I don’t know who has written the book on Grover Cleveland, but I don’t think this book is it. It’s an insightful appraisal of the man, and an informative snapshot of the era, but it isn’t nearly detailed enough in the latter respect to be able to draw much of a parallel to current affairs, and the subject perhaps isn’t interesting enough to safe the former respect. I liked the book, but it’s a fairly middling biography, for a president often ignored and little taught in the modern era.
As I’ve previously discussed, I tend to see the late 19th century as the birth of the United States. Not in the literal sense, our nation was born out of the American Revolution. But Antebellum America is so demonstrably different from the one in which we currently find ourselves that I don’t think it’s apt to draw a continuous line between Revolution and…whatever is we’re currently living in. The paradigm shift occurred in the 1860s. The key to understanding our world is the era covered by this book. Wealth inequality that is out of control, massive oscillations in the economy spurred by unchecked expansion westward and precipitous industrialization. Unparalleled government corruption, racial tension, labor unrest, and the creation of barriers to the massive influx of immigrants. This era was defined by the conflict between an American people seeking to identify itself and rise above its Jeffersonian station of the citizen farmer; a people longing to break free of the constraints of sectionalism, and fully embrace the Nationalist fervor that was sweeping the nations of Europe. The late 19th century was an era of change, and growth, and the internalized conflict of a people incapable of knowing the future, but confident that it would be different from the past. The possible for Americans, for the first time, really, was limited only by the imaginations of those seeking to explore the limits of their imagination. This was the era of Booker T. Washington and Mark Twain, John D. Rockefeller and Eugene Debs, Susan B. Anthony and William Jennings Bryan, of Thomas Edison and Nicola Tesla.
But…that’s not what this book is about.
This book is about Grover Cleveland. A man who is mostly known, today, for being outed, while running for office, as the father of a child born out of wedlock. His secret having been revealed, he fully embraced his past, thus garnering a reputation as “an honest president”. And while this reputation is mostly justified, Grover Cleveland is also widely known as the man who removed, in secret, a cancerous tumor in a clandestine surgery aboard a friend’s yacht. He kept the procedure secret because “cancer” was a dreaded illness even then (perhaps more so), and fear that the news would cause an already precarious economy to sink into a Depression.
He was a hugely popular president at the time, and is the only person apart from FDR to win the popular vote in three elections. In 1880, the Republican party as divided by a reformist wing, known as the Mugwumps. The Republicans dropped Chester Arthur due to his reformist tendencies, choosing the Senator from Maine, James G. Blaine. This division allowed Cleveland (despite his early indiscretions) to win a plurality. In 1888, Cleveland supported a lower tariff (to help consumers), but he opposed Civil War pensions, and though he again won a plurality, he lost the electoral college vote to Benjamin Harrison. The 1892 election again saw the economy take center stage, this time centered around whether currency should be based off of gold alone, or gold and silver together. Cleveland again won a plurality of the vote, but also won 62% of the electoral college, thus becoming the first and, thus far, only president to serve to non-consecutive terms.
Today, historians generally consider him to have been an effective and capable president, though in this era, Congress held more power than the Executive. He may have been the best president between Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt, however.
It is perhaps unfair of me to dock a star from this book because it wasn’t what I wanted it to be, but even considering the book for what it is, there wasn’t much to stick with me. He was appreciated in his time, and is recognized for being a capable president, but there just wasn’t much here to get excited about.