“Whatever you do, tell the truth.” Grover Cleveland
If tabloids existed back in the 19th century, Grover Cleveland would have made all the covers. Cleveland was known for his honesty and even quickly rose through the ranks of politics because of his impeccable reputation. Yet, he fathered an illegitimate child and secretly dated and then married a college girl who was nearly 30 years his junior. To top it off, he also had a secret surgery aboard a yacht (though Americans wouldn’t learn that until decades later) during his second term.
Speaking of that second term, Grover Cleveland, our president of the week, also became our only president to serve two-non-consecutive terms. Yep, he was both our 22nd and 24th president.
Grover Cleveland’s Background and Rise in Politics
Stephen Grover Cleveland was born in Caldwell, New Jersey on March 18, 1837. He was the son of a Presbyterian minister who died when Cleveland was 16. After his father’s death, Cleveland was forced to drop out of school to help support his family. A few years later, he clerked at a law firm, passed the bar, and joined the Democratic Party.
He quickly became known as “Grover the Good” for his devotion to cleaning up government corruptions. Because of his honest reputation, Grover Cleveland’s rise to the presidency was as quick as they come. In a span of less than four years, he had been elected the Mayor of Buffalo (1881), the Governor of New York (1882), and then nominated to the presidency (1884).
He was just the man the Democrats were looking for in 1884. He was the opposite of the Republican nominee, former Secretary of State James Blaine, who had been around the political arena for far too long. Americans were sick of Washington insiders (sound familiar?). Cleveland became their nominee after just the second ballot (it had taken 35 ballots to elect James Garfield a few years earlier).
One Dirty Presidential Campaign
The 1884 presidential campaign had mud flying at both candidates. The Republicans were proud to expose the fact that “Grover the Good” had an illegitimate child. To their surprise, however, Cleveland readily admitted as much and even confessed that he had been paying child support (though more recent evidence shows it might have been more scandalous than that).
Although this type of news was super scandalous in those days, it totally backfired on the Republicans. The fact that Cleveland didn’t try and hide his “dirt” made Americans like him even more.
Grover Cleveland’s Presidential Facts
Grover Cleveland was a big guy. At just under six feet tall, he weighed a whopping 300 lbs and is one of our nation’s largest presidents. He’s not quite the largest though–William Howard Taft topped him at 350 lbs!
Cleveland’s 1884 win was important to the Democratic Party. Until his victory, Democrats had lost six consecutive elections–the longest losing streak for any major party in our country’s history. Grover Cleveland became the first Democrat elected since the Civil War.
The History Channel’s documentary on Grover Cleveland described his executive office style as not being “proactive.” They claimed Cleveland saw his job as not to implement new programs but simply to keep bad things from happening. The way he did this was by veto which he used as often as possible.
In his first term alone, he vetoed over 400 bills–more than all the previous presidents combined.
He was a saint, at least in his own eyes, for stopping the bills from passing:
“I ought to have a monument over me when I die . . . not for anything I have ever done, but for the foolishness I have put a stop to.”
First Term (1885-1889)
In 1887, Cleveland vetoed a bill that would have given $10,000 to Texan farmers struggling during a drought. It’s not that Cleveland was heartless. His thinking was that “the friendliness and charity of our countrymen can always be relied upon to relieve their fellow-citizens in misfortune.” Americans came through and proved Cleveland right, providing the farmers with more than enough aid to get by.
Grover Cleveland also helped modernize the U.S. Navy. Many of the ships he commissioned were still being used during WWI.
“Though the people support the Government, the Government should not support the people.”
Why Cleveland lost his re-election for a second consecutive term
Though Cleveland was a fairly popular president, many Americans thought he was out of touch. He had vetoed a bill giving pensions to Civil War veterans. Some felt he was in the dark on issues supporting vets and it didn’t help matters that he hadn’t served in the war himself.
Benjamin Harrison, the Republican candidate for the 1888 campaign, on the other hand, was a Civil War vet and took a special interest in those who had served. This cost Cleveland the veteran’s vote, along with business opposition to his tariff policies.
Historians say the election was similar to the 2000 election (Bush v. Gore). When it came down to it, Cleveland won the popular vote, by more than 100,000 votes, but Harrison won the Electoral vote.
The First Lady predicted something no one else did though. Upon leaving the White House, she instructed the staff to take good care of the place because they’d be back!
Second Term (1893-1897)
During the next Democratic convention, Grover Cleveland was nominated on the first ballot. In the election, he beat Benjamin Harrison by more than 400,000 votes this time.
Unfortunately, Grover Cleveland’s second term may not have been the redemption he was hoping for. Just as he was re-entering the White House, the country was sideswiped by a serious economic depression known as the Panic of 1893. It wasn’t pretty. Unemployment rates skyrocketed, hundreds of banks closed, thousands of businesses went under, farms were being foreclosed and factories and mills were being shut down left and right.
The depression lasted his entire second term and was made worse by the dwindling gold supply in the Treasury. Cleveland’s solutions to solve the problem only divided the Democratic party who chose to nominate William Jennings Bryan in 1896 instead of Cleveland.
That Secret Surgery Aboard the Yacht
Grover Cleveland noticed a rough spot on the roof of his mouth just as his second term began. He ignored it. A few months later, it had grown substantially and he realized it was a big deal. Doctors diagnosed it as the same type of oral cancer that killed Ulysses S. Grant just a few years earlier.
So, what happened next? The doctors took a secret oath, boarded Cleveland on a wealthy friend’s yacht, and told the public he was going on a little vacation. Why did it need to be kept a secret? It was all in the name of politics, really. The country was going through a huge depression and the word “cancer” in those days had a major stigma attached to it. He thought with the fragile state of the country, the state of his health would be even more unsettling.
So on July 1, 1893, Cleveland boarded the yacht, docked in Long Island Sound, that had been converted into a mini-surgical center. The medical team consisted of nine surgeons and a dentist. During the hour and a half long nighttime surgery, over a quarter of Cleveland’s upper palate was removed.
With the removal of that much of his mouth, Cleveland’s speech was obviously impaired. So, a dental implant was quickly made and Cleveland was still able to make a major speech to Congress a few weeks later. Doctors today are amazed that doctors of the 19th century were not only able to pull this surgery off, but that Cleveland survived it.
Covering up the Lies
The White House covered up the story for years. When a journalist came forward claiming he had a source that proved a surgery was performed, the White House only admitted that yes, he had some dental work done, but that everything else the journalist claimed was bologna. The journalists reputation was tarnished but the White House kept to its story.
Even the ever truthful Grover Cleveland kept mum on the truth until the day he died. It wasn’t until 1917, nearly a decade after his death, that the truth finally came out.
The First Lady
Francis “Frank” Folsom. Some historians/journalists claim Francis Folsom was our nation’s first celebrity First Lady. Her identity was kept a secret until the week before her wedding to the president. It was the first and only wedding to ever take place at the White House and Folsom was only 21–our youngest First Lady in history.
She literally had known Grover Cleveland her entire life. Cleveland and her father had been law partners. Cleveland even bought her first stroller and baby sat her when she was young (yes, it sounds terrible). Her own father was reckless and irresponsible and died from “reckless” driving when she was 11. Cleveland had the opposite personality and became her hero. When asked why he had never married, Cleveland was said to have responded “I’m waiting for my bride to grow up.”
A Wedding at the White House
Cleveland paid for Folsom’s college and sent her flowers. He proposed before she graduated and the two married June 2, 1886 in the White House. If paparazzi had been a thing in those days, they would have been all over this wedding!
Americans went wild for their new First Lady, literally showering her with gifts everywhere she went. They copied everything she wore, totally worshiped her, and even made D.C. a huge tourist attraction by traveling there just to get sightings of her. They liked her even more when they realized what a people person she was. She held two receptions every week, making sure one was always on a Saturday afternoon so that women who worked during the week could attend.
“Frank” was also an animal lover. She filled their home (their main residence was a home in Georgetown Heights) with animals of every kind, including foxes, a fawn and quail. When foreign diplomats realized her love of strange animals, they sent exotic creatures from all over the world to her. Ironically, one of the last bills Cleveland signed into law was the funding for the National Zoo.
The Clevelands had five children and the country was crazy for them as well. Their firstborn, born in the White House, was a girl named Ruth who Americans called “Baby Ruth.” It’s said the candy bar was named for her (sadly, she died when she was 12 of one of the many illnesses of the time).
Thomas Hendricks and Adelai Stevenson (his grandson was also Adelai Stevenson, the 1952 and 1956 Democratic presidential nominee).
Why Grover Cleveland Is Cool
Sure, he lied about his surgery, but he had Americans best interest at heart. That goes totally against the nature of many politicians today who will lie to many a journalist’s face to cover up a scandal.
He entered the White House a bachelor, but left a married man and father of two (well, technically three if you count his first child).
Cleveland was also said to be super self-reliant. He answered his own telephone and even the door at the White House. Cleveland also wrote all his own speeches and studied the legislative issues of the day (as opposed to having an aide do it for him). Politicians these days can’t walk to the bathroom without an aide at their side, so Cleveland’s self-reliant nature is nothing short of amazing.
Is it ever okay not to tell the truth? Why do you think Grover Cleveland, someone with a reputation for being honest, felt he had to lie? What circumstances made him want to cover up the truth? What would you have done?
After the Clevelands left the White House, the settled in Princeton, New Jersey and became part of the university community there. Though it’s now privately owned, you can still see their home today.
The President Is a Sick Man, by Matthew Algeo is the most recent book to be published about Grover Cleveland. So far, I’ve only read excerpts from it. But it’s a fascinating illustration on the circumstances leading up to Cleveland’s surgery and the aftermath of it.
Also, my new favorite resource for learning about our presidents is the Washington Post podcast “Presidential.” Check it out if you want a fun escape into history!
Former White House and Capitol Hill staffer, wife, and mom.