Term in Office: 8th president, 1837-1841
Political Party: Democratic
Home State: New York
We have many obscure presidents in American history who are rightfully obscure, but Van Buren deserves, for good or ill, greater recognition. He experienced a brief resurgence in the 1990s; Seinfeld ran an episode revolving around a secret society of Van Buren enthusiasts who displayed eight fingers as a sign of affection for the eighth president. Stephen Spielberg’s award-winning film Amistad features a few appearances by MVB, but the portrayal is not at all favorable. Played as an effete by Nigel Hawthorne, Van Buren comes across as pandering, vacuous, cowardly, and oblivious– quite a contrast to the heroic role afforded Anthony Hopkins’ John Quincy Adams.
Maybe to an extent he was, and yet, he was also a brilliant, even devious, political organizer. In fact, you could make the argument that he was one of the most influential American statesmen of the 19th century. A young turk in the Barnburners faction of New York politics, Van Buren served as a senator and governor for his state before attaching himself to Andrew Jackson in the confusing aftermath of the 1824 presidential election. At the time, there was technically only one real political party in the United States, the Democratic-Republicans that Jefferson had founded. Van Buren’s genius was to subdivide the party itself, to help create a faction called simply the “Democrats.” As Van Buren envisioned it, this party would stand for the common man (therefore implying his opponents stood with the elites), but also for states’ rights– allowing the party to punt on controversial issues, most notably slavery, and avoid taking unpopular or risky stands on the national level. Instead, the party would be organized more or less locally, with offices given as reward for service, and could be withheld as punishment for apostasy. Strategically, Van Buren believed that the Democrats’ populist flavor made it the natural majority party in an age where nearly every white man, no matter how humble or poor, could exercise the vote. Indeed, the Democrats’ coalition was a strange, and ultimately unworkable, coalition between Southern planters, backwoodsmen who idolized Andrew Jackson, expansionists craving more territory, and Northern immigrants and its working-class. The party was not very ideological— instead, think of the antebellum Democrats as a group of state-based tribes that simply gathered every four years to nominate a president. All of this would be reinforced by giving offices to loyalists attached to your party, and getting rid of those put in office by opponents, rewarding loyalty over honesty and competence. It isn’t an exaggeration at all to say that the modern two-party system in America is Van Buren’s baby. To wit, the Federalists and Democrat-Republicans were closer to being factions among brethren; under Van Buren, politics cleaved into fairly distinct parties along the European model.
It helped that Van Buren ingratiated himself to Jackson, the one man of national reputation who could make this unwieldy coalition workable. Van Buren earned the favor of Old Hickory after being picked to serve in his cabinet as Secretary of State. When Jackson ground affairs of state to a halt to defend the honor of Peggy Eaton, the scandal-prone wife of his Secretary of War, Van Buren was the only cabinet member to visit the Eatons socially, pleasing the old general greatly. He soon became the administration’s indispensable man, and was chosen as Jackson’s running-mate for his 1832 re-election. Now the heir apparent, the Democrats’ convention nominated Van Buren in 1836. The new opposition party, the Whigs, could not agree on one candidate to challenge the Dutchman. Turning this weakness into strength, the Whigs decided to field a few regionally popular candidates in hopes of denying Van Buren a majority in the electoral college and turning the decision over to the House. They ran the legendary Daniel Webster in New England, war hero William Henry Harrison in the Great Lakes states, and Hugh White in Appalachia. It was a brilliant plan, but alas, not enough; with the public still enamored of Jackson, his appointed successor coasted to an easy victory.
Martin Van Buren savored politics like few other presidents. It is strikingly rare that an established party leader who lives and breaths politics and revels in its bargains and deals serves as president. Only Jefferson and Lyndon Johnson shared this distinction. Maybe you could make a case for Wilson, and maybe you could make a case for Lincoln– but that’s about it. Van Buren’s instinctive charm and easy-going manner smoothed over relations, even with his enemies. If the burgeoning Whig Party found Jackson a Caesar in waiting, the same could not be said of the “Red Fox from Kinderhook.” He did not bear unnecessary grudges, behaved civilly toward his enemies, and was gracious in defeat.
Van Buren’s presidency was one of many firsts. Van Buren was the first of several New Yorkers to serve as president. He was also the first to actually practice law for a living (while some earlier presidents, most notably Jefferson and Madison, had read law, this was not how they earned their livelihood; they were always gentleman planters first.) He was also the first true commoner to be president– every single one of his predecessors, Jackson not excepted, came from an aristocratic heritage of some kind. Van Buren had grown up in a tavern his parents, a group of Dutch immigrants, owned. Situated in Kinderhook, right on the road between Albany and New York City, he met plenty of early American politicos such as Aaron Burr to spur his interest in public life. (In fact, the bizarre rumor that Burr was Van Buren’s true father was whispered throughout MVB’s career, and is a crucial plot point in Gore Vidal’s epochal novel, Burr.) He shares the distinction, along with Kennedy, as the only presidents without any Anglo-Saxon heritage, and he is the only president to have learned English as a second language.
For all these firsts, Van Buren’s presidency was tied from the very start into a gordian knot. He had to fulfill the commitments that Andrew Jackson had made before him- but the massive, ruinous financial panic of 1837 severely hamstrung his ability to see these obligations through. Never mind that Jackson had cooked Van Buren a crap soufflé to deal with as president (though he did this partly with Van Buren’s help and advice). The nation’s banking system was in severe disarray after Jackson killed the Second Bank of the United States, set the parameters for Indian removal across the South, and left outstanding problems with Britain (principally over Maine’s boundaries) unresolved.
About the Panic– even though nobody remembers the Panic of 1837, it is the third or fourth worst financial crisis in U.S. history after the Great Depression, the problems with 1893 we discussed with Grover Cleveland, and possibly 2008. While the English credit crunch was clearly a factor, the country was suffering stateside from Jackson’s anti-bank monomania, compounded by his disastrous Specie Circular, requiring that federal lands be purchased with hard money. Buyers called in funds from banks, which did not always have the money, thus snowballing into financial disarray– one of the only times an economic depression resulted directly from presidential policy. Before prosperity returned, eight states would default on their financial obligations, internal improvements ground to a halt, and unemployment in a nation still adjusting to its “Market Revolution” was rampant.
Van Buren’s measures to cope with this panic were tepid and ineffectual. He did not believe that the government should take steps to relieve those adversely affected by the panic, even though Jackson’s economic policy was one of its greatest triggers. Van Buren’s solution to the crisis, an independent treasury where federal deposits could be placed, was a half-measure– it avoided committing to a national bank, still a bugbear among Jacksonian Democrats, but could safely store federal moneys. It remained in place until the Federal Reserve was created during the Wilson administration in 1913.
Although presiding over troubled times, Van Buren’s presidency was one of relative tranquility between the action-packed Jackson and Polk terms. In particular, Van Buren was not an enthusiastic expansionist. His administration did not lust for Florida or Texas or Cuba or Quebec with any ungovernable passion. Van Buren was patient and diplomatic in foreign relations, particularly when independence movements in Canada broke out. Despite New York and Vermont clamoring to bring these insurrectionist regions into the American orbit, Van Buren honored America’s commitment to neutrality. He was rewarded for his efforts with the successful Webster-Ashburton Treaty. This measure settled the outstanding question of where Maine ended and Canada began, ending a series of border skirmishes remembered as the Aroostook War.
All this might consign Van Buren to the middle of the rankings– a competent, if complacent, politician who served one term during troubled times, and was defeated in re-election. What puts Van Buren in the bottom ten, I fear, is his wretched record on human rights. While Van Buren inherited the Indian removal policy from Jackson, he carried it out when, at least in principle, he could have ordered a sharp reversal in course. The U.S. Army forcibly removed the Cherokee out west 800 miles to Oklahoma, during which about one in four members of the tribe perished. He sent the army to crush the Seminole uprising in Florida which began in protest against the removal policy. For those who think that this policy was “inevitable”, it is important to remember how strong Whig opposition was- from Henry Clay, from Theodore Frelinghuysen, and other party leaders. Favoring party unity over constitutional rights, a mistake Truman and LBJ would not make, Van Buren did nothing to change the “Gag rule” forbidding discussion of slavery in Congress, nor the policy by which abolitionist mailings were banned from Dixie’s postal system.
So, if you think he is ranked too low, remember this: Van Buren was president when the United States Army dragged 18,000 Cherokee from their homes in Georgia, put them in stockades, set their old cabins ablaze, had their valuables taken by lawless soldiers. And they were then marched hundreds of miles under miserable conditions, with perhaps 25% of their number perishing along the way. One Georgia volunteer who went on to fight for the Confederates later recalled: “I fought through the Civil War and have seen men shot to pieces and slaughtered by thousands…but the Cherokee removal was the cruelest I ever saw.”
Truth be told, I am rather surprised that we do not associate the removal with Van Buren; to this day the average, reasonably-informed American equates this act entirely with Andrew Jackson. I am equally surprised that Van Buren’s decision to carry out Jackson’s policy has not become immortalized as an act of poor presidential decision-making. Certainly, many people were aware of the inhumanity of this act and attempted to dissuade him. This included, of course, delegates from the Cherokee Nation itself. But in addition to this, Davy Crockett penned a letter threatening to quit the USA for then-independent Texas if Van Buren became president and followed through on the removal. Ralph Waldo Emerson penned a very elegant letter, one that demonstrates his transcendentalism and his belief in a common goodness of mankind that includes the Cherokee people. He needles Van Buren, inquiring who is the civilized and who is the barbarian: “it is the chirping of grasshoppers beside the immortal question whether justice shall be done by the race of civilized, to the race of savage man; whether all the attributes of reason, of civility, of justice, and even of mercy, shall be put off by the American people, and so vast an outrage upon the Cherokee nation, and upon human nature, shall be consummated.”
Van Buren became our third one-term president, but he wasn’t voted out because of the Cherokee removal. In the end it was, as James Carville would put it 150 years later, “the economy, stupid.” Nobody realistically expected New Deal-style measures in 1837 to contend with the Financial Panic. Nevertheless, Van Buren, like Carter, Hoover, and second-term Cleveland, got saddled with an economic depression or recession that did not proceed from their policies. Mocked as “Martin Van Ruin” and ridiculed for his alleged love of luxury and fineries, his prospects for re-election grew dim. The new opposition party, the Whigs, stole a page from the Democrats’ playbook, and went to great pains to portray themselves as champions of the common man. Their candidate, William Henry Harrison, the victor of the Battle of Tippecanoe, was praised by party newspapers as a homespun hero, living in a humble log cabin and drinking hard cider. (Ironically, Harrison was born to a plantation-owning Virginia family and Van Buren was the real working-class hero.) Nevertheless, in 1840, the Tippecanoe-and-Tyler-Too ticket swept Van Buren from office. (Curiously, out of the first 8 presidencies, the 5 Southerners all won second terms, and the 3 Northerners- Van Buren and the Adamses- were all defeated for re-election. Stupid 3/5ths compromise.)
One other point that I find really, really interesting: Van Buren’s vice-president was the military hero and Kentucky senator Richard Mentor Johnson, widely credited with killing Indian leader Tecumseh during the War of 1812. Johnson’s private life was a powder keg of scandal waiting to happen; he had a mistress who was a slave of clearly mixed-race ancestry. But what is more, he treated her as a common-law wife, and had two children with her. It leads to a fascinating counterfactual: if Van Buren ate some spoiled cherries and milk and contracted cholera, or had a bizarre gardening accident or something, the United States could have had, twenty years before the Civil War, a woman defined at the time as a mulatto slave acting in the First Lady’s capacity.
I have here a confession to make. Van Buren was, far and away, the most difficult president to fit into my categorization system. I initially made him a “petty imperialist” only to revisit my readings and find him substantively less imperial than other Jacksonians. I considered “well-meaning bumbler”, but he was neither well-meaning nor really bumbling enough. I arrived at “Empty Carriage” partly because Van Buren often demonstrated no real character outside of an acute awareness of what was best for his party. Time and time again- with Amistad, with the Cherokee removal, with his approach to the banking crisis, he chose his response based on what would further the Democratic Party. He failed to see how Jackson’s policies had contributed to the financial crisis, and instead blamed east-coast banks, a faction aligned with his opponents, the Whigs. He refused to defend the marginalized, and almost always deferred to Southern leaders to keep his party together. Those who were not loyal Democrats often wondered whether Van Buren was really their president.
Despite some well-deserved foreign policy successes, Van Buren’s inability to change course on Andrew Jackson’s policies makes it difficult to rate his presidency very highly. Although persuasive, charming, and skilled at managing his cabinet, his priority was always to keep his fledgling Democratic Party intact, and do nothing to imperil North-South relations. While he was never in the South’s pocket the way Pierce or Buchanan were, Van Buren, the consummate politician, could not adapt to a fundamental truth: you cannot please everyone in politics. Despite the clever way he designed the Democratic Party, you ultimately cannot punt on controversial decisions, and a day of reckoning and a day of difficult choices will eventually follow. Van Buren is living proof that you need more than political skill to be president. There is a want of courage, a shortage of conviction, with Martin Van Buren- a mix of bad policy and feckless accommodation to slavemasters and land-grabbing, Indian-slaying rednecks- that should put him in the bottom 10.