Martin Van Buren: The Romantic Age of American Politics
Author: John Niven and Katherine Speirs
Release Date: 1983
Although James Madison was certainly a politician, due to his involvement in the writing of the Constitution and the early United States government, his accomplishments stood on their own in the annals of U.S history. I bring him up, because after reading a biography on Martin Van Buren, I think that eight presidents in I’ve reached my first president that would compare to today’s modern politician. Whereas the seven prior presidents held other political offices, none of them had such a limited background outside of politics. Furthermore, all of the prior presidents had more connections and influence on a national scale, while Van Buren was clearly a big man in New York who was constantly trying to gain equal footing elsewhere. Here’s how he compared on my presidential score card:
Born into – Van Buren didn’t have the most prestigious start in life, however after following Andrew Jackson’s amazing rags to President story, this dutch son of an innkeeper who had a few slaves of his own, Van Buren was able to advance through taking advantage of his relationships with other individuals, not shying away from changing allegiances to reach the top of the New York political ladder. Fun fact that I already knew but that the book never mentioned: Van Buren is the first president born in United States of America (as the rest were both pre 1776). 2.5 out of 5.
Pre-president – Van Buren held offices at the state level for varying periods of time ( for a full term as a Senator, and about a month as a Governor) before jumping to Secretary of State and eventually vice president. His work as Secretary of State was the most successful/important, however the book made a large deal about the amount of times Jackson depended on his VP for advice during his tenure. Interestingly enough, the prior Jackson biography I read glossed over most of the details this book spent so much time elaborating. 3 out of 5.
Presidential career – Van Buren continued with Jackson’s chief struggle with the Bank of the United States. The financial depression during Van Buren’s presidency was likely caused by Jackson’s policies and fight with the bank, although the eventual outcome doesn’t look too bad for either president. Van Buren’s addition to this was the beginnings of the United State’s first independent treasury. The rest of his record is somewhat inconsistent; his dealings with Texas look good as far as keeping the peace and the balance in place between slave/non slave states, although he was certainly on the wrong side of history on the Amistad case. The chief criticism of Van Buren by his peers was his willingness to allow southern interests to control him, although that looks to be a constant in the Oval office until Lincoln takes the office 8 presidents from now. 2.5 out of 5.
Vice President – Richard Johnson was a controversial figure at the time, which makes me want to read a book about him in the future. Southern states didn’t know what to make of him, as he had a black wife (wikipedia calls her 1/8 black, this biography didn’t elaborate beyond referring to her as black) and may have actually been the soldier that killed Tecumseh. Van Buren liked him OK, although like most VPs of the era he did little of note while in office. He gets a high score for being interesting. 4.5 out of 5.
First Lady – Hannah Van Buren, like Rachel Jackson and Martha Jefferson before her, passed away before MVB took office, survived by her four sons, one with the cool name of Smith. N/A
Post presidency -Van Buren remained active in the New York democratic party for years after he left office, even unsuccessfully running for president on two more occasions (one of which was not his idea). The most involved he was in politics was in advising future president Polk on his cabinet (which he ignored, causing the rift which basically ruined the New York party) and laying out the ideals of the Free Soil party which caught on and spread throughout the nation to an extent. 3 out of 5.
Book overall – I don’t know if it was mostly the book or the subject matter but this was the toughest biography to get through yet. Van Buren did some interesting things, but the bulk of this book was spent on squabbles between New York politicians that don’t play as much of a role in the nation’s history as the supporting figures in the prior president novels. That may be a theme as the country gets larger and politicians become more localized. If you’re looking for a history of New York politics in the early 1800’s though, this is the book for you. 2.5 out of 5.