The first president born after America's independence ushers in a new era of no-holds-barred democracy
The first "professional politician" to become president, the slick and dandyish Martin Van Buren was to all appearances the opposite of his predecessor, the rugged general and Democratic champion Andrew Jackson. Van Buren, a native Dutch speaker, was America's first ethnic president as well as the first New Yorker to hold the office, at a time when Manhattan was bursting with new arrivals. A sharp and adroit political operator, he established himself as a powerhouse in New York, becoming a U.S. senator, secretary of state, and vice president under Jackson, whose election he managed. His ascendancy to the Oval Office was virtually a foregone conclusion.
Once he had the reins of power, however, Van Buren found the road quite a bit rougher. His attempts to find a middle ground on the most pressing issues of his day-such as the growing regional conflict over slavery-eroded his effectiveness. But it was his inability to prevent the great banking panic of 1837, and the ensuing depression, that all but ensured his fall from grace and made him the third president to be denied a second term. His many years of outfoxing his opponents finally caught up with him.
Ted Widmer, a veteran of the Clinton White House, vividly brings to life the chaos and contention that plagued Van Buren's presidency-and ultimately offered an early lesson in the power of democracy.
" … Widmer (Young America) paints a brief but elegant portrait of our eighth president, who, Widmer says, created the modern political party system, for which he deserves our 'grudging respect.' " - Publishers Weekly
In the latest volume of Arthur Schlesinger's American Presidents series, Widmer (Young America) paints a brief but elegant portrait of our eighth president, who, Widmer says, created the modern political party system, for which he deserves our "grudging respect." Andrew Jackson's successor, Martin Van Buren (1782 1862) was also at various times Jackson's secretary of state, ambassador to the Court of St. James's and vice president. As Widmer relates, some newspapermen called the New York Democrat "the little magician" because of his diminutive frame and his deftness at political sleight of hand. Others who criticized his response when the American economy ground to a halt shortly after his election in 1836 called him "Martin Van Ruin." Despite the collapse of financial markets in 1837, Van Buren held fast to his belief in the Jacksonian principles of limited federal government, states' rights and protection of the "people" from the "powerful." This led him to reject calls for a national bank and an independent treasury. Throughout his term, Van Buren effectively took no federal action to alleviate the economic crisis. Thus it was not surprising when, despite building the Democratic Party into a well-oiled machine, he went down to defeat after just one term, beaten by William Henry Harrison, the Virginian Whig of aristocratic background who posed as a simple rustic. All this Widmer relates powerfully, engagingly and efficiently.
Well written biography of a little-remembered President. He turned out to be quite the politico. I am not sure his legacy is nearly so significant as Widmer seems to imply, but it was very interesting to see that the political fighting was as nasty then as it is today. I especially liked the tidbits about MVB’s longevity as an ex-president, and how he needed to escape the US in order to write his memoirs. I guess even hard-boiled politicians need to get away from it.
I did like the character of MVB. A class act that I wish we would see more of nowadays.