By Benjamin Shapell
In the last issue of Insider’s Report, our cover story explored, through the written words of the Presidents themselves, the many different emotions felt by incoming and outgoing Chief Executives during the transfer of executive power. We shared with you Washington’s humility in not wanting the job of President, as well as Theodore Roosevelt’s scolding his tailors for not having his inauguration suit completed on time.
We noted, too, how some departing Presidents expressed feelings of relief, peaceful acquiescence, and even satisfaction as they left the Presidency. Benjamin Harrison wrote that his one term in office felt more like ten years. Harrison’s sense of relief is mirrored by another Grover Cleveland ALS we acquired shortly after the last issue was published. Writing to a friend on December 15, 1888, following his defeat in his second bid for the Presidency, Cleveland comments that he shall be a happy man come March 5, his first day of freedom.” Just four years before, however, as he assumed office for the first time on March 4, 1885, Cleveland was a happy man in a different sense. Cleveland’s first hundred days of his first term, normally a politically trying time for any new administration, were spared of any major political tests, and were occupied by matters of a pleasant and personal nature – namely his courtship [of] and engagement to Frances Folsom, who would become, at the age of 21, the youngest First Lady in U.S. history.1 On that happy note, we are pleased to share our recent acquisition of perhaps the greatest cache ever discovered of unpublished love letters written by a President while in office.
These intimate letters express Cleveland’s innermost thoughts on the responsibilities and frustrations of the Presidency, as well as his almost obsessive attempt to shield his wife-to-be from those same frustrations which surround the First Family. As did our Cleveland letter of December 15, 1888, this group of letters reveals a President fiercely, almost defiantly, protective of his privacy, as we shall see. Before we do, though, a little introduction is in order.
Grover Cleveland married young Frances Folsom when he was 49 years old, the oldest President ever to marry for the first time. She was only 21. They were married for 22 years when he died in 1908. Though he married late, it was not due to a fear of matrimony, unlike one of his predecessors, President Martin Van Buren, who wrote to a friend on March 26, 1838: “I am quite lonesome since you left and therefore that much more exposed to the greatest of all dangers, matrimony, but I hope I shall have firmness enough to keep my legs.” No, Cleveland didn’t view matrimony as a danger; it was more a question of finding the right partner. Dubbed the “Beast of Buffalo” by his political enemies during his year as mayor of Buffalo, often grumpy Cleveland found in Frances the passion and other fine qualities he was looking for. The romance of The Beast of Buffalo and the beautiful Frances was a love story along the same lines, perhaps, as those of Harry Truman and Bess, or even Ronald Reagan and Nancy.
Cleveland’s confidence in selecting Frances can likely be attributed to the fact that he had known her for a long time. In fact, he met his future wife shortly after she was born. Her father, Oscar Folsom, was Cleveland’s law partner in Buffalo, and the two families were very close. When Frances was 11 years old, Folsom died in a carriage accident, and the court appointed Cleveland administrator of his estate when it was discovered that Folsom had died without a will. This brought Cleveland into still more contact with young Frances, who would often visit his office, where he would assign her legal documents to copy. Cleveland took a keen interest in his ward’s upbringing, and continued to buy her numerous gifts, including a horse and buggy.
Later, Frances attended Wells College in Aurora, New York, and when Cleveland became Governor, both she and her mother were frequent guests in Albany. Mother and daughter also attended Cleveland’s first inauguration as President in 1885. Sometime while she was in college, their feelings for each other took a romantic turn. By August, “Uncle Cleve” and “Frank,” as they affectionately called one another, were secretly engaged, though they did not announce their engagement until ten months later, just five days before their June 2, 1886, wedding.
Cleveland’s impending married life seemed to turn him inward, with familial privacy becoming an almost obsessive preoccupation. The task of bringing a new wife into an imposing White House presented a great challenge to the President. He became a defiant man in an otherwise humbling office. After having served as President for nine months, he knew what awaited him and his bride-to-be over the next four years, and Cleveland fought fiercely to shield his wife from a “huntdown by the press animals of a defenceless girl.”
Allan Nevins, in his Pullitzer Prize-winning biography, observed that Cleveland had a dual personality. “To the end of his life,” wrote Nevins, “his intimates were struck by the gulf which separated the exuberant, jovial Cleveland of occasional hours of carefree banter, and the stern, unbending Cleveland of work and responsibility, whose life seemed hung round by a pall of duty.” In these letters, we see precisely what Nevins was referring to. As President, Cleveland could be unsparingly critical and greatly frustrated in his position at times, and he was forever apologetic to his young wife for thrusting her so suddenly into the public eye.
These intimate letters of Grover and Frances should not be taken for granted; rarely do letters of so personal a nature surface in the marketplace. They are, indeed, a rare spectacle. Even when a President was prolific in his letter writing, we don’t see letters of this type. George Washington might have written tens of thousands of letters, but his personal letters to Martha are not only unobtainable, they are virtually nonexistent. After his death, his wife, possibly as a possessive reaction to having been forced to share her husband so extensively with the public, burned their letters to each other.
Harry Truman, similarly enjoyed picking up the pen. Bess Truman, however, didn’t wait as long as Martha Washington – she started burning their letters when Harry became President. Luckily, Bess couldn’t get to them all; Harry wrote such a voluminous number. Though many survive today, they are not likely to appear on the market, having been firmly locked away at the Truman Library in Independence, Missouri.
The five letters from Grover Cleveland to his young fiancée are handwritten on quarto and octavo-size Executive Mansion stationery, and signed simply “G.C.”, with some running as many as four closely-written pages. The letters are dated December 6, 1885; December 13, 1885; April 26, 1886; May 23, 1886 and May 28, 1886 (just five days before the wedding). In essence, all are apologetic in tone, exhibiting Cleveland’s commitment to his responsibilities as President on the one hand, and on the other hand revealing his fear of the toll the Presidency might take on a couple just starting out: “And when I think of bringing my Darling here to have her clear life repressed and perplexed by the dreadful things which surround me, I sometimes come pretty near asking myself if it is right…”, Cleveland laments in the first letter. He reminds her later in the same letter that his duties “will so fill my mind and thoughts that I shall hardly have a chance to think of my Darling who though in the same house with me will be so far away.”
Further on, he regrets the fact that perhaps she is being cheated out of a normal life because he can’t be like the other new husbands that they meet: “Sometimes you may see young wives with young husbands who may receive more constant attentions than you will receive at my hands.”
In the next letter, dated December 13, 1885, Cleveland again makes reference to Frank’s innocence and puts her youth in historic perspective: “I guess there never was anyone so young and so unused to such responsibilities, who occupied the place before; and my anxiety is, my darling child, that you should be as well prepared as it is possible to meet and carry with the least trouble and annoyance all that is before you.”
He entertains a possible solution to improving their privacy and overcoming the isolation of their large house: “I have been thinking a good deal lately how nice it would be to have a little home a few miles away and live there – coming into the White House at regular times and having all the official business here, but having a place where it should not enter, and where the President and his family could live like other people.” This was a startling and radical notion by Cleveland, for although there is no constitutional requirement that the President live in the White House, no President before him had ever attempted to live away. The idea of separating his house from the White House only reaffirms Cleveland’s protectiveness of both his bride-to-be and his assuredness of a happy marriage. Indeed, he and Frances did live elsewhere – in Northwest Washington – as often as they could, until the end of his second term in 1897.
Here we see a President, not even yet married, planning the course of his life and in many ways predicting the course of events, as if he and Frances had already lived in the White House for some time. Later in his December 13 letter, only nine months into his first term, Cleveland already looks forward to his retirement, still a distant three and one-half years away. “I am glad you contemplate paying a little attention to the science of hen raising – for I don’t know what else we can do when we quit here – and it’s only a little over three years now. We must be very frugal and saving because I suppose there is no way for an Ex-President to save money.” The implications about his job are astounding; imagine a President counting the days before he leaves the Presidency with his wife-to-be – when his term has only just begun.
The last three letters Cleveland wrote to Frances before their wedding further evidence his deep concern for her happiness as last minute preparations for the wedding are made. In his April 26, 1886 letter, Cleveland suggests that they might invite more family and friends, as well as the Cabinet’s families, to the wedding, if she thinks it best. Then, following Frances’ grandfather’s death, the President writes to her on May 23, 1886, concerned that she might wish to postpone the wedding, under the circumstances. “I feel that everything is in abeyance till I know or someone for me knows how my Sweet Pet will look upon the subject of so much planning, in the light of the changed circumstances. Everything shall be as you desire; and yet I know, Darling, that you will want to know a little of what has been passing in my mind.”
Finally, on May 28, after keeping the wedding a secret for 10 months, Cleveland writes to Frank that he has leaked the news of their impending nuptials to a number of people, and that the papers will the next day “tell as much in an authoritative way as I think the people ought to know at present.”
Five days later, on June 2, 1886, the Clevelands were married (theirs remains the only Presidential wedding to have taken place in the White House). There was a national obsession with Frances, with some saying that her wedding to Cleveland was the closest event in Presidential history to a marriage in the British royal family.
President and Mrs. Cleveland went on to raise five children together and, after becoming the only First Lady to serve two non-consecutive administrations, she became the first Presidential widow to remarry – in 1913, five years after Cleveland’s death. When Frances died in 1947, she was buried next to the President at Princeton, according to her wishes.
What we discover in these rare and revealing letters is that Grover Cleveland was, after all, a human being, doing his best to lead as normal a life as possible under the circumstances. Cleveland was determined from the very beginning to set the stage and establish reasonable ground rules for the achievement of his two primary lifetime goals: to be President of the United States, and a devoted and thoughtful husband.
We who love autographs occasionally hit upon a lucky find, and these Cleveland letters, like Harry Truman’s to Bess, are truly exceptional. To us, these national treasures are like windows which allow us a glimpse into the true realm of private thoughts and feelings which Presidents usually reserve for just a privileged few.