Few things come to mind with the mention of Grover Cleveland. Some recall an incongruous combination of a city in Ohio and a blue muppet on Sesame Street. Others remember the U.S. President from the nineteenth century, and the Jeopardy champions among these remember that he was, in fact, both our twenty-second and twenty-fourth executive. Only a man as oxymoronic as Cleveland, a proudly conservative Democrat, could have accomplished that.
But since this introduction has not risen above the level of two-dimensional factoids, you are probably still left wondering: why care about Grover Cleveland at all? One can address this question only by answering a more fundamental one, which strikes at the hearts of both the liberal arts and conservatism: why study history? Some would argue that history’s purpose is
prognostic, that by tracing the societal tendencies of the past one can anticipate the logical culmination of those tendencies in the present. If one should stare into the crystal ball of history long enough, he will receive oracular pronouncements to dictate his present action. But this somewhat shadowy defense of history fails to do the discipline justice.
The Greek statesman and historian Polybius in the first sentence of his masterpiece The Rise of the Roman Empire best expressed the grand and noble purpose of history when he wrote that “mankind possesses no better guide to conduct than knowledge of the past.” History, according to Polybius, is an active undertaking: it is the study of the characters and virtues of great men and women that teaches us how we ought to act now, and it is by emulating our great forebears successfully that we too can perform deeds worthy of note. So it is through biography that history takes on its noblest goal of presenting a course for successful future action, building upon the virtues and actions of great men and women of the past.
And yet to be great does not necessitate being famous. There are some figures in history whose greatness was complemented by profound humility, simplicity, and a scorn for fame. Such a figure was Grover Cleveland. And such a character as his is eminently approachable not only because of his humility, but also because of his ties to every student on this campus by shared love of virtue, of Princeton, and of country. I invite you to consider the life of a man, Grover Cleveland, from whom you can draw morally, professionally, and politically with great gains. History and biography work best when the student is tied to the subject by such bonds as these.
On the level of personal virtue, Cleveland was noted in his lifetime for an extraordinary degree of honesty, courage, firmness, independence, and common sense. Stephen Grover Cleveland, the fifth of nine children, was born in 1837. His father died when he was 16, forcing him to leave school in order to support his family financially, first as a teacher for the blind, then as a law clerk. This experience taught him firsthand the immense importance of the family and of fatherhood, a realization that formed him and affected him throughout the course of his long life. Through arduous study and without a college degree, Cleveland managed to pass the bar in the state of New York at 22. At 44, in the middle of a successful career in law, Cleveland became involved in politics in earnest when he was elected Mayor of Buffalo, and this triumph was soon followed by his election as Governor of New York. In both offices, Cleveland vigorously fought against rampant partisan corruption within the government, thus gaining for himself a reputation for honesty.
In 1884, having established himself on the national stage, Cleveland ran for president. Since the departure of James Buchanan in 1861, the White House had not seen a Democrat as president. During the campaign, Cleveland’s record of honesty and virtue was in danger of being besmirched by a smear campaign launched by his opponent. James Blaine, the Republican candidate, accused Cleveland of fathering a child out of wedlock, pointing to the fact that the Democratic candidate paid child support to Maria Halpin in 1874 as evidence. Cleveland’s retort was characteristically simple: “tell the truth.” Ultimately Blaine did, and it was revealed that Halpin had had relations with several married men, one of whom was a close friend of Cleveland’s. Cleveland, a bachelor, agreed to claim paternity so that the other men could avoid being accused of adultery. The personal virtues that Cleveland cultivated over his lifetime were encapsulated by his dying phrase: “I have tried so hard to do right.”
On a brisk October day on the sesquicentennial of Princeton’s founding, Woodrow Wilson delivered a speech that gave the University its informal motto, and as the future president uttered the phrase ‘in the Nation’s service,’ he could not have failed to notice the bulky figure of the current president in the audience. That day marked the beginning of Grover Cleveland’s relationship with Princeton University, a relationship which affects us to this day. Thinking the town would make an idyllic spot for retirement, Cleveland and his family moved to a mansion on Hodge Road after the end of his second term of office in March 1897. It soon became traditional for Princeton undergraduate athletes flushed with triumph to walk over to Cleveland’s mansion to celebrate victory, where the rather unathletic former president would lead the students in a locomotive cheer. Aside from fostering athletic spirit for the young college students, Cleveland gave semi-annual lectures on his presidency to standing-room-only audiences in the recently-built Alexander Hall.
In 1901, Cleveland was elected to the Board of Trustees at Princeton. Cleveland took this obligation very seriously, devoting himself to improving and defending Princeton’s undergraduate education. He, together with his good friend Dean Andrew Fleming West, opposed Woodrow Wilson’s plan to build the graduate college on a more central site on campus. Students in the past had criticized Dean West’s decision on the grounds that such physical separation would hurt the relationship between our undergraduate and graduate populations. But a moment’s reflection will reveal that this physical distance has been conducive to the unfaltering commitment to undergraduate education that makes Princeton unique among its peers. Nor has the Graduate College suffered as a result. The expansive grounds afforded to the structure make it a stunningly beautiful architectural landmark, and Princeton continues to produce graduate students of the highest caliber who go on to influence the disparate worlds of politics, economics, physics, chemistry, and a number of other fields.
Even today, physical traces of Cleveland can be found at Princeton, from the transcript of one of his Alexander Hall speeches in the cavernous depths of Firestone Library to the lofty heights of the Graduate College Tower that bears his name. When Cleveland Tower was dedicated, former President Taft called it a “tower of strength and beauty most expressive of his character.” It is a little known fact that the tower contains what can only be described as a shrine to the former president, complete with a bronze bust, nestled into a niche in the Tower. It is well worth your visit.
Much of the weight that Cleveland brought to bear accompanied him from the days of his presidency. It is one of the minor tragedies of history that very often remarkable men are called to act in unremarkable times, such that their skills and virtues are never quite given a challenge worthy of them. That said, the Cleveland presidencies were punctuated by interesting events both in the realm of foreign policy and in domestic affairs. In the foreign sphere, Cleveland stood out among the Western leaders of the time by opposing imperialism, whether in the Pacific Kingdom of Hawaii or in the Caribbean Republic of Venezuela. The latter case especially provides ample examples for the current administration of how to conduct foreign policy. Opposing the idea of American imperialism and conducting forceful diplomacy were not and are not contradictory, as Cleveland’s actions in Venezuela show. When the British government took advantage of a routine border dispute between two South American nations and threw its full weight and authority behind its colony Guyana at the expense of Venezuela, Cleveland rebuked it for violating the Monroe Doctrine and threatened war if Britain failed to submit itself to arbitration from the United States. When Britain backed down, Cleveland both drew a boundary line advantageous to Venezuela and gained “a better place in the respect and consideration of the people of all nations, and especially of Great Britain,” as he would later tell a full audience in Alexander Hall. Only the “timid,” he said, opposed such vigorous diplomacy that yielded such fruitful results. His was a red line that stayed down. His was a presidency that forcefully defended the defenseless for their betterment and for our own.
In domestic politics, Cleveland made it clear from his first inaugural address that, although a Democrat, he would act as a conservative. In that first speech, Cleveland exhorted the citizens of the United States to look beyond partisanship; he reminded them that the government was still of the people, and succinctly delineated the limits of executive power in a formulation that should serve as a mantra for all current politicians. A president, he said, should “be guided by a just and unstrained construction of the Constitution, a careful observance of the distinction between the powers granted to the Federal Government and those reserved to the States or to the people, and by a cautious appreciation of those functions which by the Constitution and laws have been especially assigned to the executive branch of the Government.”
Combined with such an admirable defense of the Constitution was an assault on the excesses of labor unions and welfare. On the first count, Cleveland acted vigorously in the suppression of the Pullman Strike of 1894 when railroad workers violated an injunction in Chicago. While the suppression was poorly executed and resulted in a number of casualties, Cleveland’s underlying opposition to overly powerful labor unions was commendable. The second issue, welfare, received a scathing indictment in his second inaugural speech, when he strongly denounced what he termed “paternalism,” saying that it “perverts the patriotic sentiments of our countrymen and tempts them to pitiful calculation of the sordid gain to be derived from their Government’s maintenance. It undermines the self-reliance of our people and substitutes in its place dependence upon governmental favoritism.” As an orphan from a young age, Cleveland knew full well that the values of independence, industry, and self-reliance should be fostered and held in higher esteem over a parasitic attachment to unearned government funds.
But Cleveland’s fine moral character and talent for governing are perhaps expressed nowhere as well as in this passage from his first inaugural address: “The conscience of the people demands that the Indians within our boundaries shall be fairly and honestly treated as wards of the Government and their education and civilization promoted with a view to their ultimate citizenship, and that polygamy in the Territories, destructive of the family relation and offensive to the moral sense of the civilized world, shall be repressed.” Cleveland, with a strong ethical conscience, knew full well that the extermination of the Native American minorities was an atrocity. Even so, he was reasonable enough to see that minorities are not entitled to protection simply by virtue of the fact that they are minorities. Rather, he appealed to unchanging moral principles in order to distinguish between the legitimate grievances of an exploited indigenous people and the perversion of the institution of marriage that this minority’s practice of polygamy represented. One wishes such lucid moral reasoning would penetrate the foggy discourses of our own time.
Finally, any account of Cleveland would be remiss without the mention of his wife. In perhaps the second most famous factoid of his presidency, Cleveland was the only man to be married in the White House while in office. Frances Folsom Cleveland, though far younger than Grover, proved a driving force in his life. As the President and his family were moving out of the White House after losing the bid for reelection, the First Lady told the staff to take good care of the furniture, because they would return in four years. Sure enough, four years later, the Clevelands returned to the White House, and Grover became the only person to serve two non-consecutive terms.
During his time at Princeton, Grover Cleveland befriended a man who was in many ways his polar opposite. Where one was portly, the other was gaunt. Where one lacked a college degree, the other was an established member of academia. Where one was liberal, the other conservative. And yet there developed a great friendship between the two, such that when Woodrow Wilson read to Grover Cleveland a poem by William Wordsworth—“Character of the Happy Warrior”—it became Cleveland’s favorite poem. Its lines encapsulated his character and today grace his tombstone in the Princeton cemetery:
He must fall to sleep without his fame,
And leave a dead unprofitable name,
Finds comfort in himself and in his cause;
And, while the mortal mist is gathering, draws
His breath in confidence of Heaven’s applause:
This is the happy Warrior; this is he
Whom every Man in arms should wish to be.