Martin Van Buren – a life portrait

It is said that Martin Van Buren is a great magician. I believe it. But his only wand is good common sense, which he uses for the benefit of the country.

Andrew Jackson

They called him the little magician, in part because of the power he wielded as the smoothest operator in New York state politics. Genial, suave and shrewd, Martin Van Buren was the quintessential behind the scenes diplomat, renowned throughout his career as a peerless master of the art of the deal.

Born just after the American Revolution in 1782 he was the first president to enter the world, a U.S. citizen. He was from the Dutch community of Kinderhook, New York, and his nickname later in life, old Kinderhook, helped popularize today’s common slang term: “okay.”

He acquired his taste for politics at an early age. His father owned a tavern where, as a young man, Van Buren enjoyed listening to the stories of visiting politicians on their way to and from the state Capitol in Albany. Reputed customers included Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton.

He didn’t attend college spending. Instead, several years as a legal apprentice before being admitted to the bar in 1803 at the age of 21. After a swift rise in New York state politics, he arrived in Washington as a trusted secretary of state under Andrew Jackson and inventor of Jackson’s new Democratic Party. He went on to serve as Jackson’s vice president and then handpicked successor.

But people just couldn’t summon the same sort of enthusiasm for Van Buren as they did for his predecessor. At his inauguration, people sat politely through Van Buren’s address, but when they spotted Jackson, they went wild, giving the former president of standing ovation.

Jackson and Van Buren were indeed different. Tennessee representative and Van Buren foe Davy Crockett put it this way.

“Van Buren is as opposite to General Jackson as dung is to a diamond. He is what the English call a dandy. He struts and swaggers like a crow in the gutter.”

Davey Crockett

True, Van Buren did enjoy fine food and wine. He also like expensive clothing, favoring coats with velvet collars and snug gloves made of soft leather. His enemies accused him of wearing corsets and perfume, diplomatic and agreeable, almost to a fault. Van Buren was also somewhat of a waffler, often straddling different viewpoints, in part to help placate a nation deeply divided over slavery. According to a popular account of Senator once tried to trap him into a declarative statement by asking him if the sun rose in the East, replied the president, “Well, Senator, I understand that’s the common acceptance, but as I never get up till after dawn, I can’t really say.“

Van Buren and his vice president, Richard Johnson, took office in March of 1837. He moved into the White House, accompanied by his four bachelor sons, aged 20 to 30 because his wife, Hannah Hoes Van Buren had died about 20 years earlier, Washington was without a White House hostess until Van Buren’s eldest son, Abraham, married Dolly Madison’s niece, Angelica Singleton, who assumed official duties.

Van Buren had been in office only two months before a depression known as the Panic of 1837 struck the nation’s banks and the people’s pocketbooks. It wasn’t long before the public and the press turned on their leader. The attacks puzzled the president. “Why the deuce is it that they have such an itching for abusing me? I try to be harmless and positively good natured and a most decided friend of peace.”

Van Buren’s bad press helped fuel William Henry Harrison’s victory in the election of 1840 after an unsuccessful bid for the Democratic nomination. Four years later, Van Buren returned to his New York estate, Lindenwald. Four years after that, however, he was back in the fray when the anti slavery Free Soil Party asked him to run for office. He failed to win a single electoral vote, and the defeat marked the end of his political career.

After the election, Van Buren continued to farm Lindenwald, where he lived for another 14 years.

He died the morning of July 24th, 1862, 16 months into the American Civil War. He was 79.