Grover Cleveland’s Scandal: “Where’s My Pa?”

Presidential candidate Grover Cleveland was accused of fathering an illegitimate child.   It was true.  Maybe.

Grover Cleveland: The Bachelor Candidate

formal portrait

Grouchy-faced and pudgy, Grover Cleveland would never be anyone’s beau ideal of a romantic figure.

Grover Cleveland (1837-1908) was a forty-seven year old bachelor when the Democrats chose him as their presidential candidate in 1884. People said that Cleveland did only two things, but he did them both extremely well: he worked, and he ate. “Working” accounted for his successful business law practice and his sterling reputation in Buffalo, New York.  The eating part was verified by the 300 lbs. that was packed on to his 5’9” frame.

If he wasn’t working – or eating – he was socializing with the fellows who gathered at the local firehouse to play cards or smoke cigars or plan their next fishing trip. He was definitely not a “parlor” guy. His manners were gruff.  There was little about him that was sophisticated, cultured or courtly – or handsome. Former President Rutherford B. Hayes  called him “a brute with women.”

Grover Cleveland: The Buffalo Politician

Buffalo, New York was the state’s second larges city after the Civil War. The Erie Canal had made it a huge shipping center.

Despite his rough exterior, a bipartisan group of citizens approached Grover Cleveland in the early 1880s offering to support him as Mayor of Buffalo.  New York’s second-largest city had been filled with corruption even before the Civil War.  Cleveland’s reputation for honesty and getting-things-done made him the perfect choice. He had considered the idea of a political career fifteen years earlier, but he did not advance quickly, and opted to devote his energies to his law practice.

But this time, the Mayoralty of Buffalo was an easy victory for him – especially with strong bipartisan support from the town’s finest citizens. He ran and won. Then he began to clean up the graft and bribery, the bid-rigging, the kickbacks and general vice.

The State of New York took notice, and elected him Governor. Cleveland proceeded to do likewise for the State. He was a force to be reckoned with: a viable reform candidate for the Presidency in 1884. Despite his unfamiliar national resume, Grover the Good became the Democratic choice.

Grover Cleveland: The “Pa” Story:

Democratic candidate Cleveland had been nominated because of his flawless reputation – until a sleazy Buffalo newspaper printed a story that he had fathered an illegitimate child a decade earlier. Other newspapers got wind of the story and created a scandal of it. Pastors and priests all over the country decried the liaison from the pulpits. Needless to say, everyone expected Cleveland to vociferously deny such a monstrous charge. He did not.

He told his campaign managers to “tell the truth” – a mantra that he would always follow. And the truth was this: some years earlier, he had been acquainted with a widowed seamstress named Maria Halpin. Casual with her favors, Mrs. Halpin was also acquainted with several of Cleveland’s friends. When there was to be a child, Grover Cleveland volunteered to accept responsibility. While he was never sure of his paternity, he was the only bachelor amongst Maria’s intimates and did not wish to have his married friends embarrassed. He was also in a position to afford financial assistance – and even tried to set Mrs. Halpin up in a dressmaking business. Despite Cleveland’s monetary assistance, she proved to be an unfit mother, and when the boy was still small, Cleveland had him placed in suitable foster care. Some say he grew up to be a professional man; some say he died when he was a child. Nothing has ever been ascertained fully.

Cartoons of the Cleveland-Halpin “scandal” filled the newspapers.

The intrusion into his private life galled Candidate Cleveland no end, and indeed, any intrusion into Cleveland’s personal life would irritate him profusely, but he satisfied the electorate – and in particular, their wives. He had admitted the truth of the affair. He also was able to document his financial responsibility to the woman and child in question. Now the pastors and priests had another field day –those vehemently opposed to the situation, and those who were more tolerant, commending him for his honorable actions. Everybody had an opinion.

The Republican newspapers also had a field day with their taunts of “Ma! Ma! Where’s my Pa?”

The Election of 1884: The Republican Scandals

Ever since the founding fathers, personal and political scandals have been a part of elections. The Republican candidate in 1884 was Senator James G. Blaine – a man who had been in the political spotlight since the Civil War, and was very well known throughout the country. But he was tainted.

James G. Blaine was not without his own scandal issues. But his were financial – not “moral.”

More than a decade earlier, he had been mysteriously involved in a complicated financial fraud and accused of accepting considerable sums in stock shares from a questionable railroad consortium called the Credit Mobilier. The scandal dragged on for years. The charges against Blaine were never completely proven – but the inferences were never completely put to rest, either.   There was enough smoke, if not for fire, certainly enough to make a stink.

The Democratic newspapers countered with their own slogan: “Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine, continental liar from the state of Maine.”

It was a nasty campaign all the way around. And there had not been a Democratic President since James Buchanan, nearly thirty years earlier.

Grover Cleveland Wins the Election of 1884:

It was a squeaker. Out of nearly 10,000,000 votes cast, the difference between Cleveland the winner and Blaine the loser, was less than 25,000. It was even close in electoral votes: Cleveland received 219, and Blaine received 182. (There were only 38 states at that time).

Now the scandalous slogan would be turned back to the Republicans: “Ma! Ma! Where’s my Pa?…. Gone to the White House, Ha Ha Ha!”

And a year and a half later, President Grover Cleveland, at age 49, would marry and go on to have five legitimate children.

Sources:

  • Brodsky, Alyn – Grover Cleveland, A Study in Character – St. Martin’s Press, 2000
  • Dunlap, Annette – Frank – State University of NY/Excelsior – 2009
  • Jeffers, H. Paul, – An Honest President – William Morrow, 2000
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About Feather Schwartz Foster

Feather Schwartz Foster is an author-historian who has made more than 500 appearances discussing presidential history. She teaches adult education at the Christopher Wren Association (affiliated with William and; Mary College), and adult Education programs at Christopher Newport University. She has been a guest on the C-SPAN "First Ladies" program. She has written five books.
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