Eastern National Park and Monument Association, 1984, 477 pages
Donald Cole analyzes the political skills that brought Van Buren the nickname "Little Magician," describing how he built the Albany Regency (which became a model for political party machines) and how he created the Democratic party of Andrew Jackson.
Martin Van Buren was the first in a string of mostly unremarkable presidents between Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln that nobody really cares about, so unlike the previous presidents I've read about, pickings were slim for a thorough biography of the POTUS whose chief claim to fame may be Most Impressive Sideburns.
Donald Cole's book is not meant for the casual reader of presidential biographies. This is a scholarly, heavily-footnoted work for serious historians, and you'd have to be a pretty serious grind to read this just because you're on a mission to read a biography of every American president.
So I read it.
And it was... kind of interesting.
Donald Cole's area of research was Jacksonian democracy, and he writes about Van Buren largely in that context — as the heir to Andrew Jackson and his party. Martin Van Buren and the American Political System is more of a political history than a biography, so while President Sideburns himself was not exactly the most fascinating man personally (Cole repeatedly points out that Van Buren was not charismatic or a great speaker), his rise, and his impact on American politics, is not uninteresting or insignificant.
A Professional Politician
First of all, Van Buren was probably the first POTUS who was genuinely a career politician. He started out as a party boss in New York, and from early on he was deliberately and methodically planning his political career. He considered this to be a perfectly legitimate profession and would have been puzzled by people who denigrate "professional politicians."
Secondly, he was the first real party president. No, I don't mean the fun kind. Unlike his predecessors, he didn't just reluctantly ally himself with a political party — he embraced party politics and openly advocated for a party system. He considered political parties not just inevitable, but necessary and useful, and actively opposed those who wanted to bring back the "Era of Good Feelings" from the Monroe era, in which party politics temporarily faded away. Parties, to him, were how professional politicians should organize and consolidate power, which was what professional politicians should be doing.
If this sounds all very calculating and mechanical and well, political, that was Van Buren. He lived and breathed politics and he was good at it.
Kissing Cousins from Kinderhook
Van Buren's origins were fairly humble; his father was an innkeeper in Kinderhook, New York, the son of a Dutch immigrant. The Van Burens weren't poor, but they certainly weren't wealthy. Almost all other presidents have had one or more of: college education, a military career, or a wealthy family. Van Buren had none of those.
Van Buren's wife, Hannah, was a distant cousin and childhood sweetheart who was also from Kinderhook. They had four sons before Hannah died of tuberculosis at the age of 35. We know almost nothing else about her. Van Buren almost never spoke of her again; in his own autobiography, in which he goes on about every other last detail of his life and political career, he never even mentions her! Van Buren was known to be flirtatious and enjoyed the company of beautiful women, but he never remarried, and if he ever had a mistress, it's not recorded and he must have kept any relationships he had very discreet.
Raising four young sons by himself would have been pretty difficult for a single father, even one of means. Van Buren evidently put them in the care of nannies, which probably didn't do a lot for his relationships with them.
Probably the most personally scandalous rumor that ever afflicted him was the one that Aaron Burr was actually his father. They were physically similar and Aaron Burr did actually frequent Van Buren's father's tavern before he was born, so it was theoretically possible, but there was no other evidence for this.
"The Little Magician" of the Regency
The Regency revolutionized American politics, not only by creating a new type of political machine, but also by popularizing a new theory of political parties.
Van Buren helped create the Albany Regency, which controlled New York state politics for decades. This was an era of unabashed spoils systems: you supported a candidate and expected to get handed lucrative appointments and government contracts as a reward. Andrew Jackson would become infamous for this during his presidency, but he didn't invent the system.
Van Buren gamed the system like a pro. He was a pro. He gained the moniker "The Little Magician" for the way he carefully controlled his party, neutralized rivals, and engineered elections throughout his career.
"There is such a thing in politics as killing a man too dead."
— Martin Van Buren, about one of the Regency's few failures, when trying to get rid of a rival backfired on them
The era is full of interesting parties. Van Buren was originally a Democratic-Republican, and considered himself a Jeffersonian, and later a Jacksonian. The Democratic-Republicans would eventually become the modern Democrats, though Van Buren would end his political career as a candidate for the Free Soil party. Cole goes into great and exhaustive detail about political infighting and caucuses and factions, with names like the Loco-Focos, the Bucktails, the Hunkers, and the Barnburners. (Most of these were essentially single-issue parties with names that came from some obscure reference to their origins - the "Loco-Focos" for example, were named after a kind of match that they supposedly used to light candles after their rivals in Tammany Hall turned off the gas to try to prevent them from meeting.)
All of these names are historical footnotes now, as are the many, many names of Van Buren's friends, allies, and rivals. If the minutiae of 19th century New York politics (eventually becoming regional and then national politics) doesn't excite you, then this book will really be a slog, but like Robert Caro's exhaustive biography of Lyndon Johnson, you can see the genius that makes some men great politicians, not because they are particularly brilliant, or charismatic, or visionary, but just because they are really, really good at politics. Van Buren was that kind of man.
"The Sly Fox," the original centrist
According to legend, Van Buren managed to avoid committing himself in the speech. In one popular tale a wool buyer told Benjamin Knower that it was a "very able speech," but neither Knower nor the buyer could decide on which side of the tariff question it came down. Van Buren himself recalled that "directness on all points had not been [the] most prominent feature" of the address.
Van Buren's opponents took to referring to him as a "sly fox." It wasn't intended as a compliment, and Van Buren didn't take it as one. While he was a very even tempered man who took criticism and insults throughout his life with equanimity, he was known to resent being depicted as some sort of scheming scoundrel. He was a schemer, and to his opponents he might have seemed a scoundrel, but Van Buren was actually principled and relatively uncorrupt... as far as playing the game by the rules went. Whether the game itself was corrupt was not a question that ever troubled him.
This is most evident in his position on slavery, which can charitably be described as "equivocal" and less charitably as "mealy-mouthed." Van Buren was a classic centrist. He triangulated, compromised, and never took a position on anything without calculating its political advantageousness. Van Buren didn't keep slaves (though he did own some earlier in his life), but he was anti-abolitionist and one of the Southerners' best friends in the North. Not because he was particularly "pro-slavery," but because the South was an important part of his voting block. Like so many politicians of the era, he'd occasionally say things that suggested he found slavery kinda sorta unpleasant and regrettable, and he took a typically equivocal stand about allowing free blacks to vote, and later in life he would take a (slightly) firmer stance against slavery, but as Cole points out, despite the efforts of some Van Buren supporters to portray him as anti-slavery all along, the burden of proof is on them to show he ever really opposed it. In the famous Amistad case (where former President John Quincy Adams would represent a ship full of captured Africans who had freed themselves and killed their captors), Van Buren issued an executive order to turn the slaves over, to win the favor of Southern slaveholders. (Adams would win the case in the Supreme Court.)
His tactical style throughout his career was to seek the moderate middle that would placate, or at least not overly antagonize, either side. While he did have some convictions on political matters (he continued to claim he was an heir to Jefferson, in favor of states rights and limited government), he never let his convictions get in the way of a good compromise that would get him what he wanted.
After reading a biography of the violent and confrontational Andrew Jackson, it seemed strange to me that a mild, urbane New Yorker would become one of Jackson's closest confidantes. But Van Buren was a quiet, diplomatic fixer who despite lacking Jackson's charisma and bluster, agreed with him on most points politically. Van Buren negotiated everything from bank crises to the Peggy Eaton affair with his usual equivocal diplomacy that avoided committing himself too much. He even negotiated an exit from Jackson's cabinet when he perceived that his position as Secretary of State was harming both himself and Jackson. Jackson, famously touchy about disloyalty, not only acquiesced to Van Buren's plan, but appointed him Foreign Minister to Britain.
Ironically, it was John C. Calhoun, Jackson's former Vice President whom Jackson had just "fired," who probably put Van Buren on the path to the presidency. In a bit of partisan spite, Calhoun had the Senate reject Van Buren's appointment. Van Buren, already enjoying London high society, received word that his appointment had been withdrawn and that he had to return to the US.
It was embarrassing for Van Buren, but it also allowed him to run on the Jackson ticket as Vice President. Which led to him becoming Jackson's successor as President.
The Rise of Modern Presidential Politics
Van Buren's critics contributed to the formation of an American stereotype when they condemned him as "only a politician." Crockett even claimed that Van Buren was not content merely to become a politician, but had "pushed it as a trade." According to the critics Van Buren was a "third rate man," a "master hand at managin things, and gittin all his folks into office," while his friends in the Regency were "a knot of cat-paced, sly-faced, cringing, artful, busy fellows." One cartoon entitled "Going the Whole Hog," showed officeholders under Van Buren as a litter of pigs.
One of Cole's themes in writing about Van Buren is Van Buren's introduction of modern party politics to the American political system. He ran on an explicitly party platform, "downplaying the nominee and stressing the party."
While Van Buren was attacked for being an "effeminate fop," indicating that the modern culture war is not very modern at all, his opponents in the Whig Party were hopelessly divided. Van Buren won the election of 1836 against a field of four rival candidates.
Initially, he signaled that he would continue to walk the path of Jacksonian Democracy, opposition to abolition and national banks, and generally defending the rights of the South. Over time, Van Buren would begin to distance himself somewhat from the Old Hero, but he masterfully kept Jackson on his side even when he went against his former mentor and President.
Van Buren had been a magician, a fox, and a political mastermind for his entire career. But as President, he seemed to lose most of his art. His presidency was mostly unremarkable, but in the late 1830s, the US suffered a severe economic panic (caused largely by English banks being forced to call in notes due to England's own economic woes), and Van Buren entered the election of 1840 with the economy in full depression.
The Log Cabin Campaign
Cole once again analyzes the election of 1840 in great detail, crunching the delegate counts and electoral college votes and what Van Buren needed to swing this state or that, but the really interesting part of it was that it was the first election with what we'd recognize as modern political campaigning.
Van Buren's opponent was William Henry Harrison, whose chief claim to fame was being the hero of the Battle of Tippecanoe. A mythology built around Harrison that he had personally killed Tecumseh (almost certainly untrue), that he was a humble man "born in a log cabin" (perhaps technically true, if you call his wealthy father's plantation house a "log cabin"), a true earthy, common man, the kind of president you'd like to have a beer with. As opposed to Martin Van Buren, a "used up man," a "cunning magician," a "cool, calculating, intriguing politician." The Whigs embraced this imagery, and even rolled logs along the campaign trail and built log cabins as publicity stunts. They created slogans like "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too!" and wrote campaign songs. Notably, the Whigs talked very little about actual campaign issues.
With Harrison established in the public mind as a rugged frontiersman living in rural simplicity in a log cabin, it was easy to portray Van Buren as an effete Easterner, living in urban elegance in a mansion. While Harrison drank hard cider from an earthenware mug, Van Buren supposedly drank French wine from a silver goblet.
All of this undoubtedly helped push Harrison to victory, but really, it was the economy, stupid. Like more than one future president, Van Buren would become a one-term president because of economic woes which were probably largely out of his control.
Having been defeated, Van Buren retired to his New York mansion, and claimed he was done with politics, but of course, a career politician like him could never really be done with politics.
He tried to exert influence over the Tyler and Polk administrations, but had a severe falling out with Polk, who essentially turned on the old Albany Regency in favor of his own clique. As mentioned above, Van Buren managed to find a conscience after he no longer had much power, and turned on the South and spoke out against slavery. In 1848, he sought the Democratic party nomination, lost, and ran instead on the Free Soil ticket. (His running mate was Charles Francis Adams, son of John Quincy Adams, who had long been one of Van Buren's political foes.)
In the 20th century, Van Buren was largely a forgotten figure, though he did have some fans who saw him as the last true Jeffersonian. (One of these was the notoriously anti-Semitic Ezra Pound, who believed Van Buren's campaign for an independent treasury was a defense against Jewish banking interests. He wrote an epic poem Cantos with tributes to Jefferson and Van Buren.)
Today, there are probably few people who could describe anything about President Van Buren. He wasn't the most boring or unsuccessful president, but he will make no one's top 10 list.
Donald Cole's writing is clear and describes a lot of very unexciting topics in a way that makes it clear why they were significant. He was an expert on Martin Van Buren and Andrew Jackson, and boy does he show you his research. Should you read this book? Probably not, unless you're researching the era or you're a total presidential history nerd. But as with many other biographies, it put the era in context and explains how a lot of things came to be that are still relevant today. I am glad I read this book, though it does not make me look forward to grinding through similarly dry biographies of the many other mediocre has-been presidents in American history.
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