Stephen Grover Cleveland was born on March 18, 1837, in Caldwell, New Jersey to Richard Falley Cleveland and Ann Neal Cleveland. His father was a Presbyterian minister, originally from Connecticut, and his mother was from Baltimore, the daughter of a bookseller. He was distantly related to General Moses Cleveland after whom the city of Cleveland, Ohio, was named. The fifth of nine children, he was named Stephen Grover in honor of the first pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Caldwell, where his father was pastor at the time, but he did not use the name Stephen in his adult life. In 1841, the Cleveland family moved to Fayetteville, New York, where Grover spent much of his childhood. In 1850, Cleveland's father took a pastorate in Clinton, Oneida County, New York, and the family relocated there. They moved again in 1853 to Holland Patent, New York, near Utica. Not long after the family arrived in Holland Patent, Cleveland's father died.
Cleveland's elementary education came at the Fayetteville Academy and the Clinton Liberal Academy. After his father died in 1853, Cleveland left school and helped to support his family. Later that year, Cleveland's brother William was hired as a teacher at the New York Institute for the Blind in New York City, and William obtained a place for Cleveland as an assistant teacher. He returned home to Holland Patent at the end of 1854. An elder in his church offered to pay for his college education if he would promise to become a minister, but Cleveland declined. Instead, in 1855 Cleveland decided to move west. He stopped first in Buffalo, New York, where his uncle, Lewis W. Allen gave him a clerical job. Allen was an important man in Buffalo, and he introduced his nephew to influential men there, including the partners in the law firm of Rogers, Bowen, and Rogers. Cleveland later took a clerkship with the firm, and was admitted to the bar in 1859.
After becoming a lawyer, Cleveland worked for the Rogers firm for three years, leaving in 1862 to start his own practice. In January 1863, he was appointed assistant district attorney of Erie County. With the American Civil War raging, Congress passed the Conscription Act of 1863, requiring able-bodied men to serve in the army if called upon, or else to hire a substitute. Cleveland chose the latter course, paying George Benninsky, a thirty-two year-old Polish immigrant, $150 to serve in his place.
As a lawyer, Cleveland became known for his single-minded concentration and dedication to hard work. In 1866, he defended some participants in the Fenian raid of that year, doing so successfully and free of charge. In 1868, Cleveland attracted some attention within his profession for his successful defense of a libel suit against the editor of the Commercial Advertiser, a Buffalo newspaper. During this time, Cleveland lived simply in a boarding house; although his income grew sufficient to support a more lavish lifestyle, Cleveland continued to support his mother and younger sisters.
At 44, Grover Cleveland emerged into a political prominence that carried him to the White House in three years. Running as a reformer, he was elected Mayor of Buffalo in 1881, and later, Governor of New York. In 1884 Cleveland was nominated by the Democrats to run for President. Thomas Hendricks was chosen as his running mate. His opponent was James Blaine. The campaign was one largely of personal attacks rather than substantive issues. Cleveland narrowly won the election with 49% of the popular vote and while gaining 219 of the possible 401 electoral votes.
In the election of 1884, Cleveland appealed to middle-class voters of both parties as someone who would fight political corruption and big-money interests. Many people saw Cleveland's Republican opponent, James G. Blaine, as a puppet of Wall Street and the powerful railroads. The morally upright Mugwumps, a Republican group of reform-minded businessmen and professionals, hated Blaine and embraced Cleveland's efforts at battling corruption. Cleveland also had the popularity to carry New York, a state crucial to victory.
The American public admired President Cleveland and was just warming to the idea of a young First Lady. President Cleveland had entered the White House as a bachelor (only two in history) and married 21 year old Frances Folsom in June 1886. This is the only historically recorded wedding of a President in the White House. It was an exciting day back in February 1888 when President Grover Cleveland and his new bride started their lengthy trip toward Jacksonville Florida. Grover Cleveland's entire visit was orchestrated in response to a new state rivalry. California instituted an overwhelming public relations campaign to dominate seasonal vacationing and bring winter travelers to its state. Not to be outdone, Florida state representatives, charged with bringing more travelers to the state, arranged for a dynamic event never seen before in the United States. The idea of a Sub-Tropical Exposition was born. It would combine Florida's horticulture, farming and seafood under one roof.
When he ran for reelection in 1888, the Republicans raised lots of money from the nation's manufacturers and spent it lavishly, helping to ensure victory for their candidate, Benjamin Harrison. The election thus marked the beginning of a new era in campaign financing. Though Cleveland actually won a larger share of the popular vote, Harrison defeated Cleveland in the Electoral College.
In 1892, however, after four years of Republican leadership, Cleveland quashed the reelection hopes of Harrison, who had alienated many in his own party. He thus became the only President to serve nonconsecutive terms, winning the office once again after losing as the incumbent.
Cleveland did not see himself as an activist President with his own agenda to pursue, but as a guardian or watchdog of Congress. While several important pieces of legislation became law during his terms—most notably bills controlling the railroads and distributing land to Native Americans—he did not initiate any of it.
During his second term, Cleveland also had to deal with the most severe depression the nation had ever suffered. By 1894, the U.S. economy was reeling from an 18 percent unemployment rate. When 150,000 railroad workers walked off the job in sympathy with the Pullman Car workers' strike in Illinois, Cleveland sent federal troops to crush the revolt and arrest its leaders. In this instance, he tilted toward the business community in the ongoing struggle between management and labor. This decision sparked a great deal of criticism at the time as well as later from historians.
Cleveland blamed the country's economic problems on the Sherman Silver Purchasing Act passed during the Harrison administration. His attempt to repeal the act split the Democrats, and his failure to deal with the depression ensured Republican victory in the congressional elections of 1894. He left office in 1897 feeling betrayed by his own party.
Cleveland is the only president to serve two non-consecutive terms (1885–1889 and 1893–1897) and therefore is the only individual to be counted twice in the numbering of the presidents. He was the winner of the popular vote for president three times—in 1884, 1888, and 1892—and was the only Democrat elected to the presidency in the era of Republican political domination that lasted from 1861 to 1913.