After he left the White House, Cleveland settled in Princeton, New Jersey. He continued to follow political events closely. During the controversy about annexing the Philippine Islands, he spoke out strongly against the "craze" and "mad rush" for colonial expansion. In 1898 he was one of the original honorary, vice presidents of the Anti-Imperialist League. Over the years he wrote many magazine articles on aspects of his own presidency and on current issues. Some of these were published in his book Presidential Problems , but none is memorable. On most questions, as Allan Nevins put it, Cleveland's position was a combination of common sense and conservatism. By far the most interesting of his retirement writings are his articles on hunting and fishing, collected in his Fishing and Shooting Sketches .
Cleveland enjoyed a long and happy retirement. The Princeton academic community gave him a warm welcome, and soon he was taking as deep an interest in the affairs of the school as the most enthusiastic alumnus. He accepted an honorary degree (while president he had refused all such honors) and in 1901 was elected to the Princeton board of trustees.
In 1904, Cleveland became chairman of the trustee committee of the graduate school. This made him a central figure in the conflict over the location of the graduate school that developed between Woodrow Wilson, then president of Princeton, and the dean of the graduate school, Andrew Fleming West. In this controversy Cleveland supported West. The dean had been instrumental in bringing Cleveland to Princeton, and the two were fast friends. (Cleveland even named his Princeton home Westland.) But he would probably have opposed Wilson's policies in any case; on university matters, as in nearly all others, he was a staunch conservative.
Cleveland died in Princeton on 24 June 1908. By that date he was admired and almost revered by the public; the bitter feelings generated by his sound-money policies in the 1890s had evaporated. Since his death his reputation has fluctuated with changing national tastes and interests. In the 1920s and 1930s it was at a high point; in the eyes of most historians, he stood among the near-great American presidents. After the Great Depression and World War II, his reputation fell because his deep commitment to limited government and his obsession with maintaining the gold standard seemed hopelessly reactionary. In recent years his place in the presidential hierarchy has risen somewhat, as the national mood has swung again in a conservative direction.
Popularity, of course, was never as important to Cleveland as doing what he considered right. And this commitment and the courage to maintain it remain his most admirable qualities. Cleveland was in many ways remarkably limited; he certainly lacked imagination, and he found it difficult to expose his inner self to all but a handful of close friends. He was anything but creative. But in industriousness and in devotion to principle and to the public good as he saw it, he has had few equals among American presidents.