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The Presidency of Grover Cleveland

Grover Cleveland, the 22nd and 24th President of the United States, left an indelible mark on American history through his two non-consecutive terms. Serving as president from 1885 to 1889 and then again from 1893 to 1897, Cleveland’s presidency was characterized by his dedication to fiscal responsibility, civil service reform, and foreign policy initiatives. From his humble beginnings to his accomplishments in the White House, this article provides an insightful glimpse into the impactful leadership of Grover Cleveland.

Early Life

Family Background

Grover Cleveland was born on March 18, 1837, in Caldwell, New Jersey, to Richard Falley Cleveland and Ann Neal. His father was a Presbyterian minister and his mother was the daughter of a prosperous businessman. Cleveland came from a large family, being the fifth of nine children. Despite their modest means, the Cleveland family valued education and instilled a strong work ethic in Grover.

Birth and Childhood

Growing up, Grover Cleveland spent his early years in Caldwell before his family moved to Fayetteville, New York. As a child, he was known for his independent and serious nature. He was often responsible for caring for his younger siblings due to his father’s demanding profession. Cleveland developed a strong sense of responsibility and a knack for leadership from an early age.


Cleveland received his early education at local schools in Fayetteville. Due to financial constraints, he had to work as a teacher’s assistant and a store clerk to support his education. Recognizing his potential, his family and community rallied behind him to ensure he received a quality education. Cleveland went on to attend the Clinton Liberal Institute and later enrolled in the law department at the University of the City of New York (now New York University). His determination and dedication to his studies propelled him to graduate in 1859.

Legal Career

Admission to the Bar

After completing his law degree, Cleveland studied law under the guidance of his uncle, Lewis F. Allen. In 1859, he was admitted to the New York bar, officially becoming a lawyer. Although initially working as a law clerk, Cleveland quickly gained recognition for his strong work ethic and legal acumen.

Law Practice

Cleveland embarked on a successful legal career, primarily practicing commercial law. He was known for his integrity and gained a reputation as a champion of the common man. Cleveland’s passion for justice and fairness guided his work as he represented clients from all walks of life, often taking on cases pro bono for those unable to afford legal representation.

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Sheriff of Erie County

In 1870, Cleveland’s burgeoning legal career took a political turn when he was elected Sheriff of Erie County, New York. As Sheriff, Cleveland oversaw the county jail and executed court orders and warrants. He became known for his commitment to fairness and was often praised for his ethical conduct in the position. Cleveland’s experience as Sheriff would shape his future political aspirations.

Political Career

Entry into Politics

Following his successful tenure as Sheriff, Cleveland’s political ambitions started to take shape. He aligned himself with the Democratic Party and rose through the ranks, becoming a prominent figure within the party. Cleveland’s commitment to honesty, reform, and progressive policies resonated with voters, propelling him into higher political offices.

Mayor of Buffalo

In 1881, Cleveland was elected as the Mayor of Buffalo, New York. He brought a new level of integrity and efficiency to the office, focusing on tackling corruption and improving city services. During his time as Mayor, Cleveland earned a reputation as a “veto mayor” for his willingness to veto unnecessary spending and wasteful projects. His fiscal conservatism won him the admiration of many and set the stage for his future political endeavors.

Governor of New York

Cleveland’s successful tenure as Mayor of Buffalo catapulted him to the position of Governor of New York in 1882. As Governor, he implemented numerous progressive reforms, including the passage of a civil service law and the veto of unnecessary expenditures. Cleveland’s steadfast dedication to good governance led to his rise in popularity and paved the way for his historic run for the presidency.

First Term as President (1885-1889)

Presidential Election of 1884

In the 1884 presidential election, Grover Cleveland faced Republican James G. Blaine. Cleveland ran as the Democratic nominee and campaigned on a platform of civil service reform, lower tariffs, and fiscal responsibility. Despite initial doubts and controversies surrounding his personal life, Cleveland’s reputation for honesty and his record as Governor resonated with voters. He emerged victorious, becoming the first Democratic president since the Civil War.

Domestic Policies

During his first term, Cleveland focused on advancing progressive domestic policies. He championed civil service reform, working to weed out corruption and patronage in government appointments. Cleveland also enacted policies to curb excessive government spending and vetoed several bills he deemed extravagant. His commitment to fiscal restraint and responsible governance earned him the nickname “The Veto President.”

Foreign Affairs

While domestic policies were his priority, Cleveland also navigated complex foreign affairs during his first term. One notable event was the Pan-American Conference of 1889, where he worked to improve trade relations and foster cooperation among the American nations. Cleveland’s administration also faced challenges with regards to relations with the British Empire, particularly regarding fishing rights, but he successfully negotiated a mutually beneficial treaty.

Issues and Challenges

Civil Service Reform

Cleveland’s commitment to civil service reform faced resistance from political machines and entrenched interests. He pursued a merit-based system for government appointments, which aimed to reduce political patronage and reward individuals based on their skills and qualifications. Although he faced obstacles, Cleveland’s persistence resulted in significant progress, laying the foundation for future reforms.

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The Tariff Debate

Throughout his presidency, Cleveland engaged in a contentious debate over protective tariffs. He advocated for reduced tariffs, arguing that high tariff rates disproportionately burdened consumers and stifled economic growth. However, he faced opposition from industries and legislators who relied on protective tariffs to shield American businesses from foreign competition. Despite facing political difficulties, Cleveland managed to achieve some tariff reductions during his first term.

The Dawes Act

One of the significant issues faced during Cleveland’s administration was the passage of the Dawes Act in 1887. The act aimed to assimilate Native American tribes into American society by allotting land to individual tribal members and encouraging them to adopt a farming lifestyle. Although the act was well-intentioned, it resulted in the loss of tribal lands and cultural erosion. Cleveland’s administration was criticized for implementing a policy that ultimately undermined Native American sovereignty.

Foreign Policy

Relations with Canada

During his first term, Cleveland prioritized fostering positive relations with Canada. He advocated for the peaceful resolution of border disputes and worked towards establishing closer economic ties. Cleveland’s diplomatic efforts helped lay the groundwork for future cooperation and set an amicable tone for relations between the two countries.

The Venezuelan Crisis

In 1895, the United States faced a diplomatic crisis known as the Venezuela Crisis. The British Empire and Venezuela were locked in a territorial dispute, which risked escalating into a larger conflict. Cleveland vigorously asserted the Monroe Doctrine and proclaimed the United States’ right to mediate the dispute. His firm stance and diplomatic efforts helped de-escalate tensions and prevented the conflict from erupting into a more significant international crisis.

Hawaiian Annexation

One of Cleveland’s most contentious foreign policy battles was his opposition to the annexation of Hawaii. Despite pressure from American sugar planters, Cleveland did not support their efforts to seize control of the Hawaiian Islands. He believed the annexation would violate the sovereignty of the native Hawaiian people. Cleveland’s stance against annexation solidified his reputation as a defender of democratic principles and garnered respect from those who admired his principled approach to foreign affairs.

Second Term as President (1893-1897)

Presidential Election of 1892

In the 1892 presidential election, Grover Cleveland faced Republican Benjamin Harrison in a rematch of their 1888 contest, which Cleveland had lost. Once again, Cleveland’s commitment to fiscal responsibility and civil service reform resonated with voters, and he reclaimed the presidency, becoming the only U.S. president to serve two non-consecutive terms.

Economic Depression

Cleveland’s second term was marked by a severe economic downturn known as the Panic of 1893. The stock market crash and subsequent depression tested Cleveland’s leadership. He advocated for lower tariff rates to stimulate economic recovery and worked to reorganize the nation’s financial system. Cleveland’s policies helped stabilize the economy, leading to a gradual recovery by the end of his second term.

The Pullman Strike

One of the significant challenges faced by Cleveland during his second term was the Pullman Strike of 1894. The strike, led by the American Railway Union, erupted in violent clashes between workers and federal troops. Cleveland exercised his authority and deployed federal troops to quell the strike, citing its interference with the transportation of mail. The decision was controversial, and Cleveland’s handling of the strike garnered both praise and criticism.

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Legacy and Achievements

Presidential Accomplishments

Grover Cleveland’s presidency is notably remembered for his dedication to civil service reform, his commitment to fiscal responsibility, and his pursuit of fairness and justice. He successfully vetoed numerous bills that he believed were unnecessary or wasteful, leaving a lasting legacy of strict fiscal conservatism. Additionally, Cleveland’s diplomatic efforts in foreign affairs, particularly in his handling of the Venezuela Crisis, helped establish the United States as a respected mediator on the international stage.

Protective Tariffs

Cleveland’s steadfast support for reducing protective tariffs influenced the future direction of American trade policy. Despite facing opposition during his presidency, his advocacy for lower tariffs laid the groundwork for subsequent administrations to take steps towards free trade and open markets. Cleveland’s commitment to economic fairness and efficiency continues to shape discussions around tariff policy today.

The Interstate Commerce Act

One of Cleveland’s landmark achievements was the passage of the Interstate Commerce Act in 1887. The act sought to regulate railroads and ensure fairness in pricing and transportation. It established the first federal regulatory agency, the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC), to oversee railroad practices. Cleveland’s support for the act demonstrated his commitment to protecting consumers and promoting equitable business practices.

Personal Life

Marriage and Family

In 1886, while serving as President, Grover Cleveland married Frances Folsom, who was 27 years his junior. Their wedding ceremony took place at the White House, making Frances the youngest First Lady in American history. Together, they had five children, and their strong and loving partnership became a focal point of their personal and public lives.

Hobbies and Interests

Outside of politics, Cleveland had a love for the outdoors and enjoyed fishing and hunting. He often sought respite from the demands of his political career by escaping to his farm in New Jersey. Cleveland’s love for nature and his commitment to conservation earned him the nickname “The Veto President” due to his efforts to protect public lands from excessive exploitation.


After leaving the presidency, Cleveland and his family settled in Princeton, New Jersey. He remained active in public life, providing counsel to Democratic leaders and staying involved in political discussions. Cleveland’s retirement years were marked by a dedication to philanthropy and public service, exemplifying his continued commitment to the betterment of society.

Death and Memorials

Final Years

Grover Cleveland’s health began to decline in his early 70s. He suffered from various ailments, including heart disease, and his condition gradually worsened. Despite his declining health, Cleveland remained mentally sharp and engaged in public discussions. During his final years, he enjoyed spending time with his family and reflecting on his eventful life and career.

Cause of Death

On June 24, 1908, Grover Cleveland passed away at the age of 71 due to heart failure. His death was mourned across the nation, and condolences poured in from dignitaries and ordinary citizens alike. Cleveland’s legacy as a dedicated public servant and a steadfast defender of democratic values endures to this day.

Monuments and Memorials

Numerous monuments and memorials pay homage to Grover Cleveland’s life and accomplishments. The most notable include his birthplace in Caldwell, New Jersey, and the Grover Cleveland Presidential Library and Museum in Buffalo, New York. These tributes serve as reminders of Cleveland’s impact on American history and his enduring place in the hearts of the American people.