Review of Allan Nevins’ biography of Grover Cleveland

A Pulitzer Prize winning biography by the late Allan Nevins (1890-1971), Grover Cleveland: A Study in Courage is exactly that, a study in courage of our 22nd and 24th President.

Nevins’ work, published in 1932, 24 years after Cleveland’s death, is a detailed and documented work of Cleveland’s life and Presidency during a time in which America was emerging more and more into an industrial national and the west began to assert its interest and authority in national affairs.

It is Cleveland’s courage that is the main filter through which Nevins writes and which he says in his concluding paragraph, “He left to subsequent generations an example of the courage that never yields an inch in the cause of truth, and that never surrenders an iota of principle to expediency.”

As a result, Nevins reveals the courage (often expressed in a stubborn and passionate refusal to budge) of Cleveland against the New York Democratic Machine in his unwillingness to award offices to them as a reward for support and votes as Governor; in his steadfast support of the gold standard against the silver standard that eventually caused the party to reject his administration and philosophy and to embrace the populist William Jennings Bryan in 1896 who support a strong silver currency; and, among others, in his steadfast refusal to enter into an imperialist expansion in Hawaii and Cuba.

The personal side of Cleveland is also detailed in the joys and sorrows of his family life and his controversial marriage to the much younger Francis Folsom in his first term and the supposed illegitimate child, Oscar Folsom Cleveland.

What I valued in this book was the sweep of history of America that was emerging out of its agrarian period and into the developing industrial power that it was becoming. In reading this biography, I became more aware of the challenges that are still faced today in this post-industrial age. The issue of fiscal policy, states’ rights, Congressional prerogative verses Executive power, and the tension between isolationism and expansionism.

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