1923 12¢ Cleveland, perf 11
US #564 – Cleveland won the popular vote three times – more than any other president except FDR.

Stephen Grover Cleveland was born in Caldwell, New Jersey, on March 18, 1837, the fifth of nine children. He was a distant relative of General Moses Cleveland, the namesake of Cleveland, Ohio. The future president was named after the first pastor of his father’s church. However, he preferred to go by his middle name of Grover later in life.

The Cleveland family moved to Fayetteville, New York, in 1841, where Grover spent much of his childhood. After his father died, Grover left school to help support his family. A few years later, an elder in his church offered to pay for his education if he would become a minister, but he graciously refused. Grover then set out west, stopping in Buffalo, New York, where he worked as a clerk in his uncle’s office and was introduced to the influential law partners of Rogers, Bowen, and Rogers. He then worked as a clerk in their office before being admitted to the bar in 1859.

1931 12¢ Cleveland, brown violet
US #693 – from the Series of 1926-31, printed on the rotary press

Cleveland remained with the firm for three years before leaving in 1862 to start his own practice. The following year, he was made assistant district attorney of Erie County. Cleveland had a prosperous law career, and became well known for his intense concentration and hard work, often presenting his arguments from memory. An 1868 case, in which he defended a local newspaper, garnered a great deal of attention from those in his profession. Although he could now afford a more lavish lifestyle than that of the boarding house, Cleveland was content and chose to support his mother and younger sisters instead.

1938 22¢ Cleveland, vermillion
US #827 – 1938 Cleveland “Prexie” stamp

Cleveland first attempted to run for district attorney in 1865, but narrowly lost to his roommate. In 1870, he was elected sheriff of Erie County, and went back to practicing law when his term was up. A major stepping-stone on Cleveland’s path to the presidency came in 1881. Up to that point, the Republican government in Buffalo, New York, had grown increasingly corrupt. So the Democrats sought out the most honest mayoral candidate they could find – Grover Cleveland. Cleveland won the election by more than 3,500 votes (more than 13%). He spent much of his term as mayor battling the interests of self-serving politicians. Cleveland frequently worked to protect public funds, building his reputation as an honest politician.

In 1882, the New York State Democratic Party selected Cleveland as their candidate for governor. He won the election by more than 192,000 votes – the largest margin of victory (58.47% to 37.41%) in the state since 1822. Within his first two months in office, Cleveland sent the legislature eight vetoes.

1986 22¢ Pres. Cleveland Fleetwood First Day Cover
US #2218d – Fleetwood First Day Cover

Two years later, Cleveland was a natural choice for the Democratic presidential candidate. He won the election of 1884 by one-quarter of a percent of the popular vote, and with an electoral vote of 219 to 182. When he delivered his inaugural address the following March, he did so without the use of notes, which no other president had done before.

Cleveland worked to reform other parts of the government, as well, such as when he signed the legislation establishing the Interstate Commerce Commission in 1887. He also worked with the secretary of the Navy to modernize that institution and canceled construction contracts on faulty ships. Squaring off against the Senate, Cleveland used his veto power a great deal, more than any other president up to that time. He vetoed hundreds of private pension bills for Civil War veterans believing Congress should not override the Pension Bureau’s decision.

2009 44¢ Wedding Series: Wedding Rings
US #4397 – On June 2, 1886, Cleveland became the first, and so far only president to get married in the White House.

As a non-interventionist opposing expansion and imperialism, Cleveland had little concern for foreign policy. He was against the previous administration’s Nicaragua canal treaty and discouraged the Senate from talks about the Berlin Conference treaty, which would have opened doors for the US in the Congo.

1958 Liberty Series - 8¢ Statue of Liberty, Redrawn, Giori Press
US #1042 – Cleveland dedicated the Statue of Liberty in 1886.

Concerning civil rights, Cleveland saw Reconstruction as a failed experiment and hesitated to use federal power to enforce the 15th Amendment guaranteeing African Americans the right to vote. Cleveland took a more positive stance concerning Native-Americans, saying in his inaugural address that, “his guardianship involves, on our part, efforts for the improvement of their condition and enforcement of their rights.” He supported the Dawes Act, which would distribute Native American lands to individuals, rather than being held in trusts by the federal government. Cleveland saw the act as a means to lift the Native Americans out of poverty and join white society. However, it actually weakened the tribal governments and many individuals sold their lands.

1873 3¢ Yellow, Department of Agriculture, Washington, Hard Paper
US #O3 – In 1889, Cleveland signed legislation elevating the Department of Agriculture to Cabinet-level status.

As the election of 1888 approached, the tariff issue took center stage. The Republicans, with Benjamin Harrison as their candidate, campaigned to keep tariffs high, gaining the support of industrialists and factory workers. Cleveland stuck to his position that high tariffs were unfair to consumers. Although Cleveland narrowly won the popular vote, Harrison took the Electoral College. This was the third of just five times in US history that the winner of the popular vote did not win the election.

While Cleveland looked forward to the peace of private life, his young wife, Frances, instructed the staff to take good care of the furniture and decorations, “for I want to find everything just as it is now, when we come back again.” When asked when they would return, she said, “four years from today.” Little did President Cleveland know just how right she would be.

1959 4¢ Silver Centennial
US #1130 – Cleveland’s “silver letter” helped him receive national attention once again, setting the stage for his return to the White House.

While Cleveland happily enjoyed private life in New York City, President Harrison’s administration passed the McKinley Tariff and Sherman Silver Purchase Act. Cleveland saw both of these policies as dangerous for the nation’s economy. He initially decided not to speak out about his outrage, but he later felt it was his duty to address these concerns. Cleveland submitted an open “silver letter” to a meeting of reformers in New York. This letter made Cleveland a national name once again, just as the 1892 election approached. He went on to win that election, returning to the White House as his wife had foretold.

Shortly after Cleveland entered office, the Panic of 1893 struck the stock market, and the country was in a state of acute economic depression. After 15 weeks of debate, the Senate repealed the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, eventually returning the Treasury’s gold reserves to safe levels.

1986 Birthplaces of Am.Pres.-Cleveland Single Commemorative cover
Item #81127A – Commemorative Cover marking Cleveland’s 150th birthday

Next, Cleveland turned his attention to reversing the McKinley tariff. Though he considered the new Wilson-Gorman Tariff Act to be “a disgraceful product of the control of the Senate by trusts and business interests,” he still considered it an improvement over the McKinley Tariff and allowed it to become law.

Hawaii #H57 – In January 1893, Queen Liliuokalani of Hawaii was ousted in a coup. The businessmen involved sought a quick annexation by the US, but Cleveland was opposed.

Between Cleveland’s first and second terms as president, white businessmen had overthrown the government of Hawaii and sought Hawaii’s annexation by the United States. While Harrison had supported the annexation and had submitted a treaty to that effect to the US Senate, Cleveland was staunchly anti-imperialist. Five days after taking office, he withdrew the treaty and called for the queen to be restored. Queen Liliuokalani refused to grant amnesty as a condition for regaining her thrown however, and the matter stalled. Cleveland then referred the issue to Congress, and the House adopted a resolution opposing annexation and censuring the US minister to Hawaii for his involvement in the coup. However, the Senate was antagonistic towards Cleveland and produced a report finding that the presence of American troops near the Hawaiian government building and royal palace during the coup gave “no demonstration of actual hostilities” and were “quiet” and “respectful.”

When a dispute arose between Britain and British Guiana over the boundary between that nation and Venezuela, Cleveland called upon the Monroe Doctrine. The British initially refused the United States’ intervention in the issue, but President Cleveland and Secretary of State Richard Olney insisted that the US be included in arbitrations over the matter. In December of 1895, Congress unanimously passed a measure appointing a boundary commission, with Cleveland proposing that the commission’s finding be enforced “by every means.” Great Britain, unable to contend with another potential conflict, finally agreed to submit to arbitration. This was the first time the British had officially recognized the Monroe Doctrine and was a major turning point for US intervention in Central and South American affairs. The tribunal met in Paris in 1898, and the following year gave the 90% of the disputed area to British Guiana.

1985 PRS Grover Cleveland Commemorative Cover
Item #81410 – Commemorative Cover marking Cleveland’s 148th birthday

Anti-Cleveland agrarian and silverite Democrats took control of the party in 1896, rejected his administration and the gold standard, and nominated William Jennings Bryan. Cleveland supported the Gold Democrats’ third-party ticket, but decided not to accept their nomination for a third term. In the end, Republican William McKinley won the election.

After leaving the White House in 1897, Cleveland retired to his estate at Westfield Mansion in Princeton, New Jersey. He served briefly as a trustee of Princeton University and consulted with President Theodore Roosevelt during his time in office. After several years of poor health, Cleveland became seriously ill in 1907 and suffered a heart attack the following year. His final words were, “I have tried so hard to do right.”

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  1. Superb analysis of a troubled President, one of the few New Jerseyans that ever held that office (President Woodrow Wilson was the other). Thank you so much for a complete and thorough
    picture of the late 1800’s and the issues that both President Cleveland and President Harrison faced. Wish I had this when I took history in both high school and college.

    1. Woodrow Wilson was born in Staunton Virginia. Grover Cleveland is the only President born and buried in New Jersey! Cleveland became famous due to his political offices in New York, while Wilson was both President of Princeton University and Governor of New Jersey. By the way, Wilson is the only President buried in Washington D.C.!

  2. Great article of a largely forgotten President. Cleveland’s distant ancestor Moses spelled his name “Cleaveland.” There are varying accounts of why the “a” was dropped from both the name and the city.

  3. While not nearly reaching the accomplishments of FDR, he entered his presidency during somewhat similar a national financial crisis. His decisiveness, midst obvious opposition, helped to quell “The Panic”. I believe his final words to be honest and certainly words to live by today. Makes me proud of my Buffalo roots.

  4. I wish that Grover Cleveland was running in 2016. We need a fine person like him instead of who is running now.

  5. Great insight and detail about an obviously great American who also served his Country well as President … Grover Cleveland ! Like, for some of our other Presidents, I never knew much about him, and am very happy for this basic introduction . Thanks Mystic !! Keep it coming, please !

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