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07.15.10 Grover Cleveland, A Study in Courage, a biography by Allan Nevins, published in 1932 by Dodd, Mead & Company.

Notes Concerning the Author:

Allan Nevins (1890-1971) was born in Camp Point, Illinois and grew up on a farm.  The son of Emma and Joseph Allan Nevins, he attended the University of Illinois, receiving a BA degree and finishing with a MA degree in English in 1913.  For the first 16 years of Nevins’ working life he was a journalist in New York City.  At that point, without the classical Ph. D. degree, he left journalism to join the “history faculty of Columbia University.  Three years later his biography of Grover Cleveland was published by Dodd, Mead & Company.  Nevins’ biography was awarded the 1933 Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography. 

Years later Gerald L. Fetner would write a biography of Allan Nevins, in which he would explain as follows the Nevins style of studying and writing history and biography:

“Nevins used narrative not only to tell a story but to propound moral lessons. It was not his inclination to deal in intellectual concepts or theories, like many academic scholars. He preferred emphasizing practical notions about the importance of national unity, principled leadership, [classical] liberal politics, enlightened journalism, the social responsibility of business and industry, and scientific and technical progress that added to the cultural improvement of humanity.”

Before leaving “Notes Concerning the Author,” it is appropriate to mention that another historian also did a fine job of writing a biography of Grover Cleveland and deserves our parallel recommendation.  We are speaking of Robert McNutt McElroy (1872-1959), born in Perryville, Kentucky.  McElroy, Ph. D., was professor of history a Princeton University from 1898 to 1916, overlapping with then-former-President Grover Cleveland’s life at Princeton, New Jersey and giving ready access to each other and important papers, until Grover’s death at Princeton in 1908.  During the 1920’s and 1930’s McElroy relocated to Great Britain and taught at Oxford and Cambridge.  His two volume Cleveland biography, Grover Cleveland, The Man and the Statesman, was “an authorized biography.”  Both volumes were published in 1923.


Grover Cleveland (1837-1908) was born in Caldwell, New Jersey to Richard Falley Cleveland, originally of Connecticut, and Ann Neal Cleveland, originally of Maryland.  The father was a Presbyterian minister.  The Cleveland’s large family of 9 children moved from church to church during Grover’s childhood in various town’s in New York State.  When Grover was 16 his father died, bringing hardship to the large family.  Grover left school and, in time, built a legal career without benefit of prestigious college training. 

By the age of 18 years was in Buffalo, New York, at the time a busy, growing commercial and transportation hub.  There, he read law and passed examination for the New York State Bar.  When the Cleveland family faced the question which sons should join the Federal Army and which should earn money to support their mother, it was decided that Grover would not join.  In response to his draft call, he hired a substitute.  Fortunately the substitute survived the conflict without difficulty.

Grover Cleveland decided that he was, politically speaking, a Democrat, in spite of the fact that winning elections in Buffalo and New York State as a Democrat was very difficult following the surrender of the Confederate armies in 1865.  In that year, at the age of 28, he ran for Buffalo District Attorney, but lost.  But 5 years later he was elected Sheriff of Erie County (Buffalo).  From 1873 to 1881 Cleveland worked as a Buffalo lawyer, gaining a notable reputation of fairness and trustworthiness.  Then the rocket ship arrived from outer space, or so it would seem.

  • In 1881 Democrat Cleveland was elected Mayor of Buffalo.
  • In 1882 Democrat Cleveland was elected Governor of New York State.
  • In 1884 Democrat Cleveland was elected President of the United States.

To understand the importance of Democrat Cleveland’s election to the Office of President, one must understand that State Secession and the Federal subjugation of Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri followed by the Federal Invasion of 11 seceded States, followed by the Republican’s Political Reconstruction Program, was essentially a political conflict between the recently-formed Republican Party of the northern States and the long-established Democratic Party.  The 1884 election was monumental for Maryland, Kentucky, Missouri and the former Confederate States, for the Republican Party had held the Office of President from 1861 to early 1885, a span of 24 years of war and political reconstruction. 

And Grover Cleveland was not an ordinary politician.  He was a crusader for a limited Federal Government and honesty and fairness in the execution of the office.  His 1884 campaign slogan was, “Public Office is a Public Trust.”

One more bit of good news: Jefferson Davis lived to see the election of Democrat Grover Cleveland.  Although Cleveland was of New York State and had no ties to the southern States, save his mother’s tie to Maryland, his election thrilled long suffering Democrats all over the nation, but most importantly the people of the southern States, who had endured so much under 24 years of Republican Party rule through the Federal Government.  Cleveland would be defeated in his bid for re-election, but would come back 4 years later and win a second term as President.  He would be the only President in United States History to serve two terms which were not consecutive.

This reviewer considers Grover Cleveland to be one of the best Presidents in our nation’s history up to the year 1940, right up there with George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson and James K. Polk.  But, like the southern States Presidents just mentioned, Cleveland is not honored as he should be, perhaps for the same reasons.  Unfortunately, space allowed for this abstract is insufficient to permit an overview of his presidencies.  But this needs to be said: Cleveland was the last conservative Democrat to hold the office of President.  Although Democrats in the southern States remained conservative, elsewhere they transitioned toward a populist, progressive, liberal agenda, giving rise to Presidents Woodrow Wilson (got 42% of vote in a 4-man race) and Franklin Roosevelt (Great Depression).

By the way, Grover remained a bachelor until after his election to the office of President.  It would be a happy marriage.  Cleveland passed away at Princeton, New Jersey in 1908.

To afford time to read another book on our recommended reading list, you might want to set this biography aside after you get a few pages into Cleveland’s presidency.  It is his life before the election and the story of the election that students of southern history need to understand, for that election and the character and political principles of that man represented the end of the South’s long-suffering experience with the northern-States Republican Party of Lincoln, Grant, Hayes and Arthur.

Availability of this Book

Only two biographies of Grover Cleveland are worthy of your attention.  Spend no time with substitutes or books that misrepresent the man.  The biographies by Nevins and McElroy can be found as used books on Amazon, although they seem to be expensive.  Neither is available as a Kindle e-book, but you might be able to locate a digital scanned e-book.  If you manage to get your hands on Charles Lachman’s book, “A Secret Life: The Sex, Lies, and Scandals of President Grover Cleveland,” published in 2011, please burn it.  Do not stop looking until you acquire the book of Nevins or McElroy.  Get one through inter-library loan and put it on your copy machine and, at least, copy the pages through 1885; whatever it takes, do it.