Let’s talk for a bit about the eighth president of these United States of America.
I don’t recall learning much of anything about Van Buren in school. Other than a goofy turn on Seinfeld and an Ezra Pound canto, we don’t see a whole lot of him in pop culture, either. So I was surprised to read that he actually had a huge influence on our current political system. He basically pulled together a ragtag group of politicians who more or less believed the same thing and said “Hey guys, let’s form a nationwide system of connections and influence and call it the Democratic Party!” But here’s the funny thing: Nobody knows exactly how he did it. He was a very behind-the-scenes mover and shaker, and because he seemed to get things done through slight-of-hand (and he was short), people called him “The Little Magician.”
I had a hard time finding a biography of Van Buren, which seems to be the start of a trend from MVB through Buchanan. If anyone has a Franklin Pierce bio they’d like to part ways with, I will take it. Anyway, I ended up with “Martin Van Buren” by Ted Widmer. It’s part of the American Presidents series, and I enjoyed it well enough that I’m hoping to find the rest of the books in the series.
So here’s a bit of what I learned about Martin Van Buren.
Martin Van Buren was the first president to be born in the newly independent United States of America. He grew up poor in Kinderhook, New York, where his parents owned a tavern that just happened to be frequented by one Aaron Burr. Martin left school at age 13 and was sent to live and work in New York City with an influential rich guy from Kinderhook named William Van Ness, who was a pal of Burr’s. Burr took Martin under his wing, and a scurrilous rumor started going around that MVB was actually his son! Scandal!
Martin eventually became a lawyer — which was more of an apprentice situation than a law-and-lots-of-debt thing in those days — and in 1812 he won a seat in the state senate where, as Widmer puts it, “power began to flow to Van Buren.”
In 1821 he was elected to the U.S. Senate. John C. Calhoun was the first person to greet him in DC, and they were card-playing buddies before they became mortal enemies. Ain’t that always the way? Their falling out had more to do with Van Buren befriending and backing Andrew Jackson for the presidency than it did with whist or whatever they were playing, though. And listen to this dirty bit of business from Calhoun! So Jackson sent Van Buren to England to serve as minister to England. Van Buren gets there, drinks a lot of ale with Washington Irving and hangs out with the royals a bit, only to find out that the Senate voted against his appointment. And guess who cast the deciding vote? John Crabapple Calhoun.
But then later Jackson let everyone know he wanted Van Buren to be the next president, and even though:
he won the election. At the time, he was the youngest guy ever elected president.
And then everything went sideways.
MVB became president in 1837, when the country was kind of entering its adolescence. The Panic of 1837 put a bit of a damper on Americans’ enthusiasm for all things America, and people were starting to get the sense that maybe America had some faults.
The Panic got its start because there was unregulated growth and loose credit and an unfavorable trade agreement with England, and when Ireland and England wanted their money and America couldn’t pay? The Panic of 1837 turned out to be the worst financial catastrophe in the United States until the crash of 1929! Bad news for pretty much everyone, but one Cornelius Roosevelt — aka Teddy’s Granddad — managed to scoop up lots of property on the cheap and get good and filthy rich in the process. So without The Panic, we might not have had the Presidents Roosevelt. We might have missed out on “Moby Dick,” too, since author Herman Melville took to the seas after his brother lost his business.
Another tidbit I found interesting was the way a wealthy guy in New York described groups of people protesting the high price of flour. He called them “a convention of loafers from all quarters of the world.” I’m hearing definite echoes of the “These punks wouldn’t have time to protest if they had jobs” sentiments that I see frequently on Facebook. The more things change, huh?
After the Panic of 1837, Americans started asking just what sort of place they wanted their country to be. The one big glaring issue was slavery, a topic on which Martin Van Buren had never been forthcoming. He seems to have tried to maintain a centrist position, which is gross in retrospect. It didn’t go over well then, either, because as he was trying to hold to the center, the country was pulling farther and farther apart and everyone found more and more reasons to be angry at Van Buren. And when the opposition’s new nationwide propaganda machine — modeled after Van Buren’s own Democratic Party network — put William Henry Harrison forth as their champion (complete with a totally fabricated poor-kid back story and a lot of catchy tunes!), Martin Van Buren lost in a big way.
(The folks campaigning for him called him “Ol’ Kinderhook,” and his supporters shortened that to “OK.” And that idiom has never left us.
Even if I forget everything else about Martin Van Buren, I hope I remember that he ushered “OK” into our vernacular.)
So former President Martin Van Buren went back home to Kinderhook. He did some traveling, he started writing his biography, he had a wildly unsuccessful run for the presidency with the Free Soil Party, and he had one of the first indoor, flush toilets in the area installed.
When Van Buren’s ancestor left the Netherlands for the new world, he didn’t even have a last name. And then his great-great-great-etc-grandson ended up becoming president and having a state-of-the-art toilet. A true Drake-ian tale.
Those who have wrought great changes in the world never succeeded by gaining over chiefs, but always by exciting the multitude. This first is the resource of intrigue and produces only secondary results; the second is the resort of geniuses and transforms the universe.
— Martin Van Buren