Louis Picone – Presentation at Grover Cleveland’s Birthday Ceremony, March 18, 2019

Louis Picone – a presidential author, scholar, faculty member of William Paterson University.and Trustee of the Grover Cleveland Birthplace Memorial Association gives a presentation to commemorate the 182nd anniversary of president Grover Cleveland’s birth. Photo by Janet Markman

Remarks delivered by Louis L. Picone at  Grover Cleveland’s Birthday Ceremony, March 18, 2019 in Caldwell, New Jersey

Today we gather to commemorate the 182nd anniversary of President Grover Cleveland’s birth. On March 18, 1837, two midwives delivered baby Stephen Grover Cleveland in the back room of this home. Before he died in Princeton in 1908, he had celebrated 71 birthdays. He spent his first three birthdays right here in Caldwell, New Jersey. By his fourth the young boy had moved to Fayetteville, New York.[1]

Over the following years he celebrated his birthdays, first as the young boy Stephen Grover, and later as the ambitious, hard-working man, simply known as “Grover.” By his fifteenth birthday he had left school to work at a grocery store to help support his family. He welcomed his 17th year as a teacher for the New York Institute for the Blind. On his 19th birthday he was a clerk in a law office in Buffalo and by his 23rd he was a lawyer and still sending a portion of his paycheck home to support his younger brothers and sisters. By his 26th birthday he was the assistant district attorney of Erie County, and by his 34th, the Sheriff of Erie County.[2]

Soon each birthday marked a giant leap on his meteoric rise to the stratosphere of American politics. In 1882 he celebrated his 45th birthday as the Mayor of Buffalo. In 1883 he celebrated his 46th birthday as the Governor of New York. By his 47th birthday in 1884, his reputation for honesty made “Grover the Good” a leading Democratic candidate for President. The next year, his 48th birthday, Grover Cleveland was the 22nd President of the United States of America. The boy born in Caldwell, New Jersey had become the second youngest president ever elected behind Ulysses S. Grant. While much can be said about his presidency, I would rather speak about the man and his character and how he treated, and how he spoke to others.

On his first birthday as president, he worked all day and the newspapers announced, “Cleveland’s Birthday: No Preparations made for its celebration.”[3] But during his busy schedule he took time to accept “Many happy returns of the day” from friends and well-wishers. He also received a bouquet of violets. It came from a young girl, to whom the newspapers claimed, the President “had been particularly kind to a few days earlier.”[4] The reporter also noted her flowers were the only gift from the public that day, but I suspect Grover Cleveland was just fine with that

Four years later, on his 52nd birthday, Grover Cleveland was again a proud citizen, having lost his re-election bid to Benjamin Harrison.  On his first birthday out of office, Cleveland began a 10-day tour with former cabinet members. That day he awoke in New York City and after breakfast with his wife, he boarded a train for Tampa, Florida, before sailing on to Cuba.[5] During a brief stop in Washington, DC to pick up friends, a reporter noted the fit Cleveland and prophetically wrote, “he is destined to become more of a political force out of office than in office.”[6] Well, the reporter was partially correct. Cleveland would remain a political force indeed, but his destiny was not to do so out of office.

Two weeks earlier, upon leaving the White House the First Lady confidently remarked to a servant, “We are coming back just four years from today.” And just as the First Lady promised, Grover Cleveland celebrated his 56th birthday in 1893 back in the White House. President again. Grover Cleveland became the only man to ever win the presidency, lose it, and then win again. And they called Bill Clinton the comeback kid!

In 1897, Grover Cleveland was again a public citizen. Fifty years earlier, Grover Cleveland left New Jersey, but now he was back as he retired to Princeton. Gone from office, but he was not forgotten. On his birthday in 1899, a group of young girls from Ellendale, South Dakota, who called themselves the Young Misses Conversation Club wrote the former President. Grover Cleveland took time to reply with words of kindness and wisdom, but not condensation. “My dear little Friend: I have received your letter, and am very much flattered to learn that . . . [you have] . . . decided to have a banquet on my birthday. It is a very good thing for children to come together to learn how to talk and think, but I would not be willing to have them do so much of that as to prevent them from enjoying of play. The times for play will soon pass away, and I think children ought to have their full share of romp and frolic and fun while it lasts. . ..  I hope your club will be useful and prosperous, and that you will all have lots of fun at your banquet, and in every day of your lives afterwards. Your friend, GROVER CLEVELAND.”[7]

On his 70th birthday in 1907, flags were unfurled in his honor in Maysville, Kentucky.[8] Closer to home, students from Princeton University paraded to his house, just like they had done every year since he had retired there. That day they gave him a gift, a silver loving cup. Cleveland thanked them and said, “I feel young at seventy, because I have here breathed the atmosphere of vigorous youth.”[9]

The following year, 1908, Grover Cleveland celebrated his 71st birthday in Lakewood, New Jersey. Two weeks earlier, Cleveland, who suffered from multiple medical ailments, checked in to the Lakewood Hotel to recuperate. That day he took a long walk and was in excellent spirits. “l have not felt so well in many a day,” he told a reporter, “I took a longer walk than I have taken in months. I feel fine. In fact, I believe I am in much better physical condition than I have been for a long, long time.”[10]

This was his last birthday. He was a kind-hearted optimist to the end. Perhaps we can best judge Grover Cleveland by what others said about him when he passed away on June 24, 1908. President Theodore Roosevelt praised, “Since his retirement from the presidency he has continued to serve his countrymen by the simplicity, dignity and uprightness of his private life.”[11] But perhaps William Howard Taft delivered the most fitting eulogy in an impromptu aside during a speech at Yale University the night Cleveland died, “He was a great man and a great president. He had the highest civic ideals, a rugged honesty, a high courage. These things will now make him happy in death. As he leaves the world he is revered, loved and respected by his countrymen.”[12]

 

 

[1] “President’s Birthday,” Wheeling Daily Intelligencer, March 18, 1896.

[2] The Graphic Story of the American Presidents by David C. Whitney (Chicago: J. G. Ferguson Publishing Company, 1973), 232-235.

[3] “Cleveland’s Birthday,” Savannah Morning News, March 18, 1885.

[4] “President Cleveland’s Birthday,” Portland Daily Press (Portland, ME), March 19, 1885.

[5] “A Cabinet for Cuba,” Pittsburg Dispatch, March 19, 1889.

[6] “The Ex-President on a Tour,” Rock Island Daily Argus, March 19, 1889.

[7] “A Letter from Cleveland,” State Democrat (Aberdeen, South Dakota), March 17, 1899.

[8] “By Order of Mayor McClellan all the National state and city flags were unfurled in honor ofGrover Cleveland’s birthday last Monday,” Daily Public Ledger (Maysville, KY), March 243, 1907.

[9] “Cleveland, Grover: From Alexander Leitch, A Princeton Companion, copyright Princeton University Press (1978),” Princeton University, Accessed March 9, 2019.  http://etcweb.princeton.edu/CampusWWW/Companion/cleveland_grover.html.

[10] “His Health Improving,” Bemidji Daily Pioneer (Bemidji, MN), March 19, 1908.

[11] “Cleveland’s Funeral 5 Tomorrow Afternoon,” News-Democrat, June 25, 1908.

[12] “Tribute of Roosevelt,” Patterson Press, June 25, 1908.

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