Grover Cleveland’s 1884 presidential campaign was rocked by a sex scandal. His unconventional response saved his political career—and offered a case study in public relations.
Grover Cleveland was surely in a jaunty mood on July 8, 1884, when Democratic Party delegates gathered in Chicago to nominate a candidate for president. Cleveland, then the governor of New York, was favored to win the nomination. Even better, he stood a good chance of winning the general election, and thus the presidency, against Republican nominee James G. Blaine—the former House speaker, senator and secretary of state. While Blaine possessed a longtime ambition to be president, Cleveland was a political newcomer. He was mayor of Buffalo just three years earlier, before Democratic Party leaders spotted his potential and put the burly, mustachioed idealist on the fast track.
Cleveland was a genial bachelor, an attorney and the son of a Presbyterian minister, with a reputation for hard work and personal integrity. His father died when he was 16, and Cleveland, who grew up in upstate New York, spent years supporting his mother and some of his eight siblings. As New York governor, he impressed the public and many Democrats when he challenged the Tammany Hall political machine. A New York newspaper declared that he was “not swerved one jot or tittle by party or personal friendship.” That sort of rectitude stood in marked contrast to Blaine, who had a stellar résumé but was called “slippery Jim” by detractors. “Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine, continental liar from the state of Maine,” went the gibe from the Democrats. There were lingering suspicions that Blaine had gotten rich accepting bribes from railroad companies when he was speaker of the House—a scandal that had divided the Republican Party and prompted reform activists called “Mugwumps,” who wanted to end the Gilded Age spoils system, to turn against him.
At the convention, Tammany Hall strongmen tried and failed to stop Cleveland’s momentum. The straight arrow running on a platform of merit-based civil service reform, free public education and lower tariffs won the nomination on the second ballot. The race for the presidency was on.
And then came the bombshell. Several days after the Democratic convention, the Buffalo Evening Telegraph published an exposé, headlined “A Terrible Tale: A Dark Chapter in a Public Man’s History,” which revealed a secret episode in Cleveland’s life. The article alleged that Cleveland was the father of an illegitimate 9-year-old child, and that he’d been paying the mother for years to keep her quiet. Republican newspapers gleefully picked up the story, and Blaine supporters started reciting a jeer of their own: “Ma, ma, where’s my pa?”
The allegation stunned Cleveland’s advisers, and immediately the question arose in his political camp: How do we respond? That is the make-or-break question facing every politician hit with scandalous accusations. And more often than not he follows a time-honored, though dishonorable, tradition: He dodges or denies the charges until the investigation loses steam or the public loses interest. With the election still 14 weeks away, Cleveland could have adopted that tactic, but he didn’t. In a telegram to his Buffalo friend Charles Goodyear, who had written asking for instructions, the presidential nominee took the high road. “Whatever you do, tell the truth,” wrote Cleveland, who also refused to do any mudslinging.
Was he fatalistic? Delusional? No, said his supporters, just instinctively honest. Cleveland’s apparent forthrightness would not only set the tone for his bitterly fought campaign against Blaine but also become a textbook case of strategic management. Many voters ultimately gave him the benefit of the doubt, which combined with a major last minute mistake by a Blaine supporter, helped Cleveland win one of America’s closest presidential elections.
Before his meteoric political rise, Cleveland had been a talented striver. When the Civil War began, he was a young attorney in Buffalo. In 1863, feeling obligated to keep supporting his widowed mother and his sisters, he hired a Great Lakes sailor (for $150) to go to war in his place, a legal and not uncommon practice. During the next six years, the affable Cleveland worked hard, socialized with friends at Buffalo’s many beer gardens and made two failed forays into politics. He lost a ward election in 186 4 and a year later was defeated in a bid for district attorney. In 187 0 Cleveland’s law partner, Oscar Folsom, helped him become the Democratic sheriff of Erie County.
As sheriff, the forthright Cleveland showed he was “pugnaciously honest” and not afraid to handle the hard jobs. When two convicted murderers were sentenced to be hanged, Cleveland chose to spring the trap himself rather than pass the unpleasant duty to an underling, as was the custom. After three years as sheriff, he returned to work at his law firm.
As the 1880s began, Buffalo Democrats, seeking a reform candidate, persuaded Cleveland to run for mayor, and got him elected. In his acceptance speech, Cleveland vowed to champion the public interest and keep an eye out for dubious patronage schemes. And that’s what he did. “In the fearless use of the veto power…Mayor Cleveland, of necessity, at times antagonized men and interests that had been accustomed to have their own way,” noted an 1884 biography.
Only a year after Cleveland’s election as mayor, the Democrats lifted him to a much bigger job—the statehouse in Albany. The Republicans gave him a lift, too: They were split over the issue of patronage and civil service reform. Governor Cleveland again put the public welfare ahead of party interests, personally scrutinized all legislation and was quick to use his veto power. His no-nonsense governing style brought him favorable national attention—and suddenly he was being ushered toward the Democratic presidential nomination.
As the 1884 presidential campaign approached, Joseph Pulitzer, the publisher of the New York World, lauded Cleveland. “When a blathering ward politician objects to Cleveland because he is ‘more of a Reformer than a Democrat,’ he furnishes the best argument in favor of Cleveland’s nomination and election,” wrote Pulitzer. At the Democratic convention in Chicago, one of Cleveland’s prominent boosters said that his friends “love him and respect him, not only for himself, for his character, for his integrity and judgment and iron will, but they love him most for the enemies he has made.”
Many of those enemies were Republicans delighted by the Telegraph’s sordid tale of paternity and payoffs. While Cleveland’s supporters were outraged by the dirty politics, the candidate himself made no attempt to deny it. In the mid-1870s, Cleveland, then a bachelor in his 30s, had met and slept with an attractive 38-year-old widow named Maria Halpin, who worked in a dry goods store. As Halpin later told a reporter from Pulitzer’s World, she had met Cleveland on December 15, 1874— and roughly nine months later, a baby was born.
Halpin’s boy was named Oscar Folsom Cleveland. According to published accounts, Cleveland was not Halpin’s only lover; she’d also had relations with at least two other men, one being Cleveland’s best friend, Oscar Folsom. Both of the other men were married, which may explain why Halpin chose to charge Cleveland with the boy’s paternity when one of the other men could have been the father. She may have wanted the successful bachelor to marry her.
Cleveland didn’t marry her, but he did accept responsibility for the child, supposedly to protect the reputation of Folsom, who died the same year the baby was born. Cleveland made payments to Halpin, but when she began drinking heavily and neglected the boy, local authorities turned him over to an orphanage. Later, Cleveland set her up in business in Niagara Falls, but she returned to Buffalo. Eventually she married again, and a well-to-do family adopted the youngster, who grew up to be a successful doctor. The whole affair had rested beneath public notice until the Rev. George H. Ball of the Hudson Street Baptist Church, a Republican crusader for morals and decency, uncovered it and brought it to the Telegraph.
Influential supporters and the Democratic newspapers hurried to Cleveland’s defense. Some papers largely ignored the scandal, while others suggested Halpin was a loose woman. Pulitzer’s World went on the counterattack, characterizing the GOP jabs at Cleveland’s character as “gross, cowardly and unmanly.” Pulitzer himself unleashed a salvo: “If Grover Cleveland had a whole family of illegitimate children…he would be more worthy of office than Blaine, the beggar at the feet of railroad jobbers, the prostitute in the Speaker’s chair… agent of the corruptionists, monopolists, and enemies of the Republic.”
Democrats explained his sexual indiscretion as a “transient weakness”—a one-time personal mistake that had been handled honorably. In an interview with the World, Halpin described Cleveland as “a good, plain, honest hearted man, who was always friendly to me and used me kindly.” However, Charles Lachman in his 2011 book A Secret Life: The Sex, Lies, and Scandals of President Grover Cleveland asserts that the conventional wisdom about Cleveland’s decent behavior was PR spin and “fundamentally dishonest.” Lachman claims that Halpin was a respectable woman, not a harlot, and that in a “long-forgotten” affidavit she claimed that Cleveland assaulted her “by use of force and with violence and without my consent,” and later tried to cover up the paternity scandal.
Cleveland was mostly quiet during the campaign. He made only two set speeches, and when a packet of papers impugning Blaine’s personal life was offered to him, he paid for it, then shredded and burned the papers without reading them.
The looming election question was how would the Mugwumps react? According to author Scott C. James, the GOP defectors “had been an important component” in Cleveland’s victories in the Buffalo mayoral race and the New York gubernatorial election. Lachman notes in his book that on July 22, 1884, days after the Democratic convention, 800 Mugwump delegates from 16 states gathered in New York “to make official a resolution to cross party lines and vote for Cleveland.” At the meeting, “Blaine was denounced as unfit for office, while Grover Cleveland was praised as incorruptible.” The vote to endorse Cleveland was unanimous. But when the scandal broke just hours later, bewildered Mugwumps faced a dilemma: Should they reconsider their endorsement?
A delegate from Chicago summed up the situation. “I gather that Mr. Cleveland has shown high character and great capacity in public life but that in private life his conduct is open to question, while on the other hand, Mr. Blaine in public life has been weak and dishonest, while he seems to have been an admirable husband and father.” Everyone nodded, and the delegate went on. “The conclusion I draw from these facts is that we should elect Mr. Cleveland to the public office for which he is admirably qualified to fill and remand Mr. Blaine to the private life which he is so eminently fitted to adorn.” The Mugwumps would stick with Cleveland.
Pundits surmised that the outcome of the tight race would hinge on New York State, with its 33 electoral votes. And then Cleveland got a huge break. On October 29, six days before the vote, New York City Presbyterian minister Samuel D. Burchard spoke at a gathering of the Religious Bureau of the Republican National Committee in New York. “We are Republicans,” he thundered, “and don’t propose to leave our party and identify ourselves with the party whose antecedents have been rum, Romanism and rebellion!”
Burchard had not only reignited the old issues of prohibition, religion and secession, his words evoked the anti-immigrant, and especially anti-Irish bigotry, of recent decades. That Sunday, thousands of New York Catholics heard about his remarks at Mass. This late GOP blunder gave Cleveland a boost, and he carried New York by a mere 1,047 votes and won the election with 219 electoral votes to Blaine’s 182. He was the first Democrat to win the White House since before the Civil War. Jubilant Democrats took to the streets, shouting: “Ma, Ma, where’s my pa? Gone to the White House, ha ha ha!” Cleveland biographer Allan Nevins wrote in 1933 that “only once or twice in our political history has victory or defeat hung on so delicate a hair, for the change of 600 votes in a single state would have reversed the verdict.”
In Washington, Cleveland stood as stout as he had in Buffalo and Albany. He used the veto, defied special interests and held fast in conflicts over tariffs, government jobs, silver, railroad land grants and Indian rights. But what endeared him to many, and no doubt scandalized others, was a personal act.
After Folsom died, Cleveland took control of his former partner’s estate and helped to guide the future of Folsom’s daughter Frances, then 11 years old. Cleveland’s interest in her seemed that of a devoted uncle until after she went away to Wells College. Then it became romantic. Before her graduation in 1885, the president started sending her flowers. And then, in August, he wrote a letter proposing marriage. Frances accepted, they set a date nine months away and kept their engagement secret until shortly before their wedding.
On June 2, 1886, Grover Cleveland became the only president ever to be married in the White House, and 21-yearold Frances Folsom became the youngest first lady in the nation’s history. Their wedding was in the Blue Room, before a select gathering of friends, relatives and Cabinet members. According to the New York Times, the tall, poised bride “looked like she had gone to bed early, like a sensible young woman, and had a good night’s rest.” Her “superb diamond necklace” was a gift from the groom. She made a striking contrast to the proud, 49- year-old Cleveland, his double-breasted coat tight about his massive body. The couple would later spend many nights at the northwest Washington estate (in what is now called Cleveland Park) that the president bought to get away from the heat and fuss of the White House.
With the Democratic Party split over tariffs, Republican candidate Benjamin Harrison defeated Cleveland’s bid for reelection in the 1888 campaign. Over the next four years, Cleveland practiced law in New York, and Frances gave birth to the first of their five children. Then in 1892 he ran for president and defeated Harrison, becoming the only president ever elected to two nonconsecutive terms.
Cleveland wasn’t always honest. He had long held a grudge against the press, and during his second term he and aides covered up the news of a tumor in his jaw and surgeries to repair it. However, that did not dent his reputation for personal integrity and putting the public before politics. He died in Princeton, N.J., in 1908, and on his tombstone at the Nassau Presbyterian Church are carved the words: “I have tried so hard to do right.”
Ernest B. Furgurson is the author of Chancellorsville 1863 and Freedom Rising: Washington in the Civil War.