Grover Cleveland is one of our most underrated Presidents. He was nicknamed “Ugly Honest” by his bitterest opponents. Grover Cleveland firmly believed that a man’s personal integrity must guide his every action as an elected official.
We live in an era in which the motivations of every person who holds political office, regardless of party or ideology, is immediately suspected of being corrupt, stupid, and worthy of contempt. Voters view experience, achievement, and accomplishment to be a badge of dishonor when selecting candidates. In the 2016 Republican presidential primaries, candidates with actual experience and achievement were eliminated from consideration first. People seemed so angry at our government that the less a candidate had actually accomplished, the more seriously he or she was considered to take on the Presidency as an entry-level job!
At the risk of sounding like Jimmy Stewart in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” I truly do believe in the basic goodness and high motivation of most people who run for political office, regardless of party or doctrine. This leads me back to Grover Cleveland and why I think he deserves much more historical respect. Cleveland believed government officials SHOULD be held to a higher standard than the average citizen. To his dying day, he did his best to keep the public trust.
Grover Cleveland Integrity: Jail
As the Sheriff of Buffalo, New York, Grover Cleveland not only enforced the law, but zealously watched over the budget. He refused to allow any taxpayer dollars to be wasted. When tradesmen brought in cords of wood for heating and cooking at the prison, Cleveland would personally measure every stack to make sure the taxpayers were not being cheated. And Sheriff Grover Cleveland personally carried out the death sentence on three condemned prisoners. He could have followed standard procedure and hired a hangman. However, he believed that would waste taxpayer’s money. Rather than spend the few extra dollars, he saved the people’s money by doing it himself. (To read about other Presidents who killed men, click here.)
Grover Cleveland Integrity: Maria Halpin
As a young attorney and politician, Grover Cleveland lived frugally in order to take care of his widowed mother. His great indulgences were in food, drink and women. Cleveland had a relationship with Maria Halpin, a woman of questionable sobriety. When she announced her pregnancy, there were three possible fathers. The other two men being married, bachelor Cleveland took financial responsibility for the child. When his opponents tried to smear him during the presidential campaign by threatening to expose that he had fathered a child out of wedlock, his response was predictable: “Tell the truth!” *
(He later married our first superstar First Lady. Click here to read about her amazing life!)
While you might assume that a sex scandal in the prim and proper 1800s would sink a presidential campaign, many Americans were impressed that Grover Cleveland owned up to his behavior and responsibilities. Influential newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer endorsed Cleveland by listing four reasons his readers should send Cleveland to the White House:
“1. He is an honest man. 2. He is an honest man. 3. He is an honest man. 4. He is an honest man.”
Grover Cleveland Integrity: Cleaning Up Government
Grover Cleveland’s rise in politics was amazingly rapid. And there was an overarching theme to his administration as Sheriff, Mayor, Governor and President. Each time he was elected to a new office, one of his first tasks was to remove lazy, corrupt, tax wasting political hacks, regardless of party, from the public payrolls. Political corruption enraged him. And at every step of his career, voters rewarded his honesty and integrity. He is one of only three men to win the popular vote for the presidency more than twice! On his deathbed, he proclaimed “I have tried so hard to do right.” It’s a message and a lesson that our politicians today should take to heart.
- = An editor’s note. As a historian, it is important that I present information factually. I should note that Maria Halpin’s account of her relationship with Grover Cleveland is very different. It casts him as a man who committed what we today would call date rape. It is impossible at this historical distance to know exactly what happened. What historians can agree on is that Cleveland took responsibility for the child and encouraged his campaign to answer truthfully when asked if he had fathered a child out of wedlock.