A Presidential Sig

The membership and controversy of Grover Cleveland

By Nathanael Hawthorne, YOUNGSTOWN 2020

Most Sigs know that former President Grover Cleveland, MICHIGAN 1893, is a Sigma Chi, but most don’t know the disruption this caused the Fraternity

President Grover Cleveland, MICHIGAN 1893, is shown in a portrait wearing his Sigma Chi badge.

Only one event in Sigma Chi history has warranted an emergency meeting of the Grand Chapter. The issue of whether to bestow honorary membership upon former President Grover Cleveland, MICHIGAN 1893, caused a significant amount of chaos such that the Grand Council at the time decided to call the special session.

Historical recollections of the 20th Grand Chapter in New York City unanimously depict a meeting where brothers’ tempers flared as they debated the topic well into the early hours of Jan. 25, 1893. According to The History of Sigma Chi: Volume 4 by ninth Grand Consul and 13th Grand Historian Joseph Cookman Nate, ILLINOIS WESLEYAN 1890, the debate was intense and essentially divided those in attendance.


Ten years prior to Cleveland’s invitation to join, the governing body of Sigma Chi established honorary members would not be permitted, as per legislation passed at the 14th and 15th Grand Chapter meetings, respectively. Once passed, the matter of honorary memberships was deemed to have been settled.

Enter the Theta Theta chapter at the University of Michigan.

The ordeal began a few days before Cleveland was set to attend a celebration on Feb. 22, 1892, at the University of Michigan when the Theta Theta chapter sent a letter to Cleveland asking if he would like to become an honorary Fraternity member. Some of the undergraduates responsible for Cleveland’s invitation included Ronoldo Cooper, 1893; Bernard Brough, 1893; Ross Beale, 1893; John James, 1893; Charles Roehrig, 1893; Eli Sutton, 1890; Ernest Marland, 1893; and George Nattinger, 1893.

It would be nearly a month before Cleveland’s response reached the chapter, ultimately accepting the proposition. In a March 20 letter back to the chapter, Cleveland wrote “… I accept this action as an honor and shall always regard it as one of the most gratifying incidents connected with my recent visit to the University of Michigan.”

Pictured are the University of Michigan undergrads responsible for asking President Grover Cleveland, MICHIGAN 1893, to become an honorary Fraternity member.

Following his acceptance letter, the brothers at Theta Theta asked then-president of the New York alumni chapter, Chauncey Ripley, BUCKNELL 1864, to verify the honorary membership through a Ritualistic ceremony. The undergraduates’ excitement was palpable. In fact, many wrote home and spoke to journalists about Cleveland’s membership.

With the proposition in the newspapers, many alumni from Chicago insisted the matter be tabled until the next Grand Chapter, scheduled for the summer 1893, where it could be discussed. In the meantime, Cleveland was elected to his second term as president of the United States on Nov. 8, 1892, and many of the alumni hailing from the East agreed the ruling at the 19th Grand Chapter prohibiting honorary membership was not the best decision. Most of these brothers felt that the Fraternity as a whole, rather than the Michigan chapter, should honor Cleveland with membership in Sigma Chi.

When the arguments came to a head and it was determined the issue would otherwise go unresolved, sixth Grand Consul Reginald Fendall, GEORGE WASHINGTON 1864, used his power to call for a special Grand Chapter to convene on Jan. 24, 1893.


1882 — At the 14th Grand Chapter, a resolution is passed limiting honorary memberships to individual chapters, provided the vote is unanimous by the chapter.

1884 — At the 15th Grand Chapter, additional language is added that forbids honorary membership.

Feb. 22, 1892 — Grover Cleveland goes to the University of Michigan, prompting the chapter to extend membership days prior.

March 20, 1892 — Grover Cleveland sends a letter to the chapter accepting the membership offer.

November 1892 — Grover Cleveland is elected to his second term as president of the United States.

Dec. 14, 1892 — An informal conference is called to organize the initiation of Grover Cleveland.

Jan. 24, 1893 — The special 20th Grand Chapter is called specifically to discuss the matter in New York City.

Jan. 26, 1893 — Grover Cleveland is initiated.

March 4, 1893 — Grover Cleveland is inaugurated wearing the Badge of Sigma Chi.


At the Hotel Bartholdi in New York at 7 p.m., Grand Chapter was held with a hodgepodge of attendees. Once some housekeeping issues were resolved, the argument over Cleveland being initiated was in full swing.

According to Volume 4, the language of the constitutional revisions of the 14th and 15th Grand Chapters stated: “No person shall be admitted as a member of the Sigma Chi Fraternity except by a unanimous vote of all the members of the chapter to which he may be proposed… [and] No person shall be elected to honorary membership in this Fraternity.” At the special meeting, the additional phrase “unless he is elected to such membership by a three-fifths vote of the members of a Grand Chapter prior to the 21st Grand Chapter of this Fraternity.”

Theodore Gessler, BUCKNELL 1864; Alfred Taylor, BUCKNELL 1866; and Francis Scratchley, WASHINGTON & LEE 1877, were among the leaders of the movement to initiate Cleveland. Gessler was the one who asked for the constitution language to include “prior to the 21st Grand Chapter…” to essentially back-track the amendment so Cleveland would be allowed, while in the future other honorary memberships would not be permitted.

From Gessler’s motion, the debate “was a memorable one,” according to Volume 4. Those against Cleveland’s membership maintained that since there was already precedence and clear rules in place, the Michigan chapter should not have been allowed to extend a membership offer to Cleveland. Those in favor of Cleveland’s initiation wanted to see the president-elect wearing the badge when he took his oath of office two months later. Ultimately, the final roll call showed 29 votes in favor of the language change and 15 against, meaning Cleveland could be initiated.

It was determined that Fendall, Gessler and Taylor would be the committee to initiate Cleveland. Just over 24 hours had passed when the three initiated Cleveland in New York on Jan. 26, 1893. Fendall was unexpectedly called away, so Taylor and Gessler were the two to host the initiation at Cleveland’s law firm in New York. According to Volume 4, the initiation was brief but dignified.


At the end, the delegates from the East were successful in their bid, and Cleveland wore his Sigma Chi badge proudly during his inauguration on March 4, 1893.

Not everyone was on board with Cleveland’s membership, however. One fraternal organization believed the initiation would affect every Greek-letter organization because it would dilute the significance of those who were considered full members. Another organization maintained that all Greek-letter fraternities should be against the initiation. Once news spread of Cleveland’s initiation, major publications such as The New York Times reported on the event.

For the rest of his life, Cleveland proudly proclaimed himself a member of Sigma Chi and showed his appreciation. He always showed favor to the undergraduates and was known to send photographs and letters if requested. According to Volume 4, “he found occasion, not infrequently, to voice his personal interest in the Fraternity and his appreciation of what he always regarded as an honor conferred upon him.”

Fendall, on behalf of the Washington alumni, presented Cleveland a badge set with diamonds — the one he wore during his inauguration. That same badge is on display at the Chuck and Kim Watson Museum of Sigma Chi at International Fraternity Headquarters in Evanston, Illinois.

This telegram says: “Cleveland will wear Sigma Chi Cross during delivery [of] inaugural address and at ball.”
An image of Grover Cleveland’s badge is shown. It was originally crafted in 1893 by the JF Newman Company, which was later acquired by the L.G. Balfour Company. According to Sigma Chi’s official jeweler, Legacy Deuteron, which sells a recreation of Cleveland’s iconic badge, the uniqueness of the four larger diamonds set between the arms of its uniquely configured cross distinguishes it from other Sigma Chi badges.

More information:

Virtually tour the Chuck and Kim Watson Museum of Sigma Chi and view Brother Cleveland’s exhibit here. View Legacy Deuteron’s Grover Cleveland badge here, as well as other unique jewelry available from Sigma Chi’s official jeweler.