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Benjamin Harrison in Brief

“Surely I do not misinterpret the spirit of the occasion when I assume that the whole body of the people covenant with me and with each other today to support and defend the Constitution and the Union of the States…”

These words are drawn from the second paragraph of Benjamin Harrison’s Inaugural Address.  The year was 1889, the one-hundredth anniversary of the Presidency under the U.S. Constitution.  Harrison was a Republican, but similar sentiments could just as well have been uttered by Democrat Grover Cleveland had he won the last election.  The Democrats and Republicans may have disagreed on the tariff, but everyone was ready to celebrate the Constitution.

President Harrison came from a long line of public servants.  His father had been a Congressman.  His grandfather had been President in 1841.  His great-grandfather and namesake had been a signer of the Declaration of Independence.  This legacy, along with his service as a brigadier general in the Union Army, made him an attractive candidate in 1888.  Unfortunately, by 1890 Solicitor General and future President William Howard Taft lamented: “The President is not popular with the members of either house.  His manner of treating them is not at all fortunate, and when they have an interview with him they generally come away mad.”

Ike Hoover, who served in the White House in various capacities for forty-two years, characterized Harrison as follows.  “The President was, judging from everyday observation, a very indifferent and distant person.  He was never unkind, but always appeared to be satisfied with himself and willing to be let alone.”

Fortunately, Harrison had a very competent Secretary of State, someone who had held the office once before and who was hoping to enhance the nation’s standing in the world.

We’ll Be Back

The Tenure of Office Act was finally repealed in 1887. In 1926 the Supreme Court declared a similar law to be unconstitutional and referenced the Tenure of Office Act as invalid.

Although President Grover Cleveland’s position on the independence of the executive has been vindicated by history, this did little to help him in his bid for re-election in 1888.  He had broken with the Mugwump Republicans who thought him too slow with civil service reform.  He had angered the Tammany Hall Democrats who thought him too slow to replace Republican government workers with Democrats who had been promised political rewards.

In 1884 Cleveland had defeated a popular but tainted Republican for the Presidency.  In 1888, despite gaining more popular votes than in 1884, and despite having more popular votes than his new opponent, Cleveland lost in the Electoral College.

His opponent was an honest fellow who had been a Union General, but this was not a big factor in Cleveland’s defeat.  What mattered was that Cleveland lost his home state of New York.   

In his fourth annual message to the Congress, given the month after the election, Cleveland wrote: “When the experiment of our Government was undertaken, the chart adopted for our guidance was the Constitution. Departure from the lines there laid down is failure. It is only by a strict adherence to the direction they indicate and by restraint within the limitations they fix that we can furnish proof to the world of the fitness of the American people for self-government.”

The President took his defeat in stride, but the First Lady was still upset that her husband had been insufficiently appreciated.  As they left the Executive Mansion, she told the staff to take good care of the Executive Mansion in preparation for the Clevelands’ return in four years.

Reason Enough to Resist

The sole purpose of the Tenure of Office Act was to frustrate Administration policy.  When President Andrew Johnson violated it, he was impeached and nearly removed from office.

The law was altered but not repealed during Grant’s Presidency.  The revised version was still in effect when Cleveland became President in 1885.

An issue arose when Cleveland replaced the District Attorney for the Southern District of Alabama.  After some back-and-forth, the Senate adopted the following resolution on January 25, 1886: “Resolved, That the Attorney-General of the United States be, and hereby is, directed to transmit to the Senate copies of all documents and papers that have been filed in the Department of Justice since the 1st day of January, AD 1885, in relation to the conduct of the office of District Attorney of the United States for the Southern District of Alabama.”

Writing almost thirty years after the incident, President Cleveland gave his opinion of this resolution:  “…there might have been an intent on the part of the Senate to claim that the heads of departments, who are members of the President’s Cabinet and his trusted associates and advisers, owed greater obedience to the Senate than to their executive in affairs which he and they regarded as exclusively executive functions.”

Even though “there might have been an intent,” that was reason enough for Cleveland to resist.  President Cleveland was always careful to follow, defend, and uphold the U.S. Constitution.  He wasn’t going to allow Congress to violate the Constitutional mandate for separation of powers. 

Joy and Grief Observed

Grover Cleveland was a bachelor at his inauguration.  Before the midterm elections the 49-year-old President married the 21-year-old daughter of his late law partner.  Their marriage was a happy one, and the new First Lady was accepted, respected, and even loved by Washington society.

President and Mrs. Cleveland would eventually have five children: one born during Cleveland’s temporary retirement, two during his second term, and two after his final retirement from the Presidency.  The fifth child, Francis Grover Cleveland, was given the male version of his mother’s name.  He lived into the 1990’s.  Three of his older siblings lived into the 1970’s and 80’s. 

Francis’s arrival once again brought joy to the Cleveland household, but six months after his birth his oldest sister died.  Ruth was only twelve.  At her birth, the press had doted on her and referred to her as “Baby Ruth.”  This designation enabled the Curtiss Candy Company to claim their candy bar of the same name honored her and not baseball star Babe Ruth.  However, the timeline for the Baby Ruth candy bar’s heyday aligns better with that of the baseball player’s career than with the brief life of the Cleveland’s eldest child.

When Ruth Cleveland died, her father was obviously grief stricken.  His Christian faith was severely tested.  He wrote in his diary: “I had a season of great trouble in keeping out of my mind the idea that Ruth was in the cold, cheerless grave instead of the arms of her Saviour.”  After a few days he was able to say: “God has come to my help and I am able to adjust my thought to dear Ruth’s death with as much comfort as selfish humanity will permit.”

Conviction, Courage, and Respect

“I found him a robust, manly man, one having the courage to act upon his convictions, and to bear with equanimity the reproaches of those who differed from him…  He never failed while I held office under him, to invite myself and wife to his grand receptions, and we never failed to attend them…  We were in politics separated from each other by a space ocean wide.  I had done all I could to defeat his election and to elect Mr. James G. Blaine, but this made no apparent difference to Mr. Cleveland.  He found me in office when he came into the Presidency, and he was too noble to refuse me the recognition that my official position gave me the right to claim.”

This was the testimony of the Recorder of Deeds for the District of Columbia. 

“This manly defiance, by a Democratic President, of a malignant and time-honored prejudice, won my respect for the courage of Mr. Cleveland…  Though this conduct drew upon him fierce and bitter reproaches from members of his own party in the South, he never faltered or flinched…”

Why would Southern Democrats, people from the President’s own party, be critical of his guest list?  Because the Recorder of Deeds for the District of Columbia was a former slave.

“…he never faltered or flinched, and continued to invite Mrs. Douglass and myself to his receptions during all the time that I was in office under his administration, and often wrote the invitations with his own hand.”

Such is the testimony of former slave Frederick Douglass regarding the character of President Grover Cleveland.

The Incidental and the Intentional

In every Presidency there are things that happen no matter who is President. 

Grover Cleveland just happened to be President when Presidents Grant and Arthur died.  He just happened to be President when the Statue of Liberty was dedicated.  He just happened to be President during some of the last “Indian” wars.

In every Presidency there are things that happen because someone is President.  Lincoln freed the slaves.  Andrew Johnson hindered meaningful Reconstruction of the Confederate states.  Grant destroyed the Ku Klux Klan of his day and upheld the civil rights of the former slaves. 

In Grover Cleveland’s case, he caused many things not to happen.  During his first month in office Cleveland overturned President Arthur’s gold reserve policy.  He also withdrew from the Senate’s consideration a treaty with the Dominican Republic and Spain.  He stopped the U.S. Senate from ratifying a treaty with Nicaragua that would have led to the building of an interoceanic canal.

On April 2, 1885, less than one month since his inauguration, President Cleveland withdrew from the Senate’s consideration the Treaty of Friendship, Commerce, and Navigation between the U.S. and Argentina.  On April 17, less than two months since former President Arthur’s executive order opened some Dakota Territory Indian Reservations to the public domain, Cleveland reversed the policy.  In July he gave notice to cattlemen in the Southwest who were encroaching on that region’s Indian Reservations.

In his first nonconsecutive term Grover Cleveland was the 22nd President.  His predecessors who served in that office from April 1789 until March 1885 had vetoed a total of 206 bills.  In the four years between March 4, 1885 and March 4, 1889 Cleveland vetoed more than twice that amount: a total of 414 bills!  Grover Cleveland was not afraid to say, “No.” 

Easier Said Than Done

In Grover Cleveland’s first inaugural address, he spoke the following words regarding the issue that got him elected.

“The people demand reform in the administration of the Government and the application of business principles to public affairs.  As a means to this end, civil-service reform should be in good faith enforced.  Our citizens have the right to protection from the incompetency of public employees who hold their places solely as the reward of partisan service, and from the corrupting influence of those who promise and the vicious methods of those who expect such rewards; and those who worthily seek public employment have the right to insist that merit and competency shall be recognized instead of party subserviency or the surrender of honest political belief.”

Because his intentions were good, President Cleveland spoke truthfully.  He sincerely hoped to put these words into action, but that was easier said than done.

Republican Carl Schurz, who had supported Democrat Cleveland’s election, confronted the new President on the slow pace of reform.  He wrote to the President saying, “Your attempt to please both reformers and spoilsmen has failed.  I warned you more than once that your principal danger was to sit down between two chairs.”  Cleveland was insulted and broke his alliance with the Mugwump faction of the Republican Party.

Why had Schurz been so direct with Cleveland?  According to Cleveland’s most famous and usually favorable biographer, Cleveland’s progress on civil service reform was “uneven and somewhat fumbling.”[1] 

President Cleveland got off to a slow start, but he learned from his mistakes and pressed on.


[1] P. 249 of 832 in the 1962 edition of Allan Nevins’s Grover Cleveland: A Study in Courage

How the Democrats Fared

After dinner on Sunday April 16, 1876 Congressman James Garfield and three associates discussed the upcoming Presidential election.  Only one of the four correctly predicted that Rutherford Hayes would be the Republican nominee.  Hayes then went on to become the 19th President.

When the discussion turned to the Democratic candidates, there were four different opinions.  One thought General Hancock would be the nominee, but Hancock would not get the nomination until 1880.  He would then lose to Garfield.

Garfield thought David Davis, the former Republican who had been Lincoln’s personal attorney would be nominated by the Democrats.  Although Davis would play a historic role which affected the outcome of the 1876 election, he was not the Democratic nominee.

One of the dinner guests thought Thomas Hendricks would be the Democratic nominee.  Hendricks instead became the Democratic nominee for Vice President.  Despite having a very popular New York governor at the top of the ticket, the Democrats lost in 1876.  Eight years later Hendricks would again be nominated for Vice President.  Again the ticket would be headed by a popular New York governor.  This time the Democrats would win, but Vice President Hendricks would die unexpectedly due to natural causes long before completing his term.  President Cleveland would be without a Vice President for more than three years.

The remaining dinner guest on April 16, 1876 opined that Thomas Bayard would be the Democratic nominee that year.  Bayard sought the nomination that year, and in 1880, and in 1884, each time without success.  In 1885 President Cleveland appointed him Secretary of State.

A No Nonsense President

In 1864, 1868, and 1872 the Republican Presidential candidates won by huge margins.  Today these Presidents appear on U.S. currency.  

In 1876 the Republican candidate was maneuvered into office by Republican operators.  In 1880 the Republican candidate won by a narrow margin.  He served less than four months, was shot by an assassin, and lingered for eighty days.  His Vice President then served out his term but failed to receive his party’s nomination.  These Presidents are scarcely known to people in the 21st century.

In 1884 the Republicans nominated someone who had been nicknamed the “Magnetic Man.”  Although he was despised by fellow Republican Roscoe Conkling, most of the people who knew him personally genuinely liked him.  Unfortunately for him, after 1876 many no longer trusted him.  Candidate James Blaine was a vigorous campaigner and a great stump speaker, but the people rejected him for a hard-working and scrupulously honest Democrat lawyer.

Grover Cleveland was unknown to most people until just two years before his election as President.  That’s when he was elected Governor of New York.  Shortly before that he had served briefly as Mayor of Buffalo.  Ten years earlier he did a two-year stint as Sheriff of Erie County.  In each of these offices he distinguished himself as a problem-solving executive who did not shrink from unpleasant duty.

As Sheriff he oversaw public executions.  Although he did not relish the thought of taking a man’s life, he hated even more to assign such a task to a subordinate.  It was Cleveland himself who sprang the trap door of the gallows.  Fortunately, he only had to do this twice.

Why Neither Became President

A Congressman making a presentation is rudely interrupted before he can state all his points.  On another occasion that same Congressman expresses appreciation for accolades he has just received at a public event, but then someone corrects his characterization of these accolades.  In both cases the interrupter is James Blaine, and the victim is his fellow Congressman Roscoe Conkling.

When Conkling presented tables to show how different wordings of the newly proposed 14th Amendment would affect the populace of various states, Blaine interrupted him and presented a different set of tables.  Blaine eventually had a lasting influence on the wording of the 14th Amendment, and Conkling did not.

At a formal dinner someone alluded to Utica, New York native Conkling in poetry –

            “No pent-up Utica contracts our powers,

            But the whole boundless continent is ours.”

Conkling acknowledged the tribute by remarking that these lines came from Joseph Addison’s play Cato.  He was embarrassed and angered when Blaine informed everyone the lines came from Jonathan Sewell’s poem entitled Epilogue to Cato.

When Conkling wagered a basket of champagne, he was further embarrassed when he had to pay up.  He was obviously angry, because he did not attend the party Blaine threw in order to consume the champagne.

A politician from that era made the following comments regarding this intraparty rivalry:

“Their debates were historic, and prevented each of them from ever occupying the Presidential chair.  Conkling was the more dignified and commanding, but Blaine was more aggravating and personal.”[1]


[1] These are the sentiments of Senator William M. Stewart of Nevada, found on p. 206 of his Reminiscences, and quoted by David M. Jordan on pp. 68-69 in his biography of Roscoe Conkling.