[Paleopsych] NYTBR: 'Martin Van Buren': The Original Party Boss
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The New York Times > Books > Sunday Book Review > 'Martin Van Buren':
The Original Party Boss
February 27, 2005
By MICHAEL KAZIN
[Here are two campaign songs from 1840:
Let Van from his coolers drink wine
And lounge on his cushioned settee.
Our man on his buckeye couch can recline,
Content with hard cider is he.
The iron-armed soldier, the true-hearted soldier,
The gallant old soldier of Tippecanoe!
Or, more briefly:
Farewell, dear Van,
You're not our man;
To guide the ship
We'll try old Tip.
[I got these from my favorite book on American history, whose title is exact,
Herbert Agar, The Price of Union (Boston; Houghton Mifflin, 1950).
MARTIN VAN BUREN
By Ted Widmer.
189 pp. Times Books/ Henry Holt & Company. $20.
POOR Martin Van Buren. A short, bushy-sideburned New Yorker, he was
the chief architect of the Democratic Party, the first mass body of
its type in the world. But as president of the United States, he had
to succeed Andrew Jackson, a handsome warrior with more popular appeal
than anyone since George Washington. Then, just weeks into his tenure,
a bank panic struck the nation; the effects bedeviled Van Buren, an
apostle of laissez-faire, throughout his administration. In 1840, he
was defeated for re-election by another military hero, William Henry
Van Buren spent the remainder of his long life vainly attempting to
hold the Union together. He also struggled to complete a memoir so
dreary it found no publisher until almost six decades after his death.
In 1997, Little Van surfaced in Steven Spielberg's ''Amistad'' -- as
the scoundrel who yearned to send African rebels back to their cruel
Fortunately, this Rodney Dangerfield of presidents has landed a
splendid biographer. In remarkably few pages, Ted Widmer, director of
a research center at Washington College in Maryland, rescues Van Buren
from what E. P. Thompson once termed ''the enormous condescension of
posterity,'' by subsuming a failed presidency within a more momentous
career. Widmer deftly explains how the pioneering party boss built a
formidable machine, using the trick bag of personal contacts and
legislative reforms perfected by Lyndon Johnson over a century later.
Van Buren grasped that the political future lay more with leaders from
booming New York -- the wealthiest, most populous, most ethnically
diverse state in the nation -- than with the grandees of Virginia and
Massachusetts who had been in charge since the days of the Continental
Widmer points out that ''the Little Magician'' from Kinderhook was as
much a social upstart as the brawling Jackson himself. Van Buren came
from a family of Dutch-speaking small farmers; he remains the only
president raised in any tongue but English. He had to leave school at
13 and supported himself as a gofer to a local attorney until he could
qualify for the bar. Widmer suggests that this background helped
inspire Van Buren to topple the deferential network of power left over
from colonial days. With the rise of mass parties, ''there would be no
more uncles arranging favors for nephews with nosebleeds.'' The
Democrat's respect for fellow outsiders was such that he retained on
his ticket a vice president, Richard M. Johnson, who was living quite
openly with a black mistress and his two children from an earlier
affair with a slave woman he'd inherited from his father. Now there's
the germ of a screenplay.
Within the ascetic span of a short-biography series, Widmer keenly
evokes the environment that enabled Van Buren to thrive. A commercial
revolution swept through antebellum America, forcing both politicians
and businessmen to dance to the same ferociously competitive tune. One
entrepreneur, Widmer notes, turned Independence Hall into a clothing
store, vowing that since ''all men are created equal,'' they ought to
be able to purchase garments ''as rich, as cheap and as durable as at
any other establishment in the nation.''
Widmer also lends a certain dignity to Van Buren's post-presidential
attempts to resolve the sectional crisis. While no racial egalitarian,
he sternly opposed the South's plans to expand the empire of slavery.
In 1848, he ran for president again as the nominee of the Free Soil
Party. In that insurgent campaign began gathering the coalition of
working- and middle-class Northerners that would elect Lincoln
president and then fight and win the Civil War.
Van Buren, as Widmer wisely concludes, was one of those
''not-quite-heroic'' figures without whom no democracy would operate
for long. He didn't achieve greatness, but he set a great insight in
spin: without vibrant opposition parties, self-government becomes a
mockery of its ideals. For that alone, Little Van deserves to be
remembered as a big man indeed.
Michael Kazin teaches history at Georgetown University. His biography
of William Jennings Bryan will be published early next year.
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