“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