Wednesday, April 17, 2013

New Jersey's President: Grover Cleveland

New Jersey's President: Grover Cleveland
Written by NJ Historian

In the town of Caldwell is a home that was the birthplace of the only New Jersey-born President of the United States, Grover Cleveland. Cleveland served as the 22nd and the 24th President of the United States and holds the distinction of being the only President to have served two nonconsecutive terms. From his humble beginnings in the Caldwell manse to the notoriety of the White House in 1885 and again in 1892, and finally his retirement in Princeton, Cleveland always kept his New Jersey upbringing close to his heart. His birthplace remains the only house museum in the country dedicated to the interpretation of his life.

The home in which Cleveland was born in was built in 1832 as the manse for the First Presbyterian Church at Caldwell. The property on which it was built was acquired in 1784 and held in trust for the church. In 1791, the property was transferred to the church. This manse replaced an earlier one which was located 500 feet due west of the current one. It was sold in 1822 and demolished in 1913. This original manse served as the home for Reverend Stephen Grover from 1788 to 1811. In 1811, Reverend Grover built a home on land that he purchased and would remain as pastor of the Presbyterian church until Reverend Richard Falley Cleveland assumed the duties. Grover Cleveland's father, the Reverend Richard Falley Cleveland, served as the church's minister from 1834 to 1841. The home's appearance in during the Cleveland's residency differed from what it looks like today. Originally, the house was two stories with a one-story kitchen to the east, and a one-story lean-to at the rear. Between 1848 and 1870, the house underwent a number of additions and enlargements to house clergy and their families. A third floor with a large dormer was added, the one-story lean-to in the rear was removed and replaced by additional rooms, and a second story was installed over the original kitchen wing. A summer kitchen behind the original kitchen would also be added and eventually deconstructed during restoration.

The Cleveland family was a modest, middle class family. Reverend Richard Falley Cleveland and his wife Anne Neale were married in 1829. Reverend Cleveland had studied at the Princeton Theological Seminary, where he became a Presbyterian clergyman. Caldwell was his third position as a clergyman, preceded by service at Windham, Connecticut and Portsmouth, Virginia. The Cleveland family moved to Caldwell in May of 1834. Stephen Grover Cleveland, their fifth of nine children, was born at the parsonage in Caldwell, New Jersey on March 18, 1837. He was delivered by local midwives Naomi Baldwin and Mary DeCamp Shippen. Stephen Grover Cleveland was named in honor of Reverend Stephen Grover, the former pastor at the church in Caldwell. From childhood he had been called Grover, and had always written his name as Grover Cleveland.

Grover Cleveland's cradle in the room in which he was born. Interior photographs by permission only: NJ State Park Service, Grover Cleveland Birthplace State Historic Site.
The Cleveland family lived in the manse until October of 1840, when Reverend Cleveland resigned. While searching for employment, the Clevelands stayed as guests in the Campbell family's home, located approximately half a mile away on Bloomfield Avenue. In October of 1841, the Cleveland family and their seven children moved to Fayetville, New York. 

As a child, Cleveland attended school in New York State. As he was about to enter college in 1853, his father suddenly died. Instead of attending college, Cleveland, now 16, went to work to support his mother and his siblings. In 1855, Cleveland traveled west with the intention of going to Cleveland, Ohio. A couple of years later he took a clerkship with the law firm of Messrs. Rogers, Bowen & Rogers. In 1859, he was admitted to the bar.

Cleveland began his career in politics in 1871 as the Sheriff of Erie County, New York where he aligned himself with the democratic party. In 1882, he was elected Mayor of Buffalo. In 1883, he was elected Governor of New York State. 

In three and a half years, Cleveland quickly aspired to higher political office. In the presidential election of 1884, Cleveland ran as a Democrat against Republican James Blaine. Cleveland was able to win Presidency due bipartisan support from the Democrat and Republican parties. The Republicans who were looking for reform, disliked Blaine as they believed him to be corrupt. In 1885, Grover Cleveland became the 22nd President and the first Democrat to be elected since the end of the Civil War.

During his first term as President, Cleveland took advantage of his vetoing power. He vetoed hundreds of pension bills for Civil War veterans. However his most famous veto was of the Texas Seed Bill. He vetoed a bill that would have allowed $10,000 to purchase seed grain for farmers in Texas who had suffered from a severe drought. Cleveland believed in limiting aid from the federal government in order to increase the sturdiness and independence of the people. He also signed the Interstate Commerce Act and established the United States Department of Labor.

Cleveland entered the presidency as a bachelor and one year later on June 2, 1886, married Frances Clara Folsom, the daughter of his law firm partner. He became the first President to marry in the White House. The ceremony was held in the Blue Room. Frances Cleveland remains the youngest First Lady, assuming the role at the age of twenty-one. At the wedding, guests received pieces of fruit cake in boxes made by Tiffany & Co. and Spooner Manufacturing Company. Each box was hand-painted. One of the boxes, complete with the fruit cake, is on display at the Grover Cleveland Birthplace. The Clevelands had five children. According to legend, their first child, Ruth, had a candy bar named after her. Their second child, Esther, was the first baby of a president born in the White House. Marion was born in 1895 and sons Richard and Francis were born in 1897 and 1903, respectively.

Cleveland wedding, June 2, 1886. Source: Library of Congress
Cleveland ran for reelection in 1888. He won the popular vote against his opponent Republican Benjamin Harrison but did not receive enough electoral votes, resulting in his loss. For the following four years he returned to practicing law. In the election of 1892, Cleveland ran again against Harrison. Cleveland won the election and received the majority of both the popular and electoral votes. He became the only president to serve two non-consecutive terms and the only Democrat elected between 1861 and 1912.

In his second term, Cleveland faced the Panic of 1893 and an acute economic depression. He resolved labor issues and dealt with the 1894 Pullman strike. During this term he also forced Great Britain into accepting arbitration over a Venezuelan boundary. Throughout his political career, Cleveland was known for his honesty, fairness, and nonpartisanship. 

After the Presidency Cleveland retired to Princeton, New Jersey. Mrs. Cleveland chose a home originally built in 1854 by a member of the Stockton family. The home was named Westland in honor of Cleveland's close friend Andrew West, a professor at Princeton University. Westland closely resembles Morven, another Stockton house in Princeton. Westland was a two and one-half-story, stone building covered with stucco. The home had twin parlors on the first floor, spacious rooms, high ceilings, and handsome marble mantelpieces when the Clevelands bought it.  Cleveland soon added a two-story, flat-roofed wing containing a room for billiards on the first floor and bedrooms on the second. Today, the home is a private residence. Grover Cleveland died at Westland on June 24, 1908 and is buried in Princeton Cemetery.

President Grover Cleveland and family at Westland in Princeton, NJ.
The historical significance of Cleveland's birthplace was recognized as early as 1881 while he was running for governor of New York. The Presbyterian Church begins negotiations for sale of the property in 1902 for $18,000, to be used only as a memorial to Grover Cleveland, although no interested party was found. Renewed efforts to acquire and preserve Cleveland's birthplace began in 1907 when a group of his friends and admirers began negotiations to purchase the manse. The Grover Cleveland Birthplace Memorial Association was incorporated in 1913 with four officers and 39 trustees as a non-profit organization, “to honor and perpetuate the memory of Grover Cleveland." The Association purchased the house and lot, plus a lot along Arlington Avenue. On March 18, 1913, the house opened to the public as a museum. In 1933, due to the Great Depression, the Grover Cleveland Birthplace Memorial Association suffered financial difficulties and the property was sold to the State of New Jersey. The house was restored to its 1870s appearance under a Works Progress Administration program in 1936.

This historic homestead was added to the State and National Registers of Historic Places in 1976 and 1977, respectively. Today, the site is interpreted to give visitors a glimpse into what life may have been like growing up in the Cleveland household in the 1830s. Displays recant the history of Cleveland's family, childhood, rise into public life, and presidency. In honor of the First Presbyterian Church's centennial in 1884, Cleveland wrote of his hometown, "Though I remember almost nothing of the village where I spent a few very early days, I can sincerely say that the spot is dear to me - as the place of his birth should be dear to every man." For one hundred years, the home has been dear to the countless visitors that have toured the birthplace of the nation's 22nd and 24th President.

Additional photos of my trip to the Grover Cleveland Birthplace on Pinterest

Grover Cleveland Birthplace Podcast (right click and choose "save target/link as" to save to your hard drive)

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