American history, biographies, book reviews, Grover Cleveland, Horace Samuel Merrill, presidential biographies, Presidents
“Bourbon Leader: Grover Cleveland and the Democratic Party” by Horace Samuel Merrill was published in 1957 and was the first significant biography of Cleveland following Allan Nevins’s 1932 classic. Samuel was a professor at the University of Maryland from 1946 until 1980 and the author of several books. He died in 1996.
While most biographers of Cleveland praise him for his honesty and integrity in an era rife with corruption, Merrill is famously critical of this former mayor, governor and president. But more surprising than the author’s disapproval is that his indictment is so brief and seemingly perfunctory.
With just 207 pages, this biography flows quickly and and is easy to absorb. But while it is quick to condemn Cleveland, it spends relatively little time detailing the author’s point of view. Rather than carefully building a case against Cleveland, Merrill periodically brandishes stinging one-liners which are treated as though their very existence on paper places them beyond dispute.
More important to me than the author’s apparent aversion to Cleveland is the fact that this biography includes virtually no review of his early life and almost nothing of his family or personal life. The first forty-five years of Cleveland’s life consume fewer than a dozen pages. His post-presidency is dispatched in a single paragraph.
“Bourbon Leader” is also notable for its complete lack of footnotes, though the author does provide a two-page “Note on the Sources.” But what is most glaring is not the lack of comprehensive coverage of Cleveland or the absence of citations – it is that the author so clearly sees Cleveland’s world as one where the glass is always half-empty.
Honesty and integrity afforded Cleveland only a “narrowly limited” vision for government. He “fumbled his way to a record of commendable achievement” in his first term. And, in general, any success he achieved was due to sheer luck, fortunate timing, or the incompetence of others. It seems ironic that the book’s very first page contains an error so glaring that I assumed I must be hallucinating when I stumbled across it.
But as conspicuous as the author’s bias proves, this biography was not as imbalanced as I had been led to believe based on its reputation. In its earliest pages Merrill even acknowledges Cleveland’s honesty and integrity as a public official – though he seems more annoyed than appreciative of this fact. And I was almost shocked senseless when the author admitted that Cleveland “conscientiously and carefully” selected members for his first Cabinet.
Such admissions are infrequent and only begrudgingly made, but even where his bias is too apparent Merrill’s analysis is frequently thoughtful and provocative. His commentary forces the reader to question the almost mythological purity ascribed to Cleveland and provides an interesting counterpoint to the numerous Cleveland biographies focused on his political chastity. And while the book sometimes feels two-dimensional, it is never dull.
Overall, however, “Bourbon Leader” feels more like the author’s bully pulpit than a forum for thoughtful critique. Serious students of history will appreciate this biography for the way it challenges widely-held views about this former president. But readers seeking a comprehensive, balanced and insightful biography about Grover Cleveland should look elsewhere.
Overall rating: 2¾ stars
Is this the lowest overall rating you have given so far?
Currently tied for last with “Martin Van Buren: The Romantic Age of American Politics” although “Millard Fillmore” by Paul Finkelman shouldn’t be considered any more meritorious despite its “3 star” rating.
Jan Denman said:
Since I have no intention of acquiring this book, I’d give worlds to know the “glaring” error which appeared on the first page. I deeply admire the critical scholarship you are providing in this highly entertaining presidential odyssey. Your prose style is unusually clear–and erudite without being pretentious.
Thanks for your comment and hope I can keep you coming back! In the second paragraph of the first page Cleveland’s birthdate is listed as June 17 (rather than March 17).
It seems such a conspicuous error that I’m waiting for someone to tell me I’m missing something obvious…like the calendar in 1837 was jolted out of place by a polar shift, or a newly-discovered document only recently revealed Cleveland’s correct date of birth, or this was an mistake corrected in a subsequent edition of this book.
Or perhaps I really am hallucinating?
You’re not hallucinating. I checked my First Edition and it has a June 18, 1837 birthdate. Robert McElroy (34 years prior to Merrill) also has March 18, 1837 as his birthdate.
I think Merrill and his editor(s) erred.
Thanks; finding something so blatant like that almost made me question my sanity. I’m not sure how that slips through the editorial process…
Hmmm… There are obviously ways to point out flaws in our political leaders without making it seem as though you are just holding a grudge. I wonder why this author disliked him so.
I suspect that Merrill was Progressive in orientation, and Progressives had little good to say about Cleveland, who was in their minds too wedded to traditional economic theories. Woodrow Wilson started his career allied with the Bourbons, but left them for Progressivism when he rose to power. When the Populist movement rose to prominence, Cleveland’s own party essentially deserted him.
Thanks for the insight. I tried looking into Merrill’s background in order to better understand his perspective but didn’t find much. I assume some of this may re-surface when I get to Wilson in a few months…