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The First Grover Cleveland Administration: 1885-1889

The First Grover Cleveland Administration: 1885-1889

Early Political Career

In 1884, Grover Cleveland was the first Democrat to be elected president since the Civil War. He was also the second, elected again in 1892 after the White House had returned to Republican rule for four years in the 1888 election. Cleveland is generally considered one of the more important presidents between Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt. Although Cleveland often indulged in negativity, part of his perceived success was in his firmness in not allowing the government to do harmful things to the country.

Grover Cleveland emerged from humble origins in New Jersey and New York. An uncle paid for him to study law, and Cleveland passed the bar exam at the age of twenty-two. Cleveland became active in politics as a Democrat, having been elected country sheriff, and mayor of Buffalo. In 1882, Cleveland used his popularity and reputation as an honest man to successfully run for state governor. During the next two years, he continued to use his authority to fight against corruption and waste. Governor Cleveland used his power to take on the New York City-based political machinery known as Tammany Hall, even though this group had supported him in the election. A big man of 280 pounds, Cleveland, was affectionately nicknamed “Big Steve” and even “Uncle Jumbo.” In 1884, Cleveland was nominated to be the Democrat Party's candidate for the presidency.

The Election of 1884

In the election of 1884, Cleveland appealed to middle class voters of both parties as someone who would fight political corruption and big-money interests. Cleveland had the popularity to carry New York, a state crucial to Democratic victory. Luckily, Cleveland's Republican opponent, James G. Blaine, was seen by many as a puppet of Wall Street and the powerful railroads. The morally upright Mugwumps, a group of reform-minded businessmen and professionals, hated Blaine, but supported Cleveland for his attempts to battle railroad giant Jay Gould. Ever since 1868, presidential candidates had relied on a strong Civil War resume to help win popular approval.

The election of 1884 marked a departure from this, as both Cleveland and Republican candidate James G. Blaine has taken advantage of a provision in the draft law that allowed for the hiring of a substitute. But Cleveland had a sex-scandal to live down. Maria Halpin accused Cleveland of fathering her son out of wedlock, a charge that he admitted might be accurate, since he had had an affair with Halpin in 1874. Cleveland admitted to paying child support in 1874 to Halpin, but she was involved with several men at the time, including Cleveland's law partner and mentor, Oscar Folsom, for whom the child was named. (Cleveland may not have been the father and is believed to have assumed responsibility because he was the only bachelor among them.) By honestly confronting the charges, Cleveland retained the loyalty of his supporters, winning the election by the narrowest of margins. After Cleveland's election as President, Democratic newspapers added a line to the chant used against Cleveland during the campaign and made it: “Ma, Ma, where's my Pa? Gone to the White House! Ha Ha!” 1885 inaugural address.


After his first two years in office as a bachelor president, Cleveland announced his marriage to his twenty-two-year-old ward, Francis Folsom, the daughter of his former law partner. The press had a field day satirizing the relationship between the old bachelor and the recent Wells graduate, who quickly became the most popular first lady since Dolly Madison. Frances adhered to the prevailing ideal that separated the private lives of women from the public lives of men. Respecting the wishes of her husband, she never used her popularity to advance the political causes of her day, such as social reform and women's suffrage.


Grover Cleveland believed strongly in a limited government. He was especially against the government providing paid to citizens in need for fear that such aid would weaken the national character. As he said at the time that he vetoed a bill that would have provided relief for drought-stricken farmer, “the lesson should be constantly enforced that though the people should support the government, the government should not support the people.”

Issue: Labor

This attitude extended to Cleveland's stand on key labor issues of the time. Cleveland's two terms encompassed several of the more infamous events in labor history. There was the 1886 general strike when workers demanded an eight-hour workday that resulted in the brutal Haymarket Riot in Chicago, followed a few years labor in the Pullman strike of 1894, when Cleveland used federal troops to end a train boycott organized by Eugene V. Debs.

Issue: The Economy

At the end of 1887, Cleveland called for a reduction in tariffs, arguing that high tariffs were contrary to the American ideal of fairness. Cleveland would later campaign on this issue for reelection in 1888. His opponents argued that high tariffs protected US businesses from foreign competition and Cleveland lost that election. Cleveland would be back again in 1892 for another four years. In 1888, when Cleveland ran for reelection, the Republicans spent lavish funds to insure victory for their candidate, Benjamin Harrison, raising three million dollars from the nation's manufacturers. This marked the beginning of a new era in campaign financing. Again, New York was the deciding factor, and Harrison carried the day.

In 1892, however, after four years of Republican leadership, Cleveland won against Harrison, who had alienated ethnic voters in the Midwest, possibly due to his support for temperance. Cleveland became the only president to come back from defeat and be reelected after losing the office.