There has been a bit of a renaissance of interest in perhaps the hairiest of presidents, Martin Van Buren. But there’s more to the eighth president than whiskers and a three-part name.
His hard work and guile, coming from modest roots, created a template for modern political parties. And his role as Andrew Jackson’s most-trusted political ally was critical in creating the first modern political party, the Democratic Party in 1832, and fostering an environment for an active opposition, the Whig Party.
In short, we can give Van Buren some of the credit, or blame, for the two-party political system that has dominated American politics for nearly 200 years.
And then, in 1837 it all fell apart for Van Buren, who had a rocky, at best, four year run as president, succeeding Jackson. He was routed in a re-election attempt in 1840 by William Henry Harrison, as Van Buren inherited and worsened a four-year economic depression caused by Jackson’s fiscal policies.
The man who was the most powerful political operative in the United States in 1836 was not a big factor in politics after 1841, except for a two brief runs at recapturing the White House and an effort to undermine his own political party in 1848.
So how did Van Buren master the political system, only to become an ineffective president?
Van Buren grew up listening to political arguments at his father’s tavern in Kinderhook, New York. Among the guests at the tavern, which was between Albany and New York City, were Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. Too poor to attend college, Van Buren gained an apprentice position at a legal office, and worked his way through the rough-and-tumble New York political system with agility and tact.
He was admitted to the bar in New York in 1803 at the age of 21, and he was courted by Burr, among others, as a political operative. Van Buren sided with DeWitt Clinton (and not Burr) and then opposed him.
Van Buren was a strong believer in the Jeffersonian ideas of limited national government and state’s rights, and he strongly opposed the Federalist Party. He also had the ability to form backroom political alliances and turn out the vote, when needed.
To defeat Clinton, Van Buren built a political party machine called the Albany Regency. His machine won out over Clinton by 1821 by learning how to control office appointments and political conventions, without breaks within their ranks.
In 1821, Van Buren was elected to the U.S. Senate from New York. He arrived in Washington as the head of the political party that controlled the biggest state in the union. But Van Buren couldn’t unite a deeply divided Democratic-Republican Party that fielded four candidates for president in 1824.
Van Buren backed William Crawford, who had strong Jeffersonian principles, in the 1824 race, and when John Quincy Adams (the son of the Federalist president John Adams) won the disputed election over Jackson, Van Buren quickly sided with Jackson and led the effort to form a coalition that would become the Democratic Party.
The 1828 election gave Van Buren the chance to use his organizational skills to help get Jackson elected. More than 800,000 new voters took part in the election, and Van Buren also won election as New York’s governor. He left that post to become Jackson’s secretary of state, a position that had been usually reserved for politicians who would run for the White House.
Van Buren became a key member of the Jackson cabinet and then he became Jackson’s running mate as vice president in 1832. In the second Jackson administration, Van Buren was involved in the president’s battles with Henry Clay and Nicholas Biddle over banking policy, which led to the formation of an opposition party called the Whigs.
Jackson had endorsed Van Buren as his successor for several years, and in 1836, Van Buren ran for president against three regional Whig opponents. Thanks to the organizational skills of Van Buren’s Democratic Party, he gained more votes than Jackson had in 1832 (although he had a smaller number of electoral votes).
He also reportedly said later in life that his two happiest moments were winning the White House and then leaving it after four years in office.
The Van Buren presidency is considered average, at best, by historians. The deep financial crisis triggered by Jackson’s fiscal policies led to the new president receiving the nickname “Martin Van Ruin.”
The Panic of 1837 started about two months into Van Buren’s only term in office. Bankruptcy, unemployment and food riots followed. Van Buren was philosophically opposed to federal government intervention, although he lobbied for an independent treasury. But he was committed to seeing through Jackson’s policies.
Van Buren was never able to escape the blame for an economic recession that lingered into the 1840 election season. This time, the Whigs got behind one candidate (Harrison), used the Democrats’ political tactics during the campaign season, and routed Van Buren in the November election.
After the 1840 defeated, Van Buren slowly faded away from the American political scene. He was unable to capture the 1844 Democratic presidential nomination after former President Jackson threw his support behind the little-known James K. Polk.
Van Buren didn’t have a role in the Polk administration and he again sought the presidential nomination in 1848, but his anti-slavery position was shunned at the party’s convention. Van Buren’s supporters walked out of the convention and formed their own party, the Free Soil Party, with the intent of disputing the hopes of Lewis Cass, the Democratic nominee from Michigan.
The tactic worked. The Free Soil Party didn’t win any electoral votes, but it kept the Democrats from winning 48 electoral votes in New York and Massachusetts, which was enough to swing the election to the Whig candidate, Zachary Taylor.
The election also ended Van Buren’s political career, after he helped to undermine the party he had created.
In later years, Van Buren spent time with his family, wrote an autobiography, and posed for a few photographs.
The popular image of Van Buren sporting gigantic muttonchops sideburns was taken between 1855 and 1858 by the famed photographer Mathew Brady, as Brady was seeking to publicize his New York studio.
Van Buren’s official presidential portrait was also painted later in his life. The official 1828 portrait from New York state (commissioned for his brief term as governor) shows a red-headed Van Buren sporting much-shorter facial hair.
Whether Van Buren, or John Quincy Adams, was the first president to have excessive facial hair is a debate for another day.
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