Back in 2009, President Obama made a little error when delivering his Inaugural Address. Though he was being sworn in as the 44th President of the United States, he was wrong in saying, “Forty-four Americans have now taken the presidential oath.” That was because Obama was actually only the 43rd American to do so.
How was this possible, you ask? Thank Grover Cleveland, the burly Democrat from New Jersey.
The Presidencies of Grover Cleveland
Grover Cleveland narrowly defeated Republican James G. Blaine in the United States presidential election of 1884. In 1885, Cleveland was sworn in as the 22nd president.
During his first term, Cleveland sought political reform, and his fiscal conservatism made him an icon for American conservatives of the era. He was known for his honesty, self-reliance, and commitment to the principles of classical liberalism. He was also the only Democratic president to win an election during the period of Republican domination of the White House that stretched from Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860 to the end of William Howard Taft’s term in 1913.
When Cleveland ran for reelection in 1888, he won the popular vote. However, thanks to that good old Electoral College, he ultimately lost the election to Benjamin Harrison (sound familiar?). Upon being inaugurated, Harrison became the 23rd president. Cleveland became a private citizen once again. He moved to New York City where he took a position at a law firm.
That wasn’t the last of Grover Cleveland, however. He once again earned the Democratic presidential nomination in 1892. That year, he was able to defeat Harrison’s reelection bid by wide margins in both the popular and electoral votes.
In 1893, Cleveland was sworn in as the 24th President of the United States.
22nd and 24th?
Grover Cleveland holds the distinction of being the only man elected to non-consecutive presidential terms. Thanks to the four-year gap between his first and second terms, most historians count Cleveland as two separate presidents, despite the unavoidable fact that they are the same person.
After Cleveland was elected for the second time, it didn’t make a lot of sense to go back to calling him the 22nd President, since the man who preceded him was the 23rd.
Another way to think about it is like this. When we call Donald Trump the 45th President, we’re really saying that his term is the 45th presidency. So while Grover Cleveland remained the same man throughout his two terms, he served two separate presidencies. His first presidency, from 1885 to 1889, was the 22nd presidency in the history of the United States. His second, from 1893 to 1897, was the 24th.
However, this explanation doesn’t appease everyone, former presidents included. To Harry S. Truman, the presidential numbers thing didn’t make much sense.
“If you count the administrations of Grover Cleveland twice because another President held office between Cleveland’s first and second term,” said Truman, “you might try to justify the designation of me as thirty-third President. But then why don’t you number all the second terms of other Presidents and the third and fourth terms of President Roosevelt, and where will you be? I am the thirty-second President.”
It seems no one can agree on anything in politics, and clearly the number of presidents will continue to cause confusion. #ThanksCleveland
Mark Heald is an Associate Product Manager and Sporcle Admin. He enjoys spending time with his family, traveling, and bemoaning the fact the Sonics left Seattle.