For Wednesday February 22


Grover Cleveland, A Most Unusual President
On February 22, 1889, President Grover Cleveland signed the bill that admitted North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, and Washington into the Union.

Stephen Grover Cleveland was one of our most unusual presidents. Unique in the fact that he served two non-consecutive terms. He was also one of only two Democrats to hold the office during the 1861-1933 era of Republican domination of the Presidency. (The other was Woodrow Wilson.) Born in 1937, he drifted through several career opportunities, none of which suited him, until he became a clerk at a law firm, began to read the law and was appointed to the New York Bar in 1959.

During the Civil War, he was serving as assistant district attorney in Eire County, New York. When the Conscription Act of 1863 was passed, Cleveland opted to hire a substitute rather than serve in the military. He paid Polish immigrant George Benninsky $150 to go in his place.

Bennisky served with the supply column of Company F or the 76th New York Infantry. He seems to have seen little combat but suffered a severe back injury that required hospitalization and surgery. After being discharged in August 1865, he expected an additional payment of $150 that Cleveland had promised him if he survived the war. He never received it. However, Cleveland encouraged his substitute to use his army discharge papers to become a citizen. Cleveland served as a witness on his behalf.

After the war, Cleveland began his political career. In his first campaign, he was narrowly defeated for the officer of Eire County District Attorney. Later he ran for sheriff there and won. He became mayor of Buffalo in 1882 and governor of New York in 1883. He was a budget hawk as governor, vetoing eight spending bills in his first two months in office. He also opposed political corruption, earning the enmity of the infamous Tammany Hall organization.

Government corruption was a significant issue in the 1884 presidential race, and Cleveland’s reputation as a corruption fighter helped him win the Democratic nomination despite the opposition of his Tammany Hall enemies. During the general election, his slogan was, “A public office is a public trust.” This won him the support of a coalition of reform-minded Republicans called the Mugwumps. That support and the “Solid South” votes he earned as a Democrat won the Presidency

for him.

He demonstrated his opposition to corruption early in his presidency by rejecting the “spoils system” whereby the new president filled appointed offices with partisans. Instead, Cleveland declared he would not fire any Republican appointee who was serving well in his job. However, later in his term, he did begin to replace some of the more radically partisan Republican officeholders under pressure from his Democrat allies.

Cleveland was an advocate of limited government. He vetoed spending bills by the Republican congress and fought to lower the tariff. In his third annual address to congress, he said:

“When we consider that the theory of our institutions guarantees to every citizen the full enjoyment of all the fruits of his industry and enterprise, with only such deduction as may be his share toward the careful and economical maintenance of the Government which protects him, it is plain that the exaction of more than this is

indefensible extortion and a culpable betrayal of American fairness and justice

… The public Treasury, should only exist as a conduit conveying the

people’s tribute to its legitimate objects of expenditure becomes a hoarding

place for money needlessly withdrawn from trade and the people’s use, thus

crippling our national energies, suspending our country’s development,eventing investment in productive enterprise, threatening financial

disturbance, and inviting schemes of public plunder.”

This appeal, along with some hard-fought wheeling and dealing with Congressional delegates, enabled the passage of a compromise tariff bill lowering the rate from 47% to 40%. This would turn out to be a bitter victory for Cleveland. The tariff issue became central to the 1888 election, and Republicans were able to rally protectionist voters in crucial states, including Cleveland’s home state of New York, behind Benjamin Harrison. Cleveland won the popular vote but was defeated 233-168 in the Electoral College.

Ironically, one of Cleveland’s last acts as President was to sign a bill that split the strongly Republican Dakota territory into two states and admit them along with Republican-leaning Washington and the narrowly Democrat state of Montana into the Union. This gave the Republicans at least six new Senators and a further advantage in the Electoral vote.

The Harrison administration and the Republican congress quickly moved to increase tariffs and weaken the Gold Standard by radically increasing the amount of currency back by silver. Cleveland had opposed both policies as dangerous to the American economy. He penned an open letter expressing his concerns in 1891. The “silver letter” brought him back into the political spotlight, and Democrats renominated him for a rematch against Harrison. The tariff issue had worked in favor of the Republicans four years earlier, but now their policies had made imported goods so expensive that many Americans turned against them. In the Western states, including those Cleveland had brought into the Union, a populist third-party candidate negated the Republican advantage there, and in New York, Cleveland’s former Tammany Hall enemies rallied support behind him, helping him win not only a third consecutive victory in the popular vote but a resounding success in the Electoral college, beating Harrison 277 to 145 with 22 other votes going to Western populist James Weaver.

Political Cartoon of Cleveland, the Veto Warrior
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