This book attempts to tell the story of an enigmatic fellow who was far better doing manipulations behind the scenes than being the front man himself. After reading American Lion, I was actually rather psyched to find out what was going through Van Buren's head, but apparently there's not a lot to find out. I was listening to the Presidential podcast on Van Buren and even the historians really have no sense of what the dude was like at all personally, and he didn't leave a whole lot of information behind regarding his feelings or personal life. That said, I suppose this author did the best he could on trying to cover this fellow, and this is fairly comprehensive as far as I can tell. The author starts out by saying that not too many people have bothered with a biography of the guy, but there was a slight renaissance about him in the 1980s and 1997 when a few works came out. So why write this one now? Well, there's always room for a fresh overview of his role and activities that give insights into the time. And he was an innovative practitioner of a new style of national politics.
There's not a whole lot of details about Van Buren's early life. His dad was a tavern keeper, he was Dutch, he was married and had four sons and his wife died. To quote the author: "Hannah remains an elusive figure…there is little record of her and of the nature of the relationship that existed between husband and wife over the next decade….She appears to have spent their time together firmly rooted in the conventional female roles of the day, preoccupied with her family and providing her husband with a stable and secure home environment.” (Bo-ring.) “As noted earlier, the nature and quality of the Van Burens’ domestic relationship can only be guessed at given the lack of evidence about it. He never mentioned Hannah in his published writings set down almost forty years after her death. His comments about her in personal correspondence were sparse, and usually guarded, when they happened at all.” He seemed content with not remarrying and being a devoted dad.
Van Buren started out as a Republican (well, who didn't at that point, I guess) like his daddy, but there's no real reason anyone can pinpoint as to why. He was good at being a lawyer and working on campaigns, and thought political parties were necessary and a good thing. “But there is only a little evidence one way or another as to his interests and experiences, and none as to his motivation, in the many years that followed.” There's a quote from some anonymous person saying that, “He was wary in committing himself upon any quest, until the time came for action, and when that moment arrived, he was as prompt and decided as Napoleon himself.” He was good at maneuvering, management, compromise, and party-building.
He became Secretary of State to Jackson, and while they didn't start out super close at the time, they became good friends while working together and would take horseback rides together frequently. It became a mentor/acolyte sort of relationship. The author doesn't think he was a great secretary of state because he had no overarching vision. Van Buren's friend George Bancroft who wrote a biography of him came up with this: “were distinguished by his effective industry.” (The author is all, this is the best he could come up with!) Either way, apparently there's nothing much to say about what he was doing in the job until my favorite drama, the Petticoat Affair, came up.
Van Buren actually liked the Eatons and Margaret personally, and he was fine with socializing with them along with some of his friends in the diplomatic corps. “All of them were either bachelors or widowers, and were presumably less susceptible to the kinds of social pressures being directed against others on the scene.” This gave him the advantage with Jackson.
“Looking back, all of this may seem, in retrospect, to have been a silly and demeaning matter for politically seasoned adults to be so concerned about and to fight over so viciously. But in the social culture of the time, “the Eaton malaria” clearly was a real concern to those involved, much discussed, serious and quite damaging to relations at the highest level of the administration. “If no blood was spilled” over it, Van Buren later wrote, “a sufficient quantity of ink certainly was shed upon the subject.” All of it, it was noted then, and since, was to his ultimate benefit. Van Buren’s attitudes and actions in accepting the Eatons, and consorting with them socially, stood him in good stead with the president, while, at the same time, further raising the already unusually fierce ire of their opponents.”
Van Buren came up with the strategic move to resign from office. According to the author, he thought it would deflect widespread public notions that Jackson was under his influence and would allow for other cabinet members to resign as well--and get people to be less suspicious about whatever Van Buren was up to. Jackson okayed this and then appointed Van Buren as the minister to England. Assuming all would be fine with that, Van Buren moved to England. However, when his nomination came up for confirmation in the Senate, there was a tie in the votes and Calhoun, the vice president who was not at all fond of him by now, voted no. “The tally had been deliberately maneuvered by the anti-Jacksonians, led by Daniel Webster and Henry Clay, so that the tie-breaking vote against confirming him could be cast by the presiding officer of the Senate, Vice President Calhoun. He did so with all the malice aforethought for which the South Carolinan was noted, ringingly declaring to another senator, “it will kill him, sir, kill him dead. He will never kick, sir, never kick.”
“Van Buren lived to kick again.” (Hahahahahah.) Despite the defeat, his friends were amused at what happened because it made Van Buren look like a martyr and would guarantee him a vice presidential nomination--which it did. He took his sweet time returning to the US and toured Europe for awhile, so he remained out of the direct line of fire while the campaign evolved at home. He got nominated for vice president while he was gone. I have to kind of admire his strategery here, somehow. The dude was pretty good at keeping his head down while getting the results he wanted most of the time. He tried to be cordial with people and come off as imperturbable in public.
When he got back, the Whig party was rising in popularity and Van Buren was getting some public snubbing about how his being good at operating politically was what was making him rise to the top rather than his own personal talents. He tried to be cordial to his enemies, but that wasn't exactly a successful strategy socially.
Van Buren's vice president was Richard M. Johnson, a fellow who'd had a long time public relationship with a black woman and had kids with her. Van Buren would have preferred someone else, but Johnson was too popular in the party. Look, I don't wish a retroactive early death on the fellow, but man, can you imagine the fun storm that would erupted if Van Buren had died and Johnson had become president?! I wanna see THAT alternate history book.
Naturally, Van Buren didn't come off as popularly as Jackson did--he wasn't bold and charismatic like Jackson, didn't really inspire anyone, and Davy Crockett's comparison was "dung to a diamond"--but basically he was running on a policy of maintaining Jackson's legacy and I guess people were fine with that. He was very into party politics and states' rights and following the values of Jefferson, and when he became president he was pretty happy with how things were going. Even though he was a Northerner (from New York), Van Buren was pretty hands off on states' rights, wasn't an abolitionist, and didn't want to upset the Southerners by arguing with them about the legality of slavery. He was dedicated to preserving what Jackson had created and didn't think he needed to come up with any agenda, because Jackson already dealt with the hard stuff, right? The bank is dead, Indians are almost out of here, the tariff/nullification drama's under control.... one historian has called his inaugural speech as president “essentially a charter for inaction.”
However...everything started falling apart pretty much right after Van Buren got into office, and an economic crisis happened. I'm not going to get into all the financial disasters that went on, I'll just leave it as English banks started having problems and tightened their credit policies, which led to a domino effect on American banks. Banks were closing, there was a slowdown, factories and cotton sales were declining. How did Van Buren deal with this? He decided to keep following the policy and ideological paths he'd decided on ages ago. He worried about the presidency being too powerful and didn't think he needed to make bold choices. He attempted to proceed cautiously and he wasn't too sympathetic about the greedy financial community having problems. He figured the nation's economic system would correct itself naturally, but he did do a few limited proposals to attempt to alleviate things. That didn't help. Senator Thomas Hart Benton said that "no President ever had a more difficult time."
“By most historians’ estimates, he was not a successful chief executive. The main reason for that evaluation lies in his inability to respond effectively to the sudden and unexpected downturn in the nation’s fortunes, that is, to find a means, consistent with his ideological commitments, to improve the situation confronting him.”
In the election of 1840, the Whigs came up with their own version of Jackson--William Henry Harrison. He was a war hero! He had a snappy theme song with the line, “Matty Van is a used up man.” And as you'll see when I get to the next presidential book, the Whigs did a knockout job of campaigning. By comparison, the Democrats tended to barely mention their candidate or discuss him, because their priority was "measures, not men." They campaigned on policies and being right and superior, which is unfortunately reminding me of this Washington Post article saying that people vote on emotion, not logic. The issues and times were against Van Buren, and he lost. People weren't excited about voting for him, and Van Buren didn't get why reason and justice didn't win and that his lack of policies brought him down. He thought he'd just run for office again in four years, but the Democrats thought he had too much baggage and not enough love. It also didn't help that he wrote a letter to a William Hammet discussing how he felt about annexing Texas. He was a middle ground guy, not against Texas joining the union eventually but didn’t want to do it right now, though certain conditions should be dealt with first. Southerners wanted Texas NOW, so that didn’t go well.
Van Buren lost the nomination, but stayed loyal enough to the party to work to get Polk into office. Van Buren reasonably assumed that when Polk won, he'd have some advantage there, and wrote him some letters of advice and cabinet suggestions. But Polk decided to do his own thing (he wasn't exactly clued in on New York politics and whose behind to kiss) instead, which ticked off Van Buren. All he got for his efforts was an offer to go back to being minister to Great Britain, which he turned down.
Van Buren and his pals decided they didn't owe the president anything at this point, and wanted to bring down their enemies and restore their political power to its TRUE pathway! Van Buren wrote a document called, no joke, "the Barnburner Manifesto" (love this) that did a lot of analysis and was designed to establish his people and their beliefs as THE Democratic Party! At the nominating convention in 1848, his people demanded that their group be recognized as THE TRUE AND ONLY DEMOCRACY from New York...and they were offended when that didn't happen. So then they quit the Democratic Party and started their own party, Free Soil. Van Buren was nominated as the independent candidate for president, which was kind of weird since Free Soil was antislavery and Van Buren was basically okay with it. In the end, the Free Soilers decided to keep him as their candidate, probably for the publicity. Of course they didn't win, and any Barnburners holding federal office got booted out of their jobs by Polk. So that went well.
At the end of his life, Van Buren attempted to write his autobiography, but then got bored and didn't bother to write in it past about the 1830's. Like everything else, it revealed very little about his personality and just mentioned events. “But the author offers few lessons or provides much evaluation, or insight, beyond the surface events comprising his life.”
I guess that sums up the guy as far as we can tell?
So ah....three stars, I guess. This book is probably doing as well with its enigmatic subject matter as can be expected!