Podcast # 40: Grover Cleveland & Benjamin Harrison

Alright, so in this podcast we are going to discuss two little known or discussed Presidents – Grover Cleveland (the only President to date to serve two non-consecutive terms and Benjamin Harrison the grandson of former President William Henry Harrison)

Stephen Grover Cleveland was born in 1837 into a large family in Caldwell, NJ and the family moved to upstate NY when he was young. After the death of his father, Grover Cleveland had to leave school as a young teenager and began working to help support his family. There were 9 children to feed and very few opportunities for women at the time. He worked as a teacher for the blind and then as a law clerk. That job helped to acquire the knowledge and skills needed to pass the bar exam and become a lawyer. It was a profession he loved and he was highly respected by his fellow lawyers as well as many judges. Like some of the previous presidents we have talked about, Cleveland paid a Polish immigrant to fight in his place in the Civil War (again, rich man’s war, poor man’s fight). A member of the Democratic party, he was involved in local upstate NY politics. He was a sheriff and was elected the mayor of Buffalo. He did not seek the office of mayor. He was asked to run because of his reputation for being honest and trustworthy. As mayor of Buffalo he helped to root out corruption. This got him the notoriety from downstate (the 5 boroughs of NY as they are referred to). In 1883 he was sworn in as the Governor of New York and served until he was elected President in 1884. So you have to understand, his political experience is minimal. In a span of 4-5 years, he goes from lawyer, mayor of Buffalo, Governor of NY and then bam, President of the United States. As Governor of NY, was known as a reformer, who targeted members of his own party within Tammany Hall (the Democratic Political Machine of NY). AS Governor, he worked with future Republican President Theodore Roosevelt to get a number of laws passed.

As a democratic reformer who even went after Tammany Hall, voters supported Grover Cleveland in the election of 1884. His opponent was former Senator and Sec of State James Blaine of Maine. It was a close election in regards to the popular vote, but Cleveland won. WE talked about this before in an earlier podcast, but NY was considered a swing state. Tammany Hall tried to work against him but he narrowly won NY and won the Presidential election. It was an ugly campaign. He was a bachelor president who was rumored to have fathered a child out of wedlock. Paternity of the child was questioned. It was also thought that his law partner could also be the father… talk about a spider web of scandal right? It was certainly used by his opponents, but it didn’t cost him the election. He dealt with the issue head on. Acknowledging that he may have been the father of the child. The child had been adopted by another family and that was that.

The library of Congress has a wonderful newspaper clipping of an article describing his inauguration. So many people came to Washington DC, that some people had to sleep in hallways of buildings and in local parks! Inaugurations were still being held in March at this time. The article goes on to say how he gave his address mostly from memory only slightly glancing down at his notes a few times. In his inaugural address he stated:

“This impressive ceremony adds little to the solemn sense of responsibility with which I contemplate the duty I owe to all the people of the land”

The first two years of his Presidency, Grover Cleveland was a bachelor. That changed when he met a young woman named Frances Folsom. A woman who was nearly 3 decades younger than him. The age difference is not what should surprise you. Frances was the daughter of his law firm partner and was in charge of the family’s estate after her father’s death. They kept in touch throughout her college career and they were married when Frances turned 21. It was a love match. Theirs was a very happy marriage. Their marriage created a number of firsts. Frances was the first FIRST Lady to have a college degree and she was the youngest First Lady. Grover Cleveland became the first and only president to get married in the White House. (the first President to get married while being President was John Tyler but he didn’t get married in the white house) They married in June of 1886 and would have 5 children, 3 would be born in The White House. The Cleveland’s didn’t make many changes to the White House as is the custom for each new First Family. Today the first family is given a budget of around 100,000. At that time, it was around 30,000. The Cleveland’s bought a large farm house in the suburbs of Washington DC called Oak View, where they spent most of their time. He would live in a different private home during his second term in office.

He would also become known for using his power of VETO more than any other President before him. He was very hands on and often looked into things personally before supporting bills or vetoing them.

Early on in his presidency, his VP, a man by the name of Thomas Hendricks died. The recent death of President Garfield and the need of longer list of Presidential succession led to the passage of the Presidential Succession Act of 1886. This law replaced the Act of 1792 and stipulated that after the VP, the heads of the cabinet departments in the order in which they were created would become President if the President and Vice President couldn’t serve. So, Sec. of State, Treasury, War, Attorney General. This would be the case until 1947 when it was changed to ensure that elected positions (Speaker of the House and President Pro Tempore of the senate) be given priority over appointed ones such as cabinet positions).

On October 28, 1886 Grover Cleveland attended the Dedication of the Statue of Liberty, which the real name is Liberty Enlightening the World. I discussed the statue and its meaning in our podcast on immigration. He gave a really beautiful speech and this is a direct quote.

“We are not here today to bow before the representation of a fierce warlike god, filled with wrath and vengeance, but we joyously contemplate instead our own deity keeping watch and ward before the open gates of America and greater than all that have been celebrated in ancient song. Instead of grasping in her hand thunderbolts of terror and of death, she holds aloft the light which illumines the way to man’s enfranchisement. We will not forget that Liberty has here made her home, nor shall her chosen altar be neglected. Willing votaries will constantly keep alive its fires and these shall gleam upon the shores of our sister Republic thence, and joined with answering rays a stream of light shall pierce the darkness of ignorance and man’s oppression, until Liberty enlightens the world.”

Foreign Policy wise, he steered clear of getting involved in foreign conflicts especially those brewing in Latin America. He didn’t however back down from issues that he felt were of grave importance. Border disputes with Britain, protecting US interests on the island of Samoa. He did take the opportunity to improve some of the forts along the coastlines and looked to modernize the Navy which all became incredibly helpful when war did break out in 1898.

Dawes Act was signed into law, which allowed the federal government to sell individual plots of land that had once belonged to tribes. President Cleveland supported this law and pushed for a policy of assimilation when it came to Native Americans. He felt it would be to their benefit. Speak to just about any member of any Native American tribe and they will tell you how negative of an impact this law had on their way of life. It led to Native lands being lost and sold to non natives and a further breakdown of their way of life.

Interstate Commerce Act – regulated railroad companies which had created a monopoly that hurt the average consumer. This law set guidelines for how railroad companies could function and protected consumers (especially farmers) from price gauging. It established the ICC which operated until the agency was abolished in 1995.

By the election of 1888, President Cleveland has become somewhat unpopular with certain groups over his policies over tariffs, veterans’ pensions just to name a few. The Republicans nominate Benjamin Harrison a former Senator from Indiana and the grandson of a former President William Henry Harrison (yes that William Henry Harrison who though it would be a great idea not to wear a coat on his inauguration day when it was a very cold day and also gave one of the longest speeches in inauguration history, who then got sick and died after only being president for 31 days). This election is important because it is one of only 5, where the candidate who won the popular vote (which was Cleveland) didn’t become President. This wouldn’t happen again until the election of 2000. While Cleveland narrowly won the popular vote, he lost the electoral college. If you go to 270towin.com and analyze the election results you can see sectionalism is alive and well. Harrison won the majority of Northern and western states where Cleveland a democrat, carried the south. If that isn’t enough proof of sectionalism for you, consider that one of the hot button issues of the campaign was Cleveland’s promise to return Civil War Confederate Battle flags to southern states if he was reelected. You can imagine this didn’t go over well with Civil war veterans whose pensions he had vetoed. Cleveland was the first democratic president elected since the civil war and he didn’t win reelection, well at least not in 1888. Benjamin Harrison, won the Electoral College vote and became the next President. The two men would meet again in 1892.

Benjamin Harrison was born on Aug. 20, 1833 in Ohio to a well-known family. As we mentioned, his Grandfather was the 9th President of the US and his Great Grandfather was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. He was educated, studied at university and became a lawyer. He fought in the Civil War and moved up the ranks in the Union Army first as a Colonel and eventually became the brevet brigadier general of volunteers. When the war ended he went back to Indiana where he had moved with his young wife, Caroline Harrison before the outbreak of the war. He returned to his law practice and got involved in local Republican politics. He made an attempt at a run for Gov. of Indiana but was defeated, but in 1881, was elected to the US Senate where he served until 1887.

Harrison was sworn in as President on March 4, 1889 while Grover Cleveland held an umbrella over him to keep him dry from the rain. Imagine that happening today?! His Vice President was a man by the name of Levi P. Morton from New York, after his term as VP he went on to become the Gov. of NY.

In his Inaugural address, he talked about the symbolism of the country taking its steps into its second century. We have completed the centennial anniversary of our existence. Now we start the next 100 years. He encouraged all states and territories to diversify their economies and encouraged growth of business and industrialization. Keep in mind we are still in the Age of Big Business, he also called for the regulation of trusts or monopolies.

Benjamin Harrison moved into the White House with a rather large entourage. Considering his children were grown, married and had children of their own, you would think just he and his wife would have moved into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, but not, his children, his grandchildren, his father in law and a number of pets moved into the White House. There is a wonderful story of President Harrison going down Pennsylvania Avenue with his grandchildren and their pet goat, Old Whiskers. Caroline Harrison looked to have the White House enlarged, probably to make more room for their extended family, Congress didn’t approve of that. As first lady, she did redecorate, added additional bathrooms and the Harrison’s installed Electricity into the White House but were afraid to touch the switches themselves! She also saw to it that the attics and basements of the White House be cleaned out. There was mold and a significant pest problem. Some historians say that her exposure to those things may have led to her illness and untimely death before her husband’s term in office finished. She was the first person to start taking an interest in old china patterns of former Presidents and designed the pattern herself for the Harrison China. She was also the first First Lady to have a Christmas Tree in the White House. She agreed to help raise money for a new medical school, Johns Hopkins University on the condition if they would permit women to study at the school as well. Keep in mind, this is the 1890s, women don’t have those types of opportunities. So she was very forward thinking as well. She loved to entertain, loved to decorate was a really great compliment to her husband’s somewhat dry personality. He was nicknamed the “Human Iceberg”.

There were a number of key events during his presidency. Six territories became states – Idaho, North Dakota, South Dakota, Washington just to name a few of them in no particular order.

While President, he supported a number of bills that would have allowed for better funding for schools for children of all races and protections of voting rights for Black Americans, however, those bills didn’t survive debate in the legislative branch. He also challenged the Constitutionality of the Tenure of Office Act – which if you listened to our podcast on President Andrew Johnson and Reconstruction, know severely weakened the office of the President. This law didn’t allow the President to fire any appointed official without Senate approval. This is what Johnson was impeached for. During his first term, this law was repealed or taken away and many years later would be declared Unconstitutional. President Cleveland removed many Federally appointed officials from office… now without Senate approval. Two major laws that were passed during his Presidency were the McKinley Tariff of 1890 and the Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890.

McKinley Tariff of 1890 – named after future President William McKinley.

A tariff is a tax on imported goods. Goods produced in another country and sold in the US in direct competition with American made goods. The Republican party had supported a high tariff. If you remember, electoral college results showed northern states had gone to Harrison, the Republican nominee. Midwestern farmers and southerners were not as supportive of tariffs. This law raised the tariff rate from 38% to 49.5%. The tariff decreased competition of foreign made products and allowed American businesses the opportunity to raise their prices and still be more affordable than foreign made goods. Good for business owners, bad for the average consumer.

The Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890 was the first law of its kind and wouldn’t be the last needed to regulate businesses. It banned business practices that allowed for the creation of monopolies and limited competition. The law also allowed the federal government to go after businesses or individuals that violated the act. Do understand that more laws were needed because businesses and individuals found loopholes.

He also set aside 13 million acres of Government lad to protect the countries natural resources. One most famously being Yellowstone Reserve.

Foreign Policy wise, no major issues but his Sec of State, former Sen. James Blaine and President Harrison were skilled negotiators and were able to prevent the flare up conflicts over control of the Samoan islands, and the limitation of European influence in Latin American countries and he supported the annexation of Hawaii which wouldn’t happen until after his Presidency ended.

Election of 1892

Was a rematch between Harrison and Cleveland, and the emergence of a new Political party – the Populist Party. This party was known as the People’s Party.

Harrison’s wife died just before the election. This time Cleveland won. Bringing the hopeful words of his wife when the left the White House the first time, that they would be back to a reality. Shortly after they returned, the Clevelands welcomed their second child, Esther. Esther was the first child of a sitting President to be born in the White House! They would have 5 children in total.

Harrison left the White House a widower and moved back to his home in Indiana and returned to his law practice. He was a well-respected lawyer and before he became President and argued 5 cases before the Supreme Court. He remarried, a much younger woman who was actually Caroline Harrison’s niece who had worked at the White House as her assistant. He died in 1901 and his former home is now a museum and is a wonderful resource of information if you are interested in learning more about the man who is considered one of our forgotten Presidents yet is the only one to be proceeded and succeeded by the same man; Grover Cleveland.

So Grover Cleveland returns to the White House for an unprecedented nonconsecutive second term as President.

Foreign Issues that Cleveland was concerned with during his second term was the growing calls for Hawaii to become a state. At this point we see the Republic of Hawaii established. Cleveland tried to stop this. He greatly disagreed with the way in which the Queen of Hawaii was deposed. It was out of his hands though.

In Latin America, Spain begins to see calls for Independence throughout its empire, especially in Cuba. Even though President Cleveland pushed for a policy of neutrality, we begin to see the seeds being planted for what will become known as the Spanish-American war.

Domestically, his second term was dominated by the Panic of 1893 The Panic of 1893 was an economic depression in the United States caused by a number of different factors. Over expansion of the railroad industry, high unemployment, too much silver in circulation due to over mining and the Sherman Silver Purchasing Act (remember when we talked of bimetallism?) Midwestern farmers lost their farms due to unpaid debts, stock prices fell, it was a mess. By 1895, the US dollar is on the brink of collapse. The US Gold reserve fell sharply, foreign governments starting pulling out their investments and when they do that, they don’t want dollars – they want GOLD – the international currency right? JP Morgan reached out to President Cleveland with an idea to solve the issue. Grover Cleveland ignored him. When it came to investments and business opportunities, JP Morgan was a man after your own heart, he liked to look out for carnage as you say Jimmy. He saw the dangers of this opportunity but he also saw the potential for great reward. JP Morgan went to Washington DC to meet the President. He was told that the President wouldn’t see him. JP Morgan didn’t take no for an answer he stayed in Washington DC and sure enough the next morning, President Grover Cleveland agreed to meet with him and JP Morgan suggested a plan that allowed the US President to buy gold from a Civil War Era law. JP Morgan and a group of investors bought the gold bonds and return gave the US Treasury 60 Million worth of gold. Now, you’re either thinking what a patriot or what an opportunist. JP Morgan wasn’t just rich, he was smart and strategic. When he bought a company he demanded a seat on the Board of Directors. He had inside intel into the largest and most successful firms. He knew he was giving the US Government an offer they couldn’t refuse. (You know me, I can’t resist a good Godfather reference) The plan worked, the US Dollar was saved, the US Economy avoided collapse and JP Morgan became even richer off of the deal. Grover Cleveland, politically was hurt by the deal. Many couldn’t see beyond WHO helped the country. His political opponents painted him as a man who had been bought by Wall Street.

In the midst of dealing with a severe Economic Crisis, President Grover Cleveland had to have a cancerous tumor removed from the roof of his mouth. Instead of going to a hospital, it was done in total secrecy aboard a yacht cruising along the waters off of Manhattan, NY. Imagine that happening today! This was done to avoid causing further panic. Not only was the tumor removed but a portion of his jaw and an artificial jaw made out of rubber was put in its place. Grover Cleveland survived, no further stress was placed on the American Economy and no one knew of this for years after his death. Also, way to go to American ingenuity – it was a serious medical feat – 90 minute surgery, on a moving boat, for a surgery that today would probably take multiple hours. All done under the guise of a fishing trip. The President walked onto the boat, and he walked off of the boat and no one was the wiser of a cancer diagnosis for the President of the United States.

Pullman Railway strike is connected to the Panic of 1893. As a result of the economic depression, the Pullman company cut wages and jobs. It is important to note that the majority of the employees whose wages were cut, or who saw their jobs lost completely, lived in the town owned by the company. While their earnings saw a significant decrease, their bills remained the same. The workers unionized and joined the ARU led by its founder Eugene V. Debs. The Pullman company refused to negotiate with the union and the members called for a strike of any railway line which used Pullman cars. The hope was that the pressure would force the Pullman company to the bargaining table. The union was successful in that the strike they called for happened and spread throughout the United States. The strikers prevented lines from running which not only disrupted local businesses and economies, but also prevented mail from being delivered. President Cleveland ordered the military to go and break up the strike and ensure the mail be delivered. The overwhelming presence of both local and federal troops led to violence and the eventual end of the strike (not before a significant loss of property to railway companies, a significant loss of wages for workers throughout the country, deaths, and the end of the ARU) When the strike was over, many railway companies made employees sign a contract that they wouldn’t unionize and strike leaders such as Eugene V. Debs were jailed. This won’t be the last you will hear of Debs. We will talk about him again when we get to WWI. While the railway workers didn’t get their demands met, it did lead to a deepening concern for the problems facing the working class. Pullman Strike and the Haymarket Riot led to the creation of what became known as a workingman’s holiday. Unions such as the American Federation of Labor and the Knights of Labor had worked for years to bring about change and shed light on the difficulties of the working class brought on by the advances of the Industrial Revolution. The creation of Labor Day in 1894 began the celebration of the contributions and achievements of the American Worker on the first Monday of September. By the time his Presidency ended (for the second time) he was not considered a great president. He had been abandoned by his political party, he was defeated by William Jennings Bryan for the Democratic Nomination for President in the election of 1896 (who would lose – spoiler alert, but we will get into that more in the next podcast).

He left Washington D.C. feeling pretty alienated. He retired to Princeton NJ. He may have retired from politics, but he invested a lot of time in Princeton University. He was welcomed with open arms by both the town and university. A man who wasn’t able to get a college education due to the death of his father in his younger years, was eventually given an honorary degree from Princeton University. (He turned down an honorary degree from Harvard while he was still President). He gave a number of guest lectures at Princeton – those lectures were published in a book called Presidential Problems in 1904. In the book he discusses the various difficulties he faced as President and why he made many of the decisions he did. I have only read excerpts of that. My favorite book on Grover Cleveland and one that I highly recommend. Is Grover Cleveland, a study in character. He was eventually asked be on the Board of Trustees where he served until his death. Here is an interesting fact, he worked with Woodrow Wilson who was a professor and President of the University and would of course go on to become President of the United States. Stephen Grover Cleveland died in June of 1908 of a heart attack. President Theodore Roosevelt order that flags be flown half-staff for 30 days on the White House and several federal department buildings and that on the day of the funeral, he be given military and naval honors. He is buried in his beloved town of Princeton and it is believed that his last words were “I tried so hard to do right”.

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