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Buffalo presidents' profiles low Legacies mainly local for Fillmore, Cleveland

Grover Cleveland shared surprising similarities with Bill Clinton. He was a Democrat with extramarital proclivities elected in an era of Republican presidents, and the winner of two presidential elections.

Millard Fillmore is regarded by historians as a weak, accidental president. His most remembered act was signing legislation that betrayed the abolitionist movement.

Cleveland, both the 22nd and 24th president because of two nonconsecutive terms, and Fillmore, the 13th, are the two presidents Buffalo can claim on Presidents Day. Both left a lasting mark on the city's civic life.

A C-SPAN survey of presidential leadership, taken before President Bush was in office, ranked Cleveland 17th and Fillmore 35th among the 41 presidents. Both presidents scored their lowest marks in the category "Pursued Equal Justice for All."

"Cleveland was not an outstanding president, but he was very solid," said Edward P. Crapol, a Buffalo native and professor emeritus of history at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va. "Fillmore has suffered from historians being pretty dismissive of him."

Fillmore was the poorer of the two, the second of eight children born in a log cabin to a tenant farmer in Cayuga County, in the Finger Lakes region. He practiced law in Buffalo and served in Congress before being picked as the running mate of Zachary Taylor, a Louisiana slaveholder and military hero.

After Taylor's unexpected death in July 1850, Fillmore became president, serving just two years and 7 months.

His most controversial decision was signing the Compromise of 1850, considered an attempt to stave off the coming Civil War with the South. It brought California into the Union as a free state and eliminated the slave trade in Washington, D.C. But it also contained the notorious Fugitive Slave Law, which required Northerners and federal officers to return escaped slaves to their Southern owners.

"The Fugitive Slave Act was a flagrant example of Northern and federal collaboration with slaveholders, a lightning rod that led to the growth of the anti-slavery movement," said Howard Zinn, professor emeritus of political science at Boston University.

The Northern wing of the Whig party made Fillmore pay by keeping him from being renominated in 1852.

"There was nothing striking about Fillmore," Zinn said, "which is probably why nobody pays any attention to him."

Fillmore helped start the University of Buffalo and served as its first chancellor. He also helped found other institutions, where he then held top posts, including Buffalo General Hospital, the Buffalo Historical Society and the Buffalo Club.

Fillmore died in Buffalo in 1874 and is buried in Forest Lawn.

Stephen Grover Cleveland was one of nine children born to a Presbyterian minister in Caldwell, N.J. After coming to Buffalo as a law apprentice, he served as Erie County sheriff, Buffalo mayor and New York governor, earning high marks for fighting corruption.

While running for president, Cleveland was famously taunted with chants of, "Ma, Ma, Where's My Pa?" for allegedly fathering a son out of wedlock. He reportedly had the woman committed to an insane asylum until she relinquished the child.

In "City of Light," the acclaimed 1999 historic novel by Buffalo native Lauren Belfer, Cleveland is portrayed as a brutish philanderer.

Cleveland managed to be elected president in 1884 as an alternative to Republican James G. Blaine.

In his second year in office, the 48-year-old Cleveland married 21-year-old Frances Folsom, the daughter of a law partner. He had been surrogate father to her after her father's death when she was 11.

The press had been certain he was courting the girl's widowed mother.

Cleveland would share something else with future President Clinton: Just as his contemporary avoided the draft during the Vietnam War, Cleveland evaded the draft in the Civil War.

"I always thought of Clinton as the Grover Cleveland of the 20th century," said James E. Campbell, a University at Buffalo political scientist.

Cleveland was defeated for re-election by Republican Benjamin Harrison in 1888 despite winning the popular vote but won re-election four years later, only to be confronted with the Panic of 1893 and 18 percent unemployment.

When railroad workers walked off their jobs in sympathy with the Pullman strike in Chicago, Cleveland drew criticism for sending 12,000 federal troops to crush the revolt.

Cleveland's tenure was marked by support for lowering tariffs, reforming civil service and vetoing more bills than all other presidents before him.

By the end of Cleveland's term, the Democratic Party abandoned him for populist William Jennings Bryan, who was routed in the next election.

Cleveland died in 1908 and is buried in Princeton, N.J.

e-mail: msommer@buffnews.com

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