Having finished reading Andrew Jackson (who proved much more interesting than expected) I’m on to the eighth president- Martin Van Buren. His is not quite a household name, but the same is true of the next seven or eight presidents (sorry).
I first came across MVB not in my high school American History class (nary a mention) or in college (I was a chemical engineer and for some reason his name didn’t come up much)…but in Robert Remini‘s series on Andrew Jackson. And in Remini’s accounts of Jackson’s life Van Buren proved politically astute and surprisingly interesting.
Like my wife, Van Buren was a native New Yorker. But unlike my wife, he was born to two Dutch parents; hers are both native Italians. (And while his seemed fond of life in the Empire State, hers are still trying to figure out why everyone doesn’t just pack up and move back to Tuscany where only food and wine seem to matter.)
If you ever find yourself playing Presidential Jeopardy it’s worth noting that Van Buren is the only US president whose first language was not English (it was Dutch, of course). And he seems to be the first US president to have been born a citizen of the United States.
Active in politics as a teenager, he was a New York state senator in his early thirties and was later elected to the US Senate. He was Governor of New York for a matter of weeks before being named Andrew Jackson’s Secretary of State, and served as Jackson’s second-term Vice President. A masterful behind-the-scenes political strategist and thinker, he was instrumental in Jackson’s election in 1828 and may have been President Jackson’s most brilliant political tactician and adviser.
Van Buren followed Jackson into the presidency but owing to a horrible economy (probably precipitated by Jackson’s monetary policies), some bad luck and through some of his own fault, he was a single-term president. Although few Americans remember his name or anything of his legacy, historians rank him near the middle of the presidential “pack.”
The first Martin Van Buren biography I’m reading is “Martin Van Buren: The Romantic Age of American Politics” by John Niven which was published in 1983. This is a fairly lengthy book at just over six-hundred pages of text. Rumor suggests this is a dense, dry read, and since I’m now pushing past the halfway point in this book…I can energetically confirm that the suspicion is absolutely true.
Next – and last – is “Martin Van Buren and the American Political System” by Donald Cole. Published in 1984, Cole’s biography clocks in at somewhat over four-hundred pages. For better or worse, it seems as though this biography is no more whimsical than Niven’s. We’ll see…
Malcolm Greenhill said:
When I first came to San Francisco many years ago I met a typical San Francisco eccentric who invited me to his annual Martin Van Buren seance where, among other things, juicy gossip about Martin’s dalliance with Dolly was gathered from knowledgeable parties in the spirit world. The organizer told the story of how he had come to start this wonderful institution. He recalled that he was in the San Francisco mint one day and had asked a clerk selling commemorative presidential coins which president was the least popular in terms of sold coins. The answer was unequivocally Martin Van Buren so he proceeded to buy all the remaining Martin Van Buren coins, which he distributed freely at the seance if you could correctly answer questions on this eminently forgettable president.
Great story, and now we know where all those MVB commemorative coins went! But I wouldn’t expect many folks would be able to correctly answer questions on Van Buren so I assume the coin collecting seance meister was able to hang on to much of his stash for quite awhile…