This essay is a reprint from from a book entitled "Niagara Land: the First 200 Years," which in turn was a reprint of a series of essays published in "Sunday, the Courier Express Magazine" to celebrate the 1976 American Revolution Bicentennial.
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Grover Cleveland - LINKS

Grover Cleveland -- Buffalo's 'Honest Politician' Goes to Washington
by Milton Plesur

IN THE GILDED AGE, approximately the 30 years after the Civil War, American politics was marked by scandal, damaged reputations, and party vacillation on key issues. Many of the politicians in this dreary time were either incompetent, self-serving or certainly not of high leadership quality. The one exception was Grover Cleveland, President from 1885-1889 and 1893-1897, who was the sole reasonable facsimile of the major leader.

Born in New Jersey in 1837, Grover Cleveland moved with his family to central New York in 1841 and by the 1850's, young Cleveland settled in Buffalo. His uncle, Lewis F. Allen, gave him work and eventually after self-study and a clerkship with a local legal firm, he was admitted to the bar in 1859. A tireless worker for the Democratic Party, Cleveland was elected supervisor for the Second Ward, but it was as an assistant district attorney that he gained visibility.

Cleveland entered into several partnerships in the law and proved himself to be a diligent, journeyman-type attorney, if not an exciting one. The bachelor lawyer ate, drank, and participated in the conviviality of a bustling Buffalo in its many taverns. Cleveland was most content fishing and hunting in the waters or off the shores of Grand Island; or consuming a heavy German meal washed down with one of Buffalo's famous brews.

By 1870, Buffalo was a lively lake and canal port and its lower Main Street was well known as the Barbary Coast of the East. As Sheriff of Erie County, Cleveland helped cleanse the area and the city's reputation and brought a novel, refreshing honesty to the Sheriff's Department. Unfortunately. however, the growing Queen City was in the control of a political cabal and corruption abounded. Taxes were exorbitant and the public did not receive commensurate services. Cleveland ran for mayor in 1881 on a reform ticket and, after election, gained notoriety for his vetoes and for his many battles with the seedy politicians in the Common Council. His most famous crusades involved exposure of a street cleaning scandal, his veto of a sewage bill, and his fight for the appointment of a non-political, honest Board of Sewer Commissioners.

As Sheriff of Erie County, Cleveland helped cleanse the area and the city's reputation and brought a novel, refreshing honesty to the Sheriff's Department.

CLEVELAND'S REPUTATION for honesty in Buffalo was not lost on the State's Democratic leadership and an electorate which, disgusted with scandal and corruption, sent him to Albany in 1882. As Governor, he became famous for such innovations as personally examining every legislative action, for naming experienced professionals to office, and for vetoing such Tammany (The New York political organization) ó sponsored bills as a lower fare on New York City's elevated railroads and an act that would have provided political plums in the Buffalo Fire Department.

By 1884, Cleveland's reputation was clearly national and his party nominated him for the Presidency to run against the most popular Republican of the day, James G. Blaine. Horrendous tales of scandals in the careers of both candidates were spread; Blaine was accused of political corruption and Cleveland with fathering an illegitimate child. Evidently, the electorate preferred a person with an honest public record and possible questionable private behavior to one who was privately respectable but whose public life was suspect.

As President, Grover Cleveland exhibited a rare degree of courage, honesty, and concern for the public welfare. His place in history as a "near great" president in two separate polls was based on his strength of character, courage, dignity, and gallant fight for the reduction of an inordinately high tariff. Contrary to his advisers, he devoted his 1887 annual message to this latter subject, committing political suicide in the election of 1888, although he won a popular majority. Incidentally, it was Cleveland and not Franklin Roosevelt who won three successive popular majorities at the polls.

CLEVELAND'S OTHER REFORMS included the reinvigoration of governmental departments and miscellaneous administrative innovations and the maintenance of the financial integrity of the nation -- the Gold Standard -- against the speculative western and majority of his party who were interested in a silver standard. During his tenure, the government also retrieved over 80 million acres of the public domain in the west, challenging the predatory private interests that were gobbling up these lands. Although Theodore Roosevelt is credited with instituting the modern conservation movement, it essentially began under Cleveland.

Cleveland also signed into law the Dawes Act, liberalizing treatment of Indians and the Interstate Commerce Act, the first law to regulate a business growing at the expense of the people. However, it should be noted that he did not digress from the prevailing laissez-faire policy.

Incidentally, it was Cleveland and not Franklin Roosevelt who won three successive popular majorities at the polls

While in office, Cleveland fought an ongoing battle with elements of his own party interested in assigning offices as political favors. Instead, he supported the Pendleton Act adding thousands of offices to the Civil Service rolls. His administration was also marked by many unpopular vetoes, such as those calling for a halt to undeserving veteran raids upon the Treasury. All in all, there were over 300 vetoes in his first term compared to 132 in the 96 preceding years.

IN FOREIGN POLICY, Cleveland showed a tough sense of conscience and moderation, stubbornly resisting the jingoistic tide of imperialism, refusing to accede to popular demands for annexing Hawaii in 1893. He also invoked the Monroe Doctrine in the Venezuela affair two years later, using it to protect a weak nation from a stronger oneóGreat Britain. Though it is questionable that Britain retreated because of the Doctrine, Cleveland did infuse it with a kind of moral interpretation.

Undoubtedly owing to the fact that he had offended high tariff interests, Tammany politicos and bonus-hungry veterans, Cleveland was retired to the life of a New York City corporation lawyer in 1889. Here he refused to be submerged in the anonymity of Gotham.

During his tenure, the government also retrieved over 80 million acres of the public domain in the west

After his second election victory, four years later, he became increasingly out-of touch with the Southern and Western rank-and-file of his party. Contacts with Wall Street bankers, his support of repealing the Sherman Silver Purchase Act and the use of troops in breaking the Pullman strike caused farmers and laborers to desert him; industrial strife, financial panic, and agrarian distress plagued his second administration.

Cleveland felt that the President should do all he could to assure the national welfare but without trespassing on the legislative-judicial prerogatives. He was the true Whig, believing that the President should confine himself to the execution of laws. In a sense, he represented a third type of Chief Executive, a cross between the strong and weak. He would not pursue social adventures, but if security or order was in jeopardy, then he would act.

CLEVELAND WAS A HARD-HEADED, virtuous watchdog or caretaker of a president but his conception of the office was largely a negative one. He prevented bad things from occurring and did not make good things happen. He was too conservative to be a great and constructive statesman, and he really never grasped the social and economic changes of the era. His focus was decidedly limited, not being too sympathetic with farm and labor protests during the Depression of the 1890's. While little interested in bringing the branches of government into an efficient unit, Cleveland made a lasting impact upon the office, restoring the initiative and power of the White House which had been surrendered by Andrew Johnson during the Reconstruction period.

Milton Plesur is a Professor of History ot the State University of New York at Buffalo.

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