Grover Cleveland often gets categorized as a president of trivial significance. Trivial as in trivia. He is known as the only president to serve two nonconsecutive terms, the only president to get married inside the White House, and a president who underwent a secret and potentially life-saving surgery on a yacht. He was also the first elected Democratic president of the post-Abraham Lincoln era.
Troy Senik, in his biography “A Man of Iron: The Turbulent Life and Improbable Presidency of Grover Cleveland,” breaks down the very unlikely political path of the Gilded Age president and how, oxymoronically, virtue led him to the White House—twice.
Senik presents a man who possessed an unbending sense of integrity. The author demonstrates how Cleveland’s character was formed and cast at an early age. It is difficult to say how much Cleveland believed in those virtues as a youth, but what cannot be contended is how he held on to them as he matured.
Though the author discusses Cleveland’s younger years, this biography is primarily about his political career. He was ushered into politics not out of personal desire or necessity, but out of necessity from his own party. The New York Democrats needed a man who was or, at least, appeared above reproach. For all intents and purposes, Cleveland was not made for politics. With his immovable stances on right and wrong, he seemed more cut out for the clergy. And perhaps that’s why he proved practically indispensable for a political party trying to maneuver back to the ultimate seat of power.
Cleveland was a Democrat, and yet he wasn’t. He stood on specific principles that he believed benefited citizens rather than politicians, even when those principles proved counter to his party’s wishes. Senik demonstrates how, during the earliest part of his political career as sheriff of Erie County, he could not be bribed by fellow party members, regardless of their request or their position. As Senik notes rather succinctly: “He was in a party, but never of it.”
Integrity as Political Detriment?
It is difficult to conceive anyone of the modern era rising through the political ranks who possessed such unwavering integrity. But the politics of the late 19th century, especially in New York, were just as corrupt as you would find today. There were political bosses, such as those of Tammany Hall; and corporate cronies, like railroad magnate Jay Gould, who pushed, prodded, and propounded their own agendas.
To acquiesce to political pressure would undoubtedly benefit the politician hoping to rise through the ranks. Cleveland, however, seemed rather careless with the bosses and magnates, so much so that one could call him naive, or at least politically aloof.
This aloofness can hardly be summed up better than Senik’s example of a legislative attempt to lower fares on New York City’s elevated railway system. Lowering the rates would have obviously benefited the average commuter and placed the aforementioned Gould at a loss financially. The bill had been passed nearly unanimously in the Statehouse, but as governor of New York, Cleveland believed the bill unconstitutional for “impairing the obligation of contracts.” He vetoed the popular bill and made his case so clearly that not only was the bill abandoned, but Cleveland was also praised by the press for the decision.
It is just one of many examples that Senik provides of Cleveland’s disinterest in the political game. There are also examples of his interest in both helping his fellow citizens and upholding the standards of the Constitution.
When Cleveland is elected to the highest office, his iron integrity does not diminish; if anything, it is strengthened. He practically viewed his political placement as a sentencing, noting to his friend Shan Bissell: “I look upon the four years next to come as a dreadful self-inflicted penance for the good of the country. I can see no pleasure in it and no satisfaction, only a hope that I may be of service to my people.”
He became a political hawk for obvious corruption as well as potential corruption. During his first term he vetoed twice as many bills as all of the presidents before him combined, and many of those vetoes concerned private pensions for military veterans. Cleveland tirelessly examined these bills, even at the cost of surveying other political matters, in order to ensure pensions weren’t provided unjustly. He was concerned that haphazardly providing pensions “invites applications without merit and encourages those who, for gain, urge honest men to become dishonest.”
Not Without Enemies
Even a man of great integrity is not without enemies. Often it is integrity that unleashes enemies. Senik digs into and clarifies (thankfully) the subjects of Cleveland’s relationship with his future wife Frances Folsom and the allegation that he, during his younger years, impregnated Mary Halpin, abandoned the child, and ordered Halpin to be institutionalized.
The Halpin scandal did not prove politically successful for the accusers, which included a rabid Republican minister. Nor did it prove to be much more than slander. But the accusations stung Cleveland to his core. He would later note that he hated the city of Buffalo—where he had once been mayor and where the accusations originated―for the politicians’, citizens’, and press’s lack of support in denouncing Halpin’s accusations.
Silver, Strikes, and Surgery
Senik dives into the details of Cleveland’s efforts during his two terms to stave off an economic depression, and his fight against the Free Silver Movement, of which William Jennings Bryan became the face. There were strikes, including the Pullman Strike, that required his involvement. Along with these issues were the demands to decrease Chinese immigration, the highly controversial issue of annexing Hawaii, and his secret surgery to remove a malignant mass on the roof of his mouth.
The author gives an honest presentation of Cleveland’s handling of all these issues, even questioning the motives or naiveté behind decisions. Before and after Cleveland arrived in office, the executive power ebbed and flowed from progressive to laissez-faire attitudes. In possibly no era was this more obvious than that which came immediately after him, from McKinley to Roosevelt.
His integrity was the deciding factor in his approach to social and political issues, and one can render a verdict that he was a naive president, a stubborn president, or as Senik points out in his afterword, a president who made his decisions based on his constitutional understanding and moral beliefs.
An Important Biography
“A Man of Iron” is an important biography for several reasons. It places Cleveland in a position to be viewed as he truly was―not as a politician but as a man. He was never a politician first; it could be argued that he was not a politician at all (in the vulgar sense of the word).
His arrival at the White House only 20 years after the Civil War is proof that the virtuous man can succeed in the midst of political polarization and retain that virtue. His election and reelection (he also won the popular vote in the 1888 election) is proof that people desire virtue (even if merely perceived virtue) from their leaders.
Senik’s writing moves quickly. He provides great insight into Cleveland. This biography is a worthy reminder of Cleveland’s greatness and goodness, and of what a politician can be if he holds the line to what is right and wrong. Readers love the story of a good man, even more so when the good man triumphs―doubly so when he triumphs twice.
‘A Man of Iron: The Turbulent Life and Improbable Presidency of Grover Cleveland’
By Troy Senik
Threshold Editions, Sept. 20, 2022
Hardcover: 384 pages