Grover Cleveland found his oasis through fishing and hunting before, during, and after his bustling life as the United States’ 22nd and 24th President.
A little bit of a history recap here: Cleveland, born in New Jersey in 1837 and raised in New York, was the first Democrat elected President in 1885 following the end of the Civil War in 1865. He remains the only President to this date to serve non-consecutive terms, leaving the White House after his defeat in 1889 only to return four years later to serve his second term. Before entering politics, Cleveland worked first as a teacher for the blind, then as a lawyer in Buffalo, where he “became notable for his single-minded concentration” on whatever task he had.
Bearing this image, Cleveland’s political prominence skyrocketed, winning the seat as the Mayor of Buffalo (1881), Governor of New York (1882), and President of the United States in three years. Cleveland ran on a platform of transparency, frugality, and anti-corruption, which seemed like a breath of fresh air in the previous scandal-ridden administrations of US Grant and Andrew Johnson and the assignation of two presidents in just 20 years. Nevertheless, Cleveland issued hundreds of vetoes over special favors and unnecessary Congressional spending that earned him a fair share of political enemies. His clean track record and principle of being an honest politician painted a target on his back, and the press vilified him constantly.
Knowing this, it’s safe to say that Cleveland had it tough as President. I mean, who doesn’t, right? That’s why recreation and relaxation activities are a thing. Most former presidents would spend time outdoors—either as little as hiking around for some fresh air or shooting wild critters—anything that would keep them sane from all the chaos in the political world. And for Cleveland, his favorite recreation was angling and hunting.
Cleveland’s Underrated Life as a Hunter
An article published by the NRA American Hunters tells us the untold story of the hunting life of the 22nd/24th US President.
While he did have experiences on both the big and small game, Cleveland mostly relishes rabbit hunting as he doesn’t really have much success on bigger targets. When he was still a governor, he wrote to his secretary about a missed opportunity during a hunt in the Adirondacks, stating: “I had a beautiful shot at a deer Saturday and missed him. We are now preparing to start again for my last chance.” It will remain a mystery whether he had another chance or not with Adirondacks’ deer.
On rabbit hunting, Cleveland has “rejected the notion” that the game does not give a real challenge, saying: “I am not ashamed of their pursuit; and I count it by no means bad skill to force them by a successful shot to a topsy-turvy pause when at their best speed.”
Imagine Cleveland taking a focused aim, shooting a running rabbit, and then watching it trip and tumble on the ground a few yards from him. Looks savage to me. No? The skill in rabbit hunting was hitting the small but fast-moving target.
Obsession with Waterfowl Hunting
Later in life, he developed a passion for fowl hunting; ducks and quail were his favorites.
Despite his diligence as a politician, Cleveland has always been a dedicated sportsman and hunter. Soon after winning the 1892 Presidential election, he embarked on a hunting trip to the eastern shores of Virginia to hunt along with friends and a sketch artist that would be compiled and featured in his book Fishing and Shooting Sketches published in 1906. Here, Cleveland will also share his experience and personal insights on hunting and fishing and defend himself against the tiresome criticisms he received about his recreation during his presidency.
He wrote: “I am sure it is not necessary for me, at this late day, to dwell upon the fact that I am an enthusiast in my devotion to hunting and fishing, as well as every other kind of outdoor recreation. I am so proud of this devotion that, although my sporting proclivities have at times subjected me to criticism and petty forms of persecution, I make no claim that my steadfastness should be looked upon as manifesting the courage of martyrdom. On the contrary, I regard these criticisms and persecutions as nothing more serious than gnat stings suffered on the bank of a stream.”
It was in a village called Broadwater that gave Cleveland the escape he wanted, away from the prying eyes of the media and stress in politics. One newspaper even reported this, grumbling about the island’s inaccessibility “as though he were in Africa.”
The weather on the island was iffy throughout his ten-day respite, pushing him to modify his hunting or else he’d stay indoors. Finally, on his second day on the island, Cleveland ventured out and spent two hours in the bitter cold, only for him to bag four redheaded ducks and four brant geese” before heading back. He chose to remain on land for the next several days and opt for shorebirds, including flocks of snipes and black ducks flying overhead.
Based on the reports that day, the NRA American Hunter speculates that Cleveland has most likely used a Colt double-barreled 8-gauge shotgun for his game at the Broadwater, Virginia—which would make sense, considering a big man like him would need a big gun.
The rest of his stay went exceptionally well, with him filling his bag with nine ducks and six brant geese at its peak, and on his final day, he bagged a total of five ducks and nine brant. Now, that is impressive!
Now refreshed, Cleveland returned home for his inauguration and returned to the White House.
Hunters in the White House
While many former Presidents had at some point gone hunting, only Cleveland and Teddy Roosevelt exhibited deep passion and true dedication for the game. Both wrote and published books, too, except that the latter found great success than the former.
Don’t get me wrong. Cleveland had notable passages in his 1906 book, like his remark about a “true hunter or fisherman is born, not made.” But it wasn’t as captivating as Roosevelt’s, wherein the young man, at that time, had effectively caught his audience with his lucid writing style. In addition, Roosevelt offered the thrill of big-game hunts, compared to Cleveland’s “standoffish” tone, which mainly mentioned small-game such as ducks, rabbits, and quails.
Before you judge these presidents too harshly by modern standards, it needs to be remembered that for millions of Americans in that time, hunting small game was how they put meat on the table for their own families.
Nevertheless, both former Presidents have shown care for the environment and wild animals, passing laws (separately on their time at the seat) protecting acres of forest lands from excessive hunting and other abuses. They’ve covered the now Mount Rainier and Olympic national parks and hunting grounds such as Bitterroot National Forest (in Montana and Idaho) and Black Hills National Forest (in South Dakota and Wyoming).
This conservation law had earned Cleveland raised eyebrows from the timber industry and politicians from the Western state, but this did not budge him from pushing through. If Roosevelt hadn’t become President, Cleveland would probably be known as “the great conservationist-in-chief,” rather than “being the only president who served two non-consecutive terms.”
After his second term, Cleveland and his family reverted to living as private citizens. But it didn’t end his hunting life; instead, he bought a farm near his home in New Jersey to enjoy his rabbit and quail hunting now and then. He’d also make it an annual tradition to go duck-hunting with a friend in South Carolina in the winter seasons.
Cleveland’s health had deteriorated for several years, but he didn’t become seriously ill until he left the White House. Then, in 1908, he suffered a heart attack that would lead to his death at age 71 in his Princeton home.
“It is better to go home with nothing killed than the weight of a mean, unsportsmanlike act,” said the 22nd/24th US President—a hunter ethic worth passing down to future generations.