Torn between two lives

Biography | The public success and private failings of Grover Cleveland, Part 1
by Marvin Olasky
Posted 4/06/19, 11:07 am

Editor’s note: Marvin Olasky continues his monthly biographical series on key individuals from late 19th and early 20th century American history. In February and March, we looked at the life of John D. Rockefeller. This month we present Part 1 on the life of Grover Cleveland.

We rightly complain about Washington corruption now, but in the 1870s and 1880s, Mark Twain fricasseed the nation’s capital in The Gilded Age, and British observer James Bryce generalized that American politicians simply thought of high office “as a means of gain.” Reporters joked about Congressman “Pig-Iron” Kelley of Pennsylvania, who combined high tariff agitation with sexual prowling: “When he goes into society he backs women into corners and asks them their opinion of the duty on steel rails.”

Washington itself was growing. Sanitation improved, as open sewers and swamps were covered over and drained. Workmen put the finishing touches on the long-languishing Washington Monument. Capped off at 555 feet in 1884 and opened to the public in 1888, it was the tallest structure in the world, beating out the spire of the Cologne Cathedral by 43 feet.

By the 1880s, bathrooms in the Capitol actually had bathtubs, and an average of 50 congressmen each day bathed in nine tubs, some made of marble. Yet many journalists concluded they could not wash off the dirt that was a feature of political hog-trading run rampant.

Reporter Frank Carpenter wrote about thinly veiled ads in the Washington Star that suggested immorality in the houses just off the District’s broad avenues: “Wanted—By two sisters, two large unfurnished rooms, where no questions will be asked.” “Personal—A widow lady desires a gentleman to assist her financially.” “Wanted—Room for gentleman in home of a discreet young widow, where he can enjoy all the comforts of a home.” Carpenter and others yearned for a throwback president, a second George Washington, who could fight for both private and public virtue.

Ironically, the man who brought a sense of honor back into the national government, Grover Cleveland, knew from his own past about sexual arrangements such as those advertised in the Star, and the importance of avoiding them. Cleveland in many ways was not what he appeared to be. When citizens met him—280 pounds with brown hair, blue eyes, and a drooping brown mustache—they saw a slow-moving, bulky body and did not expect aggressiveness on the job. But Cleveland as mayor, governor, and then president typically worked every day except Sunday from 9 a.m. to 1 or 2 a.m. (with time out only for ample meals) and was willing to make tough decisions every hour of the day. As president, he skipped Washington socializing and mothballed the Dispatch, the presidential yacht.

Cleveland had practiced being out of the swing of things while serving his apprenticeships as mayor of Buffalo and governor of New York. In Buffalo, because he stood against raids on the public treasury, he gained the nickname “Veto Mayor.” In Washington, opponents called him the “Veto President.” Cleveland’s political enemies taught their children to sing,

A fat man once sat in a President’s chair, singing Ve-to, Ve-to, Ve-to.
With never a thought of trouble or care, singing Ve-to, Ve-to.

But if what Cleveland did during his six busy workdays did not trouble him, it was because on the seventh he worshipped at the First Presbyterian Church.

Such worship was crucial for Cleveland. He did not worship the doting grandfather god that was beginning to dominate some aspects of American Christendom. He also did not bow to the subjective self-selected god peeking out from the pages of theological tomes devoted to “higher criticism.” He worshipped the God of Scripture, saying, “The Bible is good enough for me, just the old book under which I was brought up. I do not want notes, or criticism, or explanations about authorship or origin.”

Cleveland believed in a Lord who proclaimed objective truth and challenged men to do their duty.

Cleveland believed in a Lord who proclaimed objective truth and challenged men to do their duty. He emphasized duty frequently in both his public pronouncements and private letters during the 1880s and 1890s: “We have not permitted duty to country to wait upon expediency. … I am sure I never was more completely in the right path of duty than I am now.” After leaving office in 1897, he wrote of his “consciousness of duty well and faithfully performed. Popular applause is, of course, gratifying; but there are times when a man’s own satisfaction with his conduct is a better criterion of real merit.”

That sensibility dominated Cleveland’s public policy work. His friend Richard Gilder explained that “the ‘preacher blood’ of the President has told in him more and more as his public and private responsibilities have increased.” Personal setbacks pushed Cleveland forward to an even greater sense of obligation. In 1893, when he fought off cancer by having his left upper jaw removed, Cleveland wrote to Thomas Bayard, ambassador to England, “I see in a new light the necessity of doing my allotted work in the full apprehension of the coming night.”

Choosing between the two ways

Cleveland was born on March 18, 1837, to a devout mother and a minister father. He later summarized his childhood years in central New York State, near Syracuse, by writing, “I was reared and taught in the strictest school of Presbyterianism.” Family devotions, Sunday school, and three church meetings on Sunday made up part of that strict school.

Young Cleveland studied the Westminster Shorter Catechism and found some of the memorization difficult, but as president he told reporters that he could recite it from beginning to end. He wryly commented, “those are not apt to be the worst citizens who were early taught, ‘what is the chief end of man?’” (The catechism answer is, “To glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.”)

Cleveland credited the “precious precepts and examples of my early days” for “every faculty of usefulness I possess, and every just apprehension of the duties and obligations of life.” As a teen he began taking a lively interest in political and ethical questions. Cleveland planned to go to college, but when he was 16 his father died and he needed to work to obtain money for himself and his family. In 1853 and 1854, Cleveland was an assistant teacher at the Institution for the Blind in New York City. Fanny Crosby, the blind writer of hymns such as “To God Be the Glory,” was another assistant. The job was hard but the location good for a young man exploring low-rent taverns (no proof of age necessary in those days) and torn between street life and higher callings.

Library of Congress Library of Congress Henry Ward Beecher sometime between 1855 and 1865

The tension was such that a sermon he heard from famed preacher Henry Ward Beecher at Beecher’s Plymouth Church in Brooklyn stayed with him for more than half a century. Beecher, Cleveland remembered much later, compared two men, “One laden like a beast of burden with avaricious plans and sordid expectations, and the other with a light step and cheerful determination, seeking the way of duty and usefulness and striving for the reward of those who love and serve God, and labor for humanity.”

It was the old story of immediate gratification versus long-term satisfaction, but Beecher observed the burdens carried by those on the path of the avaricious and sordid, compared to the “light step” of those striving for God’s reward. Cleveland, trained for godly usefulness but titillated by the sordid, said, “I have never for a moment lost the impression made upon me by the vivid contrast thrillingly painted in words that burned between the two careers, nor have I ever failed to realize the meaning of the solace in death of the one and the racking disappointments in life and despair in death of the other.”

Tired of big city poverty, Cleveland planned to head west. He stopped off in Buffalo to see an uncle, who persuaded Cleveland to stay and helped him get a job as a law office clerk. Cleveland began studying and in 1858 was admitted to the bar. He gained a reputation for working late over lawbooks and performing reliably in court, but he also became known for going out later to drink and sometimes fornicate. Cleveland did not marry until 1886, when he was 49. During his 20s and 30s it seemed that, in a sense, he was trying to combine the two lives of which Beecher had spoken. That was an experiment that would both propel and come back to haunt his political career.

Friends made in both parts of his life helped Cleveland gain election as sheriff of Erie County in 1870. The good salary the job brought evidently attracted Cleveland to it, but there was a downside: The sheriff also had to serve as hangman. After one drunkard, Patrick Morrissey, was convicted of driving a bread knife into his mother’s breast, Cleveland in 1872 had no trouble pressing the lever that sprang the trap and left Morrissey dangling.

A case in 1873, with saloonkeeper Jack Gaffney sentenced to die for killing a friend in a dispute over cards, bothered Cleveland more, since the hanging would leave behind a widow and young children. Some said Gaffney was insane and should not be hanged, so Cleveland obtained a stay of execution from the governor and impaneled a jury to examine Gaffney’s claim. But when the jury decided that Gaffney indeed was sane, Cleveland again did his duty.

Cleveland quietly practiced law during the late 1870s, but his reputation for honest diligence at work pushed him to the fore in 1881 when Buffalo’s Democratic Party leaders were looking for a clean successor to a scandal-ridden mayor. Elected to office, Cleveland vetoed a board of aldermen’s agreement with a street-cleaning company that included ample payoffs to the aldermen themselves. Cleveland called it “the culmination of a most bare-faced, impudent, and shameless scheme to betray the interests of the people, and to worse than squander the public money.”

Cleveland’s willingness to resist demands for government handouts made his name known throughout New York State.

Cleveland also vetoed city donations to the Firemen’s Benevolent Fund and to a veterans organization, then personally made a donation to the latter. Cleveland’s willingness to resist demands for government handouts made his name known throughout New York State. When Democratic leaders in 1882 looked for a gubernatorial candidate to run against Republican corruption, they tapped Cleveland.

Once elected, he vetoed attempts by localities to get the legislature to use state money for local projects. American government, he believed, should remain decentralized. His most famous veto was of a popular 5-cent fare bill that reduced the cost of riding on New York City’s new elevated railroads, in part because railroad investors had risked their money in an unproved endeavor and deserved their profits. He also argued that since the state had entered into a contract that allowed the railroad to charge 10 cents per ride, it was bound to abide by it: “The State should not only be strictly just, but scrupulously fair.” Cleveland sent out his veto message and went to bed thinking his political career was over, but the next day press and public saw him as a profile in courage.

Cornell University Collection of Political Americana, Cornell University Library Cornell University Collection of Political Americana, Cornell University Library An advertising card promoting White Sewing Machines and the 1884 U.S. presidential election

“Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa?”

Then came 1884, and the decision by Republican Party leaders to nominate for president James G. Blaine, who was corrupt enough for the New York Times, Republican-leaning in those days, to call him “a prostitutor of public trust, a scheming jobber, and a reckless falsifier.” The evidence for Blaine’s most blatant offense—when speaker of the house 15 years before, he had received payoffs for aiding the Little Rock and Fort Smith Railroad—included letters he had written to a railroad executive, one of which had the postscript “Burn this letter.” Democrats countered with a governor admired for honesty, Grover Cleveland.

Cleveland’s nomination came on July 11, with crowds chanting, “Blaine, Blaine, monumental [or continental] liar from the State of Maine.” Some pro-Cleveland marchers pulled out pieces of paper and set them on fire, yelling, “Burn this letter.” But Democratic leaders felt burned on July 21, when tales from Cleveland’s nightlife of the previous decade displayed the fallibility of “Grover the Good.”

The story was this: Cleveland in 1874 had sexual relations with a widow, Maria Malpin, who became pregnant. Since she had slept with others, Cleveland’s paternity was not certain, but he gave the child his last name and monetary support. Maria, financially whole but emotionally troubled, became an alcoholic and suffered a mental breakdown. Cleveland arranged for her institutional care and his son’s adoption by a western New York couple.

Today, such efforts would mitigate the scandal and even negate it for many reporters. Then, Buffalo Baptist minister George Ball, who had uncovered the story, argued that voters would have to choose “between the brothel and the family, between indecency and decency, between lust and law.” C.W. Winchester, a Buffalo Methodist minister, preached a sermon about “Absalom the Fast Young Man,” with Absalom just happening to weigh about 280 pounds and possessing a drooping brown mustache.

Cleveland’s defenders acknowledged the fornication but said it was long past. They noted that Cleveland had never invited a woman “in any way bad” to the governor’s mansion. Republican crowds countered by chanting, “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa? Gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha.” Minister Henry Ward Beecher bemoaned the frequency of fornication but told one reporter that if every New York voter who had committed adultery would vote Democratic, Cleveland would win the state in a landslide.

The election in many ways came down to lesser-of-evil discussions: Which was worse, fornication or financial corruption?

The election in many ways came down to lesser-of-evil discussions: Which was worse, fornication or financial corruption? The 1884 campaign was the first since 1828—when John Quincy Adams was charged with pimping and Andrew Jackson with wife-stealing—in which talk of sex played a large role. Republicans tried to equate Cleveland’s earlier history of tavern tippling and fornication with moral looseness among Democrats generally. Republicans in Protestant areas also stressed the tendency of urban Catholics to join with Southerners in voting Democratic. Discussions of denominational voting patterns and alcohol-­prompted illicit sex came together in a famous Republican banquet attack on “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion.”

Democrats successfully made their own connections. They said Blaine’s bribe-taking was consistent with his desire to grow the federal government. Cleveland called the Republicans merely “a vast army of office-holders” who displayed “impatience of constitutional limitations of Federal power.” He said Republicans wanted “to extend the scope of Federal legislation into the domain of State and local jurisdiction.

The election was a cliff-hanger, but voters narrowly chose Cleveland over Blaine, sexual sin confessed over theft debated.

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD and dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has also been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books: His latest is Abortion at the Crossroads. Marvin resides with his wife, Susan, in Austin, Texas. Follow him on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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  • JerryM
    Posted: Sun, 04/07/2019 08:01 am

    Fascinating, particularly in light of recent history and current events.

  • womanoffaith
    Posted: Sun, 04/07/2019 01:36 pm

    History gives a much better perception of our politics today.  Some people are saying that we should vote all Democrats out of office.  That would be trading one group of firmly ensconced politicians for another.  Regardless of party affiliation, mankind is still all about self and sinful and the longer a politician is in office, the more prone to self-aggrandizement he/she becomes making him/her vulnerable to bribe.  Looking for a candidate with a pristine background is useless.  If there wasn't any sin in his/her background, the opposition would make something up.

  • Cyborg3's picture
    Posted: Wed, 04/10/2019 11:15 pm

    As I have said before, there is a clear distinction today between a Republican and a Democrat. The Republicans vote against abortion while the Democrats vote for abortion and some even advocate for abortion after birth! They push a radical  multiculturalism that is racist at heart where the Democrat candidates are pushing for reparations for blacks. Democrats are pushing for hate crimes that could likely take away our religious liberties where if we don’t toe the line for their radical agenda we will be called “haters”. They are pushing transgenderism which is lunacy at heart.  They are pushing open borders which will dilute our Christian heritage out of existence- the goal of Soros and other radical backers. The goal is to give these hordes the right to vote so the Democrats have absolute victory. So no! I don’t buy the line that it doesn’t make a difference if you have a Republican or Democrat in power! Vote Republican!

  • Bob R
    Posted: Sun, 04/07/2019 05:05 pm

    It seems to me that we were given a disturbingly similar choice during the last presidential election; the blatant corruption of the Democrat candidate, and a history of moral failure by the Republican contender.  My perception at the time was that World took a rather obvious “Never Trump” position.  I wonder how they would have responded to the Blaine / Cleveland choice?

  • Steve Shive
    Posted: Tue, 04/09/2019 06:04 am

    Thanks for this historical piece. It doesn't take long to look back and see how we, humans, have not changed. We don't have to look very hard or very long before we are again brought face to face with our base selfish ignominious roots. This is true of pretty much any political party, any culture, any time, and any geography.