The “little magician” who transformed American politics

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Martin Van Buren, the eighth President of the United States, was something new in American political life. He was the first president born after the Revolution, the first whose ancestry was not British, the first from New York, and the first to win the White House without a college education or military record. He is the only president to have learned English as a second language – he grew up speaking Dutch in the highly ethnic village of Kinderhook, New York, where his father ran a tavern. And he almost certainly had more nicknames than anyone who has reached the pinnacle of American power: he was known as “The little magician», « Matty Van », «The cautious Dutchman», « American Talleyrand », « King Martin », « The Enchanter » and «The Kinderhook Red Fox.”

In his day, Van Buren was one of the most intriguing, famous, and influential men in American politics. “Six generations ago, it was impossible not to have an opinion about Martin Van Buren,” writes historian Ted Widmer. “And those opinions weren’t for the faint of heart. In some quarters, Van Buren was the most hated man in America. Yet today he is barely remembered, except maybe for his whiskers. In the popular mind, he has been reduced to just another in the series of barely distinguishable single-term presidents between Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln.

Van Buren deserves better than that. No, he was not a great president; his four years in the White House were difficult at best. But he has been one of the most gifted political architects in our history – arguably the greatest underground political strategist to reach the White House until Lyndon Johnson, more than a century later.

A member of what was then called the Democratic-Republican Party, Van Buren was a natural connoisseur of power and electoral discipline who created America’s first statewide political machine. This machine, known as the Albany Regency, revolutionized the practice of politics in the United States. Through the innovative use of nominating conventions, patronage appointments, a partisan newspaper, a clear political ideology, and the recruitment of candidates without regard to family lineage, the Regency dominated state politics of New York in the 1820s and 1830s. “I do not believe that a stronger political combination ever existed in a state capitol, or even in the nation’s capitol,” wrote Thurlow weedsa young journalist who later became an influential editor and Whig politician.

But Van Buren was just getting started.

In 1821 he moved to Washington as a newly elected senator. Almost immediately, he set out to replicate at the national level what he had achieved in his home country. In seven years, he had succeeded. After John Quincy Adams became president in 1824, Van Buren embarked on a campaign to ensure Andrew Jackson would win the next election. With unique focus, he molded Jackson’s loose network of supporters into a disciplined political party. The Founding Fathers had viewed the idea of ​​political “factions” with distaste. But for Van Buren, an effective party apparatus had become as indispensable as the locomotive and the industrial printing press, and a vital ingredient for representative democracy.

“Like a 19th-century Vito Corleone, he always foresaw his enemies,” Widmer writes, “forging a new web of families and alliances that would forever redraw the map of power in the United States. Everything he did contributed to the goal of rolling out a new national party. He helped organize the launch of a Washington newspaper to oppose the Adams administration. He negotiated behind the scenes to incorporate the old Jeffersonian dynasty of Virginia into his new organization. He created a network of local committees that reported to state presidents and used them to monitor and spread the party’s message throughout the country. Americans now take these techniques for granted as standard party practice. But it took Van Buren’s insight to imagine them in the first place, and their effects, at the time, seemed almost supernatural. There was a reason he was called “The Little Magician”.

On election day in 1828, Jackson and the Democratic Party crushed Adams in a landslide. Four years later, Jackson was re-elected by an even larger margin over Henry Clay. Van Buren had definitely transformed the politics of the nation. Without too much exaggeration, the American two-party system can be described as its most enduring legacy.

Jackson appointed Van Buren Secretary of State in his first term, then made him his running mate for the second. As Vice President, he became Jackson’s heir apparent, and with Old Hickory’s blessing, he was nominated by the Democratic Party to be the next President of the United States. Against a split field of four Whig candidates, Van Buren was victorious. In March 1837, at the age of 53, he became the youngest American president to date.

But the presidency that began with so much promise soon turned sour. Less than two months after his inauguration, the booming US economy collapsed. With remarkable rapidity, the Panic of 1837 – the first Great Depression in US history – spread across the country. Banks went bankrupt by the hundreds; thousands of businesses went bankrupt. A nation that had been flooded with money and caught up in a boom in spending and speculation suddenly found itself in economic freefall. As prices and profits exploded, unemployment soared. In New York alone, 20,000 workers lost their jobs.

The cause of the Depression is something historians debate to this day. At the time, the Democrats blamed the bankers, but countless Americans blamed the Democrats, the party in the White House. Van Buren’s reaction only made things worse. “Believing that the economy would improve only ‘through cuts and reforms,'” notes presidential historian Richard Pious, “Van Buren cut public spending by 20% and opposed internal improvements that would have reduced unemployment considerably.

Had the crisis ended quickly, Van Buren might have weathered the storm and fought his way to re-election. But the misery lasted until the elections of 1840. Not even the Little Magician could find a spell strong enough to overcome the iron law of politics that economic suffering is blamed on the ruling party. Instead, he acquired another nickname: Martin Van Ruin.

The Whig party, meanwhile, had learned from its experience four years earlier. Van Buren had demonstrated the political effectiveness of message control and a nationalized electoral strategy, and now the Whigs are putting those lessons to impressive use. With William Henry Harrison as their candidate, they ran a spectacularly mendacious campaign countrysidefalsely portraying Harrison as an ordinary man of “Log cabin and hard ciderorigins and relentlessly mocking Van Buren as a dandified aristocrat. The president didn’t stand a chance.

Van Buren was not one of the great businessmen of the republic, as almost everybody would agree, but no one disputes the indelible mark he left on American politics. He was an early example of the truism that in America even the humblest of children can grow up to be president. All it takes is political genius, tireless drive, immense ambition and the gifts of a magician.

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby. To subscribe to Arguable, its weekly newsletter, go to bitly.com/Arguable.

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