Grover Cleveland — the 22nd and 24th President of the United States — had a meteoric rise. He was elected Mayor of Buffalo in 1881, and one year later he was elected Governor of New York. Just two years after that, in 1884, he was elected president, defeating the Republican James G. Blaine. Four years later, in 1888, Cleveland lost his re-election bid to Benjamin Harrison despite having won the popular vote. Four years after that, in 1892, he defeated Harrison and returned to power. Four years later, in 1896, he failed to receive the nomination of his party, and he retired from public office.
Cleveland was the fourth president to come from New York State and the second from Buffalo. He is one of only two Democrats, along with Woodrow Wilson, to serve as President in the post-Civil War era. He was the only president to serve two non-consecutive terms.
Cleveland was known for his honest integrity while in office. He was a hard worker and did a lot of paperwork. Politically, he believed in small government and was opposed to imperialist expansionism. He was opposed to tariffs and favored the gold standard over silver. He is sometimes referred to as a “Bourbon Democrat.”
He was a bachelor when he was first elected President, and during his first term he married a much younger woman, whose first name was Frank, who went by Frances. She was the daughter of a deceased friend. They were married in the White House and they went on to have a batch of children. One of them, a daughter, Ruth, died, and many years later the candy bar Baby Ruth was named after her!
Physically, Cleveland was tall and heavy. He got even heavier after he became president. He had a moustache but no beard. Later in life he suffered health problems, including gout. While he was president he developed oral cancer, and he was operated on in secret aboard a ship.
During his second term the economy crashed, and he lost popularity. After he left office, his reputation rebounded. After his presidency, Cleveland and his family moved to New Jersey, and he became a trustee at Princeton University. He also did work for the insurance industry. He died of a heart attack in 1908 at age 71.
Here are some additional facts about Grover Cleveland:
Grover Cleveland was not from Cleveland, Ohio, but the city had been named for one of the president’s relatives! Both the family and the city originally spelled the name Cleaveland!
He was born Stephen Grover Cleveland in Caldwell, N.J. His father was a minister. The name Grover came from one of his father’s friends, also a minister.
While in Buffalo, Cleveland worked at the same law firm that Millard Fillmore had belonged to.
Cleveland did not serve during the Civil War. When a draft was enacted, he paid a Polish immigrant $150 to take his place. This was legal and a common practice. At the time, he was supporting his family financially.
During the 1884 Presidential election, Cleveland was accused of having fathered an illegitimate child with a woman of low character.
He won the popular vote for president in three consecutive elections.
He never served in a legislature.
He used the Resolute Desk, which was a gift from Queen Victoria, first presented to President Hayes, which was made from timbers from the HMS Resolute, a famous British ship that had been decommissioned.
He was President for the dedication of the Statue of Liberty in 1886.
It was said that just before the Clevelands left the White House on Benjamin Harrison’s inauguration day, Frances told a worker to take good care of the furniture because they would be back. And they did come back just four years later.
As presidential biographies go, I found “Grover Cleveland” by Henry F. Graff, part of the American Presidents Series, to be a little on the skimpy side. The book covered all the basics, but not much more. There was almost nothing about his family life, or his children. This was not my first choice for a presidential biography of Cleveland. I wanted to get “Grover Cleveland: A Study in Character” by Alyn Brodsky, but sadly I could not find an affordable new copy online, and the title was not available at Barnes and Noble nor at The Strand. So I went with this American Presidents Series book, which was quick and easy. What I liked best about Graff’s book was its excellent descriptions of the Democratic and Republican nominating conventions of 1884, 1888 and 1892.
The annual Greater New York Dental Meeting, which starts this coming weekend at the Javits Center in Manhattan, attracts visitors from across the country and around the world. Therefore every year I write an “out and about” article for visitors to New York from out of town, giving them some ideas on touristy things they can do.
I figured this year I would focus on sites of historical interest having to do with the American presidents, from George Washington to Ulysses S. Grant to Theodore Roosevelt.
The article was published on the Dental Tribune website (link here) — and it was also published in print, in issues 1 and 4 of our annual at-show newspaper, called “today.” If you click on the image of the article directly below, it will open bigger and you can read it:
It’s not possible to tell the story of how Chester A. Arthur came to be our nation’s 21st President without talking about Roscoe Conkling, a powerful Republican Senator from New York. These were the days of “machine politics,” and nobody played the game better than Conkling. The way it worked was that a politician such as Conkling could dispense patronage appointments to friends and political allies, and in return these job-holders paid a portion of their salaries back to the coffers of those who had gotten them their positions. If one were running for office, he or his allies could promise future jobs in return for their support. The biggest job of them all — the plummiest of plum positions — was Collector of New York Customs, and during the Grant administration Conkling got Arthur appointed to that post. Arthur thrived, becoming a fat cat (he got literally fat) and getting very rich. He wore the finest clothes and lived in a fancy house at 123 Lexington Avenue (and on a personal note, that house is just three blocks away from where I live!).
Then along came President Rutherford B. Hayes, who got elected in 1876 after promising to break up this system. Hayes got into a huge fight with Conkling over how the New York Custom House was being managed, and Hayes eventually fired Arthur. By the time the Republican National Convention got underway in 1880, Conkling was seething mad and tried but failed to get Grant — a fellow “Stalwart” — nominated for what would have been an unprecedented third term. (Hayes had pledged not to seek re-election.) Another wing of the party wanted Senator James G. Blaine of Maine, but when neither Grant nor Blaine had the votes, they went with a completely different candidate, James Garfield! To placate the Stalwarts and in an attempt to balance the ticket ideologically, the delegates gave the Vice Presidential nomination to none other than Chester A. Arthur. Having never served in elected office before, Arthur was completely unqualified and everyone knew it.
Upon taking office Garfield picked a huge fight with Conkling over — you guessed it — the Collector job at New York Customs. In what would become an ill-fated move, Conkling resigned in protest and went to Albany, hoping to get immediately re-elected, and Vice President Arthur, who was seen as disloyal to Garfield and nothing more than Conkling’s lackey, followed him.
It was about this time that Garfield got shot, and, get this: The gunman turned out to be crazy office seeker who had been spurned for a job he thought he deserved! Not only that, but when they were taking him away to jail, he yelled out to everyone that he was doing this for the Stalwarts and not to worry, Chester Arthur would fix everything! It was the worst possible scenario for Arthur, who spent much of the subsequent weeks crying and fretting.
Garfield lived another two months, but Arthur stayed away from Washington because he did not want to be seen as too overly eager to seize power. Instead he stayed mostly in New York City and met frequently with Conkling. Everyone still saw Arthur as Conkling’s man, which is why it must have been very surprising to all, especially Conkling himself, when Arthur defied his onetime benefactor by not appointing Conkling’s choice to the Collector post. Later in his presidency, in a move that surprised everyone even more, Arthur would go on to sign a civil service reform bill into law. Not only that, but he enforced it with deputies who took the new law seriously.
These are some of the events described in “The Unexpected President: The Life and Times of Chester A. Arthur” by Scott. S. Greenberger. This turned out to be an excellent sequel to the Garfield book “Destiny of the Republic” by Candice Millard.
When he became president, Arthur comported himself well and struck the right tone, pledging to carry on in a manner that would be respectful to his murdered predecessor. During his presidency, Arthur strengthened the U.S. Navy. He vetoed a “rivers and harbors” bill that had been inflated with pork projects from legislators. Congress later passed the bill over his veto.
His record on human rights is mixed. When Congress passed an anti-Chinese immigration bill, Arthur vetoed it. Then when Congress passed a slightly milder yet still egregious bill, he signed it. When the Supreme Court stuck down a civil rights law during his presidency, Arthur called for new legislation in his annual message to Congress but did nothing more. Early in his career as a lawyer in New York City, Arthur represented a black woman who had been denied a seat on a streetcar and won her case, thereby helping desegregate public transportation in New York City. Everywhere he traveled, African Americans seemed to love him and many gave him handmade gifts.
When he was in office, Arthur received long letters from a young woman, Julia Sand, who had health problems and was living with her family in New York City. She offered Arthur plenty of advice on how he should behave, both politically and morally, and this advice must have had a profound effect on Arthur because he eventually paid her a personal visit. Before he died Arthur burned his papers, but many decades later his surviving relatives discovered 23 of Sand’s letters that Arthur had saved.
Here are some additional facts about Chester Alan Arthur:
He was born in Vermont. He had many siblings. His father was a preacher and the family moved frequently, eventually migrating to upstate New York.
During the first half of the Civil War, Arthur served in the military as a quartermaster.
His wife, Nell, died before he became president. There were three children in all. A son died in early childhood, and a second son and daughter lived to adulthood.
Nell was from Virginia, and before and during the war there were family struggles because she was from the South. Her father, Herndon, was a ship captain who died in a horrific shipwreck but was hailed as a hero.
Like Presidents Jefferson, Jackson and Van Buren before him, Arthur came into office a widower. He asked his youngest sister to be “mistress of the White House” in place of a First Lady.
Arthur had the White House refurbished before he moved in. He lived with a senator during the renovations.
Arthur enjoyed fine food and drink, and he smoked the best cigars. He was always well dressed. He was polite to all.
He traveled frequently to New York City, especially early in his presidency. Later he visited Florida and Yellowstone National Park.
Arthur appointed Conkling to the Supreme Court and the Senate confirmed him, but Conkling declined.
Arthur was president during the dedication of the Washington Monument and offered a proclamation at a ceremony on Feb. 21, 1885.
Shortly after Arthur left office in 1885, former President Grant died and received an elaborate funeral in New York City. Arthur helped raise funds for what would become Grant’s Tomb.
Arthur also helped raise funds for the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty.
Arthur’s own funeral in Manhattan was modest compared to Grant’s and was attended by President Cleveland and former President Hayes.
In 1884 Arthur lost the nomination of the Republican Party to Blaine, who would go on to lose in the fall to Democrat Grover Cleveland. According to Greenberger, Arthur put up only a token fight for the nomination because he knew he was terminally ill with Bright’s disease and had known for some time, but he did not want this information to become public. After leaving office he returned to his home in New York City and died a year later, in 1886, of a stroke. He was 57. He was buried outside Albany.
It was striking that Arthur, a man who had been so closely associated with Conkling and the corrupt “machine politics” of New York, someone who was the unlikeliest of presidents, would be the one to initiate civil service reform. Today Arthur’s house at 123 Lexington is Kalustyan’s, a shop selling Middle Eastern foods, but just inside and behind glass, visible to passers-by, is a plaque commemorating the building’s place in American history. The plaque reads in part, “Here on September 20, 1881, at 2:15 a.m., Chester Alan Arthur took his oath of office as 21st President of the United States upon the death of President James A. Garfield, killed by a disgruntled office seeker … On January 16, 1883, President Arthur signed the U.S. Civil Service Act ending the spoils system an creating the American civil service.”
Just a few blocks away, also in Manhattan, at the northeast corner of Madison Square Park, stands a statue of Chester A. Arthur. And in the southeast corner of the same park stands another statue — of Roscoe Conkling.
Today’s book report is about James A. Garfield, the 20th President of the United States. A Republican from Ohio, Garfield was elected in 1880. A few short months after his inauguration he was shot by a crazed lunatic. He died two months later.
Back at this time, politicians doled out jobs to their political friends under the patronage system, and Garfield’s killer, Charles Guiteau, was among hundreds of job seekers who had been hounding the president and his cabinet secretaries looking for an appointment. After getting a firm no from Garfield’s newly appointed Secretary of State, James G. Blaine, Guiteau snapped and bought a gun. He stalked Garfield for weeks before catching up with him at a train station. He fired twice, with the first shot grazing Garfield’s shoulder and the second entering his back. This happened right in front of Blaine and two of Garfield’s sons. He was on his way to join his wife, Lucretia, who was recovering from an illness of her own, on a vacation. Garfield probably could have survived the shooing, but, sadly, he received poor medical care. A number of doctors — including Dr. Doctor Willard Bliss (the doctor’s first name was Doctor) — poked the gunshot wound with unwashed fingers and unsterilized instruments. This resulted in bacterial infection, which ultimately killed Garfield.
Garfield had been a surprise presidential nominee in 1880, and his vice presidential running mate, Chester A. Arthur, was an even bigger surprise. At the Republican national convention that year, there was a rift. On one side were the “Stalwarts,” including the powerful Senator Roscoe Conkling of New York. The Stalwarts liked the patronage system and wanted it to continue. The Stalwarts were prepared to nominate Ulysses S. Grant, who would return from retirement to run for an unprecedented third term. Meanwhile, the “Half Breeds” advocated for reform and were largely lined up behind Blaine. Garfield had spoken in favor of yet another candidate, John Sherman. When none of the candidates could get the necessary votes to clinch the nomination, many of the delegates switched their votes to Garfield, who got the nomination on the 36th ballot. To placate the Stalwarts, they nominated Arthur (Conkling’s man) for Vice President. These were the days before state-by-state presidential primaries, when a “dark horse” could emerge as a nominee out of a “smoke-filled room.”
Garfield’s immediate predecessor, Rutherford B. Hayes, had tried to end the patronage system but ran into fierce opposition from powerful senators like Conkling. Hayes had fired Arthur, Conkling’s beneficiary, from the Collector job at the New York Custom House, and the dust had not yet settled. When Garfield came into office it was not clear what course he would take, but it soon became apparent when he ignored Conkling’s advice for cabinet appointments. The dispute got even nastier when Garfield appointed his own man as Collector of the New York Customs House.
In what they thought would be an effective power play, Conkling and his fellow New York Senator, Thomas C. Platt, then resigned, assuming they would be immediately re-elected by the New York State legislature, in a show of solidarity and thus prevailing over Garfield, but their plan backfired. Conkling and Platt were not re-elected by the New York legislature and were humiliated, and Garfield emerged triumphant. In those days Senators were elected by state legislatures, not by direct popular vote as they are today.
All of these events and much more are detailed in “Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President,” by Candice Millard. This book was a popular best seller, and I found it an absolute pleasure to read.
Here are some additional facts about James A. Garfield:
Born in a log cabin!
He was the fourth U.S. president to die in office and the second to be assassinated. This was just 16 years after Lincoln had been killed in office.
Robert Todd Lincoln, President Lincoln’s eldest and only surviving son, was Garfield’s Secretary of War. Sadly, it was Robert Todd Lincoln who brought in Bliss, who turned out to be a terrible doctor.
Guiteau was tried and convicted and later hanged. He claimed temporary insanity at his trial. Before he was executed, Garfield’s killer was shot at twice by would-be Jack Rubys.
The train station where Garfield was shot no longer exists.
Garfield and Lucretia — he called her “Crete” — had many children, mostly sons.
He had a full beard.
The A is for Abram, his father’s first name.
Just like Hayes, Garfield served in the Civil War. He led the Battle of Middle Creek. Also like Hayes, Garfield was elected to Congress while he was still serving despite not campaigning for office. He later was elected a United States Senator, but he did not serve because he was elected President. Before being elected to national office, Garfield also served as a state senator.
Also like Hayes, Garfield saw the Civil War as a battle to end slavery. Throughout his life, he fought for equal rights for blacks. He had been an abolitionist before the war.
Garfield’s father died when he was still an infant, and he had grown up in poverty. He worked on a Great Lakes canal boat before getting a formal education and becoming a teacher.
Garfield was book smart, and he was an excellent public speaker.
Garfield’s widow helped organize what would become Garfield’s presidential library. It became the first presidential library.
If he were alive today, Garfield would be a liberal Democrat.
Millard’s book is not a typical presidential biography. It focuses more on the assassination and events leading up to it. The book does not offer much on Garfield’s upbringing, and even less on his service during the Civil War. And I would like to know more about what was going on behind the scenes while Garfield was incapacitated. Nevertheless, the book still offered a great deal of information, and I found it to be a page-turner that I enjoyed immensely. The author weaves in the story of Garfield with his assassin, as well as many other key players in the drama. We also learn about Alexander Graham Bell, who had just invented the telephone and who was brought in to the White House to help locate the bullet with a new experimental device.
Also receiving attention is Joseph Lister — whose medical research on sanitary surgical techniques were completely ignored by Garfield’s doctors and ultimately led to his death. Sadly, that kind of head-in-the-sand stupidity still exists today. Just consider the dire warnings from scientists over greenhouse gas emissions and how they are contributing to the global climate crisis, our country’s current political leadership and the recent withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accords.
I caught the new Queen/Freddie Mercury biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody” over the weekend, and I thought it was fantastic. I was deeply moved and in tears through most of the two-hour-plus running time. Rami Malek was so, so good, and I hope he wins the Oscar for this. The movie focuses on the history of the band, their creative process, touring, dealing with record company executives, and Freddie’s private life. The culmination is the band’s legendary performance at Live Aid in 1985, where they brought their “stadium rock” show to Wembley in London.
In the opening credits Brian May (he’s the guitar player with the big hair) and Roger Taylor (the drummer) are listed as producers, so we can assume this is the their official version of how they want the story to be told. According to the movie, the song “Bohemian Rhapsody” was all Freddie. But “We Will Rock You” was Brian May’s idea, and “Another One Bites the Dust” came from bass player John Deacon.
Also according to the movie, Freddie proposed marriage to his female companion, Mary, and gave her a ring, but as he began to record and tour with Queen he became distant from her. He developed relationships with men, both fleeting and longer lasting. At one point he confides to her, “I think I am bisexual” and she says, “No, Freddie, you’re gay.” Even back in the 1970s, everyone knew Freddie Mercury was gay. But it was a different era then. This was before Ellen. Before RuPaul. Before Gus Kenworthy. Celebrities just did not come out. At Live Aid, Freddie wore a white tank top, skintight jeans, sneakers, a studded black leather armband and a thick mustache. You could not get any gayer than that, if you ask me!
For those who do not remember, Queen’s 22-minute set during Live Aid was phenomenal. It’s really easy to find the complete performance on YouTube. According to this article in the New York Times, the band had rehearsed extensively for the show and, unbeknownst to all at the time, they had someone on the soundboard turn up the volume a few notches for their performance. The crowd went wild. The movie ends at this high point.
The band had never been more popular. A year later they toured with a new album and returned to Wembley for another huge show, followed by a live album. In subsequent years they continued to record new albums, but by the time they released “Innuendo” Freddie’s health had deteriorated and touring was out of the question. Just before Freddie died in 1991, he issued a statement disclosing to the world that he had AIDS. I am still in mourning over his death all those years ago.
Of all the entertainers who died of AIDS and there were many, it is Freddie’s way-too-early departure that stings the most.
It was a disputed election in 1876. While it appeared that the Democratic candidate, Samuel J. Tilden of New York, had won the popular vote, neither he nor the Republican, Rutherford B. Hayes of Ohio, had enough electoral votes to claim victory. It turned into a long and nasty fight. The dispute focused on the election returns from three Southern states: Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina, where there had been widespread racial voter intimidation and fraud.
To resolve the crisis, President Grant helped form a 15-person committee made up of both Democrats and Republicans to decide which candidate would receive the electoral votes from each of the disputed states. The committee consisted of five members from the House, five from the Senate and five from the Supreme Court. The wrangling lasted until early March, just two days before inauguration. The transition was held in early March back then. To secure his path to the presidency, author Ari Hoogenboom writes in “Rutherford B. Hayes: Warrior & President,” Hayes himself did not make any concessions, but those working for him did make offers.
Shortly after Hayes became president, he withdrew federal troops that had been stationed in South Carolina and Louisiana to protect voting rights, and the governments in those states immediately flipped from Republican to Democratic control. This effectively ended the Reconstruction era following the Civil War.
As Hoogenboom writes, Hayes really had no choice. By this point there was no longer an appetite in the North for continued troop presence in the South. Besides, Hayes believed that over time, with more education and economic opportunities for all, racism would fade and American society would become more egalitarian. How very wrong he was about that. In actuality, getting the federal government out of the way and allowing the South to establish “home rule” led to almost a century more of racial violence and voter suppression.
During his presidency, Hayes pushed for civil service reform. This was his No. 1 issue. He wanted to upend the established practice of patronage appointments for government jobs. Up until this point, Senators and Congressmen were allowed to dispense appointments to their friends and allies under the “spoils system.” In return, those who received such employment had to give a portion of their pay to the political bosses who had gotten them their jobs. It was all very corrupt.
Hayes wanted to change all that. He wanted civil servants to be hired on the basis of competitive written examinations, and he did not want them to be fired for not making payments to politicians. This turned into an epic battle between Hayes and his party, with Congress, and especially with a powerful “Stalwart” Republican Senator from New York, Roscoe Conkling (not Roscoe P. Conkling, who was someone else). Senator Conkling controlled the lucrative New York Custom House, which was run by his lackey, Chester A. Arthur. Hayes ultimately had Arthur fired, setting up an epic battle with Conkling that would one day have immense consequences for the country that nobody could have imagined at the time.
President Hayes also dealt with violent railroad strikes and disputes over the nation’s money supply and the gold standard. He dealt with Indian affairs and with anti-Chinese immigration fervor. He won showdowns with Congress over “riders” aimed at voter suppression that were added by Southern Democrats to spending bills. Later in his presidency, a commission was formed go back and investigate the 1876 election, but that ultimately led nowhere.
Before Hayes became president, he served in the Civil War. He was an officer, and he fought bravely and was instrumental in some key battles. He was also injured numerous times. He was elected to Congress while he was still serving with the Union army in Virginia, but he did not leave the battlefield to campaign. All he did was write home in a letter: “An officer fit for duty who at this crisis would abandon his post to electioneer for a seat in Congress ought to be scalped,” and when these words were made pubic in the newspapers, he was elected resoundingly. After the war Hayes also served as governor of Ohio. He got his start in politics before the war, when he was elected City Solicitor in Cincinnati.
Here are some additional facts about our nation’s 19th president:
From the beginning, Hayes had pledged not to run for a second term. He long advocated for a constitutional amendment giving the chief executive a single six-year term.
Hayes traveled extensively while in office. He was the first President to visit the West Coast.
He had a full beard.
The B was for Birchard, his mother’s maiden name.
He was married to Lucy, and they had many children, mostly sons. Some of the children died while very young.
He banned alcoholic beverages from the White House. He did so in part to mollify teetotalers who wanted to form a new political party that would have harmed the Republicans.
Despite not serving booze, the Hayses were fun people who knew how to entertain. They threw lots of parties. And when they went to parties, they were often the first guests to arrive.
His father died when he was very young. He was raised by his mother and his uncle, Sardis Birchard. Uncle Sardis acted as a surrogate father to Hayes, and later to his sons. He built them a house.
Uncle Sardis was racist.
Hayes was not racist and was anti-slavery. He supported John C. Fremont, the anti-slavery candidate, in the 1856 presidential election. And, like his immediate successor, James A. Garfield, who was also from Ohio and also fought for the Union, he viewed the Civil War as a battle to end slavery in our country once and for all.
Hayes believed strongly in the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments (the “Reconstruction Amendments”), and felt that these amendments should be enforced in the South.
Before and after the Civil War, Hayes had many Southerners as friends. He met them in college. He never understood how they could be opposed to racial equality.
Although Hayes attended church regularly, he never joined a denomination and never “drank the Kool-Aid.” In other words, he did not fall for crazy ramblings of any preachers.
After his presidency, Hayes stayed active in public life and championed a number of what we would call today “progressive” causes. Education, especially education for blacks, prison reform, and Native American issues were causes he championed. He was involved on committees and foundations, and he traveled extensively. One of the beneficiaries of an educational scholarship he awarded through a fund he stewarded was W.E.B. DuBois, who would go on to become an influential author and civil rights activist. Hayes also continued to advocate for civil service reform and stayed abreast of politics. He also was active in Civil War veterans associations. He died in 1893 at age 70.
As presidential biographies go, I found “Rutherford B. Hayes: Warrior & President” to be well researched and thorough. For some reason though, this was not the most fun book I have ever read. It seemed to take me a long, long time to get through it, and I am not sure why. Despite not enjoying the book much, I did come to like Hayes as a person, especially after he left the presidency and continued to fight for what he believed in.
The reputation of Hayes suffered over time, with many historians considering him a mediocre president. But Hoogenboom argues that this reputation was not warranted. It was not Hayes himself who compromised with the racists in the South over “home rule,” but rather those who had been working on his behalf. Nevertheless, it was the decision of Hayes to pull federal troops from South Carolina and Louisiana, effectively ending Reconstruction and leaving the blacks at the mercy of white supremacists and their racial violence, harassment and voter intimidation.
For me, reading about his post-presidency advocacy was most inspiring. Hayes could have simply led a life of leisure after leaving office. He certainly had enough money. Yet, like former President Jimmy Carter does today, Hayes continued to serve. That, for me, counts for so much.