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 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.