Martin Van Buren: Mutton-chopped magician, modern politician

As a young boy, I recall a day trip to my grandparents’ house in Jasper County in the summer of 1990, the summer I turned 7 years old. While cruising along Highway 33 in our beige Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera, my mother, brother, and I were the victims of an untimely car breakdown. Stranded on the side of the road without my father (who was at work) and without a cellphone (which were not yet invented, or at least not widely available), we were rescued by a Jasper County Sheriff’s deputy. He loaded us into his squad car and took us back to the station, where we were able to contact my grandparents.

While we waited for a ride, the pleasant officer showed my brother and me around the station and the jail. At the end of our time together, he encouraged both of us to stay away from drugs and stay in school by giving us a D.A.R.E. program ruler. While the warning about the dangers of drugs and the ability to measure things was helpful, what was on the back of the ruler changed my life: every U.S president listed in order, with an official portrait and the years he served in office.

I studied these men like most kids studied baseball players. I memorized the list and had my dad climb into the rafters of our outbuilding to retrieve a musty set of Encyclopedia Britannica, so that I could indulge in the biographies of these historic figures. As a highly visual child, I loved looking at their portraits, daguerreotypes, and photographs. Later that year, I obtained a book of presidential portraits. Of the 41 (again, 1990) included in the book, four portraits were frozen in my mind above all others: George Washington (his iconic look), Thomas Jefferson (that wildly red hair), Abraham Lincoln (that sad, gaunt face), and Martin Van Buren (those unruly mutton chops). Three of those men, of course, are chiseled into the side of Mt. Rushmore, their greatness and impact indisputable. The fourth man, is nearly completely forgotten (outside those unruly mutton chops), but whose ideas and work greatly influences politics on a daily basis. For all intents and purposes, Van Buren, known as “The Little Magician” for both his diminutive size (5’6”) and his political maneuvering, is credited with creating the two-party political system in America.

Born December 5, 1782 to Abraham and Maria Van Buren in Kinderhook, N.Y., Van Buren was the first president born an American citizen, though his first language was not English, but Dutch. His interest in politics developed at a young age, as his father owned a tavern and inn where politicians making the trek to and from the state capital of Albany would spend an evening. Heavyweights such as Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr were visitors of the Van Burens’ inn.

New York was Federalist country at the time, yet the elder Van Buren was a committed Democrat-Republican, the party of Thomas Jefferson. Through this allegiance, young Martin became a believer in the Jeffersonian ideals of limited government, states’ rights, and individual liberty.

In 1807, Van Buren married childhood friend Hannah Hoes. The couple had four sons before she died in 1819.

In 1812, after practicing law for a few years, Van Buren began cutting his political teeth in New York state politics. His primary goal being the defeat of the Federalists, Van Buren organized a faction of Democrat-Republicans around his platform. They were known as the Bucktails for the deer tails they wore on their hats.

In an era of loose party affiliations, one of Van Buren’s chief rivals was Democrat-Republican DeWitt Clinton. Shortly after Van Buren rose to New York Attorney General in 1816, Clinton was elected governor, and quickly cleaned house of the pesky Bucktails. There was no allegiance to the party.

Van Buren rebounded by strengthening his alliance within the Democrat-Republican party, leading to the ouster of several Clinton appointees and his own election to the United States Senate in 1821. By this work, he was also viewed as the head of a powerful New York political machine, the Albany Regency.

Now on the national level, Van Buren wasted no time in applying the lessons learned in Albany. Despite differences in opinions, Van Buren reached out to party members in an attempt to build consensus and defeat Federalist ideology (though the Federalist name was dying out). He viewed politics as an “us vs. them” game, made much easier when the “us” sticks together. He would not allow the small squabbles distract from the larger goal of pushing the Jeffersonian political philosophy.

Van Buren took a major step nationally in 1824. After the contentious presidential election that year in which John Quincy Adams secured the office over war hero Andrew Jackson, the campaign for 1828 began. Van Buren, who supported Secretary of Treasury William Crawford for president in 1824, rallied behind Andrew Jackson.

In what turned out to be the first focused “get out the vote” effort in American politics, Van Buren and other Democrat-Republicans were partially responsible for the dramatically increased voter turnout in 1828. They created pamphlets, reached out to individual voters with parades and barbecues, and established a national fundraising network. As a result, voter turnout increased by over 800,000 people from 1824 to 1828. Of the voting age population, 57.6 percent nationally exercised their right. This time, Jackson won handily over the incumbent Adams.

Andrew Jackson is famous for saying “to the victor, goes the spoils,” thus creating the spoils system of American political appointments. Van Buren, having proven himself as an operative and aide, was appointed Secretary of State. While he was helping to organize Jackson’s national campaign, he was also running his own successful New York gubernatorial one. He swiftly resigned as governor and took office as Secretary of State.

Jackson grew fonder throughout his first term, especially after Van Buren’s acceptance of the infamous Peggy Eaton, a woman who  divided his Cabinet. Eaton had married Secretary of War John Eaton while still married, sending the Washington rumor mill into a tizzy. Many women, including the wife of Vice President John Calhoun shunned her. In-fighting broke out. Jackson, whose own marriage had been dogged by rumors, was sympathetic, and Van Buren showed his support.

In 1832, when Jackson ran for re-election on the newly-named Democratic ticket, he nominated Van Buren as his running mate. Van Buren had successfully built a party around Jackson and with his ascendance to the Vice Presidency, the party solidified.

Van Buren, on the support of Jackson, would go on to become president in 1836. The Panic of 1837, which some have attributed to economic policies implemented under Jackson and continued by Van Buren, weighed down his term and crushed his hopes for re-election in 1840. Though interestingly enough, even his failed campaign that year has left a lasting impact. The idea has been floated by etymologist Allen Read that the term “O.K.” became popular as a campaign slogan. According to Read’s obituary in The Economist, “O.K.” stood for “Old Kinderhook,” a reference to Van Buren’s hometown, and crowds used it as a way of saying “right on!” or “yes!”

Because his term in the highest office in the land has proven unmemorable, Van Buren’s legacy as a politician has often been forgotten, too. But he was a modern political operative, keenly aware of the power of a strong alliance and capable of bringing people together against a common enemy. The rise of the Whigs, and subsequently the Republicans, was a direct counter attack to the power of Van Buren’s Democratic Party. He used modern tactics to usher the Andrew Jackson era into Washington and understood how to advance his platform and his own standing.

Martin Van Buren was, in fact, quite magical.

  1. Miller Center of Public Affairs, University of Virginia. “Martin Van Buren: Life Before the Presidency.” Accessed July 10, 2015.­/president/biography/vanburen-life-before-the-presidency.
  3. “Allen Read Obituary.” The Economist, October 24, 2002.

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