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September 23rd, 2019

Ranking the Presidents: Grover Cleveland

On a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being best), how would you grade Grover Cleveland, based on the performance of his duties as President? You can go to this link to vote. If Grover Cleveland has left no other legacy, he can always be remembered as the guy who messed up the system of counting presidents. Over the history of the United States, forty-four different men have been elected or have through some other Constitutionally approved manner become the nation's President, but for some reason, somebody once decided that Cleveland would be counted twice, as the 22nd and 24th President. To date he is the only President ever elected to non-consecutive terms. In 1888 when he was re-elected, instead of simply saying "we've re-elected the 22nd President" like they do with incumbents, someone decided to count him twice. But there is surely more to the man's legacy than just this anomaly. After all, he was the first Democrat elected to the office after the Civil War (unless you believe that Samuel Tilden was robbed in 1876), and he was the only person, prior to FDR, to win the popular vote in a presidential election three times in a row.

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His full name was Stephen Grover Cleveland and he was born in New Jersey in 1837, the son of a Presbyterian minister. He went to Buffalo, New York where he studied law with Millard Fillmore's old law firm, before going out on his own. He became assistant district attorney of Erie County. When the Civil War began, Cleveland decided not to join the fight and instead paid $150 to hire a substitute to fight for him, something that the law allowed. In 1870 he was elected Sheriff of Erie County and in that role he served as the hangman for two executions.

In the 1880s Cleveland's political career was on fire. He was elected as the Mayor of Buffalo in 1882, and later that year his party picked him as its candidate for Governor of New York. He won that election in November and was sworn in the following January of 1883. He had won his party's nomination without the support of the corrupt political machine known as Tammany Hall, and by doing so he was given the nickname "Grover the Good". The following year, in 1884, Samuel Tilden was seen as the front runner for the Democratic Party's nomination for President, but when Tilden declined to seek the nomination due to poor health, the party selected Cleveland, once again over the objections of Tammany Hall.

Cleveland's reputation for honesty helped him defeat James G. Blaine in the presidential election that year. Blaine was attacked for a number of political skeletons in his closet. Cleveland was attacked on his character, after a woman named Maria Halpin alleged that Cleveland was the father of her illegitimate child. Cleveland had in fact paid child support for the baby, but claimed that he was doing so to protect the reputation of the real father, his friend Oscar Folsom. The voting public either believed him or didn't care about the issue and Cleveland was elected President by 31 electoral votes and just a quarter of a percent in the popular vote.

Cleveland was the leader of a group of pro-business members of his party known as the Bourbon Democrats. They opposed high tariffs, Free Silver, inflation, imperialism, and subsidies to business, farmers, or veterans. His crusade for political reform and fiscal conservatism attracted widespread support from American conservatives of the era. Cleveland fought political corruption, patronage, and bossism. He even drew support from the like-minded wing of the Republican Party, called the "Mugwumps", largely bolted the GOP presidential ticket and swung to his support in the 1884 election. He was not a great supporter of civil rights for African-Americans and towed his party's line when it came to seeing Reconstruction as a failed experiment.

Clevend came into office as the second bachelor to be elected President. That changed amid some controversy. In 1885 the daughter of Cleveland's friend Oscar Folsom visited him in Washington. Frances Folsom had been a student at Wells College and Cleveland received her mother's permission to correspond with her while Frances was a teenager. On June 2, 1886, Cleveland married Frances Folsom in the Blue Room at the White House. This marriage was unusual, since Cleveland was the executor of Oscar Folsom's estate and had supervised Frances's upbringing after her father's death. At 21 years, Frances Folsom Cleveland was the youngest First Lady in history. Her husband was 51.

In his bid for re-election in 1888, Cleveland won the popular vote but lost the electoral vote, largely due to the issue of protectionism for many of the norther states, something he opposed and his opponent supporter. Undaunted, he ran for president once again in 1892 and was successful after the nation once again soured on high tariffs and their inflationary effect. As his second administration began, the Panic of 1893 struck, producing a severe national depression, which Cleveland was unable to reverse. It ruined his Democratic Party, opening the way for a Republican landslide in 1894, and for a loss of control of the Democratic Party for his conservative wing. The agrarian and silverite factions gained control of the party in 1896. Cleveland was now on the outside looking in.

As President, Cleveland drew criticism for his intervention in the Pullman Strike of 1894. This angered labor unions nationwide. His support of the gold standard and opposition to Free Silver alienated the agrarian wing of the Democratic Party. Critics complained that Cleveland did little to tackle the nation's economic depression. Throughout all of this however, his reputation for honesty and good character seemed to survive. Biographer Allan Nevins wrote, that Cleveland "possessed honesty, courage, firmness, independence, and common sense. But he possessed them to a degree other men do not." By the end of his second term, public perception showed him to be one of the most unpopular U.S. presidents, and he was by then rejected even by most Democrats. Cleveland's health had been declining for several years, and in the autumn of 1907 he became seriously ill. In 1908, he suffered a heart attack and died on June 24 at age 71. His last words were, "I have tried so hard to do right." He is buried in the Princeton Cemetery of the Nassau Presbyterian Church.

In his first term in office, Cleveland bought a farmhouse in a rural upland part of the District of Columbia, in 1886, and remodeled it into a Queen Anne style summer estate. He sold Oak View upon losing his bid for re-election in 1888. Not long thereafter, suburban residential development reached the area, which came to be known as Oak View, and then Cleveland Heights, and eventually Cleveland Park. Grover Cleveland Hall at Buffalo State College in Buffalo, New York are also named after him. Cleveland Hall houses the offices of the college president, vice presidents, and other administrative functions and student services. Grover Cleveland Middle School in his birthplace, Caldwell, New Jersey, was named for him, as is Grover Cleveland High School in Buffalo, New York, and the town of Cleveland, Mississippi. Mount Cleveland, a volcano in Alaska, is also named after him.

Cleveland's portrait was on the U.S. $1000 bill of series 1928 and series 1934. He also appeared on the first few issues of the $20 Federal Reserve Notes from 1914. Since he was both the 22nd and 24th president, he was featured on two separate dollar coins released in 2012 as part of the Presidential $1 Coin Act of 2005.

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Cleveland is considered by most historians to have been a successful leader, generally ranked among the upper-mid tier of American presidents. In an averaging of recent rankings Cleveland ranks 20th among all presidents. He has ranked as high as 8th in a 1948 ranking done by historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., while in more recent rankings he has finished 23rd (in the C-Span 2017 survey and the Siena 2018 ranking) or 24th (in the 2018 APSA ranking.) In keeping with a recent trend in the ranking of presidents, those who have placed a higher value on civil rights have gone up in the rankings, while those, like Cleveland, who did not see this as important have gone down.

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