The Reading Room
Grover Cleveland was born in New Jersey. Early in his life his family moved to New York. The death of his father prevented him from going to college after completing his primary education.
Instead, he went to work to help support the family. He eventually moved to Buffalo, New York. There he was able to secure a position as a law clerk in a local firm. That position afforded him the opportunity to study the law and eventually to be admitted to the bar in the state of New York. He began his political career in Buffalo during the Civil War as an assistant district attorney.
Later, he became the district attorney and was elected sheriff of Erie county where Buffalo is located. In 1881, he was elected mayor of Buffalo. The following year, in a landslide victory, he was elected governor of the state of New York. His political star was clearly on the rise at this point in his life. In 1884, the Democratic Party nominated him to run for the United States presidency. While the Republicans had dominated the position since the days of Lincoln, numerous factions developed in that party during that election cycle and Cleveland won the election. He was nominated again in 1888, but failed to win the election that year. Nevertheless, he became the Democratic nominee again in 1892, and did win a second term in office that year making him the only president to serve two nonconsecutive terms .
Cleveland aligned himself with the Democratic Party because of his belief that Republican support for subsidizing businesses and imposing protectionist tariffs were harmful policies. He was cut out of the mold of Thomas Jefferson. Cleveland was known as honest, hard-working, above partisan politics, and highly principled. This was no doubt owed to his strong Christian upbringing.
In his opposition to protectionist tariffs he was quoted as saying, “Our present tariff laws, the vicious, inequitable, and illogical source of unnecessary taxation, ought to be at once revised and amended. These laws . . . impose a burden upon those who consume domestic products as well as those who consume imported articles, and thus create a tax upon all our people.” He argued that even if certain domestic workers benefited from them, they were also harmed by them in terms of the prices of products generally speaking. Since everyone is a consumer, such tariffs effectively tax all citizens.
Beyond these political positions, Cleveland was also well aware of the increasing threat of socialism and Marxism. To keep the radicals out of the country he vetoed a bill that would require immigrants to pass a literacy test. In his veto he recognized the prospect of the entrance of bad actors. As he put the matter, it would be “infinitely more safe to admit a hundred thousand immigrants who though unable to read and write, seek among us only a home and opportunity to work, than to admit one of those unruly agitators and enemies who can not only read and write but promote violence and discontent.”
It is perhaps most correct to say that Cleveland was the last true constitutional president. The rising tide of progressivism in the country gained power over the course of the next few years after his second term. With the election of Woodrow Wilson in 1912, the progressive movement was firmly established in Washington and both major political parties adopted a viewpoint that individual rights could be set aside for the so-called common good.