It happened today - September 9, 2015

Esther ClevelandOn September 9th of 1891 Esther Cleveland didn’t change history. Which one can hardly hold against her as she was just a baby. A newborn, in fact, the first and thus far only child born in the White House to a sitting president.

Doubtless her life was interesting to her, including her marriage in Westminster Abbey to a member of the Coldstream Guards. And she certainly saw a lot change in her long life, which ended in June 1980 as Ronald Reagan was closing in on the White House her father is the only man to have occupied for two non-consecutive terms. But what makes her interesting to me historically, and makes her father interesting, is the unusual circumstances of his family life.

Cleveland is of course part of the dreadfully boring procession of late 19th-century Presidents only specialists can even name, whose pictures could put you to sleep before you even heard them speak. Even I can’t remember his Vice-Presidents.* Yet Cleveland was dogged by scandal on his first presidential campaign in 1884 because he had allegedly fathered an illegitimate child. (The Republican chant “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa? Off to the White House Ha Ha Ha” indicates that while idiotic, modern political rhetoric is not necessarily worse than at other times in the past.)

Among those alleging it was Cleveland himself. He admitted to paying child support a decade earlier to one Maria Crofts Halpin. I don’t think it makes things better that Halpin was “involved” with several men, and Cleveland took responsibility because he was the only unmarried one and it could have been him. Not quite your grandfather’s late 19th century, is it?

Despite this ruckus, Cleveland was elected on a platform of honesty. And he was fairly honest about the scandal although the child, named Oscar Folsom Cleveland, may well actually have been the child of Cleveland’s law partner, one Oscar Folsom. Meanwhile the Republicans were tainted by the stench of corruption; the Democrats counter-chant in 1884 was “Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine, continental liar from the State of Maine” ending with a resounding “Burn this letter,” a phrase Blaine had foolishly written on a letter he had foolishly written to railroads with which he had an unsavory relationship as a legislator and Speaker of the House of Representatives.

Yes, yes, you say, but what of poor Esther, waiting to be born?

Well, Cleveland was still a bachelor when he entered the White House. But romance soon blossomed, with a woman 28 years his junior. The daughter of Oscar Folsom, in fact. Cleveland had apparently bought her first baby carriage and, after Folsom himself died, had been the executor of his estate and had supervised Frances Folsom’s upbringing. So it was a bit odd that he married her in the White House midway through his first term, making her the youngest First Lady in U.S. history.

Voters didn’t care. Cleveland lost in 1888 despite winning the popular vote, possibly a victim of electoral fraud in Indiana. (Mind you on that score the Democrats probably gave as good as they got.) But he would be back, as Frances herself predicted when she told a staff member to take good care of the furniture and not move it about because they wanted to find it where they had left it in four years; Cleveland won again in 1892. Along the way he and Frances had five children. And Frances Folsom Cleveland was very popular as a charming and elegant First Lady.

You might think people were hopelessly stuffy, strait-laced and judgmental back in the 1880s and 1890s. Certainly Cleveland’s staunch adherence to the principles of limited government would raise eyebrows today even in the Republican Party, let alone among Democrats. But the oddities of his personal life were no impediment to his enormous public success.

As a footnote, when I say Esther Cleveland was “born in the White House” I don’t just mean she was born while her father was President. She was literally born there. People didn’t use to be born in hospitals. In fact the first U.S. President who was, Jimmy Carter, was born when Esther Cleveland was already 33 years old.

* OK, I Googled; in his first term it was Thomas Hendricks, who died less than a year in; in his second it was Adlai Stevenson I, grandfather of the guy who couldn’t beat Eisenhower.

It happened todayJohn Robson