American history, biographies, book reviews, John Niven, Martin Van Buren, presidential biographies, Presidents
“Martin Van Buren: The Romantic Age of American Politics” by John Niven was published in 1983. Niven was a professor of history at Claremont Graduate University and a nationally known scholar of Jacksonian and Civil War history. He was previously a doctoral student of Allan Nevins at Columbia University where he received his PhD in 1955. Niven died in 1997.
Niven’s “Martin Van Buren” is the first modern biography of the eighth president, and one of only two in my library. With more than six-hundred pages of text and eighty pages of notes it presents itself as a thorough and meticulously researched profile of one of our lesser-known presidents. What is less apparent, at least until the reader digests a chapter or two, is that the book’s first half is really a comprehensive tome on early nineteenth century New York state politics.
Although I didn’t particularly enjoy Niven’s biography of Martin Van Buren, it is solid in several respects. First, in its earliest pages the author provides a brief but excellent introduction to Van Buren and the author’s view of his life. Niven even subtly warns the reader he feels this president was a great politician who has not received his due from posterity. Despite this warning, the author’s favorable tendency toward this president is rarely evident and he displays admirable editorial balance.
Next, the depth of detail on Van Buren’s rise through New York state politics is nothing short of encyclopedic. The author seems to have been witness to every meaningful conversation and absorbed every bit of watercooler chatter that took place at the time. Finally, Niven provides interesting discussions on several topics including Van Buren’s early life, the calculus behind President Jackson’s cabinet picks during his two terms and Van Buren’s relationships with a number of important contemporaneous political figures (such as John Calhoun and De Witt Clinton, a former governor of New York).
Unfortunately, the disappointments outweigh the merits of this biography. First and foremost, this book is dry, dense and often boring to read. Previous readers have described the biography as “bone-crushingly tedious”; it is difficult to disagree with that sentiment. Because of its early emphasis on the machine politics of Van Buren’s home state, the biography gets off to a slow start and never fully recovers. Not an ideal book to be read for pleasure, Niven’s biography of Van Buren possesses the warmth and affability of a legal brief.
In addition, we learn almost nothing of Van Buren as a husband, father or friend. There is very little in Niven’s book about Van Buren’s personality – other than that which is demonstrated through his politics. And although it is a book almost totally devoted to his politics, Niven provides few clues as to how Van Buren earned the nicknames “The Little Magician” and the “Red Fox of Kinderhook.” One can only imagine those stripes were well-earned, but the reader is left to infer, rather than experience, their etymology.
Most frustrating for me is that the author seems to have created a reference manual on early New York politics rather than a biography designed to assist in understanding this under-appreciated president. No obvious effort is made to separate truly important moments in Van Buren’s life from the copious extraneous ones. It is a bit like peering through a microscope under very high magnification and never figuring out exactly what is being viewed – there is simply no big picture provided, no road map to assist on the journey.
Overall, John Niven’s “Martin Van Buren” may well be the most definitive biography of this president, as it has been described in the past. It may also be a great “go to” reference for detail on his political coming-of-age. But unfortunately it falls short as a diagnostic tool to understand Van Buren or his presidency and it does little to assist the layman in understanding why history has nearly forgotten this astute political tactician and former president.
Overall rating: 2¾ stars
John C. said:
What a fantastic endeavor and labor of love this site is. I work in a Portland, Oregon bookstore and have had occasion to share this blog with a number of readers undertaking a similar journey through the lives of the U.S. presidents. I am currently reading Roy Nichols’ biography of Franklin Pierce as part of a similar enterprise. I read Niven’s Van Buren bio and found it as “bone-crushingly tedious” as you indicate, although it did leave me with a great sense of what a compelling and singular figure he was in American history. I would love to read a Van Buren biography written by someone with the talents of a McCullough to bring him and mid-19th century New York to life. Many thanks for the great reading and for pointing the way to future titles (and helping me avoid some possible pitfalls).
Thanks for your kind words, and keep me updated when you come across something you really like (or really don’t)! Van Buren is definitely a president I like McCullough or Chernow to cover…but I’m not holding my breath. I suspect there is a fascinating and compelling story in there somewhere (I certainly saw glimpses) but it just needs a great writer and a skilled detective to tease out.
Oscar Hernandez said:
Oh goodness, you weren’t joking. I’m grateful to have found this book, but it’s tepious, pedantic, and a fantastic remedy for amnesia. I’m determined to complete it, however. Thank you for the advance warning! Very informative book, but about as affable as a prostate exam.
I think I could have summed up the book with just your one paragraph – there was no need for 8 paragraphs and 500 words!
My daughter is reading all the bios on the presidents so I greatly appreciate your insights and reviews since I am the on buying the books for her Christmas present! She is coming up on Van Buren…so it looks as if this will be a boring present…oh well. Thank you for this wonderful site and all your hard work.
Thanks for your note, and good luck to your daughter! I actually think Van Buren is a fascinating individual…but I don’t think there are any biographies which fully capture his magic or essence. (I’m not sure it’s possible – there simply may not be enough primary source material to paint a full picture of the man with the anecdotes and first-hand observations that would really bring him to life).
Wikipedia curiously notes that one of MVB’s nicknames was “The Mistletoe Politician”. Are you familiar with this, and if so do you know it’s origin?
Interesting…I do *not* remember seeing that mentioned anywhere.
It was new to me, but …
The Mistletoe Politician, so called by Joseph Peyton of Tennessee, a Whig opponent, who charged that “Martin Van Buren was a mere political parasite, a branch of mistletoe, that owed its elevation, its growth–nay, its very existence, to the tall trunk of an aged hickory” (i.e. Andrew Jackson).
I nominate you to be my phone-a-friend if I’m ever on the tv show “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?”
Only if it involves presidential history.
Thank you for your response to the “mistletoe”question.
Somewhat as an aside, some have theorized that the origin of the expression “O.K.” derives from MVB’s having initialed memos, etc. as such.
A clarification regarding my comment about the expression “O.K.” . . .
This is based on MVB’s other nickname “Old Kinderhook”, thus MVB reputedly to have signed “O.K.” on memos, etc.