“Grover Cleveland: A Study in Courage” by Allan Nevins Review

Grove Cleveland

Grover Cleveland: A Study In Courage

Author:  Allan Nevins

Released:  1932

Coming into this book, the only detail I remembered about Grover Cleveland was that he is the only president to serve two non-consecutive terms in office.  The introduction drew some strong comparisons between George Washington and Grove Cleveland, and with as much as I loved Washington I was totally on board for this 800 page book to convince me that the greatest president was hiding in historical obscurity.  Now that I’ve finish that book (which took me a month and a half to get through), I can say Mr. Cleveland sir, you are no George Washington.

Don’t get me wrong, I think Cleveland had pretty good moral character and was a steady hand in office.  However, the thing Washington did was, well a whole bunch of important stuff.  Cleveland didn’t do much in his career, despite being president twice.  Seriously, in a book that worshipped its subject, even the author struggles to come away with a legacy of things that he accomplished.

He restored honesty and impartiality to the government… He planted deep in the American mind the idea that the special privilege and the interference with free economic life which the bloated protective system represented ought to be abolished… In a period of unparalleled stress and confusion, his invincible determination alone saved the nation from abandonment of the gold standard… Finally, by his treatment of the Nicaraguan, Hawaiian, and Venezuelan problems he taught the American People that in their handling of foreign affairs conscience aught always be the dominant force.  – Pg. 766

I just read a whole book about this guy and I still have trouble following those first two accomplishments.  Here’s how I have Cleveland stacking up in my presidential rubric.

Born Into – Cleveland’s dad was a Puritan minister.  Grover had eight brothers and sisters and his dad died while he was a teenager.  Cleveland went to work in an asylum for blind, left after one year.  All of that sounds like a guy who pulled himself up by his bootstraps without a leg up on the world.  But then he went to Buffalo where his uncle Lewis Allen became his benefactor.  In exchange for a few months of book keeping, Allen arranged a clerkship for Cleveland to learn the law.  The author indicates Allen was second only to Millard Fillmore in power and respect in Buffalo.  Certainly a leg up in the world.  2.5 out of 5.

Pre-President – Cleveland spent 3.5 years at a law firm until he was admitted to the bar, making very little money and seeming unhappy in the letters sent to family during this time.  His first elected office was as ward supervisor at the age of 25.  Shortly after that he was appointed assistant district attorney where he got the bulk of his legal experience and reputation as an attorney.  Cleveland supported Lincoln during the Civil War despite not enlisting and being a “war democrat.”  He later indicated no spirit or “drive” to enlist and also felt a duty to support his mother when his brothers enlisted themselves.  Cleveland hired a substitute to take his place in the war for $150, something that was apparently legal but which I didn’t see mentioned in biographies for Grant, Hayes, or Garfield.

Cleveland lost his first big election attempt for District attorney.  Following this he spent six years as a private attorney, then ran for and was elected sheriff.  His main reason for doing so was for all the fees he could supplement his income with.  Based on my readings of Van Buren and Arthur’s biographies, I suspect there was some corruption in this, but the author states the $40,000 he made in two years was all on the up and up.  While sheriff, Cleveland presided over and performed two executions.  After his term, he spent six more years as a private attorney.

Cleveland ran for and was elected Mayor of Buffalo.  He was not the first Democrat approached to run by the party, but was not their last choice either.  His win was by a significant margin.  As Mayor his two major accomplishments were vetoing a street cleaning bill that was funneling way too much money back to the men voting for it, and forcing a water sanitation project through at a reasonable price.  Based on his success as Mayor he was then tapped as the Governor candidate by his party. The fact that he wasn’t a part of either rival faction of democrats made him a welcome choice ahead of the usual Conklin/Arthur machine men.  He again won handily when he ran, and kept up his reputation as the “veto mayor” by continuing to veto bills he felt harmed the populace.

Cleveland next became famous for his conflicts with Tammany Hall (the New York political machine) throughout his career as he didn’t bow down to John Kelly’s demands.  This escalated when Cleveland signed Teddy Roosevelt’s bill limiting Tammany power by taking appointment powers from county offices and shifting them to the mayor.  By the time Cleveland was nominated by the Democratic party for president, his only real opposition were from Tammany Hall members.  Cleveland was a popular candidate for presidential nomination.  His limited political career meant he didn’t have the red flags many of his competition had.  The only major scandal for Cleveland during election was the revelation that he may have fathered an illegitimate child.  Cleveland offered to support the child financially but did not establish any sort of relationship with the child.  The mother of the child was later sent to an insane asylum (and in this era, that could mean she was fine by today’s standards) and the boy was sent to an orphanage and adopted by a wealthy family.  Cleveland’s opposition for President was James Blaine for the Republicans, who had a few of his own scandals to deal with during election.  Cleveland was the first Democrat elected president since James Buchanan.  His was a narrow victory in the popular vote, but much more handily in electoral college with four key swing states all going for Cleveland.

Presidential Career (First Term) – One of the first things the author gives Cleveland credit for is revitalizing the navy, arguing Arthur’s preliminary work to do so was a false start due to poor contracting on ship development (the Arthur biography I read before this obviously gave the credit to Arthur).  Cleveland had quite a conflict over his appointments when the Senate requested all his documents relied on in making them.  This was based on the contested Civil Service reformers where Congress wanted to prove that Cleveland was actually making changes due to political reasons and Cleveland was denying it.  The Tenure of Office Act that was nearly Andrew Johnson’s downfall was even brought into it. However Cleveland held firm, didn’t provide the documents and the aforementioned Act was even voted down in his term.

Cleveland opposed the needless minting of Silver Dollars every year, foreseeing it could cause a financial collapse.  There was also a split in the party on the handling of tariffs.  Both issues caused lots of talking but didn’t go anywhere during Cleveland’s first term. As the first Democrat elected since Buchanan, civil war pride in the south was bolstered by Cleveland’s election.  Soldiers wore their uniforms again and monuments were erected for some of the Confederate heroes.  Cleveland also established the Department of Agriculture.

Cleveland attempted to bring the Democratic party together to modify the tariff schedule in a manner that primarily benefitted the south.  The author spends a ton of pages on this, way more than any other topic and it was excruciating!  I’m talking well over a hundred pages on tariffs, and primarily what was being argued in the House when Cleveland wasn’t even there.  Cleveland didn’t actively campaign for his reelection but was not seriously challenged for it as well.  His opposition was Benjamin Harrison from the vital swing state of Indiana.  Cleveland wanted to run on educating the voters on the Tariff issue and for the most part was successful.  The result was Harrison winning the popular vote, but losing the electoral college.

Interlude – After leaving office, Cleveland went back to his law practice although not doing court room work and instead functioning more as a mediator.  Cleveland made some interesting statements about wealth disparity when leaving office, while not endorsing communism also not condemning it.  He then stayed out of politics for awhile, but was drawn back in by the McKinley Act and the silver coinage question.  Cleveland opposed unlimited coining of silver, which put him separate from many Democrats.  He stayed mostly silent on this but not entirely, feeling a duty as a leader in the party.  When the next election came around, his main competition for the nomination was from fellow New York senator Hill, and it was never particularly close.  Cleveland’s victory over Harrison was the biggest landslide since Lincoln’s second term in 1864.

Presidential Career (2nd Term) – – There were a number of factors that were leading to an economic depression as soon as Cleveland took office, many of which the author blamed on Harrison but not all.  Also of note right after Cleveland took office was the need to have a cancerous growth removed from his mouth.  To avoid additional hysteria, the operation was done in secret on a yacht and required the removal of the top half of Cleveland’s jaw.  By the combination of laying low and dentures, the general public didn’t find out about the operation until months later.  The surgery did have a toll, leaving physically Cleveland weaker than at any point in his career afterwards.

On the international front, the Hawaiian (not yet a state) issue involved whether the U.S. would support the former queen of the island or a new insurgent government.  While many were in favor of annexing Hawaii (mostly for economic reasons, as they exported tons of sugar, most of which was owned by Americans) Cleveland did not support it and it didn’t happen while he was in office.  Tariff battles took up a lot of his time again, this time with Cleveland being unsuccessful at steering the democratic party his way.  The party ended up passing a bill without him, which Cleveland refused to sign and was made into law anyway.  Cleveland also argued for defending the Venezualan border from encroachment by British.   He stalled any conflict with Spain by standing on the role of the executive to prevent recognizing Cuban independence and by one report indicated he would refuse to mobilize the army even if Congress declared war on Spain.

Back in the homeland, Cleveland attempted to use bonds to replenish gold reserves during the economic crisis. As the financial crisis continued, the treasury was in danger of becoming depleted.  Cleveland helped orchestrate a transaction with several bankers (led by J.P. Morgan) to replenish the treasury with gold in exchange for government bonds which they then flipped for large profits.  The deal was criticized for giving the bankers a huge financial windfall for not doing anything (Morgan was said to have pocketed seven million instantly) but it was successful in preventing the government from defaulting and maintaining the gold standard.  Cleveland had to do it again in the final year of his presidency, but this time it was accomplished through public sales for about 2/3 of the bonds and 1/3 to J.P Morgan

The other large issue while in office was the Pullman Labor Strike which was a national issue but became particularly contested in Chicago.  Cleveland authorized the use of federal troops to quell the resistance on grounds that it was disrupting mail and railways.  It’s arguable if the violence that ensued was the result of federal troops escalating the situation or if it would have escalated anyway.  At the time, Cleveland received bipartisan support for his actions.  At the end of his second term, Cleveland was not interested in seeking a 3rd term, and ended up supporting a 3rd party (2nd democratic) ticket knowing it would guarantee McKinley the election, so convinced he was that the Bryanism/Free Silver ticket was bad.

Vice President – The expected swing states in the first election for Cleveland were Indiana and New York, so the Indiana candidate Hendricks was made the Vice President on the nominating slate.  He died while in office, which led to Congress finally coming up with an order of secession bill that has cleared the issue up today.  Not a bad legacy for a position that had no real power/involvement at the time.

Adlai Stevenson from Illinois was nominated as the Vice President for the second term.  There was no other mention of him in the book afterward.  2 out of 5.

First Lady – Grover’s sister Rose Cleveland acted as hostess during his first term.  By all accounts, she was an intelligent lady and filled the job admirably.

The author skips over courtship of Cleveland’s courtship with Frances Folsom, saying “so much has been written of it that there is no need to relate the story again in full.”  What the hell?  A middle-aged man, marrying a 22 year old he’s known since she was a baby is pretty interesting.  Seemed like Cleveland was really smitten by her, her pictures show she was attractive, and most of the comments of the day were also about how attractive she was.  Aside from that, she had a penchant for birds and flowers in the White House, was very social and against drinking though she didn’t impose her views on others (including Cleveland).  They were married in the White House, the only time that’s happened.  Tabloid type reporting of the day alluded to it being an unhappy marriage but everything in the biography seems to refute that.  Her story isn’t elaborated on at all after Cleveland’s death.  As for kids, their first (Baby Ruth) of five was born while in office but sadly died at age 12 shortly after he left office.  3.5 out of 5.

Post Presidency  – Cleveland had no interest in running a fourth time (for a third term) in office.  Instead he retired to Princeton, going to collegiate athletics and was active as a University Trustee.  In addition he spent a lot of time hunting, fishing, and even writing articles for pay on occasion.  He continued to monitor politics, was mentioned as possible international arbitrator and even presidential candidate again but declined all offers. Aside from that, Cleveland helped reorganize a major life insurance company and by all accounts took the job seriously and followed strict standards for appointing the men who would manage the money.  Despite his unpopularity when he ended his second term of office, it appeared he had the respect back of his party, contemporary Teddy Roosevelt and the mayor of New York City at the end of his life.  2 out of 5.

Book Itself –  This book continued a trend of beginning presidential biographies with moment president is inaugurated, then flash back to discussion of lineage.  Nevins routinely points out whenever other biographies have missed something, or failed to provide proper emphasis on something (for example, Cleveland served as a delegate after being district attorney but before being Sheriff).  He also clearly prefers Democrats of the era to Republicans, discussing Cleveland’s first cabinet as being the finest of the era, routinely insulting Grant, and stateing Cleveland’s work ethic was the best since Polk.  Besides the George Washington comparison, Nevins is also kind in his verbage used toward the president.  The author routinely used the word “powerful” to describe his appearance rather than overweight.

My biggest complaint about this book though is how Nevins spends so much time detailing political events that are the background for what Cleveland was doing but which he had little to no involvement in.  For nearly 800 pages, he’s entirely glossed over what sort of family life he had.  Although the book was written in 1932, Nevins assumes that readers are intimately familiar with the stories of how he met his wife or his speech on the Venezuelan border conflict.  More than any other biography I’ve read on a president, this one was tough to finish.  2 out of 5.


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