Grover Cleveland was the 22nd and 24th president. He is the only man elected to two non-consecutive terms. As a result, historians count him twice in the presidential numbering. Additionally, he is the only Democrat elected to the White House between 1860 and 1912. Cleveland’s electoral success derived from his politics. Grover Cleveland was a conservative pro-business Democrat from New York. As a result, his positions insulated him from secession’s stain, which doomed every other Democrat of the period.
When South Carolina seceded from the Union, it set the country on course for war. Since the Democrats controlled the South, the party inevitably received blame for the bloodshed. The Republicans “waved the bloody shirt” for nearly a half century after the war’s end labeling the Democrats the party of treason. The Civil War helped define both parties for generations. Beginning with Lincoln’s two election victories, the Republicans defeated the Democrats in 11 of 13 elections.
The Democrats won the popular vote three times between 1860 and 1912. In 1876, Samuel Tilden outpolled Rutherford B. Hayes, but lost the White House in a backroom deal. Eight years later, Grover Cleveland defeated James G. Blaine in a bitterly fought contest. Republicans accused Cleveland of fathering a child out-of-wedlock. Democrats accused Blaine of corruption and taking bribes. The voters chose the lesser of two evils and Cleveland edged Blaine 48.5% to 48.2% in the popular vote and 219-182 in the Electoral College.
Cleveland was the only Democrat during the Gilded Age immunized from the bloody shirt campaign. First, Blaine’s corruption undercut the Republicans and bolstered Cleveland. Second, the sex scandal proved juicier and trumped the Civil War issue. Third, Cleveland’s time in the New York’s governor mansion, where he worked with people like Republican Theodore Roosevelt, demonstrated his competence and pragmatism. Lastly, Cleveland was a Bourbon Democrat. This wing of the Democratic Party advocated pro-business policies, opposed inflation, high tariffs, free silver, and government overspending. In other words, he was neither a crazy progressive nor a Southern fire-eater.
President Cleveland proved an able administrator. He signed the Interstate Commerce Act, upgraded the navy, investigated railroad corruption, and worked to keep spending under control. The most contentious issues of the period centered on economic policies. Cleveland supported the gold standard over a gold and silver standard fearing inflation. He also supported a tariff for “revenue only” as opposed to a high tariff to protect industry or pad the budget surplus. Overall, Cleveland did a good job as president and deserved a second term.
A majority of voters supported Cleveland’s re-election. He outpolled Benjamin Harrison by less than 100,000 votes, but lost the Electoral College 233-168. The president lost his home state by 14,373 votes. The tariff provided the Republicans a wedge issue that motivated a large protectionist turnout. After his defeat, Cleveland returned to private life.
Four years later, Cleveland returned for a rematch against Harrison. The incumbent was not very popular, but experienced immense sympathy because his wife was dying of tuberculosis. Both sides campaigned in a courteous fashion. Additionally, the voters shifted to the Democratic side on the tariff after the Republicans dramatically increased it. In the end, Cleveland won his home state and the election.
Cleveland’s second term turned into a nightmare almost immediately. A panic struck in 1893 leading to a great depression. Silver coinage and the high McKinley Tariff initiated under Harrison collapsed the economy. Cleveland called Congress into session and worked to undo the damage, but it was too late. The depression lasted four years leading to major labor unrest. Cleveland sided against workers and with business interests. This continued the policies of his predecessors. Until Theodore Roosevelt assumed a neutral stance in labor relations, the government generally sided with business over labor.
After a trying second term, which witnessed a depression and a cancer scare, Cleveland stood down. The Democratic Party disavowed the Bourbon wing and nominated radical William Jennings Bryan for the White House. The Republicans nominated William McKinley from Ohio. The Ohioan won the election easily. Voters and big business alike feared Bryan’s radical platform. The Democratic nominee had to deal with the depression as well. Voters blamed the Democrats for the economy even though its roots laid in the Harrison Administration. Almost immediately after McKinley took office, the depression ended. Cleveland went into retirement and died in 1908.
Grover Cleveland was a solid president. He initiated reforms and provided a steady hand on the economy. However, the tariff issue and election issues in New York cost him re-election. Cleveland returned in 1892 to win back the White House. After four tumultuous years accentuated with an economic collapse, he retired. Cleveland remains the only man to serve two non-consecutive terms in office.