happy White House firsts. He was the first bachelor president to get married in the White House, marrying a woman during his first term who was 27 years his junior–Frances Folsom Cleveland, who was the daughter of his former law partner and his legal ward. Cleveland literally had known Frances from the time she was born. When she was 11, her father died and Cleveland became the child’s legal guardian, remaining close friends with her mother. His pet name for Frances was Frank. Observers thought Cleveland would marry his friend’s widow and were completely surprised when instead he married Frances, shortly after her 21st birthday. In his second term, the couple’s second daughter, Esther, became the first child born to a president in a White House bedroom.
Although remembered as one of the hardest-working presidents, Cleveland thoroughly enjoyed his hobbies of fishing and hunting (he named his hunting rifle Death and Destruction), and was also known to consume vast quantities of beer and food. After his second term, the portly president retired to Princeton, New Jersey, with his young wife and their five children. He died in 1908 at age 71.