On this day (March 18) in 1837, Stephen Grover Cleveland was born, the fifth of nine children, into the family of the Rev. Richard and Ann Neal Cleveland in the Presbyterian manse in Caldwell, N.J.
Grover Cleveland (at age 21, he dropped his first name) grew up in a family where strict Calvinistic piety was taught and practiced. Interestingly, in his long and largely distinguished public career, Grover assiduously adhered to the values and virtues of honesty, integrity, high-mindedness and self-reliance learned while growing up in a Christian home.
However, in his private life, he exhibited a youthful exuberance (especially during his 20s and 30s), that resulted, at times, in excessive drinking, obesity (he weighed more than 250 pounds), and the allegation that he fathered a son with a Mrs. Maria Halpin.
In private, Cleveland maintained that he probably was not the father of the child born in September 1874, but publicly he acknowledged paternity and, to his credit, faithfully paid child support. This “dalliance” with Maria Halpin resulted in a popular political slogan used in the presidential election of 1884, one of the nastiest in U.S. history: “Ma, Ma, Where’s my Pa, Gone to the White House, Ha, Ha, Ha.”
Cleveland remained a bachelor until age 51 when, in the first presidential wedding in the White House, he married the 21-year-old Frances Folsom, with whom he had three daughters and two sons.
Cleveland’s formal education consisted of two years at the Fayetteville, N.Y., Academy and two years at the Clinton, N.Y., Liberal Institute. As a graduate of Yale and an ordained Presbyterian pastor, Cleveland’s father had hoped that his younger son would follow him into the pastorate. However, upon his father’s death, in 1853, the 16-year-old had to forgo any hope of going to college and seminary and go to work to help support his widowed mother and younger siblings. However, as a law clerk and part-time law student, Cleveland learned enough law to pass the bar exam in 1858.
While practicing law in Buffalo, N.Y., Cleveland became involved in politics. His first major elected position was as a “reform” mayor of Buffalo, which was followed by election in 1884 as governor of New York.
As governor of the most populous state, he was in a good position to seek his party’s presidential nomination in 1884. Not only did he secure the nomination, but he went on to win the 1884 election.
Altogether, Cleveland was the Democratic Party’s nominee in three consecutive presidential elections, of which he was the popular vote winner in all of them. However, because of the “undemocratic” Electoral College, Cleveland won in 1884 over James G. Blaine and in 1892 over Benjamin Harrison, but lost in 1888 to Harrison. His serving two non-consecutive terms is the reason he is now designated as both the 22nd and 24th U.S. president.
As president, Cleveland usually is considered to have been an honest, conscientious, politically conservative defender of the status quo, who governed with quiet dignity and probity. His pro-business, anti-union, anti-free silver conservatism played well during his first presidential term (1884-1888), but during his second term (1892-1896) it was increasingly unpopular as his party and the country were becoming more “reform-minded.”
At the 1896 Democratic National Convention, the party repudiated Cleveland and his principled conservatism by nominating for president the “Boy Orator of the Platte,” William Jennings Bryan, who had “captured” the convention with his rousing but eloquent “Cross of Gold” speech.
In retirement, Cleveland moved to Princeton, N.J., where he became a lecturer at Princeton and an active member of the university’s Board of Trustees. He died at age 71 of heart failure on June 24, 1908, and was widely eulogized as an honest, principled public servant.
• Crystal Lake resident Joseph C. Morton is professor emeritus at Northeastern Illinois University. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.