President Donald Trump may never concede to Joe Biden as he continues to contest an election he lost. But he’s already channeling Grover Cleveland, America’s 22nd and 24th president – the only commander in chief ever elected to two nonconsecutive terms.
“We’re trying to do another four years,” Trump said at a White House Christmas party. “Otherwise, I’ll see you in four years.”
That sounds like Cleveland’s young wife, Frances, after her husband lost the 1888 election. “I want to find everything just as it is now, when we come back again,” she told the White House staff. “We are coming back four years from today.”
Like Trump, Stephen Grover Cleveland lost reelection amid charges of voter fraud. Unlike the 2020 election, there actually was clear evidence of fraud in some states, especially Indiana.
And unlike Trump, Cleveland graciously conceded to his opponent, Sen. Benjamin Harrison of Indiana. What’s more, Cleveland not only attended Harrison’s inauguration on a rainy day, but even held an umbrella over the new president as he delivered his inauguration speech.
Cleveland had won the presidency in 1884 as a 47-year-old bachelor despite revelations that he had fathered a son out of wedlock. A popular cartoon showed Cleveland and a woman holding a baby who was saying: “Ma, Ma. Where’s my Pa?” But he also was known as “Grover the Good” for his reform actions as the Democratic mayor of Buffalo and the governor of New York.
The president soon boosted his image by marrying 21-year-old Frances Folsom, the daughter of a late friend. Cleveland is the only president ever to be married in a White House ceremony. The Clevelands took up a summer residence in an area of Northwest Washington. Today that neighborhood is called Cleveland Park.
Meanwhile, Cleveland made political enemies by vetoing more than 400 bills sent to him by the Republican Congress. He pressed for low tariffs on imported goods, antagonizing businesspeople. Warned that his stance might hurt him in the next election, Cleveland retorted, “What is the use of being elected or reelected unless you stand for something?”
In 1888, Republicans nominated Harrison, a Civil War general and the grandson of President William Henry “Old Tippecanoe” Harrison. Cleveland gave only one campaign speech because he considered campaigning by a president to be undignified.
Harrison gave more than 80 speeches from the front porch of his Indianapolis home. On the street in front of his house, he re-created his grandfather’s colorful 1840 “log cabin and hard cider” campaign parades.
With Levi Morton as his running mate, he also took a note from his grandfather’s 1840 campaign slogan – “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” – recasting it as “Tippecanoe and Morton Too.”
When the results came in, Cleveland won the popular vote by more than 100,000 votes, but Harrison won the electoral college vote 233 to 157. Democrats initially questioned narrow losses in New York and Indiana. In Indiana, Republicans openly encouraged the use of voters, known as “floaters,” who agreed to vote for a candidate for a price.
After a brief delay, the Democratic Party’s national campaign chairman conceded the election. “Gen. Harrison is elected beyond a doubt,” he said. “Not only would it be foolish but wrong to make any further claim of the success of the Democratic ticket.”
Cleveland wrote a personal letter to Harrison “to assure you of my readiness to do all in my power to make your accession to office easy and agreeable.” The New York World commented: “President Cleveland is reported to be calm and unconcerned. This noble example which he sets will not be lost upon this country.”
Days before Harrison’s March 4 inauguration, a Chicago Herald editorial called for Cleveland to be the Democratic presidential nominee in 1892. “Let the good work begin,” the paper said.
Cleveland said he hadn’t thought about what he would do next. “My future movements are as yet wholly unsettled,” he told reporters.
The former president moved to New York City and joined a prestigious law firm. In 1890, he became the second president to argue a case before the U.S. Supreme Court. He and his wife had a child, Ruth, the first of five children. “Baby Ruth” became a national celebrity.
(In 1921, a candymaker introduced a Baby Ruth candy bar, claiming it was named after Cleveland’s daughter, who died of diphtheria in 1904 at age 12. It was widely believed the company was avoiding paying royalties to star baseball slugger Babe Ruth.)
While disavowing interest in running for president again, Cleveland gave about 10 speeches a year. By the time of the 1892 Democratic Convention, the party’s choice for nominee was clear. “Grover’s Name Towers Over All,” the Pittsburgh Dispatch wrote. The election was a Cleveland-Harrison rerun.
Harrison, who was nicknamed the “Human Iceberg,” was unpopular. The campaign was low-key because the first lady, Caroline Harrison, was gravely ill with tuberculosis. She died two weeks before the election.
This time Cleveland won easily. But his transition was troubled by a looming economic crisis. Harrison seemed in denial, telling Congress, “There has never been a time in our history when work was so abundant.” Some historians speculate that he wanted to pin the blame on his successor. The Panic of 1893 hit just two weeks before Cleveland was inaugurated.
Nevertheless, by 1896 there was talk of a third term. Then, in June, Cleveland greeted members of the Louisville Colonels baseball team at the White House. The manager, William McGunnigle, had been a player in Buffalo when Cleveland was mayor. McGunnigle made news when he said he hoped the president would run again. Cleveland shook his head and said: “No third term for me. I couldn’t stand it.”
Only a few former presidents ever tried to return to the White House after being out of office. Martin Van Buren ran as the Free Soil Party candidate in 1848. The most famous candidate was two-term President Theodore Roosevelt, who ran in 1912 for the Bull Moose Party after having a falling out with the Republican candidate, President William Howard Taft.
Roosevelt’s presidential run was nearly fatal. Before a speech in Milwaukee, a New York bar owner shot Roosevelt in the chest. Fortunately, the bullet was slowed by a copy of a 50-page speech Roosevelt had stuffed inside his overcoat pocket. He delivered his 84-minute speech, telling the audience he had been shot and noting, “It takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose.”
Since then, no former president has tried to return to the White House after being out of office. But Trump has repeatedly hinted that he will be the next.
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Shafer is a former editor at the Wall Street Journal and the author of “The Carnival Campaign: How The Rollicking 1840 Campaign of Tippecanoe and Tyler Too Changed Presidential Elections Forever.”