Guest Essayist: Juliette Turner


Grover Cleveland

Twenty-second and Twenty-fourth President of the United States

Nickname: The Veto President

Terms in Office: 1885–1889; 1893–1897

Fast Stats

  • Born March 18, 1837, in Caldwell, New Jersey
  • Parents: Richard and Anne Neal Cleveland
  • Died June 24, 1908, in Princeton, New Jersey; age 71
  • Age upon Start of First Term: 47; Age upon Conclusion of First Term: 51
  • Age upon Start of Second Term: 55; Age upon Conclusion of Second Term: 59
  • Political Party: Democratic
  • Religious Affiliation: Presbyterian
  • Height: 5 feet 11 inches
  • Vice Presidents: Thomas A. Hendricks (1885) and Adlai E. Stevenson (1893–1897)

The Bottom Line

Grover Cleveland was the twenty-second and the twenty-fourth president of the United States, and the only president to serve two nonconsecutive terms. His first term began in 1885 and ended in 1889, during which he worked to balance federal spending. In his second term, from 1893 to 1897, Cleveland struggled to restore the American economy after the Panic of 1893.


“While the people should patriotically and cheerfully support their Government, its functions do not include the support of the people.” – Grover Cleveland


What Was He Thinking?

As the first Democrat to win the presidency in twenty-four years, Cleveland remained true to his Democratic platform by representing the concerns of workers and the rights of laborers. Cleveland also pushed for tariff revision and further limitation of Chinese immigration. Like the Republican presidents before him, Cleveland believed in appointing jobs based on merit instead of patronage. Cleveland also believed in a strong central government and a strong presidency that should be able to act independently from Congress.

Why Should I Care?

Through his many vetoes, Grover Cleveland worked to transform the federal government from one that spent unnecessary money on a variety of projects to a government of frugality. Although the Panic of 1893 occurred under Cleveland’s presidency, it was caused by the actions of Benjamin Harrison and his spending. Cleveland realized the danger of instability in the federal treasury and worked cautiously to restore Americans’ confidence in the economy. He initiated no federal aid to businesses or the American people during the collapse, however, setting a precedent that the federal government should not interfere in the free market economy—a precedent only to be broken by Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Breakin’ It Down

Early Life

Stephen Grover was the fifth of nine children born to Richard and Anne Cleveland. Grover’s family had lived in America for nearly two hundred years, ever since Moses Cleaveland (the a was later dropped) emigrated from England to Massachusetts in 1635. Named after Stephen Grover, the first minister of the First Presbyterian Church in Caldwell, New Jersey, young Stephen eventually dropped his first name and used his middle name, Grover, for the rest of his life. In 1841, when Grover was about three years old, the Cleveland family moved to a town near Syracuse, New York, for Richard Cleveland’s preaching job and lived there for nine years.

Though he did not enter formal school until age eleven, Grover enjoyed his education, especially debate, and hoped to attend Hamilton College. However, when Grover’s father died in 1853 just as Grover turned sixteen, the family could no longer afford his college tuition. Instead, Grover accepted a teaching position at the New York Institution for the Blind and sent his paychecks to his mother to help her in her economic struggles. He left the position after one year to travel west, stopping in Buffalo, New York, on his way to stay with his uncle. Grover never left. In Buffalo, he worked on the construction of the Erie Canal and as a store clerk for a short time, but eventually he joined a law firm, where he quickly developed his skills as a lawyer, impressing judges and juries with his eloquent, memorized arguments.

When the Civil War began, Cleveland did not join the army but paid Polish immigrant George Brinske $300 to go in his place (a completely legal action under the Federal Conscription Act, which allowed men solely providing for their family to pay other men to go in their place).

First Couple

While president in 1886, Grover Cleveland married Frances Folsom who was twenty-one at the time and twenty-seven years his junior, making her the youngest first lady to ever occupy the White House. He was the second president (after John Tyler) to get married while president. He and his wife yearned for a place of their own out of the limelight of the Presidential Palace. They purchased a twenty-seven acre plot of land three miles from the White House in an isolated area near Georgetown.

While first lady, Frances held two receptions a week. One was held on Saturday afternoons and was open to the public. At the public reception, Frances welcomed any woman who held a job, and once greeted over eight thousand guests at a single reception. They were married for over twenty years – until Cleveland died in 1908. Together they had five children.


Fun Facts

  • Cleveland proposed to Frances by letter after she and her mother (recently widowed) visited the White House several times. Newspapers speculated that Cleveland would propose to the older Ms. Folsom, but Cleveland responded to the speculations by asking why the press kept marrying him to old ladies.


  • Cleveland wished to travel west, but traveling required money he did not have. He borrowed twenty-five dollars from a neighbor to fund his travels, but ended up settling in Buffalo, New York. Regardless, Grover Cleveland paid his old neighbor back, even with interest.


  • Grover Cleveland was the only president of the seven presidents between Andrew Johnson and William McKinley to not serve in the Civil War.


Previous Political Career

While many men his age were off fighting in the Civil War, Grover Cleveland began his political career. In 1863, the district attorney for Erie County New York appointed Cleveland as his assistant district attorney. Cleveland later won the Democratic nomination for district attorney but lost to the Republican candidate, ironically a man with whom he later practiced law. In 1870, Cleveland was appointed Erie County Sheriff, where he once had to personally hang two men when the executioner lost his nerve—thus Cleveland remains the only president to have killed two men (outside of war), criminals though they were.

Eleven years later in 1881, Cleveland assumed the position of mayor of Buffalo, New York. Here, he began his legacy of constantly vetoing legislation. He believed public officials were “trustees of the people” and as such should run a clean and efficient government. Thus, Cleveland vetoed nearly all contracts and bills that would benefit politicians at the expense of Buffalo taxpayers, granting him the nickname Veto Mayor. In his first year in office alone, Cleveland saved the city one million dollars. He also realized patronage positions were causing an increase in government disapproval among the people and worked to end his involvement in the practice.

Riding his popularity and success as mayor, Cleveland became governor of New York in 1882. He won the position by 190,000 votes, earning 58.47 percent compared to his opponent’s 37.41 percent. While governor, Cleveland refused to grant any patronage positions and only appointed skilled and qualified men. Partnering with New York state assemblyman Theodore Roosevelt, Cleveland enforced a state-wide civil service program. Additionally, Cleveland signed a bill approving a one and a half million acre park around Niagara Falls.



The veto mayor led to the veto governor, which led to the veto president.


Election Results

Election of 1884: Cleveland was an ideal candidate for the Democratic Party in 1884: he was a spotless reformer and could easily win the vital state of New York. He campaigned on his old motto, “Public Office Is a Public Trust.” However, Cleveland did not end up being the immaculate candidate the Democrats had imagined. During the campaign, it was released to the press that Cleveland, a bachelor, had actually fathered a child out of wedlock.

The Republicans were already campaigning on the fact Cleveland had paid his way out of army service, and when news broke of the scandal, the Republicans released news editorials surrounding the sketch of a child sobbing, “Ma, Ma, where’s my pa?” Voters waited for Cleveland to react to the rumor, and, shocking the whole nation, Cleveland actually told the truth and explained the whole matter: he had fathered the child and sent financial aid to the boy until he was adopted. Additionally, Cleveland had the boy’s mother, the supposedly unstable Maria Halpin, institutionalized in a mental asylum. The Democratic party responded with their own slogan, accusing James G. Blaine of being a liar and corrupt politician: “Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine! Continental liar from the state of Maine!”

Due to the scandals, the win was not as decisive as the Democrats had hoped; instead, Cleveland won the election by less than 1 percent of the popular vote and won the electoral vote largely due to his win of New York—Cleveland won twenty states to Blaine’s eighteen. When Cleveland came out on top in 1884 after the ballots were cast, the Democrats finally replied to “Ma, Ma, where’s my pa?” with “Gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha!”

Election of 1892: In stark contrast to Cleveland’s first presidential campaign experience, the campaign of 1892 remained surprising peaceful and well-tempered. However, the reasoning behind the unique campaign stemmed from the distressing fact that sitting president Benjamin Harrison’s wife had fallen severely ill. Both presidents agreed to not campaign out of respect for the ill first lady and the worried president by her side. The Election of 1892 was the first time both presidential candidates had held the presidency and were vying for regaining it.

Uncle Sam’s Election Results: 1884 Popular: (1) Grover Cleveland/Thomas A. Hendricks—4,874,986—Democrat (2) James G. Blaine/John A. Logan—4,851,981—Republican; Electoral: (1) Cleveland—219 (2) Blaine—182

1892 Popular: (1) Grover Cleveland/Adlai E. Stevenson—5,556,918—Democrat (2) Benjamin Harrison/Whitelaw Reid—5,176,108—Republican (3) James B. Weaver/James G. Field—1,041,028—Populist; Electoral: (1) Cleveland—277 (2) Harrison—145 (3) Weaver—22


Thoughts on the Constitution

“On this auspicious occasion we may well renew the pledge of our devotion to the Constitution, which, launched by the founders of the Republic and consecrated by their prayers and patriotic devotion, has for almost a century borne the hopes and the aspirations of a great people through prosperity and peace and through the shock of foreign conflicts and the perils of domestic strife and vicissitudes.” – Grover Cleveland



Grover Cleveland stood in front of the people gathered for his inauguration on March 4, 1885, and delivered his inaugural address without the aid of any notes—the second president (Franklin Pierce had done so before him) and the last person to do so. Soon, however, Cleveland was faced with the tasks of the presidency, none of which were easy. First, he continued the civil service reform implemented by the Republican presidents before him and actually doubled the number of federal workers who met the requirements under the Civil Service Commission. As the veto mayor turned veto president, Cleveland carefully examined each federal pension bill placed on his desk—often staying up late into the night to do so—and rejected more than two hundred he believed to be fraudulent attempts by veterans to receive aid from ailments they suffered after the Civil War concluded. Cleveland also used his veto to decline bills he considered progressive legislation and public waste that would cost the working class unnecessary tax money.


Liberty Language

Federal Pension Bill: a piece of legislation appropriating the amount of money to be paid to individuals working for the federal government.


Relations with Native Americans

On the issue of America’s relations with the Native Americans, a topic that had not been majorly addressed since Ulysses S. Grant’s presidency, Cleveland supported the Dawes Act of 1887, an act that encouraged Native Americans to buy plots of land sectioned off by the federal government. However, this act led to a major reduction in the size of Indian Reservations, for the land given to the Native Americans was carved out of the reservations, leaving less room for the natives who wanted to remain on communal land.

Monetary Reforms

Then arose the great debate over silver and gold, an issue that had plagued the presidency since the Civil War. Cleveland wanted to repeal the Bland-Allison Act of 1878. By repealing this act he wished to decrease the amount of money (and silver) that left the Federal Treasury. Cleveland understood that the Federal Reserve was having a hard time because it had been working to pay off the large U.S. debt. In Cleveland’s view, the Bland-Allison Act made matters worse by making the nation’s treasury release money into the markets every month—money the treasury could have been spending on its bills. However, Congress refused to repeal the Bland-Allison Act. Cleveland did manage to prevent excessive spending in other areas, however, and created a large budget surplus in the Federal Reserve. Cleveland was also against the bimetallism movement, calling it “a dangerous and reckless experiment.”


Liberty Language

Bimetallism Movement: a movement that supported making both gold and silver the national currency.

Pop Quiz!

Do you remember the Bland-Allison Act? This act, passed in 1878, called for the federal government to purchase and coin millions of dollars in silver each month.



In 1888, Cleveland won reelection and then lost reelection. Although he won the majority of the popular vote by a very slight margin, he failed to secure enough states for an Electoral College win, making Benjamin Harrison the president-elect. Cleveland accepted his defeat but did not “throw in the towel.” Instead he planned to return to the White House after the election of 1892. During the term of Benjamin Harrison, Cleveland watched helplessly as the budget surplus he had fought so hard for slowly dwindled away because of Congress and Harrison’s spending.

The Panic of 1893

One month before Cleveland took the oath of office for a second time, the economy began to collapse in what would be one of the worst economic depressions until the Great Depression— the Panic of 1893. Cleveland shocked the nation when he refused to administer federal aid to banks and railroads or even organize public works efforts. Deemed “His Obstinacy” for sticking to his beliefs, Cleveland thought the economy should be able to fix itself naturally, without federal intervention, believing that interference would violate the Constitution. Congress worked to repeal the Sherman Sliver Act, a bill Cleveland also opposed, believing it harmed the nation’s economy and drained the federal gold supply.


Congressional Corner

(1) Presidential Succession Act of 1886: this act established the line of presidential succession if both the president and vice president are unable to assume the duties of the presidency.

(2) Interstate Commerce Act of 1887: this act, passed in February of 1887, established the Interstate Commerce Commission, which would regulate railroad rates.

(3) Dawes Act of 1887: this act allowed the President of the United States to divide land in Indian Reservations to sell to Native Americans.

(4) Edmunds-Tucker Act: this act, passed in 1887, seized Mormon church property that was not used exclusively for worship. It also required Mormons to take an “oath of loyalty” before gaining voter eligibility and declared women as competent witnesses in Mormon trials.

(5) Chinese Seclusion Act (Scott Act): this act, passed on May 6, 1888, banned Chinese workers from immigrating or returning to the United States.

(6) Nelson Act of 1889: this act forcibly relocated the Native Americans of Minnesota to Indian Reservations.

(7) Wilson-Gorman Tariff of 1894: this act lowered the tariff rates set in place by the McKinley Tariff and imposed a 2 percent income tax.


Becoming a Global Power

Despite Cleveland’s domestic affair woes, he also focused his attention on issues of international significance. Cleveland believed the U.S. should avoid staking a permanent claim on Hawaii, believing that would be an act of American imperialism. Additionally, when rebellion arose in Cuba, Cleveland strove to remain neutral, yet encouraged Spain to initiate policy that would lead to Cuban independence. The Senate disagreed with Cleveland’s stance and the issue remained unresolved until the end of his term in office. On the other hand, when Venezuela requested American assistance in settling a border dispute with Great Britain, Cleveland agreed. War was almost ensured between America and Great Britain when Cleveland ordered U.S. naval ships to confront British ships off the coast of Venezuela. However, after the show of force, Britain came to the negotiation table, and war was avoided. Nevertheless, his actions over the border dispute in Venezuela remained one of Cleveland’s most controversial foreign policy decisions.


Presidential Personality

Grover Cleveland was a determined and stubborn man who was known to have limited patience and a quick temper. When he was not working, he was jovial, carefree, and outgoing. However, when he was in his office, his mood and attitude drastically changed: he was stern and highly dedicated to finishing his work.


Grover Cleveland answered the White House telephone personally, almost every time it rang.



In 1897, Cleveland retired to New Jersey with his wife and two children. He and Frances had two more children before Cleveland’s death in 1908. Before his death, he became the trustee of Princeton University, earning the nickname “Sage of Princeton.” Cleveland also authored three books: Presidential Problems (1904), Fishing and Shooting Sketches (1906), and Good Citizenship (1908). In 1908, Cleveland died of heart failure, leaving behind four young girls and a forty-four-year-old wife.



Last Words: “I have tried so hard to do right.” – Grover Cleveland


What Has He Done for Me Lately?

Grover Cleveland vetoed more legislation than any other two-term president: over 414 vetoes. That makes his veto tally close to 50 percent larger than the second highest record-holder, Harry Truman. Cleveland’s 414 vetoes were more than for all previous presidents combined. The vetoes he issued were meant to protect the nation’s treasury and reign in unnecessary spending, but they also set a precedent for future presidents: the executive branch could veto as many pieces of legislation as they wanted, most of the time without consequences.


Fun Fact

Frances Folsom later met then-military-general Dwight D. Eisenhower under the presidency of John F. Kennedy. When Eisenhower heard Frances had once lived in D.C., he asked where she had lived. Frances replied, “The White House.”


The Presidential Times

Haymarket Riot

May 4, 1886, Chicago, Illinois—Today Chicago police advanced on a labor protest, where the laborers demanded eight-hour workdays. One of the protesters threw a bomb at the police force, causing the police to open fire on the protesters. Seven police and one civilian have now died as a result of the violence. Eight labor protesters have been arrested and are being convicted of connection with the violence, despite a lack of evidence.

Panic of 1893

March 18, 1893—America is still experiencing the aftermath of last month’s economic collapse. In February, the Reading Railroad and Philadelphia lines declared bankruptcy, sparking a railroad collapse across the country.

Soon, five hundred banks failed, millions were unemployed, and an additional thousand railroad workers initiated a nationwide strike, hurting the nation’s coal and transportation industries.

Unemployment is now at 19 percent—more than four million unemployed, with one in every five factory workers out of a job and farm prices are collapsing. The stock market collapse alarmed European investors, who began to withdraw their involvement in the American market.

The federal gold reserves have also reached a nearly all-time low with only $100 million in gold reserves. Cleveland worked to return America to a solely gold standard (instead of gold and silver), contradicting the views of his Democratic Party as well as the views of the majority of the American people in the south and west and, thus, the plan failed to materialize.

The Secret Operation

July 2, 1893—President Cleveland underwent a secret dental operation yesterday aboard his private yacht. The press was alerted that Cleveland would be spending the day on the yacht, but it was not known that Cleveland would spend the day tied to the mast of the yacht under anesthesia while five doctors and a dentist worked to remove a cancerous growth. The tumor was so large that the doctors removed several teeth and the entire left side of his jaw. To replace the missing bone, Cleveland was fitted with an artificial jaw. The president is said to be recovering well.

Pullman Railroad Strike

July 4, 1894—President Cleveland sent 2,500 federal soldiers to Chicago, Illinois, today to combat a local strike at the Pullman Place Car Company. Earlier this year, on May 11, 1894, a local strike ensued after the company cut workers’ pay by 25 percent as a result of the Panic of 1893. After the workers received no pay raise, the Union’s national council president Eugene Debs called for a national boycott, sparking strikes in twenty-seven states. Now that the federal soldiers have been deployed to control the situation, the strike is predicted to end within a week.


State of the Union

First term:

(1) States: 42

(2) Population 1885: 57,442,992;

(3) U.S. Debt: (1885) $1,826,922,432

(1889) $1,591,172,623

(4) Value of the dollar: $1 worth of 1885 dollars is now worth $24.39; $1 worth of 1889 dollars is now worth $25.64

Second term:

(1) States:45

(2) Population 1893: 68,162,457;

(3) U.S. Debt: (1893) $1,581,930,666 (1897) $1,808,864,053

(4) Value of the dollar: $1 worth of 1893 dollars is now worth $26.32; $1 worth of 1897 dollars is now worth $27.78



  • 1886—Cleveland marries Frances Folsom in the White House
  • 1886—Composer Franz Liszt dies
  • 1886—the Statue of Liberty dedicated
  • 1887—Queen Victoria of Great Britain celebrates her Golden Jubilee
  • 1887—Sir Arthur Conan Doyle publishes his first Sherlock Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet
  • 1887—the Edmunds-Tucker Act is passed{*}1888—the Great March snow blizzard hits northwest U.S., leaving $25 million in damages
  • 1888—George Eastman develops his Kodak camera
  • 1889—the Department of Agriculture is formed
  • 1893—Cleveland’s second inauguration
  • 1893—the Panic of 1893 takes place
  • 1893—New Zealand becomes the first country to grant women the right to vote
  • 1894—the Pullman Railroad strike takes place
  • 1894—the Sino-Japanese War begins
  • 1894—the Supreme Court rules that “separate but equal” is indeed constitutional
  • 1895—Wilhelm Roentgen discovers the first v-rays
  • 1895—J.P. Morgan bails out the federal government
  • 1896—Utah becomes a state
  • 1896—Ethiopia defeats Italy in the Italio-Ethiopian War


Platform Speeches

“The law of nations is founded upon reason and justice, and the rules of conduct governing individual relations between citizens or subjects of a civilized state are equally applicable as between enlightened nations.” – Grover Cleveland

Grover Cleveland said this in his message to Congress opposing the annexation of Hawaii in 1893. Cleveland opposed annexing Hawaii because he believed it was an unjust action of a powerful country oppressing a weaker country. He believed foreign affairs should always be founded on reason and justice.

“A government for the people must depend for its success on the intelligence, the morality, the justice, and the interest of the people themselves.” – Grover Cleveland

Grover Cleveland believed that the people, to protect their rights, must be educated in their government’s affairs.

Juliette Turner is the National Youth Director of Constituting America, and the author of three books: Our Constitution Rocks, Our Presidents Rock and the novel, based on life at her ranch with her mom, actress Janine Turner, That’s Not Hay In My Hair (all published by HarpersCollins/Zondervan).

Our Presidents Rock, HarpersCollins/Zondervan, 2014. Reprinted with permission.

1 reply
  1. Ralph T. Howarth, Jr.
    Ralph T. Howarth, Jr. says:

    Timeline addition:
    &#8226 1894 Wilson–Gorman Tariff Act levies a tax on passive income from property such as from interest, dividends, or rents without apportionment
    &#8226 1995 Pollock v. Farmers’ Loan & Trust Company in a 5-4 decision the SCOTUS determines the passive tax on property to be a direct tax without apportionment rather than an indirect tax of the sale of goods or tariffs on imports. As the constitution requires all direct taxes to be apportioned so that a block of states cannot collude a framework to penalize another state’s activities the court declared the passive income tax as unconstitutional. This will become the impetus for the passage of the 16th Amendment.

    The profligate spending of the FDR administration also had its precursor in the passage of the 16th Amendment to bring in more federal revenue, the passage of the 17th amendment where states lost suffrage in the US Senate that left the courts as the last bastion of holdout to federal government overreach, WW1, and the passage of the Federal Reserve Act allowing the government to print fiat money. WWI will hit the highest debt level of 33% of GDP at $25 billion to later be bested by FDR. Harding will do little to walk back the government economic intervention left over from WW1 while the new Federal Reserve will manipulate interest rates to induce mal-investments in attempts to stimulate the economy under a faulty monetary bank economic theory. Coolidge will follow with non-interventionist economic policies like Grover Cleveland and see one of the quickest recoveries in American economic history in the panic of 1921. With annual budget surpluses, and eroding the WW1 debt, Hoover will begin expansive projects. FDR will campaign against Hoover that Hoover is too much of a big spender, later known as the “Little New Deal”; but FDR’s New Deal will explode debt service by 150%. Courts will first declare FDR acts unconstitutional but soon capitulate and relent.


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