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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 855

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This is the grave of Martin Van Buren.

Born in 1782 in Kinderhook, New York, Maarten Van Buren (he changed the spelling early on) was born into the old Dutch settler of the Hudson Valley. His family was not particularly elite. His father was an innkeeper and local politician. Van Buren went to the local public school, learned a bit of Latin, and in fact only learned English at school, with Dutch spoke at home. He was young and smart and ambitious. He also learned how to manage people at his father’s inn, creating the political instincts that later made him a legend. He started studying the law under a local lawyer in 1796. Kinderhook was Federalist country, but Van Buren’s father was a local Jeffersonian and young Martin followed his father’s leanings. He continued studying the law under someone who was more inclined with his political leanings in New York City, watched the machinations of Aaron Burr to take over the state’s politics first hand, passed the bar, and returned to Kinderhook in 1803.

Already a political animal, Van Buren became an important ally of DeWitt Clinton and Daniel Tompkins. He was named Surrogate for Columbia County in 1807 for his work. He won his own seat for the state Senate in 1812 and became an importer supporter of the War of 1812 in a very divided New York state. That support was good for his political career and he became the state attorney general in 1815. Although he and Clinton were not that close anymore, Van Buren got behind Clinton’s Erie Canal project because it would be good for the state. That of course transformed the nation and permanently made New York the center of American capital. Van Buren helped managed a lot of this by creating the first sophisticated political machine in the nation’s history. The Albany Regency was a powerful force in a divided Democratic-Republican Party (especially as the Federalists were now null and void) and the discipline Van Buren was able to instill was important and made him a major player in national politics since New York was so much more vastly important in the Electoral College and the House than any state is in the 21st century. The Regency was initially an upstate machine but it soon allied with Tammany Hall in New York City and then became very powerful. Van Buren pushed hard for the state to open up the vote for all white men in 1821. He was then paid off by being sent to Washington as a senator in 1822.

In Washington, Van Buren became a consummate political insider. This was because, at least in part, he worked very, very hard. Unlike the large majority of legislators then or now, he really studied issues and pushed to influence policy. Given that he already had a reputation as a good people person and you had a very rapid riser in DC. He became chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Finance Committee. The Little Magician was someone everyone wanted to know. A good mainline Jeffersonian figure, he supported William H. Crawford in 1824, who was the candidate the old party figures and Virginia Dynasty. Van Buren and Thomas Jefferson even met to figure out how to gin up support for the now debilitated Crawford, though Jefferson did not publicly endorse. Van Buren then made the wise decision to stay way away from the chaos that followed the contested election thrown to John Quincy Adams and the accusations of the “corrupt bargain” with Henry Clay that followed. He was unsullied by any of this, but did not like Adams’ financial policies and Federalist background and soon came to support Andrew Jackson for the presidency in 1828. Van Buren himself ran for governor that year and finished 30,000 votes ahead of Jackson’s performance in New York.

After a mere 43 days as governor, Van Buren resigned when Andrew Jackson asked him to become Secretary of State in 1829. He was reasonable effective in limited duties at State, but was really Jackson’s closest advisor of economic and domestic issues, as well as foreign policy. He convinced Jackson to issue the Maysville Road veto, which rejected the idea of internal improvements as something the federal government should be involved with. This was absolutely terrible policy–if the federal government should do one thing, it is bring the nation together. But this was the financial policy of a Van Buren and a Jackson–which would later have disastrous effects on the nation.

Now, Van Buren was a widower by this time. But the rest of the Cabinet was married. They were also divided. The two big power players were Van Buren and John C. Calhoun. Now, Secretary of War John Eaton had married Peggy O’Neill, the daughter of a local boarding house owner and someone who the elite women considered of loose morals, which may well have just meant from a lower social class. This absolutely divided the Jackson administration because Calhoun’s wife led most of the other wives to snub her. Jackson was furious. Van Buren and Eaton were also friends. Between this and Calhoun’s increasing southern sectionalism, the administration was dividing. Van Buren hoped to reconcile it all. But then he had a really good idea. He offered to resign entirely, which then gave Jackson the room to just start over by asking for the resignations of the entire Cabinet except Eaton. Of course Van Buren remained in Jackson’s good graces and was given the ambassadorship to the Court of St. James as a reward. Calhoun was completely isolated.

But then Calhoun had his revenge. Or thought he did. See, he engineered the Senate to reject Van Buren’s nomination. Calhoun even got to cast the tie vote in the Senate. He told a friend, “It will kill him dead, sir, kill him dead. He will never kick, sir, never kick.” Nope. Already in London, he sailed home. And then Jackson dumped Calhoun as VP for Van Buren in 1832. The Little Magician would have the last laugh.

Upon his return Van Buren went about setting up an actual political party. He was always good at machine politics. He took what he learned from the Albany Regency and went about creating the first modern political party: The Democratic Party. The Democratic National Convention–the nation’s first political convention–ensured that Jackson could pick who he wanted as VP. During 1832 and then as VP, Van Buren was a big supporter of Jackson’s bank war, having never trusted banks himself. He counseled more moderate moves on nullification than Jackson wanted, but both were happy the revised tariff of 1832 put the issue of southern secessionism to bed for the time being. Van Buren then became the natural choice to replace the aging Jackson in 1836. This was the election where the Whigs, having developed around opposition to Jackson and Van Buren, ran a bunch of local son candidates, hoping to throw the election into the House where they could pick someone. Didn’t work and Van Buren won a majority of the Electoral College.

Van Buren’s presidency was largely a disaster. Although Jackson gets all the blame for Cherokee Removal, Van Buren had supported it and it was under his watch that it actually took place. Moreover, Van Buren’s economic policies, which were also Jackson’s, led to the Panic of 1837 and the economic crisis that caused. Turns out idiotic ideological wars on banks in favor of vague handwaves at democratic control over finances just left a complete mess. Democrats got killed in state elections in 1837 and 1838 and in the 1838 midterms. Van Buren tread very carefully on the Texas issue. He was open to expansion like most politicians. But Texas was a part of Mexico and bringing it into the Union not only threatened to throw up the Missouri Compromise but also incentivize further expansionism to expand slavery. It also threatened Van Buren’s beloved Democratic Party. The Second Party System worked based on both parties preferring to not talk about slavery at all and thus maintaining themselves as national party around other issues such as the tariff. Texas threatened to destroy that, and eventually would. Jackson was more pro-annexation than Van Buren, who let the issue lie for his four years in office, as surprised Texans had to go it alone for awhile. Jackson wasn’t real thrilled but didn’t say anything publicly. Van Buren was still his guy after all. There was a bit of a border war between the U.S. and the British over Canada during these years, which if logging is going to cause an international incident, this was the time and place. Eventually, the Webster-Ashburton Treaty would resolve the border in 1842.

When the Amistad ended up in Connecticut, Van Buren was fully on the side of the Spanish, wanting the ship and the slaves returned. If he wasn’t going to upend the nation to bring in Texas, he sure wasn’t going to do it to help Africans either. However, I am still furious at Steven Spielberg for making Van Buren out to look like a blundering fool in the film Amistad. Played by Nigel Hawthorne, Van Buren is basically a George W. Bush figure. That is a malicious lie. Not as bad a part of the film as the Jewish director including a completely gratuitous and pandering scene showing the Africans converting to Christianity while in jail, but it still made me irritated. Spielberg sucks.

By 1840, the Whigs had learned a few things from the Jackson-Van Buren years. They nominated rich guy William Henry Harrison, who had no known political leanings, and then portrayed him as a Real American unlike that effete Van Buren. It’s true that Van Buren liked nice things and had ordered some fancy stuff for the White House that the Whigs were able to spin into making him out as the new elite. Basically, this was the beta version of what Republicans did with George W. Bush against Al Gore in 2000. Add to that the bad economy that Van Buren had in fact caused and Harrison defeated him. To say the least, the overwhelming popularity of genocide against the Cherokee cost Van Buren zero votes.

Van Buren assumed he would be the presidential candidate in 1844. It was still his party and he was still Jackson’s guy. But when John Tyler made annexation of Texas a national priority, it split the Democrats on regional lines and doomed Van Buren’s nomination in favor of the ultimate nobody–James K. Polk. National political figures didn’t even know who Polk was. Polk only had one thing in his favor–Jackson knew him and approved of his Texas position. Van Buren lost at the convention. Then Polk only offered him Secretary of War instead of State or Treasury. Angry at the snub, he broke ties with Polk entirely. He was so mad that he agreed to be the Free Soil Party candidate in 1848, despite still hating abolitionists. But he was also fearful at the power of the slave states to overwhelm the nation and did assert Congress had the power to regulate slavery in the territories and claimed the Founders wanted to abolish slavery eventually. Note two things. First, this is ridiculous–James Madison never would have supported abolishing slavery and even Jefferson’s theoretical opposition was extremely theoretical. Second, Founding Fathers rhetoric (though not the term, invented by Warren Harding of all damn people) was already high by the 1840s, as politicians just claimed anything they wanted about the now deceased generation, even though some of the still living political leaders such as Van Buren had known them thirty years earlier. Van Buren had wanted to run for the Democratic nomination but when the odious Lewis Cass got it instead, the ex-president was quite open for other opportunities. Van Buren had his revenge. He pulled enough votes from New York to actually come in second in the state ahead of Cass and throw the election to Zachary Taylor.

Van Buren didn’t run for office again after 1848 but still was a senior figure in American politics. He was a big supporter of the Compromise of 1850 as a last-ditch effort to sweep slavery back under the rug. He returned to the Democratic fold and supported Franklin Pierce in 1852, James Buchanan in 1856 and Stephen A. Douglas in 1860. He hated the Republicans, thinking they determined to break up the nation by opposing slavery. He was horrified by the Dred Scott case that overturned the Missouri Compromise and condemned Roger Taney for it. He also was disgusted by Buchanan’s kow-towing to southern extremists in Kansas. When the Civil War began, Van Buren was a pro-unionist Democrat. Pierce and Buchanan wanted a public statement to try and negotiate a peace to the war led by the ex-presidents and wanted Van Buren to lead it. But Van Buren wasn’t stupid enough to put his name on it and suggested Buchanan do it instead. None of them would and the idea died. By late 1861, Van Buren’s health was starting to fail. He died in 1862, at the age of 79.

Martin Van Buren is buried in Kinderhook Cemetery, Kinderhook, New York.

If you would like this series to visit other presidents, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. William Henry Harrison is in and Andrew Johnson is in Greeneville, Tennessee. Previous posts are archived here.

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