Cleveland claimed White House but not Hamilton degree

William Cleveland
William Cleveland, Class of 1851, was among the Hamilton student members of Alpha Delta Phi. Based on information written on the back of this photograph from the College Archives, he is the man standing on the left.

Grover Cleveland was the 22nd and 24th president of the United States. That was unique, as was his marriage in the White House at age 49 to his ward, Frances Folsom, a recent Wells College graduate. But why is any of this of interest to readers of the Alumni Review? The relevance is that young Grover planned to enroll at the college on the hill in Clinton, N.Y., where his family had lived. His older brother and mentor, William, graduated from Hamilton in 1851. But family finances and the death of his father precluded the president-to-be from enrolling. Commenting on the father’s death in 1853, a biographer concluded:

Grover faced the disappointing reality that his dream of going to Hamilton had been dashed. *

Stephen Grover Cleveland (he dropped the first name as a youth) was born in Caldwell, N.J., in 1837. He was the fifth of nine children of Richard Cleveland, a Yale-educated Presbyterian minister, who struggled to support a family of that size on a clergy salary of $500. The family moved to Fayetteville, N.Y., a then farming community near Syracuse. Grover spent most of his boyhood there, attending grammar school and Fayetteville Academy. He was described as a hardworking but not especially bright student. Presumably he would have been taught in the “classics” — Greek, Latin, mathematics and elocution — all of which would have prepared him for Hamilton.

At age 13, Grover was apprenticed to Fayetteville storekeeper John McVicar. He received one dollar a week plus room and board. While diligent at chores and honest at bookkeeping, he decided to return to his family despite the offer to double his pay. (Readers who have followed the trail of our namesake may see the similarity to young Alexander Hamilton’s business experience on St. Croix.)

By this time his father had taken a better-paying position in Clinton as district secretary of the American Home Missionary Society with an income boost to $1,000. It doesn’t appear that his father ever ministered at the Old Stone Presbyterian Church on South Park Row; however, his last move was to accept the call of a Presbyterian church in nearby Holland Patent. Unfortunately, he gave only one sermon there before dying in 1853.

While living with his family in Clinton, young Grover attended the Clinton Liberal Institute founded by the Universalists. During that time the village was known as “schooltown” for its several academies. Both Leland Stanford and Clara Barton attended that institute. Grover’s youngest sister, Rose, graduated from Clinton’s Houghton Seminary and became a teacher and magazine contributor. She served as the bachelor’s “first lady” before his 1886 wedding. Apparently, Grover did have one opportunity to attend college when a family friend offered to pay the costs if, upon graduation, he would agree to become a minister. Whether dissuaded by his father’s continued poverty or by sights on a more lucrative legal career, one can only speculate. While speaking at Clinton’s Centennial Celebration in 1887, Cleveland reminisced:

It was here, in the school at the foot of College Hill, that I began my preparation for college life and enjoyed the anticipation of a collegiate education. *

It does not appear that Grover Cleveland finished secondary school or attended any college. Instead, while living with an uncle in Buffalo, N.Y., he studied law in an office, passing the bar for admission by the New York State Supreme Court in May 1859. Despite that limited education, Cleveland became district attorney, mayor and sheriff before a single term as New York governor. In 1884, he narrowly defeated Republican James Blaine to become the first Democrat to take the helm at the White House since the Civil War. Thus, had he gone to Hamilton, the College could have boasted a prominent politician of both parties during that era, Elihu Root and Grover Cleveland.

William S. Easton ’58 is a retired attorney living in Port Huron, Mich. He has written for historical magazines in Michigan, contributes to a regional monthly news­letter and shared a Hill in History column on Alonzo Whiteman, Class of 1881, for the Summer 2014 Hamilton Alumni Review.

* Quotes from An Honest President: The Life and Presidencies of Grover Cleveland by H. Paul Jeffers (New York: W. Morrow, 2000)

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