True Stories of Our Presidents - Charles Morris

Grover Cleveland



The Veto President

I do not think you can find anywhere a man whose career was more remarkable than that of Grover Cleveland. Honesty in office made him President of the United States, and that is a splendid thing to say of any man. In 1880 he was just a plain, ordinary lawyer in Buffalo, New York, and very few people knew him outside of that city. In 1884 he was being talked about from Maine to California and was elected President by a large majority. That was certainly a wonderful lift upward in four years for a man whose whole political capital was plain, everyday honesty just living up to his duty.

And after he went home and stayed home for four years, working away at his old business of the law, the people took him up again and sent him back to Washington with a bigger majority than before, to act as President for another four years. That is something which cannot be said of any other President, and is a great feather in Grover Cleveland's cap. For this reason he is called the twenty-second and twenty-fourth President, for another President came between his two terms I must tell you the story of this man's strange life.

The Clevelands made their first home in America as far back as 1635, when a family of that name crossed the seas to Massachusetts, soon after the first settlers came. They belonged to the sturdy stock of the early New England people. Down they came from father to son till we meet y with Richard F. Cleveland, who was the preacher in a small Presbyterian church in the town of Caldwell, New Jersey. Here, on the 18th of March, 1837, his son Grover, the future President, Was born.

The boy was named Stephen Grover Cleveland, but he took to calling himself Grover, without the Stephen, and everybody knows him as Grover Cleveland to-day. When he was four years old his father moved to Fayetteville, New York, and afterward to Clinton, in that State. At these places the boy went to school. He must have been a good scholar, for he got into the high school when he was several years younger than the other boys. And it was his ambition there to be at the head of his class.

But a village clergyman in those days had very little to live on, and his boys had often to take hold and help. We are told that Grover went into a store near his home when he was only twelve years old and worked there for two years. Then he went back to his books again. When he was seventeen he began to teach in a home for the blind in New York City. His older brother, who was a minister like his father, was teaching there and very likely got him the place.

Grover did not like this place very much, and, like many other young people at that time, he took a notion to go West and see what chance there was there to make his way in the world. But he got only as far as Buffalo. An uncle of his lived near there, who had a farm and was writing a book of some kind, and he asked young Grover to stop and help him.

What the boy wanted to do was to study law, and after some time he got a chance to become a clerk and copyist in a lawyer's office in Buffalo, where he spent all his spare time in reading law books.

He still lived with his uncle, whose place was two miles away, and every day, rain or shine, he walked those two miles back and forth. It was not much for a strong boy like him, and he had to live very cheaply, for he got only four dollars a week for his work. We are told that the first day he began to read a law book he kept at it till it was too dark to see the words. Then he found that everybody else had gone home and locked up the place, and he had to stay there all night. After that he kept one eye open for what was going on around him, if he had the other eye on his book.

Grover Cleveland was a determined youth. He had that power of steady work and that resolute purpose which help men to make their way upward. When he was twenty-two years old he was admitted to the bar, but all the time he was trying to get some law practice he kept on working as a clerk for the lawyers in whose office he had studied. His father had died and he had to help his mother, who was left with very little money.

The young lawyer was not long in getting work in his profession, and seems to have made headway pretty fast. In 1863 he was made assistant district attorney for Erie County, and this must have brought him some good practice.

In 1870 came his first lift upward. He was a Democrat in politics and the Democrats of Buffalo wanted a good, strong man to run for sheriff of the county. The story has been told that the selection of Cleveland for this office was largely due to chance. One of his law partners was asked to be a candidate for sheriff. He did not care to be, but told his visitors that Mr. Cleveland would make a very good one. At any rate, whether that is true or not, Cleveland was the man they picked out. He was elected and held the office for three years, and made as good a sheriff as they could have found if they had tried every man in the county. When his time was up he went back quietly to his law office and began his old work again as if he were done with politics for the rest of his life. And he may have thought he was, for no one can see far into the future.

It was in 1881, three years before he was nominated for President, that Grover Cleveland's remarkable career really began. The Democrats wanted a man for Mayor of Buffalo now, as they had wanted a man for sheriff eleven years before. Buffalo was a Republican city, and only a strong Democratic candidate had a chance to be elected. They remembered that Grover Cleveland had made a sheriff who pleased the people, and had always tried to do the right and just thing, and they selected him as their candidate.

Cleveland did not brag or make a thousand promises. What he said was that if he was made mayor he would see that the business of the city was done in the same way that a good business man manages his private affairs. The people must have liked that kind of talk, for they elected him by the largest majority a Buffalo Mayor had ever received.

No man ever kept his word more faithfully. The politicians, who had been handling their mayors with or without gloves, found that the new mayor was not to be handled. The Councils, which had been passing laws more for their own pockets than the public good, found their plans spoiled. Cleveland was called the "Veto Mayor." He vetoed bad bills by the dozens, and in a few months he saved the city nearly $1,000,000. He was running the city on business principles, as he had promised to do. The politicians would have got rid of him in a hurry if they could. No doubt they said many ugly things about him in private, but they were careful in public, for fear he might veto them, too. But the people looked on him as the best mayor they had ever known or heard of.

Soon all over the State the voters were praising the "Veto Mayor," and when, the next year, the Democratic Convention met to select a candidate for Governor of New York, they thought they could not do better than to take up this very popular Mayor of Buffalo. And they were wise in doing so, for he beat the Republican candidate by nearly two hundred thousand votes. That was a great majority to gain on the basis of honesty in office.

Governor Cleveland did for the State just what Mayor Cleveland had done for the city. He did not believe in forms and ceremonies. When he went to take the oath of office in Albany, he walked through the streets with a friend, instead of riding up in great state in a carriage. And all the time he was Governor he kept no carriage, but walked from his home to the State House. He went in for economy and honesty. He had promised "to serve the people faithfully and well," and he cut down political jobs as a farmer cuts down weeds. Honor in office was his watchword, and he made New York a poor place for rascals.

The Democratic party saw that they had a very popular man for Governor of New York. He was being talked about all over the country. So in 1884, when they were in the field for a candidate for President, they picked out the Governor of New York as their strongest man. The party had not elected a President for twenty-four years, and they wanted the best man they could get.

Machinery Hall—Chicago exposition, 1893


The contest was an ugly and bitter one. Everything unpleasant that newspaper editors could think of was said about the two candidates, Grover Cleveland and James G. Blaine. You might have thought they were both fit for the penitentiary. The election was a very close one. When all was over it was found that everything depended on the vote of New York State, and there the election was so close that it took a week or more to find who was the victor. Then it was found that Cleveland had a majority of a few hundred votes.

When the new President came to take the oath of office he did not kiss the big Bible which other Presidents had used, but a little book, worn with use, which his mother had given him when he left home. That was a fine thing for him to do.

As President he was the same kind of man he had always been. He did not now have to look out for political jobbers, but there were many laws passed which he did not like, and he vetoed every one which did not please him. It is said that in the first session of Congress after he became President he vetoed one hundred and fifteen bills. Some of them were passed afterward, but he did what he thought his duty.

The President was now forty-eight years of age. He was in the prime of life, a man of large, rather massive build, with a face of strength and intelligence, and a very simple and direct manner of speech. He was a very hard worker and examined every paper for himself, which no other President had thought of doing. He was not married, and his sister, Miss Rose Elizabeth Cleveland, a lady of literary tastes, became mistress of the White House.

But in 1886 the President took for his wife Miss Frances Folsom, a charming and beautiful young lady, the daughter of his friend and partner in his old law office. He was the first President who married while in office. They were married in the White House, and his attractive young wife became very popular. Her grace and sweetness of manner won her many friends and admirers.

When the time for a new presidential election came round, in 1888, Mr. Cleveland was again nominated by the Democrats, while Benjamin Harrison was the Republican candidate. This time the campaign was conducted with good temper, and there was none of the "mud slinging" of four years before. Neither party tried to win by calling the candidate of the other party hard names. But the Republicans had come back to their strength again, and Harrison was elected with a good majority.

The late President now made his home in New York City, and went into the law business there. But though he kept quiet and attended strictly to his business, he was not forgotten by his party, which still looked on him as its strongest man. So in 1892, after four years more had passed, he was nominated again, while the Republicans chose President Harrison once more for their candidate. This time there was another change. Cleveland was elected by a large majority. It looked as if the people had changed their minds or did not like the way things were going. He was the first President who had come back to office after being away.

The greatest event of President Cleveland's second term was the splendid World's Fair held at Chicago in 1893, one of the finest that had ever been seen in any country. During his term an important question came up about the South American country named Venezuela, which declared that England was robbing it of much of its land. This was against the "Monroe Doctrine," and the President said plainly that England must stop, or the United States would help Venezuela to make her stop. He did not use just those words, but that is what he meant. After a good deal of talk England concluded to have the matter settled by arbitration, which was what the President wanted.

Presidents, 1877 to 1901


President Cleveland believed strongly in Civil Service Reform, and did all he could to help it on, and brought many of the offices under the Civil Service law. But he did not believe in bi-metalism; that is, in having gold and silver both freely coined and made the standard of our money. He believed in a gold standard only. As he did not agree with this and other things in the platform of the Democratic party, he would not let his name be used as a candidate again.

On March 4, 1897, when his term of office ended, he bought a mansion at Princeton, New Jersey, and made that city his home. Since then he has lived there quietly, taking much enjoyment in fishing, of which he was always very fond, and now and then speaking with much good sense and discretion on public and other subjects.