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martin van buren
31 may 2008
Ted Widmer contributes a notably energetic and hiply-written study of Martin Van Buren to the Times Books American Presidents series. The first seven Presidents are all colossal figures in American history, even if some of them were colossally awkward as President. Van Buren represents a sudden descent of the office into historiographical obscurity. As Widmer says, "a grand total of six American communities were named after him . . . Their combined population adds up to about ten thousand people, far more than have ever read a book about him" (18).
It's an intriguing geographical object lesson. Given the sheer amount of real estate named after other Presidents, Van Buren has been shabbily neglected. Even the street grids that feature Presidential nomenclature in so many American towns tend to trail off into desuetude after seven blocks. Chicago may have the most prominent Van Buren Street, but it's a rather nondescript thoroughfare in a burg where the prime locations are staked out by Washington and Jackson, Madison and Lincoln, Grant and Roosevelt. West of the Loop, several stretches of Van Buren Street are overlain by the Eisenhower Expressway. What does a President have to do to gain roadmap immortality?
And as Widmer points out, historians have not served Van Buren well. I am one of the ten thousand who has ever read a book about Matty Van, and in fact I have now read four of them. Denis Tilden Lynch's 1929 An Epoch and a Man is delightfully chatty, but unsupplied with either a thesis or critical objectivity. John Niven's Martin Van Buren (1983), by contrast, is padded and frankly incomprehensible in its navigation of New York State politics. The best previous book I'd read about Van Buren was Robert Remini's Martin Van Buren and the Making of the Democratic Party (1959), a book whose thesis is that the venerable donkey-fronted institution that is still patching itself together from impossible sub-coalitions even as I write was mostly the creation of a single man, the little New York political fixer who would become the eighth President. Widmer follows Remini's thesis enthusiastically here, marvelling at the acumen and large-tent mentality that allowed Van Buren to dominate three Presidential elections and forge a cross-sectional organization with an impact on every election and political office in the nation.
Widmer stresses Van Buren's exceptional status in several ways, but may be stretching some points to do so. He calls Van Buren the "first ethnic president" (6). Indeed, Van Buren is still the only President save Kennedy with no Anglo-Saxon ancestors (and will be for some years to come). But this technical fact obscures the special nature of Dutch ancestry in 19th-century New York. The political annals of the state, and even the street grid of New York City, are woven out of a fusion of English and Dutch heritage, from Peter Stuyvesant and other early patroons down through the Van Rensselaers and De Peysters, Van Cortlandts and Schuylers, Verplancks, Opdykes, Schermerhorns, and Vanderbilts who populated the highest circles of power in the Empire State.
Of course Martin Van Buren was unknown in those circles till he became a legislative power-broker in Albany. His father, though the scion of a family that had arrived in the Hudson Valley in the 1630s, was a modest, slightly feckless small-town tavern keeper in Kinderhook, New York. In this respect, Van Buren's early poverty and obscurity link him to the other great democratic champion of his era, Andrew Jackson. (By contrast, Jackson, though Saxon enough, was the true "ethnic," his parents freshly emigrated from Ulster just before he was born.)
Widmer also marvels that Van Buren is one of two elected Presidents who neither graduated from college nor served in the military (the other is Grover Cleveland). But this is something of a technicality. For one thing, two non-elected Presidents of the mid-19th century (Fillmore and Johnson) are in this category. For another, Abraham Lincoln is only technically outside it, having done token military service. And for yet another, Van Buren's career as a lawyer resembles that of other non-military political giants of his time, including Henry Clay and Thomas Hart Benton, who had no college degrees but read law and were admitted directly to the bar.
Nevertheless, despite his reputation as a bit of a blade and fashion plate, despite his aspirations to landed-gentry that manifested themselves in his retirement estate of Lindenwald near Kinderhook, Van Buren was no silver-spooner. He was utterly at home with all kinds of ward-heelers, Tammany operatives, small-town welcoming committees and Bowery b'hoys; and his ease among the crowned heads of Europe simply came from this natural bonhomie that expressed itself in any social situation. He valued Queen Victoria and a Catskills postmaster equally. It is easy to see why the orphan Andrew Jackson was a lifelong friend and the supercilious Yale-educated John C. Calhoun was a mortal enemy.
Despite the series' focus on Presidencies rather than Presidents, Widmer says little about Van Buren's actual achievements in the White House. There aren't many to speak of. Poleaxed by the descent of the Panic of 1837, Van Buren spent the whole four years back on his heels. He was one of the least proactive Presidents of his or any era. One senses that, like his much later avatar George H.W. Bush (the only Vice President since to win election directly to the Presidency), Van Buren was weak on "the vision thing." He was an arranger, a power broker, a bender of postprandial elbows; one can imagine Van Buren lining up votes on the golf course or the tennis court, but not giving Rooseveltian or Kennedyesque speeches of grand purpose.
But like his frequent antagonist John Quincy Adams, Van Buren had a distinguished, even noble, post-Presidential career. Like Adams a trimmer on the slavery issue while in the Executive Branch, Van Buren was liberated by defeat in a Presidential election. He never embraced abolition (nor did Adams), but he became a strong advocate for limiting and rolling back the extent of the slave power. In 1844 Van Buren was the leading spokesman – and third-party candidate – for the Free Soil Party (Adams's son Charles Francis was his running mate). Widmer points to a latter-day irony: Americans tend to know Van Buren, if at all, from his depiction as a dastardly promoter of slavery in Steven Spielberg's film Amistad (1997), a film where Quincy Adams features as the embattled hero. But in real life, the two men's careers converged.
Widmer, Ted. Martin Van Buren. New York: Times Books, 2005.