Wednesday, December 05, 2007

December 5, 1782:

Martin Van Buren's Birthday

Today is the birthday of Martin Van Buren, Eighth President of the United States, and the first holder of that office to be born after the Declaration of Independence. The standard historical impression of Old Kinderhook's administration is that of an appendix to Andrew Jackson's, but his most enduring legacy -- one that extends to the present day and into the foreseeable future -- involves his efforts in fashioning the faction around Jackson into a viable, long-term organization: the Democratic party. Or to use a more 19th-century terminology, the National Democracy.

One writer, libertarian Jefferey Rogers Hummel, goes even further in his praise of Van Buren, in an essay called "Martin Van Buren: The Greatest American President":

"Van Buren was a lawyer-president who represented a new breed of professional politician. His opponents denounced him during his life for subtle intrigue, scheming pragmatism, and indecisive 'non committalism.' Those charges were reflected in such popular nicknames as the Little Magician, the Red Fox of Kinderhook, and the American Talleyrand. The ideologically compatible but personally acerbic John Randolph of Roanoke once observed that 'he rowed to his objective with muffled oars,' faulting him as 'an adroit, dapper, little managing man,' who 'can’t inspire respect.'

"Van Buren’s demeanor reinforced such impressions. Appearing shorter than his five feet and six inches, he was stout and balding by the time of his inauguration, his formerly red sideburns now grey and framing a large head with a prominent brow and calculating blue eyes. Always fashionably dressed, charmingly witty, and imperturbably amiable, Van Buren never let political differences master his emotions or cloud his social relations. He was not a daring, original intellect in the mold of John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, and his ability to draw out the views of others often masked his pious devotion to orthodox Jeffersonianism. Even sympathetic historians tend to slight Van Buren’s term in office as the 'third Jackson administration.' Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., concludes that, while president, 'Van Buren was weak in the very respect in which he might have been expected to excel — as a politician.' Except during the last year in office, his management was 'negligent and maladroit' and showed very little 'executive energy.'

"On the other hand, modern advocates of decentralization and states’ rights are often more taken with Van Buren’s better-known rival, Calhoun, and his doctrine of nullification. Van Buren admittedly would not go to the lengths of a John Randolph in sacrificing political success for ideological purity. Yet the New Yorker’s overall career displayed far more consistency in opposing government power at all levels than did the twisting, turning path of the swaggering opportunist from South Carolina. Van Buren was also better attuned to Old Republican antistatism than the irascible, impulsive, and militaristic Old Hickory as strikingly illustrated by Van Buren’s more conciliatory rejection of nullification in spite of bitter personal differences with Calhoun. Above all, in sharp contrast to his political mentor, Thomas Jefferson, the Little Magician managed to hew more closely to principle when he was in the White House than when he was not. Indeed, a close examination of Van Buren’s four years in office reveals that historians have grossly underrated his many remarkable accomplishments in the face of heavy odds. Those accomplishments, in my opinion, rank Martin Van Buren as the greatest president in American history."

It's also a good time to mention Van Buren's vice president, the largely forgotten Richard Mentor Johnson of Kentucky (right), a Congressman selected as a westerner to give geographic balance to the ticket in 1836. Richard Johnson remains the only vice president selected by the US Senate after no candidate for the office obtained a majority of electoral votes in the election -- Johnson was one short. Supposedly some of the electors objected to his relationship with Julia Chinn, a family slave that he openly treated as his wife.

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