Stephen Grover Cleveland (1837 – 1908) was the 22nd president of the United States. As an adult, Cleveland stopped using his first name and went by Grover because of a nickname his friends had given him. “Big Steve” weighed over 250 pounds at the time, and wanted to leave the nickname behind with childhood. Before breaking into politics, he studied law and held several jobs. During the Civil War, Cleveland was able to avoid military service by paying $300 for a substitute to take his place. While that may seem shocking now, it was not uncommon at that time. He was the first Democrat after the war to be elected president and the only person to get a second four-year term that wasn’t immediately after the first (1885-1889 and 1893-1897).
Cleveland won his presidency with support from the Democrats and reform Republicans, who were referred to as “Mugwumps.” When he relocated to the White House, he was a bachelor and very uncomfortable living in such luxury. He wrote about the experience to a friend, saying, “I must go to dinner, but I wish it was to eat a pickled herring a Swiss cheese and a chop at Louis’ instead of the French stuff I shall find.”
His bachelorhood came to an end in 1886 after he married his ward, Frances Folsom. Her father had been Cleveland’s law partner until he died. At the age of 21, Frances became the youngest first lady. Their wedding was the first and only held at the White House.
During the first term of his presidency, Cleveland presided over the dedication of the Statue of Liberty. He also saw the surrender of famed warrior Geronimo, which ended the Apache wars. He became known as the “guardian president” because of his penchant for using his veto power. Cleveland despised subsidies and believed that hardship built character, so he vetoed and barred anything resembling special favors.
In one instance, he vetoed a bill that would have appropriated $10,000 to Texas farmers to provide seed grain during a drought. “Federal aid in such cases encourages the expectation of paternal care on the part of the Government and weakens the sturdiness of our national character,” he wrote in explanation. When Congress passed a bill to grant pensions for disabilities that were not caused by service in the military, he struck that down too. In all, he used his veto power 584 times, which was more than double the number by all previous presidents. Franklin D. Roosevelt is the only president with more vetoes than Cleveland, but then he was elected to four terms.
Cleveland also dipped his political hands into the railroads, angering a lot of people when he ordered an investigation of western lands held by government grant. He used his powers to force the railroads to return 81,000,000 acres. Then he signed the Interstate Commerce Act which was the first law that attempted to apply federal regulation of the railroads. In Chicago, railroad strikers violated an injunction and the president sent in federal troops to enforce the order. “If it takes the entire army and navy of the United States to deliver a post card in Chicago,” he said, “that card will be delivered.”
Cleveland directed Congress to reduce high protective tariffs in December 1887. His staff was not too happy with the move and warned that he had just given the Republicans an advantage for the 1888 campaign. “What is the use of being elected or re-elected unless you stand for something?” he retorted, and then lost his party’s nomination for re-election.
In 1893, he ran again and was elected. This second term was even more difficult, as he had to deal with the Pullman strike and the most severe depression in the history of the United States up until that time. In March 1897, Cleveland finished his final presidential term, but still remained active in politics. He would consult with Theodore Roosevelt on many issues, but the two differed when it came to women’s suffrage with Cleveland believing that sensible women didn’t want the vote.
“I have tried so hard to do right,” Cleveland said. “Some day I will be better remembered.” Unfortunately, he is not one of the well-known presidents of our time.
An interesting fact: On display at the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia is Cleveland’s “secret tumor,” an epithelioma that was removed from the roof of his mouth.