Wednesday, July 25, 2007

July 24, 1862:

Martin Van Buren Dies

DPD is taking a summer vacation for a couple of weeks, but promises to be back in time for one of the main dead presidential anniversaries in the whole calendar on August 8 and 9, which involves a certain disgraced president and his better-liked successor, both within living memory but who nevertheless have gone on to their rewards.

Today is the anniversary of President Martin Van Buren's death in 1862. Van Buren, master political organizer and successful New York politician, as well as Eighth Vice President and then Eighth President of the United States, might be an example of the Peter Principle: he had risen to the level of his incompetency, the presidency. Or perhaps he was just luckless enough to follow a popular president, Andrew Jackson, be at the helm during the Panic of 1837, and then face another popular candidate, William Henry Harrison, in the election of 1840, which van Buren lost.

In 1990, American Heritage magazine had this to say about why Van Buren lost the presidency 150 years earlier: "President Martin Van Buren was by all accounts a likable man, but his cultivated manners were not seen as virtuous by the voters who had elected Andrew Jackson before him. The Whig party decided to exploit Van Buren’s reputation as an aristocrat in the 1840 presidential election by reviving the log-cabin populism with which Jackson had beaten them 12 years earlier.

"On April 14, Whig congressman Charles Ogle of Pennsylvania addressed the House of Representatives on the subject of Van Buren’s White House. The President had asked Congress for $4,675 to renovate the Executive Mansion, and Ogle greeted the request with a three-day tirade in which he mercilessly vilified Martin Van Buren. The packed galleries laughed and cheered as the congressman described a plumed and perfumed dandy 'strutting by the hour before golden-framed mirrors, NINE FEET HIGH and FOUR FEET and a HALF WIDE,' in a 'PALACE as splendid as that of the Caesars, and as richly adorned as the proudest Asiatic mansion.' Van Buren was too vain to eat 'those old and unfashionable dishes, hog and hominy, fried meat and gravy, … [and] a mug of hard cider,' Ogle said. On the presidential table instead were gold utensils and 'Fanny Kemble Green finger cups,' into which the President dipped his 'pretty tapering soft, white lily fingers, after dining on fricandaus de veau and omlette souffle.'

The only response from the White House was a simple certification that 'no gold knives or forks or spoons of any description have been purchased for the President’s house since Mr. Van Buren became the Chief Magistrate of the Nation.' Ogle published his 'gold spoon oration' at his own expense, and copies that circulated throughout the country made him famous. Ogle had set the tone for the Whig campaign that was to propel Gen. William Henry Harrison, the 'hard-cider man' and war hero, to an overwhelming victory in November.

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