It had been twenty years since a Democrat last occupied the White House. Grover Cleveland ran on a platform of integrity and reform. Would his vision be popular enough for the Democrats to win two presidential elections in a row?
The Last Four Years
This was the first presidential regime change since the Pendleton Act made Civil Service Reform official. For the most part, President Cleveland stayed true to his campaign promise and adhered to a merit-based system for government appointments. He committed to not firing sitting officials just for being Republicans. But when Democrats started complaining, Cleveland let a little Patronage slide. Republicans noticed this and brought back a trick they had used on Andrew Johnson, the Tenure of Office Act. This rule dictated that the president needed approval from the Senate before he could fire certain government workers. After Lincoln’s assassination, Radical Republicans used the act to bait Johnson and, ultimately, as justification for his impeachment. This time, the Democrats were able to fight back and the act was repealed in 1887 (it was retroactively ruled unconstitutional in 1926).
Cleveland proved to be a true economic conservative (known as a Bourbon Democrat), harkening back to the roots of the Democratic Party. This was particularly evident in his generous use of the veto. With 414 bills killed, Cleveland had more vetoes than any other president in a single term. The most noteworthy resulted from his aversion to government spending. Many of the bills involved pensions for Civil War veterans, including one to cover disabilities not caused by the war. This made him enemies with the Grand Army of the Republic, a large veterans organization. Cleveland was also ruthlessly frugal towards farmers, as evidenced by his veto of the Texas Seed Bill, meant to provide relief to Texan farmers struggling with a drought. Cleveland wrote, “…I do not believe that the power and duty of the general government ought to be extended to the relief of individual suffering which is in no manner properly related to the public service or benefit.” Similarly, as a Gold Standard advocate, Cleveland wasn’t doing himself any favors with farmers. They wanted to increase the amount of silver and Greenbacks in circulation because it made it easier for them to pay their debts. Cleveland and his Secretary of Treasury favored the stability of gold. Both factions introduced bills to sway the country their way, but both failed and the status quo was preserved.
Other than his vetoes, Cleveland’s most controversial economic stance was on the tariff, which had been high since the Civil War. Republicans preferred a high tariff because it protected domestic manufacturers in the North. In a message to Congress in December 1887, Cleveland called for tariff reform. He felt it was morally unjust for the government to collect more money than it needed to operate. Though a bill to reduce the tariff was defeated, Cleveland continued to press the issue.
When he wasn’t busy reigning-in government spending, President Cleveland was courting his soon-to-be wife, Francis Folsom! Though he started his term as a bachelor, Cleveland married Francis on June 2, 1886. He was the second president to wed while in office (John Tyler was the first), and the only person to get married at the White House. Unfortunately, by today’s standards (and honestly probably the standards at the time, too) their marriage was pretty problematic. Francis was the daughter of Cleveland’s close friend, Oscar, who had died years earlier. Cleveland had been instrumental in her upbringing. He was 49 and Francis was 21 on their wedding day. So… not great.
Statue of Liberty Pause!
President Cleveland presided over the Statue of Liberty’s dedication on October 28, 1886. Likely inspired by the end of slavery in the United States, the statue had been a passion project of French political thinker Édouard René de Laboulaye and sculptor Frédéric Bartholdi. In 1871, Bartholdi traveled to the US to promote the project. He fixated on Bedloe’s Island for it’s location (now Liberty Island), which, conveniently, was already owned by the federal government. Bartholdi combined traditional Nineteenth-Century images of the personified Americas (Columbia) and Liberty (Libertas) for the design. Its pose was originally conceived for a similar statue of a peasant holding a torch at the entrance of the Suez Canal, which, in turn, was inspired by the Colossus of Rhodes. Notable builder Gustave Eiffel helped Bartholdi build the internal construction. As the United States’ centennial neared, supporters started collecting funds. The French funded the statue, and the US funded the pedestal. Pieces of the statue were shipped across the Atlantic individually and reconstructed. The dedication ceremony began with a parade through New York City. When the route passed the Stock Exchange, traders threw scrap paper known as ticker tape from the windows, beginning the tradition of a Ticker-Tape Parade. A procession of boats took officials to Liberty Island for speeches and the unveiling of the statue’s face from underneath a French flag.
Thanks to Cleveland’s anti-protectionist speech, the tariff was the biggest issue going into the election. Republicans saw this as a perfect opportunity to excite their manufacturing-minded base.
Party Watch & The Candidates
Despite his shaky relationship with veterans and farmers, the Democratic Party was still firmly behind Grover Cleveland for re-nomination. He was the party’s first incumbent candidate since Martin Van Buren in 1840. Sadly, Cleveland’s vice president, Thomas Hendricks, died while in office and was not replaced. His new running mate was Allen G. Thurman, a popular, but aging, ohio senator. This pick attracted the old, establishment Democratic vote.
Before the Republican convention, it seemed like their previous nominee, James Blaine, was favored to return for a rematch. But Blaine feared further dividing the party, due to the Mugwumps who had switched sides four years ago. He chose not to seek the nomination and instead endorsed Senators Benjamin Harrison and John Sherman, of Indiana and ohio respectively. On the eighth ballot, Harrison secured the win. Though he was not a well-known politician by his own right, he had name recognition as the grandson of America’s 9th president, William Henry Harrison! His connection to Indiana, a swing state, also gave him an advantage over Sherman. Harrison was a tariff protectionist and a Civil War veteran, making him the ideal candidate to take on Cleveland. For vice president, the Republican Party picked Levi Morton, a New York businessman and the former Minister to France. Morton was a Stalwart who had originally been considered for James Garfield’s ticket, before Chester Arthur.
In third party news, the Prohibition Party had the largest support. Next was the Union Labor Party, a united ticket for smaller, labor-focused organizations. The Equal Rights Party nominated Belva Lockwood again. The Greenbacks, sadly, did not have enough attendees at their convention to select a nominee and the party disbanded.
As he had in 1884, President Cleveland preferred to focus on his job instead of wasting time campaigning. He also forbade his cabinet members from campaigning on his behalf. This left his 75-year-old running mate, Allen Thurman, alone on the stump. Thurman did his best, but his age prevented him from drawing the excitement one would expect at a campaign rally. At one point, he even collapsed on stage! Since he was a reformer, Cleveland also didn’t get any help from Tammany Hall, the notoriously corrupt Democratic headquarters in New York City.
For their part, the Republicans were much more organized. They also had a lot more money to work with, thanks to their big-business donors. Borrowing from Garfield’s playbook, Harrison ran a front-porch campaign, where the public was invited to his home in Indiana to hear his speeches.
The Republicans tied Cleveland’s anti-tariff position to the extremist views of free trade, which was favored by Britain. Although the United States now had a relatively good relationship with Britain, this was an easy way to enrage Irish-Catholic voters, who had strong negative views of the crown. Cleveland attempted to prove his patriotism by defending US fishing rights against Canada, but the Republicans had some dirty tricks up their sleeves. Pretending to be a British-American under the pseudonym Charles F. Murchison, a Republican supporter wrote to Cleveland’s British ambassador, asking who he should support in the election. As expected, the ambassador replied that Cleveland would be the best for British interests. Republicans printed and distributed the “Murchison Letter” to prove to Irish immigrants that they should think twice before supporting Cleveland again.
In another unsavory plot, the prosecutor of Democratic election fraud in Indiana, a vital swing-state, decided to use fraud for his own gain. He instructed county chairmen to divide up men who were willing to sell their votes, known as Floaters, into blocks of five, making it easier to ensure that they would all vote Republican. This order was intercepted by the Democrats and made public. Though it didn’t help them win Indiana election, the ensuing outcry led to the popularization of “secret ballots.”
The Solid South remained blue once again. Of the manufacturing states, Cleveland won New Jersey and Connecticut. The election was close in the typically pro-tariff Midwestern states and California, but Harrison eked out wins there. Harrison also won Cleveland’s home state of New York, a big haul of 36 electoral votes.
Benjamin Harrison joined his grandfather as America’s 23rd president! They are the only grandfather/grandson duo in presidential history. Harrison won the electoral college 233-168, BUT he lost the popular vote by around 100,000 votes. This was the third time that the election winner did not receive the most votes, and the second time in twelve years.
After a four-year break, a Midwestern, bearded, Republican, Civil War veteran would again live in the White House.
What Did It Say About America?
1888 was another close election. Democrats must have been pretty frustrated to lose win the popular vote but lose the electoral college AGAIN. But, despite the Solid South, the Republicans simply had better campaign resources. It was clear that the Democratic Party would be recovering from the Civil War for a long time to come.
Was It The Right Decision?
Yeah, I’d say so. The tariff was the most divisive issue, but it was Cleveland’s overzealous use of the veto that really set him apart from other presidents. It’s pretty clear to me that he was out of line in that regard. Ignoring some unfair tactics by the Republicans overall, Harrison was a fairly honest guy himself and would prove to be a precursor of progressivism. But Grover Cleveland wasn’t giving up so easily. The story goes, on their way out of the White House, Francis Cleveland told the staff to expect their return in four years.