Honest Grover Cleveland won the popular vote in three consecutive presidential elections, a feat shared by Andrew Jackson and exceeded only by Franklin Roosevelt.
By the 1880’s, the Republican party was tainted by scandal. During Ulysses S. Grant’s administration, favored groups received land grants, favorable tariffs, government subsidies, and generous pensions. Historian Allen Nevins stated that the “selfish materialism of the worst wing of the Republican party” held sway over the Garfield administration. In 1884, it was no surprise that the Republicans nominated Senator James G. Blaine, who profited from granting rights to the Little Rock and Fort Smith Railroad.
1884: Cleveland versus James G. Blaine
While Democrats portrayed Blaine as a public plunderer, Republicans painted Democratic nominee Cleveland as a “town drunk and debaucher.” This, according to Cleveland biographer Horace Samuel Merrill, led to a campaign devoid of issues. The campaign highlight was the Republicans using the false accusation of Buffalo baptist pastor, the Reverend George Ball, that Cleveland fathered a child out of wedlock with Maria Halpin. “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa?” was chanted by Republicans.
But Cleveland’s reputation for integrity from his days as Buffalo mayor and New York governor trumped the charges. Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World gave four reasons to vote for Cleveland, “He is an honest man. He is an honest man. He is an honest man. He is an honest man.” Cleveland won a close election- a 23,000 vote advantage in the popular vote and winning the electoral college 219-182.
1888: Cleveland versus Benjamin Harrison
Now the incumbent, Cleveland’s presidential record was attacked. Despite doubling the number of civil service jobs under the Pendleton Act, reformers chafed at Cleveland’s recognition that the machine boss system was a “disagreeable necessity.” Republican nominee Benjamin Harrison attacked Cleveland on tariffs, accusing him and the Democrats as free traders who would sacrifice American laborers and farmers to foreign interests. Tariff reductions would result in higher taxes, lower wages, and unemployment.
The 1888 election was the most corrupt in history, claims The Great Republic. Pennsylvania boss Matt Quay stated that Harrison would never know “how close a number of men were compelled to approach the gates of the penitentiary to make him president.” Republicans bought $15 per vote in Indiana. Additionally, Cleveland refused to endorse the Democratic nominee for New York, David B. Hill, splitting the state Democrats. The result: Cleveland lost New Yok and the electoral vote 233-168, but won the popular vote by 100,000.
1892: Cleveland versus Harrison II
Cleveland eventually recovered from his defeat. When the Democrats won a large majority in the House from the 1890 elections, Cleveland viewed it as a vindication of his policies. He took a vocal stand against the Mckinley Tariff Act. At the risk of losing Democratic support, Cleveland’s February 10th, 1892 “Silver Letter” to the Reform Club of New York proclaimed that the unlimited coinage of silver legislation pending in Congress was dangerous.
This recovery also depended on two men. William C. Whitney built a well-oiled machine that convinced Democratic delegates that Cleveland, more than David B. Hill or Horace Boies, could beat Harrison. George Parker worked the press to promote Cleveland’s ideas, and in the process created a new role in politics- press secretary- according to writer H. Paul Jeffers. The outcome was a Cleveland landslide- a 381,000 advantage in the popular vote.
Cleveland capturing the popular vote three consecutive occasions reflected the times. Amidst the political scandals, Cleveland was an honest beacon in the fog of corruption. His couragous stands against protective tariffs and free silver, and his reluctant defense of the boss system emphasized that honesty.
- Bailyn, Bernard et al eds, The Great Republic, Heath: Lexington, MA, 1985.
- Jeffers, H. Paul, An Honest President: The Life and Presidencies of Grover Cleveland, Morrow: New York, 2000.