By 1884 he was a national figure, and he was nominated as Democratic "clean-government" candidate for President to oppose James G. Blaine. Cleveland, hated by Tammany and favored by political reformers, got the votes of many reform Republicans—the "mugwumps," who voted against their party. The campaign was notably bitter and was marked by the "Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion" speech of a Blaine supporter, which deeply offended Roman Catholics and may have swung the vote to Cleveland in the key state of New York.
Cleveland as President continued his independent and conscientious but conservative course. He did not go far enough in civil service reform to satisfy the zealots, but at the same time by keeping Republican government employees who were not "offensive partisans" he offended the Democratic spoilsmen. Cleveland was continually at odds with the Republican-controlled Senate.
The surplus revenue accumulating in the treasury largely because high Civil War tariffs were still in force fostered much "pork barrel" legislation. Cleveland vetoed such laws and argued for a lower tariff, devoting the whole of his annual message to Congress in 1887 to the question. The tariff was a major issue in the 1888 election. Cleveland received a popular majority but lost the electoral majority to his Republican opponent, Benjamin Harrison. A romantic note in his first administration was his marriage (1886) in the White House to his former ward, Frances Folsom.
In 1889 he retired to private life as a New York City lawyer, but opposition to measures of the Republican administration, notably the McKinley Tariff Act of 1890, brought him a new following. In 1892 he was again elected President. The Panic of 1893 struck a hard blow at his administration. Though the more radical Democrats saw salvation in free coinage of silver, the independent President sought to improve the economic situation by securing repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act with the help of conservative Republicans.
Cleveland still urged lower tariffs, although the best opportunity had passed, since the treasury now had a deficit rather than a surplus. The Wilson Bill, embodying Cleveland's tariff ideas, passed the House of Representatives but was so altered by Senator A. P. Gorman and other protectionist Democrats that Cleveland, in disgust, refused to sign it. The rift between the President and the radical Democrats widened, especially over the gold standard, which Cleveland upheld. In the Pullman strike in 1894, Cleveland, on the grounds that the movement of U.S. mail was being halted by the strikers under Eugene V. Debs, sent troops into the area over the protest of Gov. J. P. Altgeld of Illinois. The strike was broken by the use of federal injunctions and the arrest of the strike leaders.
In foreign affairs both of Cleveland's administrations were marked by a strong stand on the Venezuela Boundary Dispute, which called forth a statement greatly enlarging the scope of the Monroe Doctrine. He refused to recognize the government set up in Hawaii by a revolution that was engineered by Americans who expected speedy annexation to the United States (although he recognized the republic in 1894), and he tried to discourage support of the revolutionists in Cuba. The more radical wing of the Democrats—the Silver Democrats—got control of the party in 1896 and nominated William Jennings Bryan, repudiating Cleveland. His strong second term had put him at odds with many (he was nicknamed the Great Obstructionist), and his Presidential Problems (1904) was mainly a defense of his own attitude on some of the major issues.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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