grover cleveland the forgotten president -- 1/23/23

Today's selection -- from A Man of Iron by Troy Senik. Two-term president Grover Cleveland, who dominated the Democratic Party in the late 1800s, is not well-remembered today:
"There is no monument to Grover Cleveland in Washington -- though he was, improbably, one of seventeen presidents selected for inclu­sion in a National Garden of American Heroes proposed by Donald Trump (plans for which were subsequently canceled by Joe Biden).

"There is no Grover Cleveland Museum, though an effort to that end­ which would have appropriated a vacant library in Buffalo -- was briefly undertaken in 2007. The only vestiges of Cleveland in the city he called home for over twenty-five years are a statue in front of Buffalo's City Hall ( where it shares real estate with a likeness of the city's other presi­dent, Millard Fillmore) and an inconspicuous plaque marking the spot once occupied by his law offices.

Statue of Grover Cleveland outside City Hall in Buffalo, New York

"There is no Cleveland estate that beckons visitors in the fashion of a Mount Vernon or Monticello. Most of the homes Cleveland lived in have long since been torn down. Gray Gables was converted into a hotel, which burned down in 1973; a private home inspired by Cleveland's was later built on the site. The 'Westland' home in Princeton is in pri­vate hands, as is the 'Intermont' property in New Hampshire. Apart from his grave, the only site that exists for those wishing to pay homage to the nation's twenty-second and twenty-fourth president is the modest Caldwell, New Jersey, home where Grover Cleveland was born in 1837. It is hardly a tourist mecca. A representative local headline from 2019 read 'That House You Drove by Across from Dunkin' Donuts? A Pres­ident Was Born There.'

"Grover Cleveland's lack of notoriety is, as an objective matter, in­explicable. Of the forty-five men who've served as president of the United States, Cleveland is one of only fourteen to have served eight full years; nearly all the rest are household names. He is one of only three presidents -- Andrew Jackson and Franklin Roosevelt are the others -- to win the popular vote three times. And he is, of course, the only president in American history to serve two nonconsecutive terms.

"The Cleveland years did not lack for drama and the president him­self did not lack for personality. All of the ingredients for a meaningful legacy are present. While there is no good case for Grover Cleveland to be on Mount Rushmore, there is likewise no good reason that he should be entirely absent from Americans' historical memory. Surely there is room for him in the ranks of presidents we regard as distinctive and sig­nificant even if they don't rise to the transcendent greatness of a Wash­ington or a Lincoln.

"That was certainly the verdict of many of his contemporaries. Mark Twain, a man not known for flattering politicians, declared Cleveland 'the greatest and purest American citizen' and 'a very great president, a man who not only properly appreciated the dignity of his high office but added to its dignity.' In a commemoration of what would have been Cleveland's seventy-second birthday, the new president, William How­ard Taft, said of his predecessor:
'He was a great president, not because he was a great lawyer, not because he was a brilliant orator, not because he was a states­man of profound learning, but because he was a patriot with the highest sense of public duty; because he was a statesman of clear perceptions, of the utmost courage of his convictions, and of great plainness of speech; because he was a man of the highest character, a father and husband of the best type, and because throughout his political life he showed those rugged virtues of the public servant and citizen …'
"Taft was not the only member of the presidential fraternity whose admiration Cleveland earned. He elicited praise from Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, the latter of whom described him as ‘the sort of president the makers of the Constitution had vaguely in mind: more than partisan; with an independent executive will of his own; hardly a colleague of the Houses so much as an individual servant of the country; exercising his powers like a chief magistrate rather than like a party leader.'
"The praise wasn’t limited to former presidents. So ubiquitous was the sense of his importance in the generations after his death that in Arthur Schlesinger’s 1948 poll of historians, Grover Cleveland was ranked the eighth greatest president of all time, just behind Theodore Roosevelt and just ahead of John Adams. When America’s modern currency was designed in the 1920s, Cleveland was considered such a significant figure that Treasury Department staff suggested him for the $20 bill. (The then secretary Andrew Mellon instead placed him on the $1,000 bill, which had originally been intended for Andrew Jackson. The more valuable currency was mainly used for bank transfers and was discontinued in 1969.)

"Why did Grover Cleveland recede into relative anonymity? To some degree, it wasn’t personal. The psychologist Henry L. Roediger II, who regularly tests how many presidents Americans can recall, has demonstrated that most of the men who helm the executive branch fade from memory in a fashion as predictable as it is quick. There are only three categories of presidents that Americans reliably remember: the first few, the most recent, and Abraham Lincoln. "



Troy Senik


A Man of Iron: The Turbulent Life and Improbable Presidency of Grover Cleveland


Threshold Editions


Copyright 2022 by Troy Senik


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