He attended Deerfield Academy in Deerfield, Massachusetts before graduating from Colgate University in Hamilton, New York in 1942. He then attended Yale Law School as a graduate student.
His time at Yale was interrupted when he enlisted in the Army in December 1941. During World World War II, he served overseas in the Pacific in the 40th Infantry Division and was discharged as a Captain of Field Artillery in February 1946. He returned to Yale after the war and earned his law degree in 1948.
He was admitted to the bar and began practicing law in New London in January 1949.
In June 1951 he was recalled up to the Army during the Korean War and was stationed in Germany. He was awarded the Bronze Star for valor, and retired from service in November 1952.
He served as majority floor leader twice while he was in the State Senate. In 1962 Cleveland ran as a Republican candidate for the office of United States Representative for 2nd district.
He was elected to the 88th Congress and to the eight succeeding Congresses, serving from January 3, 1963 to January 3, 1981.
By using a bi-annual questionnaire sent to the people in his district, he tried to represent their desires even if it were not his own personal opinion of an issue. In Congress he served on the United States House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. He was not a candidate for reelection in 1980 to the Ninety-seventh Congress and retired from public life.
Cleveland died on December 3, 1995 (age 75 years, 173 days) in New London, New Hampshire.
He is interred at Old Main Street Cemetery in New London. In appreciation of Cleveland"s work in Congress, the United States Post Office and Court House building in Concord was renamed the James C. Cleveland Federal Building in 1980.
In 1982 the James C. Cleveland Bridge was constructed in Berlin, New Hampshire in his honor. The James C. Cleveland Papers are held by the Cleveland, Colby, Colgate Archives of Colby-Sawyer College in New London.
He served as a Republican member of the United States House of Representatives from 1963 to 1981. Cleveland held various political position in New Hampshire, and served as a Republican member of the New Hampshire Senate from 1950-1962. He was an organizer and director of New London Trust Company, and served as a member of the New Hampshire State Senate from 1950-1962.
Married Hilary Paterson, December 9, 1950. Children: Cotton Mather, James Colby, David Paterson, Lincoln Mather, Susan Sclater.