Stephen Grover Cleveland, 22nd and 24th President of the United States

By Joseph McMillan
Illustrations by the author.

The Attributed Arms of Grover Cleveland

Arms: Per chevron Sable and Ermine a chevron engrailed counterchanged. 

Crest: A demi-old man proper habited Azure, on his head a cap Gules turned up with hair front, holding in his dexter hand a spear, the head Argent, on the top of which is fixed a line proper passing behind him and coiled up in his sinister hand.

MottoSemel et semper (Once and always).
Alternative Mottoes Pro Deo et patria (For God and country); Vincit amor patriae (Love of country conquers)

President Cleveland and Heraldry

It should be stated at the outset that, unlike most of the Presidents covered in this series, there is no evidence that Grover Cleveland himself made use of the arms discussed here. Indeed, the only mention of anything resembling a coat of arms, either in Cleveland’s writings or in the writings about him, is an evidently non-heraldic print that hung on the wall of the apartment that the bachelor lawyer had rented above his law office in Buffalo, and which he later took with him to the White House. As described in his 1884 campaign biography by Eugene Tyler Chamberlain:

In the bed-room adjoining, over the bed, hangs an allegorical illuminated device, representing Life, Duty, and Death. “If I have any coat-of-arms and emblem,” said the Governor, replying to a question as to the meaning of the picture, “it is that. It is a motto I chose years ago, and I devised that form to keep it with me.” Closer inspection revealed the words, “As thy days are, so shall thy strength be,” painted in fine letters underneath.

Whatever the nature of this picture, it was certainly not the coat of arms depicted above. But the arms shown have long been used in President Cleveland’s extended family. They were even mentioned in America Heraldica, one of the leading references on American coats of arms, which was published during Cleveland’s first term, and were thus almost certainly known to him, even though he didn’t use them. Given the traditional attribution of these arms to President Cleveland’s family, it is appropriate that we examine them in greater depth.

Discovering Armigerous Ancestors

Anyone’s entitlement to existing arms must begin with genealogy. Grover Cleveland’s earliest ancestor in America was Moses Cleveland, an apprentice ship joiner of about 11 or 12 years of age, who accompanied his master in immigrating to Boston, Massachusetts, from Ipswich, Suffolk, in about 1635. By his late teens, Moses had settled in Woburn, Massachusetts, where he was admitted as a freeman, and thus eligible to participate in the governance of the town, in 1643. Over the years, Moses Cleveland achieved local prominence, and fathered eleven children, who in turn produced a sizable progeny including, in the seventh generation, the only man to serve two separate, non-continuous terms as President of the United States.

While the descendants of Moses Cleveland have been well documented, tracing his English ancestry has always been problematic, although not for lack of inquiries in England-including one to the College of Arms-from the mid-1750s onward. Eventually, in 1851 one of Moses Cleveland’s descendants, the Reverend A. Cleveland Coxe (later Episcopal Bishop of Buffalo, N.Y.) seemed to have struck gold. He received a letter from the English antiquarian John Bowyer Nichols, informing him that:

the Clevelands of America were descended from William Cleveland, who removed from York to Hinckley in Leicestershire, where he was buried–a very old man–in 1630. His son, Thomas, became Vicar of Hinckley, the family estate. One of his sons was John Cleveland, the poet. Another son, Thomas, may have been the father of Moses Cleveland, the emigrant… [emphasis in original]

Heraldically, this connection (the word “may” in the last sentence soon being overlooked) meant that the descendants of Moses Cleveland were evidently entitled to a coat of arms. The bearings concerned, Per chevron Sable and Ermine a chevron engrailed counterchanged, are known to have been used by at least two geographically separated families in the early 18th century. One was the family of the prominent Liverpool merchant John Cleiveland, M.P., who died in 1716; the arms appear carved on the monument in Liverpool’s St. Nicholas Church that he shares with his son, also a member of Parliament. The other was the Reverend William Cleveland, rector of All Saints’ parish in Worcester in the 1720s-30s, and his son, yet another parson, also named William.

Finding the same arms being used simultaneously by two houses so far apart in the era before the widespread availability of published heraldic compilations, it would be reasonable to suppose that the bearers were somehow related and had both inherited the arms from a common ancestor. And, indeed, it turns out that John Cleiveland, M.P., and Rev. William Cleiveland were first cousins once removed, both being descendants of Rev. Thomas Cleiveland, the Vicar of Hinckley mentioned in Nichols’ letter. Accordingly, if these two descendants of Rev. Thomas were entitled to bear the same arms, then any other descendants of the same common ancestor in the direct male line would probably be so entitled as well. If the information supplied by Nichols was correct, that would include Moses Cleveland and his progeny.

And so the American Clevelands took up the arms to which they–probably in good faith–thought they were entitled. Moreover, they made a persuasive enough case of their entitlement to the arms for Edgar de V. Vermont, the compiler of America Heraldica, to include the arms in his generally well-researched collection. Somewhere along the line, a legend of the arms’ origin was added to the account. The arms, Vermont related, “were granted to Sir Guy de Cleveland, who commanded the English spearmen at the battle of Poictien [sic; read Poitiers, 1356].” This, some family historians asserted, accounted for the crest of the arms, an old man holding a spear in his right hand, although it leaves unexplained why the spear has a line attached to it as if it is actually a harpoon or a fishing spear. Nor does this account explain why, if the arms were used on the basis of kinship with the Cleivelands of Hinckley, Leics., this was a different crest from the one that appeared in the arms used by the English family. Both John Cleiveland in Liverpool and Rev. William Cleiveland in Worcester bore as their crest a fish eagle’s head erased at the neck argent.

With Vermont’s scholarly blessing, replicated in subsequent heraldic collections such as Crozier’s General Armory (1904) and Matthews’ American Armoury and Blue Book (1907), the Cleveland entitlement to the arms seems to have been generally accepted among the descendants of Moses Cleveland, and presumably other Americans of the time who paid attention to matters armorial. It was so widely taken as valid that the Roman Catholic Diocese of Cleveland adopted arms based on those of the family from which the see takes its name (see below).

Taking Another Look

Seen objectively and from the remove of time, the weaknesses in the American Clevelands’ claim to these arms are obvious, yet that claim doesn’t seem to have been seriously questioned until the 1960s, when some family researchers approached the College of Arms in London to verify the right to the arms. In response to their inquiries, the officers at the College stated that, despite the fact that the arms had been published in numerous collections, such as Burke’s General Armory, there was no record of any arms ever having been granted to anyone named Cleveland. John P. Brooke-Little, then Bluemantle Pursuivant and later Clarenceux King of Arms, informed one of the researchers:

It may be that there was a Sir Guy de Cleveland who bore this coat, but I can find no mention of him, nor of the coat, either in the Complete List of Knights, or in the old Rolls. At this date, however, the records are necessarily not complete, and it is just possible that such a coat existed. However, it is certain that no family of Cleveland exhibited this coat during the period of the Heralds’ Visitations (i.e. c. 1530 to c. 1685), nor have any family subsequently established a right to it.

Brooke-Little went on to express the English heraldic establishment’s low opinion of the reliability of Burke as a source, estimating that as many as 75% of the arms in it were “bogus.”

From an English point of view, the lack of official validation, even though they were used, would in itself be decisive to deny any legal right to the arms. From an American perspective, an argument might be made that a colonist who arrived in New England in 1635 with the arms customarily used by his family had a perfect right to use them in America without regard to what heraldic officialdom back in England might or might not think.

What couldn’t have been justified in either country, however, was the completely speculative and unsupported nature of the connection between Moses Cleveland of Woburn, Mass., and Thomas Cleiveland of Hinckley, Leics. Although the most comprehensive history of the Clevelands yet produced–Edward Janes Cleveland’s 1899 Genealogy of the Cleveland and Cleaveland Families–unabashedly lays claim to the arms shown above, nowhere does it present evidence, other than Nichols’ 1851 speculation, about Moses Cleveland’s English ancestry. Closer to the present day, the compilers of Burke’s Presidential Families, who have sometimes been accused of uncritically accepting lines that more cautious genealogists would question, end the thread for Grover Cleveland with the birth of Moses Cleveland the immigrant in Ipswich.

Perhaps it is not surprising that family members themselves would hold tightly to a legend of affiliation with such a supposedly eminent figure as Sir Guy de Cleveland, but one has to wonder what happened to Edgar Vermont’s normally skeptical attitude in evaluating the heraldic claim. Vermont was an extremely conservative heraldist, who adhered strictly to the English view that the only valid arms are those granted or confirmed by authority, or those inherited through the legitimate direct male line from a person to whom the arms had been granted or confirmed, and that all others are, in Brooke-Little’s words quoted above, “bogus.” “Only a direct ancestor,” Vermont wrote in the preface to America Heraldica, “having borne by right a coat of arms, can give his descendants a similar privilege, and obtain for them an honest footing amongst the Americans entitled to coat-armor.” “To violate this absolute law, governing despotically every heraldic assumption,” he continued, “would be only to add ridicule to untruth; and, with the progressive enlightenment of their fellow-citizens on the subject, such pseudo-gentility would soon be found out and treated as it deserves to be–with perfect and justified contempt.”

Yet Vermont published the supposed Cleveland arms even though (a) they had not been granted or confirmed in accordance with the norms he professed to support, (b) there was not even prima facie proof of a link between the American Cleveland family and the one that had de facto if not de jure borne the arms in England, and (c) neither the English Cleivelands nor the American Clevelands had a shred of evidence of descent from the possibly legendary Sir Guy de Cleveland, the ostensible first bearer of the arms, who (according to Vermont himself) would have been the one indispensable figure in anyone’s right to inherit them.

The Influence of the Purported Cleveland Arms

Arms of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Cleveland

Arms of the Roman Catholic
Diocese of Cleveland

One collateral effect of the general acceptance of the arms attributed to Moses Cleveland’s family was the adoption of one of the most attractive ecclesiastical coats of arms in the United States. In 1796, the Connecticut Land Company, which had bought the State of Connecticut’s claim to a strip of land along Lake Erie known as the Western Reserve, hired General Moses Cleaveland, a veteran of the Revolution and (like the President) a descendant of the original immigrant, to supervise the surveying of the territory and mapping of parcels of land for sale to settlers. In the course of his work, Gen. Cleaveland laid out a town on the shore of Lake Erie that was subsequently named in his honor, although with the spelling altered to the more familiar form, “Cleveland.” In 1847, the Roman Catholic presence in the area was sufficiently large to justify the creation of a diocese, and some decades later, with the revival in traditional ecclesiastical heraldry in America, the diocese adopted a coat of arms based on those attributed to the founder’s family. These arms, shown at left, difference the basic coat by adding three cross-crosslets (crosses with crossbars near the end of each arm) counterchanged (i.e., ermine crosses on the black area and a black one on the ermine).


  • Burke, John. General Armory of England, Scotland, and Ireland. London, 1842.
  • Chamberlain, Eugene Tyler. Early Life and Public Services of Hon. Grover Cleveland, The Fearless and Independent Governor of the Empire State. Mansfield, Ohio, 1884.
  • Cleveland, Edward Janes. The Genealogy of the Cleveland and Cleaveland Families.
  • Cleveland, Vikki L. Jeanne. Cleveland Coat of Arms
  • Crozier, William Armstrong. Crozier’s General Armory. 1904; rpt. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co, 1972
  • Grazebrook, Henry Sydney. The Heraldry of Worcestershire. London, 1873.
  • Peet, Henry. “Liverpool in the Reign of Queen Anne.” ”Transactions of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire,” Vol. 59 (1907), Appendix.
  • Stoddard, William Osborne. Grover Cleveland. 3rd ed. New York, 1888.
  • Vermont, E. de V. America Heraldica. 1886-89; rpt. New York: Heraldic Publishing Co, 1965