Friday, July 30, 2010


A review of H. Paul Jeffers’s An Honest President: The Life and Presidencies of Grover Cleveland (2000)

(Rating 4 of 5)

H. Paul Jeffers does not like footnotes, and he shares this opinion with Theodore Roosevelt, because footnotes ‘ruin the narrative’. Well, I like footnotes, it makes looking up information that much easier, but I am willing to let the author have his preferences, after all, he does have a brilliant narrative. Jeffers describes the life of President Grover Cleveland and the world in which he lived.

One of the things that becomes very apparent when reading this book is what a nice an honest man Cleveland really was—hence the title. That may sound amusing but I am serious! When looking at his life and political career, it is easy to spot things that one may disagree with, but it is a respectful disagreement that requires no question into the ethics of his character. Cleveland is a Democrat but his politics are difficult to place in a modern left/right spectrum, since what consists of the political ‘left’ and ‘right’ changes over the decades it is hard to tell where he would fit in, some of his positions on issues could go either way.

Born Stephan Grover Cleveland, and like the author of his book, choose to answer by his middle name amongst friends and professionals. He was born in 1837, and during the Civil War he did not fight but paid a replacement, so it can be said he was our first draft dodger president, although his action was legal. It is important to point out that he never tried to cover this up and, if asked, openly admitted to it.

Cleveland’s profession, like many presidents, was the law. As a lawyer, he began at law firm before starting his own practice and he later went on to become an assistant district attorney, running for the top job but losing the election to his own roommate in 1865. In 1870, Cleveland was elected the Sheriff of Erie County, as Sheriff he refused to have his deputies perform the gruesome task of an execution, and handled both that occurred under his watch. After his two-year term was over, he would go to private practice.

Cleveland would resume a political career that would launch him straight to the presidency in four years. In 1880, he was approached by local Democratic Party officials to run for mayoralty of Buffalo, he accepted and defeated his opponent Milton C. Beebe in the general election. Mayor Cleveland began to tackle corruption at City Hall. When the City Council accepted the highest bid for a street cleaning project because of the political connection of the bidder, the new Mayor vetoed that decision in his first stand against corruption.

This would launch a campaign for the governor’s mansion. In 1882, Cleveland ran and won the office of Governor of New York, defeating his opponent Charles J. Folger rather handily. As Governor, Cleveland would earn many admires including a young state legislator named Theodore Roosevelt. His elevated train veto was the mark of a reform in government that the state had not seen in a good deal of time. People started to think they would like to see this action at the national level.

“He did so not because he was paying a political debt, as critics charged. He rejected it, like so many other bills placed before him as mayor of Buffalo and governor, because he considered it poorly drafted. This was an objection in which the author of the measure eventually concurred, calling his own bill ‘a very shabby piece of legislation, quite unfit to find a place in the statute book.’ Roosevelt was not assuaged and said so in harsh language in a widely published speech. Grover discounted it as typical but momentary Roosevelt passion.” p.91

(Young TR is impressed with Governor Cleveland)

After a convention, battle Governor Cleveland won the Democratic Presidential Nomination of 1880. His election against the Republican James G. Blaine of Maine would be labeled, the public sinner vs. the private sinner. Blaine’s corruptions were laid bare and Cleveland’s personnel life was attacked. Cleveland prevailed however and defeats Blaine in the general election.

(Anti-Cleveland cartoon)

“With election day drawing closer, Grover remained in Albany in the welcome company of Oscar Folsom’s widow and their pretty daughters, Frances, officially his ward. Awaiting the vote, he was assured of the support of two of New York’s mightiest newspapers. The influential Herald had informed its readers, ‘We are told that Mr. Blaine had been delinquent in office but blameless in public life, while Mr. Cleveland has been the model of official integrity, but culpable in his personnel relations. We should therefore elect Mr. Cleveland to the public office which he is so well qualified to fill, and remand Mr. Blaine to the private station which he is admirably fitted to adorn.’” p.117

(James G. Blaine)

As the President of the United States, Grover Cleveland continued his reforming ways by taken on a fight on corruption that was started by Chester A. Arthur as the Civil Service Reform. Cleveland created the Inter-State Commerce Commission. He also reduced tariffs and upheld the gold standard.

(President Cleveland)

He also decide to get married, he married Frances Folsom, a young woman in her twenties who was the daughter of his late friend Oscar Folsom. The couple would go on to have five children together.

(First Lady Frances Cleveland)

“He proposed to Frances about a year earlier, in a letter to her when she was visiting relatives in Scranton, Pennsylvania. She accepted and they agreed to keep the engagement secret until such time as Grover was ready to announce it. Mary and others of the family who learned of the betrothal honored his request to keep that fact to themselves. This soon would prove to be difficult as Washington, D.C., stirred with rumors and heated speculation that the president would not be a bachelor much longer. The nominee for bride among the gossips was the widow Folsom. The more daring stated with certitude that it would be her daughter.” p.171

(Cleveland Family)

Not all was well, however, Cleveland would, although re-nominated by the Democrats, would lose the general election of 1888 to Benjamin Harrison, the grandson of President William Henry Harrison. Cleveland won the popular vote but the Electoral College kicked him out.

(President Benjamin Harrison)

The former President would try to return to law practice, which he felt foolish, arguing before judges whom he appointed. As time went on, he was critical at what the government was doing and in 1892 threw his hat back into the ring. Nominated by the Democrats for President for the third time in a row*, Cleveland headed into the rematch. This was only election in history in which the incumbent president faced his own predecessor. This time Cleveland won both the popular and Electoral College vote. The twenty-second president had just become the twenty-fourth.

(President again)

Unfortunately, for Cleveland the second term began with a financial panic, and labor unrest. The Pullman strike was a threat to the nation, since it crippled the railroads, and President Cleveland had to send troops out to suppress it. President Cleveland also had to deal with more foreign policy issues then he had in the past. He did successful arbitrate a dispute between the British Empire and Venezuela over territory.

The President would retire after his second term and be replaced by William McKinley; although of the other party, McKinley was the candidate who Cleveland preferred. He would have a quiet retirement as a trustee of Princeton University. He would perform one last act of public service; President Theodore Roosevelt had him serve on the Commission on the Coal Strike of 1902, which ended positively for all.

When he died in 1908, the last words that the former President had said was, “I tried so hard to do right.” H. Paul Jeffers captures not just President Cleveland but also his world, everything from Eugene V. Debs and Lizzy Borden can be found here.

*No one had done that since Andrew Jackson.

{Video from YouTube}

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please feel free to leave a comment on any article at anytime, regardless how long ago I posted it. I will most likely respond.