Grover Cleveland (1885 – 1889): The 22nd Retrospective
“Whatcha got ain’t nothin new. This country’s hard on people, you can’t stop what’s coming, it ain’t all waiting on you. That’s vanity.” – Ellis, No Country for Old Men (2007)
Since the Civil War, the presidency had seen 2 assassinations, and 5 less than memorable presidencies. The power of the executive had waned, and the President was not seen as the most powerful man in the land in 1880’s. That title was reserved for J.P. Morgan, John D Rockefeller or Andrew Carnegie. The captains of industry.
It was a time when 25% of people owned 75% of the wealth, and the feelings of economic and political disenfranchisement permeated the public. Scandals had shaken public confidence, leading to the campaign of 1884.
Slavery and Civil Rights
Although he was born at a time when slavery still existed. there is little in Grover Cleveland’s background in the nature of encounters with this divisive issue. In his first term as President, Cleveland, saw Reconstruction as a failed experiment. He refused to use federal power to enforce the 15th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which guaranteed voting rights to African Americans. Cleveland did not appoint any African Americans to patronage jobs, he but did allow Frederick Douglass to continue in his post as recorder of deeds in Washington, D.C. When Douglass later resigned, Cleveland appointed another African-American man to replace him.
Cleveland was critical of what he called “outrages” against Chinese immigrants, but he was also critical of the Chinese immigrants themselves, who he said were unwilling to assimilate into white society. Cleveland lobbied the Congress to pass the Scott Act, written by Congressman William Lawrence Scott, which would prevent Chinese immigrants who left the United States from returning. The Scott Act easily passed both houses of Congress, and Cleveland signed it into law on October 1, 1888.
Cleveland viewed Native Americans as wards of the state. He said in his first inaugural address that “[t]his guardianship involves, on our part, efforts for the improvement of their condition and enforcement of their rights.” He encouraged the cultural assimilation of Native Americans and pushed for passage of the Dawes Act, which provided for distribution of Indian lands to individual members of tribes, rather than having them continued to be held in trust for the tribes by the federal government. Native leaders endorsed the act, but the majority of Native Americans didn’t like the legislation. Cleveland believed the Dawes Act would lift Native Americans out of poverty and encourage their assimilation into white society, but ultimately it weakened the tribal governments and allow individual natives to sell land and keep the money.
Grover Cleveland failed to demonstrate any sympathy for African-Americans and did nothing to help those members of that community who were oppressed in Southern states. He apparently had some sympathy for Native Americans, but his efforts to help them were misguided and ineffective. No significant advances in the field of civil rights appear to have been made during either of his terms in office.
The Pittsburgh riot was a 19th-century race riot in which an armed clash between Irish American and Italian-American laborers resulted in one man seriously injured and the death of another on September 19, 1886. During the mid-1880s, relations between Irish-Americans and Italian-Americans had been steadily worsening, as the Italians had for some time been encroaching the working-class neighborhood of Four Mile Run in the 15th Ward of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
The previous Saturday, an Italian laborer, Joseph Vernard, was attacked by a gang of six Irish laborers headed by the Daly brothers and, although severely injured, managed to escape to his home. Although no further activity was reported during the week, around twenty Irish laborers approached Vernand’s boardinghouse on the afternoon of September 19 and demanded entry.
When the other Italian residents responded by barring the doors, the Irish mob managed to force their way in by breaking the doors down. As violent fighting broke out within the boardinghouse, Italian laborer “Paddy” Rocco had his skull crushed by a chair and an Irishman, Patrick Constantine, was fatally shot in the abdomen.
When the rioters had realized the injuries of the two men, all those involved had fled by the time the police arrived. Although both Rocco and Constantine were still alive by the arrival of the police, Constantine died in a hospital several hours later. Five Italians were arrested in connection to the riots, although the unidentified Irish rioters were never apprehended.
Hells Canyon Massacre
The Hells Canyon massacre (also known as the Snake River massacre) was a massacre where thirty-four Chinese goldminers were ambushed and murdered in May 1887. In 2005, the area was renamed Chinese Massacre Cove, and a memorial was placed there in 2012 in three languages, Chinese, English, and Nez Perce.
The Thibodaux massacre was a racial attack mounted by white paramilitary groups in Thibodaux, Louisiana in November 1887. It followed a three-week strike during the critical harvest season by an estimated 10,000 workers against sugar cane plantations in four parishes: Lafourche, Terrebonne, St. Mary, and Assumption.
The strike was the largest in the industry and the first conducted by a formal labor organization, the Knights of Labor. At planters’ requests, the state sent in militia to protect strikebreakers, and work resumed on some plantations. Black workers and their families were evicted from plantations in Lafourche and Terrebonne parishes and retreated to Thibodaux.
Tensions broke out in violence on November 23, 1887, and the local white paramilitary forces attacked black workers and their families in Thibodaux. Although the total number of casualties is unknown, at least 35 black people were killed in the next three days (more historians believe 50 were killed) and as many as 300 overall killed, wounded or missing, making it one of the most violent labor disputes in U.S. history. Victims reportedly included elders, women and children. All those killed were African American.
The massacre, and passage by white Democrats of discriminatory state legislation, including disenfranchisement of most blacks, ended the organizing of sugar workers for decades, until the 1940s. According to Eric Arnesen, “The defeated sugar workers returned to the plantations on their employers’ terms.”
The Democrats nominated Grover Cleveland, a reformer who was wedded to the idea of good governance. It was revealed that he had an illegitimate child, but he took responsibility for the child, and people forgave him. He painted his Republican opponent, James G. Blaine, as a corrupt politician and won the election.
Grover Cleveland was a bachelor when he got married but was secretly hollering at a 20 year old college student. He became the first and only president to get married in the White House.
Cleveland was an honest politician though not proactive. He didn’t implement his own programs, and viewed the job of the President as stopping bad things from happening as opposed to initiating change. He exercised his veto power holding the largest number on record until FDR. Cleveland had 414 vetos in his first term which was twice as many as all of the previous presidents combined.
President Cleveland saw himself the chief watchdog of government, protecting it from unwarranted drains on the treasury. He believed people should support the government, but government should not support the people. Unfortunately for him, people were looking more and more towards government for support.
Objections to Pensions for Civil War Veterans
This veto on May 8, 1886 would cost Cleveland the veteran’s vote in 1888. It also didn’t help that he did not serve. The Republican political machine, funded by big business, found an attractive challenger in lawyer Benjamin Harrison, a civil war veteran sympathetic to his comrades and the special interests who ran his campaign.
Protective Tariffs On Foreign Goods
This was the big money issue as Republicans were protectionists for most of the 19th century. They felt it was necessary for the emergence of American industry at a time when we lagged. The tariff was the hottest issue in 1888 (Cleveland backed a bill to decrease the tariff in 1886, but it was defeated in the House) splitting the country in half. Much like 2000, Cleveland won the popular vote, but Harrison won the electoral college; and thus, the presidency. Mrs. Cleveland, upon exiting, told the White House staff to keep things in order because they would be back.
We have complaints about the role of the presidency in so far as how much should he exercise his constitutionally limited role of recommending policy. As Cleveland vetoed Congress’ initiatives, we had gridlock in government at a time when income and political inequality were hot button issues. There was discord concerning supporting our troops who had come home from war, and the interests of business loomed large splitting the electorate in half.
- (n.d.). American Economic Association. https://www.aeaweb.org/aer/top20/45.1.1-28.pdf
- Andrew Carnegie’s story. (n.d.). Carnegie Corporation of New York. https://www.carnegie.org/interactives/foundersstory/#!/
- Blaine, James G. (2019, October 22). Maine: An Encyclopedia. https://maineanencyclopedia.com/blaine-james-g/
- COPPOLA, L., Coppola, L., & Lee Coppola NEWS BOOK REVIEWER. (2011, August 28). New bio examines the skeletons in GROVER Cleveland’s closet. The Buffalo News. https://buffalonews.com/news/new-bio-examines-the-skeletons-in-grover-clevelands-closet/article_e98b5d84-5eef-5f16-8f58-0c238cad810d.html
- The forgotten Chinese massacre at hells canyon – AsAmNews. (2020, September 14). AsAmNews. https://asamnews.com/2020/09/14/hells-canyon-massacre-left-34-chinese-gold-miners-dead-in-hidden-chapter-in-u-s-history/
- (n.d.). Foundation for Economic Education. https://fee.org/files/doclib/folsom0404.pdf
- GROVER Cleveland and civil rights. (n.d.). Presidential History Geeks — LiveJournal. https://potus-geeks.livejournal.com/162119.html
- History. (n.d.). ILTF. https://iltf.org/land-issues/history/
- History of riots in Pittsburgh. (2018, July 31). Popular Pittsburgh. https://popularpittsburgh.com/history-of-riots-in-pittsburgh/
- J. P. Morgan. (n.d.). Philanthropy Roundtable. https://www.philanthropyroundtable.org/almanac/people/hall-of-fame/detail/j.-p.-morgan
- John D. Rockefeller, 1839-1937. (n.d.). Rockefeller Archive Center. https://rockarch.org/resources/about-the-rockefellers/john-d-rockefeller-sr/
- Knights of Labor. (2018, March 6). Social Welfare History Project. https://socialwelfare.library.vcu.edu/organizations/labor/knights-of-labor-2/
- Lost in 19th century Anacostia, “The president’s [Cleveland] visit to Mr. Fred Douglass” [Washington Post, Aug. 13, 1886]. (2012, June 4). Frederick Douglass in Washington, D.C.: The Lion of Anacostia. https://thelionofanacostia.wordpress.com/2012/06/04/lost-in-19th-century-anacostia-the-presidents-cleveland-visit-to-mr-fred-douglass-washington-post-aug-13-1886/
- Scott Act of 1888. (2019, August 1). Immigration History. https://immigrationhistory.org/item/scott-act/
- Sold – GROVER Cleveland recites the causes of his veto of a private pension bill | The Raab collection. (2016, July 12). The Raab Collection. https://www.raabcollection.com/grover-cleveland-autograph/grover-cleveland-signed-sold-grover-cleveland-recites-causes-his-veto
- The Thibodaux massacre left 60 African-Americans dead and spelled the end of unionized farm labor in the south for decades. (2017, November 21). Smithsonian Magazine. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/thibodaux-massacre-left-60-african-americans-dead-and-spelled-end-unionized-farm-labor-south-decades-180967289/
- Why protectionism doesn’t pay. (1987, May 1). Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/1987/05/why-protectionism-doesnt-pay
Zachary Taylor (1849-1850) would assume the presidency after the Mexican War.
Woodrow Wilson (1913 – 1921) would guide the United States through World War I.
Jimmy Carter (1977 – 1981) would be the only Democratic President for 25 years post Civil Rights.
George W. Bush (2000 – 2008) is the final President in our series.