Photo Credit: Saul Jay Singer

The first post-Civil War Democrat to be elected president and the only person to serve two non-consecutive terms as chief executive (1885-1889 and 1893-1897), Grover Cleveland was broadly recognized as one of the few honest and principled politicians of the Gilded Age. As “the guardian president,” Cleveland (1837-1908) is remembered for protecting the power and autonomy of the executive branch; for his record-breaking use of the presidential veto, particularly to block wasteful and corrupt measures; and for restoring the power of the presidency against legislative overreach.

National Gallery Portrait of President Cleveland.

An active reformer, his accomplishments include reducing the bloated federal bureaucracy, creating the Interstate Commerce Commission (the first American regulatory agency), modernizing the navy, and opposing high tariffs, inflation, imperialism, and subsidies to businesses and farmers. In foreign affairs, he was a committed non-interventionist who opposed expansion and imperialism, and his military policy emphasized self-defense and modernization, including particularly strengthening and improving American coastal defenses.

Rare Executive Mansion card originally signed by Cleveland.



Although he was an activist and a largely successful president, and although his reputation for integrity and good character survived the massive problems facing his administration, circumstances arose that led to his unpopularity and the defeat of his Democratic Party. These included particularly national depressions, beginning with the Panic of 1893, and strikes, including the Pullman Strike of 1894, when his interceding to keep the railroads moving angered labor unions and other constituencies nationwide. Among other accomplishments, he made Labor Day a national holiday, notwithstanding his fears that this would further embolden the labor unions.

Cleveland proved to be one of the greatest friends the Jews ever had in the White House, both in terms of his advocacy on behalf of Jewish interests in the United States and overseas and with respect to his appointment of Jews and Jewish supporters to high positions in his administrations – and his strong Jewish support sometimes harmed him politically.

For example, when the president was forced in the course of a raging depression to strike a deal with J.P. Morgan that saved the U.S. Gold Reserves, public opinion turned against him as populists pounded him on the issue.His enemies, both within and without the Democratic party, used this as allegedly further proof that he was conspiring with international banks and Wall Street contrary to the interests of American citizens.

These arguments, which were often antisemitic, cited “bloodsucking Jews” and, in particular, bitterly criticized the role of the House of Rothschild. Antisemites maintained that Cleveland was controlled by the Jewish banking houses of England and that American banking institutions would soon be controlled by Jewish bankers as well. Although his bold move saved the American economy, most historians agree that the issue played a role in the defeat of the Democrats and the election of Republican William McKinley in the 1896 presidential election.

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Cleveland’s support for civil rights for Jewish Americans may be seen in this December 30, 1895, correspondence to his good friend, Simon Wolf:

Please accept my thanks for a copy of your book entitled “The American Jew as Patriot Soldier and Citizen” which you kindly sent me a short time ago. I hope I may be able at a future time to read the volume carefully, for the slight examination I have already given it, convinces me that it challenges fairness and justice, for a class of our citizens to whom they have not always been accorded.

A distinguished lawyer and eloquent orator, Wolf (1836-1923) was renowned for his vigorous championing of the rights of the Jews of Eastern Europe and the influence he wielded in Washington on their behalf. For more than half a century, he was in close contact with the most influential men in political life, and he enjoyed the personal acquaintance of every president from Lincoln to Wilson.

A founder of the American Jewish Historical Society, Wolf collected the names of over 7,000 Jews who fought on either side during the Civil War, and he published the list in a directory as The American Jew as Patriot, Soldier, and Citizen (1895), the subject of the above correspondence. In addition to sending a copy of his work to Cleveland, Wolf famously sent a copy to Mark Twain in response to Twain’s allegation that Jews had played a minimal role in helping to secure American liberty and that they had shirked military duty. Other works by Wolf include The Influence of the Jews on the Progress of the World (1888); Mordecai Manuel Noah (1897); and an autobiography, Presidents I Have Known (1918).

During Cleveland’s first term in office, the Austrian government refused his appointment of Anthony Kiely as Minister to Austria because Mrs. Kiely, as a Jewess, would not be accepted in Vienna’s social and diplomatic circles. An incensed president defended his appointee and, in a December 1885 correspondence to the Austrian government, Thomas F. Bayard, his Secretary of State, wrote: “Alleged race and religious faith of the wedded wife of an envey [sic] of the United States is held a cause of his rejection . . . we find this simply intolerable.” In a stinging rebuke to Austria, Cleveland left the Minister to Vienna position vacant for a year rather than yield to Austrian antisemitism.

Yimach shemo v’zichro: Carte de Visite of Selah Merrill.

In 1885, Cleveland appointed Nageeb J. Arbeely to replace Selah Merrill as American Consul in Jerusalem. Merrill had worked as an archaeologist for the American Palestine Exploration Society in Eretz Yisrael from 1874-1877 excavating the second wall of Jerusalem before serving three terms as United States consul in Jerusalem (1882-1885, 1891-1893, and again in 1898-1907). A vicious antisemite who believed that Jews were “parasitical outsiders,” he passionately campaigned against all Jewish agricultural settlement in Eretz Yisrael and played the leading role in shaping the hostility of the State Department to the mere presence of Jews in Eretz Yisrael, which continues to this day and has become a hallmark of the State Department.

Photo of the Arbeely family. Nageeb stands at the upper right.

Not surprisingly, the Yishuv was thrilled with Cleveland’s appointment of the 24-year-old Arbeely. Born in Damascus, he immigrated to the United States in 1878 with his family, who were the first Syrian family to seek refuge on our shores based upon their persecution as Christians by the Ottoman Empire. This, of course, did not make him popular with the Turks, who deemed him unacceptable as a consul, arguing that, as a Syrian-born member of the Ottoman Empire, he could not also serve there as an American representative. (It was also widely acknowledged that Merrill had employed corruption and bribery to force the United States to remove him from his position within a year of his appointment.)

Portrait of Oscar Straus.

Cleveland replaced him with Henry Gillman, a Michigan Jew fluent in Hebrew and Arabic who was, if possible, even more philosemitic and Zionistic than Arbeely. It was Gillman who, unique among all the consuls in the Ottoman Empire, refused to assist the authorities in expelling foreign Jews. He also played an important role in American Jewish history when he convinced the president to appoint Oscar Solomon Straus, “the ranking Jew in America,” to serve as head of the U.S. mission to Istanbul as envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary on March 24, 1887.

White House card originally signed by Straus.

There was initially considerable opposition to the appointment, as Straus’s opponents argued that the ambassador’s chief role in Constantinople was the protection of Christian missionaries and Christian colleges, a function they alleged could not properly be carried out by a Jew. Cleveland, who had deliberately selected Straus as a rebuke to the Ottomans over the Arbeely fiasco, hung tough; Straus proved an immensely successful and popular ambassador, and he went on to become the president’s most influential Jewish supporter and advisor. He quickly defused a volatile situation involving the Christian Mission to Turkey whose schools were under threat of attack, thereby earning the gratitude of the Mission, the respect and admiration of the Sultan, and the appreciation of Secretary of State Thomas Bayard, who issued a letter of recognition, an uncommon accolade.

Straus’s letter to Cleveland on the president’s 70th birthday.

On a trip to Jerusalem, Straus learned that more than 400 Jews had been incarcerated without cause and were facing imminent deportation. Rather than following protocol and paying the expected courtesy call to the “Vali,” the local Turkish official, he transmitted a note threatening to appeal directly to the Grand Vizier for the removal of the Vali if he failed to immediately release the Jewish prisoners – which he did expeditiously. Straus received an effusive letter of thanks from Chief Rabbi Shmuel Salant and the Chacham Bashi on behalf of all the Jews of Eretz Yisrael.

Though Straus (1850-1926) was a diplomat, author, philanthropist, merchant, jurist and public servant, he is perhaps best known for being the first Jew to serve as a presidential cabinet secretary when Theodore Roosevelt appointed him Secretary of Commerce and Labor (1906-1909). His autobiography is aptly titled Under Four Administrations (1922), having served in four administrations under both Democratic and Republican presidents.

Though he had no formal Jewish education and his “religious instruction” came from his father, Straus loved Jewish tradition and he always manifested a proud sense of Jewish identity. Throughout his life, he served as a shtadlan on behalf of Jews in America and around the world; he was fiercely dedicated to his Reform synagogue and its members; and he engaged in an incredible range of Jewish charities. Though he was opposed to political Zionism, he nevertheless strongly supported the Balfour Declaration and contributed to various projects for the rehabilitation of Eretz Yisrael.

When William Henry Harrison defeated Cleveland in the latter’s reelection bid (1888), Straus followed custom and resigned, and returned to New York to rejoin his brothers’ business. However, he remained forever a close and loyal friend to Cleveland – including continuing to send a case of matzah to him every Passover – as evidenced by the warm March 12, 1907, correspondence on his Secretary of Commerce and Labor letterhead exhibited here written to the ex-president almost twenty years later:

My Dear Mr. Cleveland:

Seventy years is an enviable record when one has the supreme satisfaction which is yours, to look back upon such preeminent patriotic achievement by you for the lasting benefit of the country.

Those of us who have enjoyed the rare and precious privilege of striving with you in however humble degree, towards the goals to which you so courageously and wisely led the way, have profited by the inspiration your leadership imparted, and feel a special sense of gratitude which we recognize we can best repay by striving for those ideals which your public career has so eminently typified.

Long may you live to enjoy in repose, health and happiness, surrounded by those who are nearest and dearest to you, – a wish that I desire to convey to you with the cordiality of affectionate friendship.

Even after leaving public service, Straus continued to advocate on behalf of his fellow Jews. For example, when he learned about the horrific condition of Jews in Russia, he joined a committee that brought the matter to President Harrison who was so moved that he addressed the Czar’s persecution of Jews in his next State of the Union Address (1899), which led to a temporary amelioration of the Jewish condition in Russia.

During Cleveland’s second term, czarist Russia’s discriminatory treatment of American Jews visiting Russia became a deep concern to Jews worldwide. Straus and other Jewish leaders close to the president protested the denial by Russian consular officials in the United States of the right of Jews to travel or visit relatives in Russia and, in response, Cleveland ordered his Secretary of State to send a note to the czar’s government protesting this “religious inquisitorial function.” The president pointedly addressed the Russian situation in his December 2, 1895, Annual Message:

Correspondence is on foot touching the practice of Russian consuls within the jurisdiction of the United States to interrogate citizens as to their race and religious faith, and upon ascertainment thereof to deny to Jews authentication of passports or legal documents for use in Russia. Inasmuch as such a proceeding imposes a disability which in the case of succession to property in Russia may be found to infringe the treaty rights of our citizens, and which is an obnoxious invasion of our territorial jurisdiction, it has elicited fitting remonstrance, the result of which, it is hoped, will remove the cause of complaint. The pending claims of sealing vessels of the United States seized in Russian waters remain unadjusted. Our recent convention with Russia establishing a modus vivendi as to imperial jurisdiction in such cases has prevented further difficulty of this nature.

Two days before the expiration of his second presidential term in 1897, he vetoed a bill that contained a literacy test for immigrants. The bill was an attempt to halt immigration from southern and Eastern Europe which, if passed, would have had a major detrimental impact on the Jews of Russia, Romania and the Austro-Hungarian Empire seeking to come to America. Cleveland felt a deep responsibility to keep America’s doors open to the Jews fleeing Eastern Europe.

Even after leaving office, Cleveland continued to stand up for the Jewish people. With Russian pogroms targeting Jews and forcing many Jewish families to flee the violence and head to America, Cleveland attended rallies against Russian antisemitism, decrying what he called “wholesale murder” by “a professedly civilized government” and, in particular, vociferously condemning the Kishinev Pogrom. He worked hard to raise funds for the Jews of Russia and, after delivering a powerful speech at a mass meeting in New York City on May 27, 1903, in which he protested the czarist pogroms as “an attack murderous, atrocious and in every way revolting,” he was viewed by American Jews as their greatest standard-bearer. After that meeting, his friend Straus, ever the shtadlan, assumed the chairmanship of a committee organized to collect money for survivors of the pogrom and successfully urged Theodore Roosevelt to dispatch what became his famous correspondence to the Russian government condemning the atrocities.

Finally, in one of the most incredibly beautiful pro-Jewish speeches ever delivered by an American president, Cleveland delivered an address on Thanksgiving Day, November 30, 1905, at Carnegie Hall to mark the occasion of the 250th anniversary of the first Jews to the American continent:

The event created such an important epoch in our country’s development and its relationship to our nation’s evolution is so clearly seen in light of present conditions that every thoughtful American citizen must recognize the fitness and usefulness of its commemoration . . . To those of us professing a different religious faith, it brings to mind the landing upon our soil of an element of the population whose wonderful increase and marked traits of character have added a powerful factor to our national progress and agreement . . . what our Jewish fellow-citizens have done to increase the advancement of the United States is apparent on every hand and must stand confessed . . .

If the people of the United States glory in their free institutions as the crown of man’s aspiration for self-government, let them not be unmindful of the fact that the Jews among us have in their care and keeping the history and traditions of an ancient Jewish commonwealth astonishingly like our own Republic in its democracy and underlying intention . . .

When with true American enthusiasm and pride we recall the story of the war for our independence and rejoice in the indomitable courage and fortitude of our Revolutionary heroes, we should not fail to remember how well Jews of America performed their part in the struggle and how in every way they usefully and patriotically supported the interests of their newly found home. Nor can we overlook, if we are decently just, the valuable aid cheerfully contributed by our Jewish fellow-countrymen in every national emergency that has since overtaken us . . .

Jewish patriotism, which has been for centuries submerged and smothered in homeless wanderings and nationless existence, in the more cheerful light and warmth of a safe abiding place, sprang up and flourished . . . The rule that equality in rights is essential to good citizenship has never been better supported than by the result of according equal rights to Jews who found a home on the soil of the United States . . .

[The Jews] especially care for their poor, but they do it sensibly and in a way that avoids pauper-making. On every side are monuments of their charitable works, and evidence of their determination to furnish their children and youth equipment for usefulness and self-support . . .

It is time for the unreserved acknowledgement that the toleration and equal opportunity accorded to the Jews of the United States has been abundantly repaid to us.

May his memory be for a blessing.


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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at at [email protected].