Martin Van Buren The American Presidents Series: The 8th President, 1837-1841

The American Presidents

Ted Widmer; Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., General Editor

Times Books




208 Pages



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The stick and dandyish professional politician Martin Van Buren was to all appearances the opposite of his predecessor, the rugged general and Democratic champion Andrew Jackson. Yet he too had an iron temperament, and he would build a lasting legacy as the architect of the modern Democratic Party. 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 and, briefly, governor. Under President Jackson, whose election he managed, he served as secretary of state and vice president. His ascendancy to the White House was a brilliant triumph over several famous rivals, including Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and his mortal enemy, John C. Calhoun, who did everything he could to prevent Van Buren's rise.

Once he held the reins of power, however, Van Buren found the road rougher. His failure to find a middle ground on the most pressing issues of his day—such as the growing conflict over slavery—eroded his effectiveness. But it was his inability to prevent the great banking panic of 1837, and the ensuing economic depression, that all but ensured his defeat for a second term in 1840. His many years of outfoxing his opponents finally caught up with him.

Still, Van Buren enjoyed a remarkably long postpresidency, nearly launching a new political party in 1848 and living until the Civil War, when a young lawyer he had once befriended in Illinois occupied the White House. Despite his short and troubled tenure in office, he fundamentally shaped the politics of the early republic and our modern party system.

Ted Widmer, a veteran of the Clinton White House, vividly brings to life the chaos and contention that plagued Van Buren's presidency—and offers an early lesson in the power of democracy.


Praise for Martin Van Buren

"Martin Van Buren was a president for the future—he even boasted at his inaugural in 1837 that he was the first president born after independence and insisted, 'I belong to a later age.' In certain ways, he brought the future into existence, fashioning a new style of national politics that helped America grow from infancy into something like adolescence. It was an essential step in our democracy, and so I want in this book to bring Van Buren back from his relative obscurity. I have chosen to steer a middle course between the partisans of the nineteenth century who tried to lift Van Buren's pudgy frame into the pantheon—an effort that collapsed under the weight of its absurdity—and his legions of character assassins. Van Buren's presidency is, above all, a lesson in how much effort and emotion are invested in any presidency—not merely the gargantuan political struggles but the simple life of the republic over any four years in our history."—Ted Widmer on Martin Van Buren

"Widmer [delivers a] compendious and readable treatment."—Edwin M. Yoder, Jr., The Washington Post Book World

"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 . . . Within the ascetic span of a short-biography series, Widmer keenly evokes the environment that enabled Van Buren to thrive . . . Van Buren, as Widmer wisely concludes, was one of those 'not-quite-heroic' figures without whom no democracy would operate for long."—Michael Kazin, The New York Times Book Review

"A brief but elegant portrait of our eighth president . . . Widmer relates [Van Buren's life and times] powerfully, engagingly, and efficiently."—Publishers Weekly

"Pity poor Martin Van Buren: reviled in life, ignored in death, undistinguished enough that biographers have had a hard time finding much to say about him. Until now. Clinton administration advisor Widmer reckons that Van Buren will always be considered one of our lesser leaders: 'His presidency [1837-41] produced no lasting monument of social legislation, sustained several disastrous reversals, and ended with ignominious defeat after one short term.' Van Buren is unknown today, Widmer adds, mostly because no one is looking for him, a lost figure in the years between the War of 1812 and the Civil War. He was well known in his day, however, and even though always something of an outsider, the first of the non-Anglo presidents, a native speaker of Dutch, and of humble origins, Van Buren forged a new Democratic Party made up of southern planters, New York financiers, and New England industrialists alike. Such a broad constituency, however, forced the president into many compromises: Though he didn't quite oppose slavery, for instance, he quietly supported certain civil rights for African-Americans. (Too quietly, it appears: In 1839, he issued an executive order demanding the return of rebellious slaves to their Spanish owners, an act making him a villain in Steven Spielberg's film Amistad.) As a result, both northern abolitionists and southern slaveholders came to mistrust Van Buren, who, Widmer insists, had other virtues: He refused to invade Texas, championed the cause of the urban poor, and advanced ideas that would cause historian Frederick Jackson Turner to consider him an architect of progressivism. Yet Van Buren also presided over the ruinous Panic of 1837, and he failed to push through his pet reform—to create an independent treasury. Though crafty and diligent, in the end not even the seasoned politician dubbed the 'The Fox' could weather all the storms that sank his administration. [This is a] well written and sensible book—especially when Widmer notes that 'it's antidemocratic to expect all of our leaders to be great.'"—Kirkus Reviews

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  • Ted Widmer; Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., General Editor

  • Ted Widmer is the director of the C. V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience at Washington College. He is the author of Young America and the coauthor, with Alan Brinkley, of Campaigns. Widmer served as senior adviser to President Clinton and director of speechwriting at the National Security Council. He lives on the eastern shore of Maryland.

    Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., is the preeminent political historian of our time. The recipient of two Pulitzer Prizes and a National Humanities Medal, he published the first volume of his autobiography, A Life in the Twentieth Century, in 2000.

  • Ted Widmer (c) Scott Kingsley
  • Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. Dominique Nabokov