Lineage of President Grover Cleveland
Children of Richard and Ann Neal Cleveland
Links to Biographies of President Grover Cleveland
By Peter Huber
[From the September 1993 issue of Cleveland Family Chronicles.
Reprinted with permission from Old News, May 1993 issue.]
Grover Cleveland, a successful lawyer in Buffalo, New York, was a thirty-six-year-old bachelor in 1873 when he met Maria Halpin, who was thirty-five. Maria, a widow with two children, had moved from Pennsylvania to Buffalo. There she took a job as a collar-maker. Later she found more genteel employment at a dry goods store where she was eventually put in charge of the cloak department.
Maria attended the most fashionable church in town, Saint John's Episcopal. She impressed her more provincial friends in Buffalo with her ability to speak French fluently. Tall, pretty, and personable, she attracted several young men in Buffalo, including Grover Cleveland.
When a son was born to her on September 14, 1874, she named the infant Oscar Folsom Cleveland, clearly identifying Cleveland as the baby's father.
Cleveland had no desire to marry Maria; he was not at all certain that he was the infant's father. Cleveland's friends later reported that Maria herself did not know who was the father of her child. Nevertheless, Cleveland took responsibility for supporting the child.
Soon after the birth of her child, Maria began to drink heavily, incapacitating herself as a mother. Cleveland arranged to have Maria placed for a short stay in a mental hospital where her alcoholism could be treated. He placed the child in an orphan's home which charged Cleveland five dollars a week for the child's keep.
After Maria sobered up and was released from the mental hospital, Cleveland gave her money to start her own business in Niagara Falls.
She soon returned to Buffalo, however, and tried to have her child removed from the orphan's home. Failing in this, she then tried, unsuccessfully, to kidnap the child. Eventually the boy was adopted by a childless upper-class family who gave him a good education.
Gradually, Cleveland lost contact with both Maria and her son. As Maria receded from his life in the late 1870s, his inconspicuous life as a lawyer in Buffalo continued as before.
Then in 1881 when he was forty-four years old, he started on what was to be one of the most amazing political careers in American history. In the space of three years he was catapulted from being an unknown lawyer from Buffalo, New York, to becoming the Democratic nominee for President of the United States.
His ascent began when he was persuaded to run on the Democratic reform ticket in 1881 for Mayor of Buffalo. Elected by a handsome majority, he immediately cracked down on graft in the city government. During his first year in office he also built a new sewer for Buffalo, which all but stamped out the typhoid fever which had previously ravaged the city.
After one year of service as mayor, Cleveland was elected Governor of New York State on the Democratic ticket. As governor he eliminated considerable waste and graft in the state government. He made free use of his veto power to eliminate bills that would be of no benefit to the taxpayers. In working for honest and efficient government, he frequently crossed party lines to cooperate with a young, reform-minded Republican legislator named Theodore Roosevelt. After two years as governor, Cleveland was nominated for the Presidency by the Democrats in 1884.
Cleveland's phenomenal political rise was not entirely due to his honesty and courage, which were considerable. His unusual success was possible because the American people had become disgusted with the rampant corruption in the Republican Party, which had been in power since the Civil War. The people were looking for a man like Cleveland, who seemed to be incorruptible. Part of Cleveland?s appeal was the fact that he was a newcomer to politics.
His Republican opponent for the Presidency was James G. Blaine, a former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. Blaine had been accused of accepting bribes from a railroad for whom he had made favorable rulings while Speaker.
Almost immediately after Blaine's nomination by the Republicans in 1884, many highly respected Republicans announced that they would not support a corrupt politician like Blaine. Among well-known Republicans who bolted their party were Carl Schurz, James Russell Lowell, Richard H. Dana, Theodore Roosevelt, and Charles Francis Adams, Jr., as well as President Eliot of Harvard University. These insurgents from the Republican Party flatteringly called themselves "Mugwumps," the Algonquian Indian word for "Big Chiefs." The Mugwumps were solidly behind Cleveland.
The Mugwumps went to work digging up evidence of Blaine's early shady dealings. They discovered some letters written by Blaine a decade previously, which clearly indicated his wrongdoing. On the back of one of these self-incriminating letters, Blaine had scrawled, "Burn this letter." Unfortunately for Blaine, the recipient had failed to carry out Blaine's order. The Mugwumps released the damaging letters to the press. In mid-July, 1884, it seemed likely that the United States would get its first Democratic President since James Buchanan, who had been elected in 1856.
The Republicans were on the defensive. Their nominee, Blaine, was under daily fire in the press for his former misdeeds. The Republican leaders realized that if they wanted to win the election, they would somehow have to open an offensive against Cleveland. Investigators were sent to Buffalo to search for unsavory facts about Cleveland's earlier years. The investigators were more successful in their search than they had hoped.
On July 21, 1884, Cleveland's Democratic headquarters was devastated by an article that appeared in a sensational Buffalo newspaper under the title of "A Terrible Tale." The article revealed Cleveland's clandestine love affair with Maria Halpin in 1873 and the resulting birth of their illegitimate child. When the news of the Maria Halpin affair was published in newspapers in the midst of the 1884 Presidential campaign, the Republicans rejoiced and the Democrats despaired. Overnight, the Democrats' optimism evaporated. One of Cleveland's supporters in Buffalo sent him a frantic telegram, asking for advice. Cleveland wrote back: "Tell the truth."
Taking his own advice, Cleveland prepared a statement describing in detail his past affair with Maria, but his political managers advised him strongly against releasing the statement.
Even though Cleveland did not tell the whole truth, his telegram urging the campaign worker in Buffalo to "tell the truth" received wide publicity. The telegram won much praise for the attitude it expressed and was widely quoted. It reinforced the public image of Cleveland as an honest civil servant. It became a symbolic indication of Cleveland's integrity.
While Cleveland, on the advice of counselors, maintained an aloof silence during the period of shock following the release of the Maria Halpin story, his backers worked frantically to minimize the damage.
A group of pro-Cleveland preachers made a "careful study" of all the facts in the case and concluded that, after Cleveland's "preliminary offence," his behavior had been "responsible," even "honorable." The preachers reported that many of Cleveland's friends believed that he had shouldered the entire responsibility for Maria?s child in order to shield some married men and protect their families from scandal.
If the story of his affair with Maria Halpin had been released before the Democratic Convention in June, 1884, Cleveland most likely would not have received the nomination. Moreover, he probably would not have won the election if the story had become known late in October just before the election.
As it was, the story was published immediately after the convention and four months before the election. Four months was sufficient time for initial emotion to subside.
After learning about the Maria Halpin affair, a Mugwump remarked that if the private life of the Republican, Blaine, was blameless but his public life was reprehensible, and if Cleveland's public life was commendable but his private life abominable, it was obvious that Cleveland should be raised to high public office and that Blaine should be returned to private life. Although the observation was made humorously, it influenced many voters.
Another tactic used by the Democrats was accusing Blaine of mudslinging. They charged that Blaine, under heavy attack from the Mugwumps for his corrupt behavior while Speaker, had unearthed the story of Cleveland's love affair in order to shift public attention away from his own transgressions.
Cleveland's followers contrasted Blaine's mudslinging with their leader's alleged lack of vindictiveness. Cleveland?s partisans told a story which illustrated their point. They said that after the Maria Halpin revelation, a scandal-monger had come to Cleveland carrying a sheaf of papers which contained salacious information about Blaine?s private life. The sheaf was for sale, and Cleveland purchased it.
He then, in the presence of his campaign managers, tore the papers into shreds, laid them in the fireplace, and lit a match to them. "The other side," Cleveland said, "can have a monopoly on all the dirt in this campaign."
The information in the papers, nevertheless, came to light. Someone had seen a tombstone of an infant child, born to Blaine and his wife only three months after their wedding.
This story was so widely circulated that Blaine felt compelled to make a public explanation. For reasons he did not spell out, apparently the opposition of his wife?s family to the marriage, Blaine and his fiancee had been secretly married a year before their public formal wedding.
Later analysis of the election results showed that Blaine would undoubtedly have won the election if he had not made two serious mistakes on the same day a week before the election. The first mistake was to attend a meeting in New York of Protestant ministers who were his supporters. One of the ministers ended a speech in praise of Blaine by labelling the Democrats as the party of "Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion." The minister was referring to Catholic immigrants and to Southerners who were the stalwarts of the Democratic Party. Blaine paid very little attention to the preacher's words as they were being spoken. On the following day, however, he was stunned to see his supporters carrying placards displaying the three-word characterization of the Democrats. American Catholics were offended by the phrase; many of them switched their support from Blaine to Cleveland.
Blaine's second mistake was to attend a dinner in his honor at Delmonico's in New York. His fellow diners were all Republican multimillionaires, including the notorious robber-baron Jay Gould. The plutocratic dinner at Delmonico's enhanced Blaine's image as the minion of rich and powerful industrialists.
In the final week of the campaign there were political parades all across the country. In many of these parades the Democrats chanted, "Burn this letter! Burn this letter!"
Republican parades featured men dressed as women pushing baby carriages, each carriage containing a large doll. As they marched, the Republicans cried in falsetto voices, "Ma! Ma! Where's my pa?"
In the election which followed, Cleveland won by a slim majority. He carried New York with a plurality of slightly over a thousand votes out of a total of over a million votes cast. A shift of slightly more than five hundred votes in New York would have given the election to Blaine.
[Sources: Grover Cleveland, A Study in Courage by Allan Nevins, Dodd Mead, New York, 1948; Grover Cleveland by Richard E. Welch, Jr., University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, KS, 1988; Bourbon Leader: Grover Cleveland and the Democratic Party, Little Brown, Boston, 1957; Democrats and Republicans, Ten Years of the Republic edited by Louis Filler, Capricorn Books, New York, 1964.]
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