Cleveland was baptized Stephen Grover, but he never used the Stephen after he grew up. He was the fifth of the nine children and third son of the Reverend Richard Falley Cleveland and Ann Neal, a native of Baltimore. There her father, Abner Neal, made a living as a bookseller and publisher of law books. He and his family had emigrated recently from Ireland, possibly fleeing the consequences of involvement in the 1798 uprising against the British crown. Ann’s mother, Barbara Reel, was a Quaker of German background from Germantown, Pennsylvania. The new baby, then, like his siblings, would be regarded as a “typical” American—an amalgam of English, Irish, and German stock.
The father of the future president was a Yale graduate, class of 1824, ordained into the Presbyterian ministry at the Princeton Theological Seminary in 1829. Having fallen in love with Ann Neal while he was a tutor in Baltimore, he and she were married the same year. The fledgling minister’s maiden pastorate was the First Congregational Church of Windham, Connecticut. To the dismay of her husband’s new flock, his bride arrived on the scene accompanied by a black maid, and garbed in a flashy dress, her wrists jangling with bracelets. Quickly, though, she sent the maid back to Baltimore, took off the jewelry, and began comporting herself in less dazzling fashion as a devoted helpmate to her husband.
Richard Cleveland worked so hard in his post that he fell ill. Friends, believing that he needed a change of scene, obtained a pulpit for him in a Presbyterian church in Portsmouth, Virginia. The lively Ann was pleased that once more she could put on her jewelry and dress as she pleased. Two years later, in 1835, Reverend Richard was called to the pastorate of the Presbyterian congregation in Caldwell, New Jersey. There he came under the influence of the Reverend Steven Grover, an aging minister, long associated with the church, who was filling in in the pulpit until the Clevelands got there. When their fifth child arrived soon afterward, it seemed apt to name him for the admired elderly cleric.
The tiny village of Caldwell, where Stephen Grover Cleveland came into the world, was originally known as Horseneck. It had been renamed in 1798 in honor of James Caldwell, a minister whose exploits during the Revolution in support of Washington and his troops had earned him the sobriquet of “Fighting Parson.” Located just northwest of Newark on the Passaic River, Caldwell had a population of no more than a thousand in the 1830s, having doubled in size since 1800. It enjoyed a reputation for having such salubrious air that physicians recommended to their patients locating there as a cure-all for a medley of ailments. Like many such pin-dot communities, its coterie of farm families were supplied by a general store, a sawmill, a distillery, a local cider mill, and a blacksmith’s shop. But its history was unique, and an inquisitive family like the Clevelands must have gloried in what they learned of it. The very road on which the Cleveland two-story frame house stood, now known as Bloomfield Avenue, had been the scene of the well-remembered Horseneck Riots of 1745, which pitted the settlers against the proprietors of New Jersey over land titles, in what may be considered one of the earliest rebellions against the Crown.
As isolated and sleepy as small towns still were in the 1830s, a new epoch was emerging, although it was only in retrospect that people could know this was so. More than ever before, Americans—not only the Cleveland family—were on the move. After the Erie Canal was opened in New York in 1825, a canalbuilding frenzy gripped the country. By the time the Panic of 1837 put an end to the canal boom, it was possible to travel along internal waterways from New York to New Orleans. All in all, three thousand miles of canals crisscrossed the country, mostly in the North. Yet the horse remained ubiquitous for most transportation until well into the next century. It was the railroad, though, its route not bound by the availability of rivers and lakes, that became the great binder of the nation, its tracks serving as giant straps connecting the sections better than ever before. Whereas there were twenty-eight hundred miles of rail in 1840, a decade later there were nine thousand. It was plain to see that the “cars,” as railroads soon were called, remade every town center that they reached. Their arrival on schedule forced people to be mindful of the clock. Everything, it appeared, was being done in “railroad time” now, and life was noticeably speeding up. Henry David Thoreau, who was fascinated by the Iron Horse, “breathing fire and smoke from its nostrils,” asked even as he knew the answer: “Do [people] not talk and think faster in the depot than in the stage office?” New states constantly coming into the Union added every few years to the number of stars in the flag: Arkansas in 1836, Michigan the following year, Florida and Texas in 1845, Wisconsin in 1848, and California in 1850.
It is safe to guess that the Clevelands, even in their quiet little town, felt the vibrations from these developments. But their way of living was no different from those of their eighteenth-century forebears. When Grover was four years old, his father was called as pastor to yet another church. This time the family moved to Fayetteville, New York, a snug and beautiful village in the western part of the state near Syracuse, enriched by the trade flowing on the Erie Canal. Settled in 1792, it was named for the immortal French hero of the Revolution, the Marquis de Lafayette. The handsome Greek Revival homes that still stand there testify to the prosperity of the local quarries, mills, and farms. Here Cleveland, known to his friends as Big Steve, attended the Fayetteville Academy. Full of drive and dash, the boy was serious in his studies although he participated in pranks. He received excellent training in mathematics and Latin, and he took to his work apparently with self-confidence. He began to enjoy fishing as a hobby, and it would give him pleasure throughout his life. There were few other diversions, and the day practically ended at nightfall, even though the new oil lamps were extending the hours for reading. The penny press was emerging, marked by the appearance of the Sun in New York City in 1833. A few years later Horace Greeley, a transplanted Vermonter, established the Tribune, which in its weekly form became a staple in rural homes. Nevertheless, most small towns were still not touched by the force of daily news. Indoor plumbing, ready-made furniture, and balloon-frame houses were beginning to change domestic habits in some places, but these improvements were beyond the reach of most people, including the Clevelands.
Although they would remain impecunious like most clerical households, its members surely entertained no feeling of inferiority or deprivation. Pride of ancestry always buttressed their sense of themselves. The first Cleveland, Moses, a child of eleven, who spelled the name Cleaveland, had arrived in Massachusetts around 1634 from Ipswich, Suffolk County, England, as an apprentice indentured to a joiner. He was accompanied by his brother Aaron. Prosperity soon rewarded the youths’ diligence. Moses’s great-grandson, also an Aaron Cleveland, was Grover’s great-great-grandfather, and a friend of Benjamin Franklin. In fact, he had died in Franklin’s house in Philadelphia while seeking medical treatment in the city. It was he who dropped the letter “a” from the family surname. A Harvard alumnus, he took holy orders as a Presbyterian but, having converted to Episcopalianism, was forced to travel to London in order to be consecrated by a bishop, as was the requirement—in his case, the ceremony was performed by the Bishop of London. Aaron’s son, yet another Aaron, became a Congregationalist minister and, as a member of the Connecticut state legislature, introduced the first bill in American history calling for the abolition of slavery.
A forebear, a Moses Cleaveland too, after distinguished military service in the American Revolution, was a successful lawyer in Canterbury, Connecticut, and served in the state convention that ratified the Constitution in 1788. In 1795 he led a group of investors who participated in the Connecticut Land Company’s purchase of three million acres of Connecticut’s Western Reserve. He and a party of associates in the following year established a settlement on the south shore of Lake Erie at the mouth of the Cuyahoga River. Named Cleaveland, in salute to Moses’s efforts, the little village, which had become a thriving town by the time Grover was born, finally dropped the “a” in 1832, when, it was reported, the local newspaper had need to shorten its masthead.
Young Grover was conscious that his people were patriots whose deeds were tied to the history of the country. He knew much about the national heroes. When he was only nine years old, in writing a composition on the value of industriousness, he pointed out: “George Washington improved his time when he was a boy and he was not sorry when he was at the head of a large army fighting for his country … . Jackson was a poor boy but he was placed in school and by improving his time he found himself president of the United States guiding and directing a powerful nation.”
During Grover’s growing up, public services were nonexistent and not expected. While Philadelphia had provided itself with a water system in 1801, and New York followed suit a generation later, small communities like Fayetteville relied on local waterways and wells. Although uniformed police came into being in the 1850s, the Fayettevilles of America did not have them until the beginning of the twentieth century. Fire was the great scourge of every community; the only fighters were volunteers who were ill-equipped and almost invariably too late on the scene. Except for New York City’s pioneering omnibus running on Broadway, there was no public transportation.
Most people knew that the code for intimate relationships was strict, and prudery—at least in public—was universal. Not until after the Civil War did newspapers carry sometimes titillating advertisements for nostrums to cure sexual ailments. Professional and spectator sports—except for horse racing—were still in the future. Intellectual life was for the few because the physical labor of conquering the land was still the country’s chief business. Indeed, “culture” was regarded as decidedly feminine ; and, in general, “masculinity” was expected to distinguish itself by a lack of exterior polish. It is not apparent that Grover Cleveland defied this convention.
The boy Cleveland received the usual strict training. The day of the child-centered home had not yet dawned. Children were expected to be little adults, disciplined and responsible for their behavior, and chastised promptly for misperforming. In the Cleveland home, the parents’ wishes and words were received as commands. Cleveland would later say: “Often and often as a boy, I was compelled to get out of my warm bed at night, to hang up a hat or other garment which I had left on the floor.” There were no luxuries to embellish or soften life, for the parents, raising nine children, had no income other than the minister’s salary, which for many years never exceeded $600 a year. Still, the family had a servant, a Canadian woman, who helped in preparing meals. Grover, like his brothers and sisters, was sometimes enlisted to take care of the younger ones, often having to sacrifice playtime with friends. In the muscular Christianity in which the children were reared, they all understood that Sunday was a day for Sunday school, worship, and, as ordained in the Bible, surcease from work. For the father it meant he must deliver two sermons, in addition to performing other sacerdotal duties. For the mother it was a time to rest from her burden of doing the mercy tasks of the pastorate.
Richard Cleveland served in Fayetteville for nine years. Never robust, his health began to decline, and he was glad to accept a less demanding place with the American Home Missionary Society in Clinton, New York, which carried an annual salary of one thousand dollars. The move to Clinton in 1851 was a harsh blow to Grover, then fourteen years old. Adolescents find uprooting hard, and Grover was no exception. Perhaps he was resentful and maybe even tearful. There was no way for him to keep in touch with his old friends, for letter writing was not the style among boys on the verge of manhood. Cleveland always recalled his time in Fayetteville as the best days of his youth. Even when as president he visited the town, he spoke with deep emotion of the benefits he had received there: “They have gone with me in every step in life.”
The family remained in Clinton for three years. Grover was eager to prepare himself for Hamilton College, conveniently situated in the town, and the school from which his brother William was almost ready to graduate. Grover was not a natural linguist, and he never forgot the difficulties he had had in learning Latin in the Clinton academy he attended. Still, this deficiency was not what prevented him from going to college: his impoverished family required that he get a job. He returned to Fayetteville to work as a clerk in the village store. The salary was fifty dollars for the first year and one hundred dollars for the second, lodging and meals included. The husky young man rose each morning at five o’clock in an unheated, unadorned room he shared with a fellow clerk, and began his monotonous chore for long hours.
After two years, he returned to Clinton with high hopes of now beginning his college education. But fate again intervened. His father, still in delicate health, found even his position in Clinton too demanding, and he opted in 1853 to take a rural pastorate in Holland Patent, a small village fifteen miles north of Utica. Three weeks after entering upon his new ministry, he died, leaving a widow and children destitute. Grover’s immediate future was now fixed: he would have to help in the family’s support. His dream of attending Hamilton College was shattered. Years later during his presidency, speaking at Harvard’s 250th anniversary, he revealed, as emotionally as he dared in public, that he was but an “invited guest” and that “the reflection that for me there is no alma mater, gives rise to a feeling of regret.”
Grover’s elder brother, William, was a teacher at the New York Institution for the Blind in New York City. Diligent like Grover, William was promoted to principal and quickly hired Grover as his assistant. The work was demanding and required infinite patience. Grover had sympathy as well as patience, but he knew that a career in this occupation was not for him. After a year at the institution, he was now determined to study law. He went home to his mother. She had continued to live in Holland Patent and would do so until her death in 1882. Grover’s youngest sister, Rose Elizabeth—always “Libbie” to him and he always “Grove” to her—who published essays on notable literary women, also made her home there.
A family neighbor, Ingham Townsend, a wealthy Presbyterian elder of Holland Patent who admired Grover for his reliability and steadiness, offered to help him go to college in order to enter the ministry. Grover possibly had thought of following in his father’s footsteps, but perhaps his experience in New York City had opened his mind to the larger world of affairs. The kindly Townsend yielded to Grover’s request to lend him twenty-five dollars so that the young man could travel to Cleveland, Ohio, in order to undertake the study of law. Twelve years later Cleveland would repay the loan with interest, reminding Townsend that the “loan you made me was my start in life.”
On his way west, Grover decided to stop off in Buffalo to visit his uncle, Lewis W. Allen, whose home in Black Rock, a community recently annexed to Buffalo, he had often visited during his boyhood. Allen was a wealthy farmer with a herd of shorthorn cattle. What Grover expected to be a brief stopover proved to be the opposite, and a major turning point. Uncle Lewis, hearing from Grover that he planned to go to Cleveland to study law, insisted that Buffalo was where he ought to put down his roots. Being well-connected and well-liked, Allen was in a position to help him get started. He offered him not only bed and board but a salary for helping him finish the little book he was writing: the Short-horn Herd Book.
With the advantage of Allen’s introduction, Grover entered the law firm of Rogers, Bowen, and Rogers, whose senior partner, Henry W. Rogers, knew everybody in town. Cleveland was well aware that he was in President Fillmore’s old firm—which remains the only company of lawyers able to boast that two of its number went forth from its office on a road to the White House. Whatever dreams were animating the young aspirant, for now, in the time-honored fashion, he would read legal tomes, especially Blackstone, and observe the law as practiced, and eventually when his elders deemed him ready, he would be admitted to the bar. Grover Cleveland’s life was beginning afresh in Buffalo.
Copyright © 2002 by Henry F. Graff