Stephen Grover Cleveland was born in Caldwell, New Jersey, on March 18, 1837. He was the fifth of nine children of Richard Falley Cleveland (1804-53), a Presbyterian minister, and Anne Neal Cleveland (1806-82). In 1841, the family moved to upstate New York, where Cleveland’s father served several congregations before his death in 1853.
Cleveland left school following his father’s death and started working in order to help support his family. Unable to afford a college education, he worked as a teacher in a school for the blind in New York City and then as a clerk in a law firm in Buffalo, New York. After clerking for several years, Cleveland passed the state bar examination in 1859. He started his own law firm in 1862. Cleveland did not fight in the American Civil War (1861-65); when the Conscription Act was passed in 1863, he paid a Polish immigrant to serve in his place.
Sheriff, Mayor and Governor
Cleveland’s first political office was sheriff of Erie County, New York, a position he assumed in 1871. During his two-year term, he carried out the death sentence (by hanging) of three convicted murderers. In 1873, he returned to his law practice. He was persuaded to run for mayor of Buffalo in 1881 as a reformer of a corrupt city government. He won the election and took office in 1882. His reputation as an opponent of machine politics grew so rapidly that he was asked to run as the Democratic candidate for governor of New York.
Cleveland became governor in January 1883. He was so opposed to unnecessary government spending that he vetoed eight bills sent up by the legislature in his first two months in office. But while Cleveland was popular with the voters, he made enemies within his own party, particularly the powerful Tammany Hall political machine in New York City. However, he won the respect of New York state assemblyman and future U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) and other reform-minded Republicans. Cleveland was soon regarded as presidential material.
First Term in the White House: 1885-89
Cleveland won the Democratic presidential nomination in 1884 in spite of the opposition of Tammany Hall. The 1884 presidential campaign was ugly: Cleveland’s Republican opponent, U.S. Senator James G. Blaine (1830-93) of Maine, was implicated in several financial scandals, while Cleveland was involved in a paternity case in which admitted that he had paid child support in 1874 to a woman who claimed he was the father of her child. In spite of the scandal, Cleveland won the election with the support of the Mugwumps, Republicans who considered Blaine corrupt.
Once in office, Cleveland continued the policy of his predecessor, Chester Arthur (1830-86), in basing political appointments on merit rather than party affiliation. He tried to reduce government spending, using the veto more often than any other president up to that point. Cleveland was a noninterventionist in foreign policy and fought to have protective tariffs lowered.
In 1886, Cleveland married Frances Folsom (1864-1947), a student at Wells College in New York who was 27 years his junior. Although Cleveland was not the first president to marry while in office, he is the only one who had the ceremony in the White House. At age 21, Frances became the youngest first lady in U.S. history. The Clevelands would go on to have five children.
The tariff issue came back to haunt Cleveland in the presidential election of 1888. Former U.S. Senator Benjamin Harrison (1833-1901) of Indiana won the election, in large part because of heavy turnout by voters in the industrial states of the Northeast who saw their jobs threatened by lower tariffs. Cleveland even lost his home state of New York in that election. He returned to New York City and took a position in a law firm for the next four years.
Second Term in the White House: 1893-97
Unlike the campaign of 1884, the presidential campaign of 1892 was quiet and restrained. President Harrison, whose wife, Caroline Harrison (1832-92), was dying of tuberculosis, did not campaign personally, and Cleveland followed suit. Cleveland won the election, in part because voters had changed their minds about high tariffs and also because Tammany Hall decided to throw its support behind him.
Cleveland’s second term, however, opened with the worst financial crisis in the country’s history. The Panic of 1893 began with a railroad bankruptcy in February 1893, followed rapidly by bank failures, a nationwide credit crisis, a stock market crash and the failures of three more railroads. Unemployment rose to 19 percent, and a series of strikes crippled the coal and transportation industries in 1894. The American economy did not recover until 1896-97, when the Klondike gold rush in the Yukon touched off a decade of rapid growth.
Cleveland was inconsistent in his social views. On the one hand, he opposed discrimination against Chinese immigrants in the West. On the other hand, he did not support equality for African Americans or voting rights for women, and he thought Native Americans should assimilate into mainstream society as quickly as possible rather than preserve their own cultures. He also became unpopular with organized labor when he used federal troops to crush the Pullman railroad strike in 1894.
Cleveland was an honest and hard-working president but he is criticized for being unimaginative and having no overarching vision for American society. Opposed to using legislation to bring about social change, he is best known for strengthening the executive branch of the federal government in relation to Congress.
By the fall of 1896, Cleveland had become unpopular with some factions in his own party. Other Democrats, however, wanted him to run for a third term, as there was no term limit for presidents at that time. Cleveland declined, and former U.S. Representative William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925) of Nebraska won the nomination. Bryan, who later became famous as an opponent of British naturalist Charles Darwin’s (1809-82) theory of evolution, lost the 1896 election to Governor William McKinley (1843-1901) of Ohio.
After leaving the White House in 1897, Cleveland retired to his home in Princeton, New Jersey, and served as a trustee of Princeton University from 1901 until his death. He refused overtures from his party to run again for the presidency in 1904. His health began to fail rapidly at the end of 1907 and he died of a heart attack at the age of 71 on June 24, 1908. According to two of Cleveland’s biographers, his last words were, “I have tried so hard to do right.”