The first president born after America's independence ushers in a new era of no-holds-barred democracy
The first "professional politician" to become president, the slick and dandyish Martin Van Buren was to all appearances the opposite of his predecessor, the rugged general and Democratic champion Andrew Jackson. Van Buren, a native Dutch speaker, was America's first ethnic president as well as the first New Yorker to hold the office, at a time when Manhattan was bursting with new arrivals. A sharp and adroit political operator, he established himself as a powerhouse in New York, becoming a U.S. senator, secretary of state, and vice president under Jackson, whose election he managed. His ascendancy to the Oval Office was virtually a foregone conclusion.
Once he had the reins of power, however, Van Buren found the road quite a bit rougher. His attempts to find a middle ground on the most pressing issues of his day-such as the growing regional conflict over slavery-eroded his effectiveness. But it was his inability to prevent the great banking panic of 1837, and the ensuing depression, that all but ensured his fall from grace and made him the third president to be denied a second term. His many years of outfoxing his opponents finally caught up with him.
Ted Widmer, a veteran of the Clinton White House, vividly brings to life the chaos and contention that plagued Van Buren's presidency-and ultimately offered an early lesson in the power of democracy.
" … Widmer (Young America) paints a brief but elegant portrait of our eighth president, who, Widmer says, created the modern political party system, for which he deserves our 'grudging respect.' " - Publishers Weekly
About the Author
Ted Widmer is the director of the C. V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience at Washington College. He is the author of Young America and the co-author, with Alan Brinkley, of Campaigns. Widmer served as senior adviser to President Clinton and director of speechwriting at the National Security Council.
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Martin Van Buren
By Ted Widmer
Times BooksCopyright © 2005 Ted Widmer
All right reserved.
Legend has it that Martin Van Buren was once received at a royal reception by Queen Adelaide of the Netherlands. Before a crowd of courtiers and swells, she politely asked the distinguished Dutch-American how far back he could trace his ancestry. Van Buren bowed deeply and responded, "As far back as Kinderhook, Your Majesty." That was vintage Van Buren, saying everything and nothing at once.
To begin to peel back Van Buren's mysteries, there is no more logical place to start than his hometown. Kinderhook is located in Columbia County, New York, on the east bank of the Hudson, twenty miles south of Albany. Like all hometowns, it is far more than a destination to be casually entered into a Yahoo! search engine. For Van Buren, it was the opposite of a terminus - it was a place of origin, and for most of his forebears, the sum and circumference of geographical knowledge. In other words, it was a place to be left behind.
Today's Kinderhook is a charming village, eager to promote its link to the Dutch past and to its two celebrities, Van Buren and Washington Irving. It boasts the usual saintly relics associated with medieval pilgrimages, including Van Buren's fine china toilet, one of the first such contrivances installed in a private residence in the United States, andits curio shops and bed-and-breakfasts ooze quaintness. To be sure, it is as lovely a place to escape to as from. Like other small seats of presidential aspiration - say, Plymouth, Vermont (pop. 440), or West Branch, Iowa (pop. 1,908), or Plains, Georgia (pop. 716) - it inspires with the notion that anyone from anywhere can become the leader of the world's most powerful nation.
But there is more to Kinderhook (pop. 1,293) than just careful scenery. Like all old towns in the postindustrial North, it has tired neighborhoods at the periphery, marginal in every sense. The Salvation Army is doing a thriving business, as are a couple of auto body shops, the Shear Magic Hair Salon, and an Off-Track Betting facility. Along the highways leading in and out of town are the careworn signs of roadside capitalism we routinely drive by without much noticing: AKC BEAGLES 4 SALE, or, even more economically, BAIT. The would-be Irving, eager to paint Kinderhook as an eighteenth-century Dutch movie set, does so at his peril. Real people live here.
In fact, Kinderhook's quaintness was earned the hard way. Throughout its early history, it witnessed one political struggle after another, usually pitting the landed gentry whose mansions dot the upper Hudson like so many navigational beacons against the regular folks who also happened to live here. More than most towns on the upper Hudson, Kinderhook emerged as an island of two-party democracy in a region that was at that time anything but democratic. The first clue to its identity lies in its location at a desirable wide spot on the Hudson, where a creek flows in from the east. Local histories claim that this was the place where Henry Hudson, after traveling across the Atlantic and up the great river, decided he'd seen enough of America and turned the Half Moon around, headed for home. Writing of Hudson's U-turn, a wordy antiquarian called Kinderhook "the Ultima Thule of his personal explorations and the Ne Plus Ultra of his desires." That is too poetic for most stomachs, but it comes as no surprise to learn that the favorable location soon turned into a bustling little port, and that its numbers grew as the Dutch poured into the Hudson Valley in the seventeenth century.
But like any real estate story, the key to Kinderhook's story is location (there is still a Van Buren Realty at the center of town). This precise spot was one of the few places on the upper Hudson that fell outside the great manorial tracts given to the great patroons - the enormously wealthy seventeenth-century landholders who controlled giant tracts of land as if they were feudal lords, which they were. Paradoxically, the Hudson Valley, future home to stalwart Democrats like Van Buren and FDR, was one of the least democratic regions in colonial America. The mighty Van Rensselaers owned a sprawling entity known as Rensselaerswyck, three-quarters of a million acres in Columbia, Albany, and Rensselaer counties; the equally baronial Livingstons claimed 250,000 acres in Columbia County.
Yet Americans have a way of overpowering - or, better yet, ignoring - the moldy parchments written in secret chambers in Europe. The settlers who came to Kinderhook had little patience for these claims, some of which exceeded the size of entire European nations, and all of which were vague and difficult to enforce. As a result, this particular zone of democracy along the Hudson attracted numerous citizens who prized freedom from authority. Soon, roads were linking this favored spot to the other clusters of semi-Americans living in the region. "The Great New England Path" had once brought Native Americans from Massachusetts, and grew into an important colonial highway connecting Kinderhook to Albany in one direction and Boston and New York in the other.
Naturally, these axial roads drew travelers, lawyers, and other miscreants populating the eighteenth-century landscape. The pace quickened in the aftermath of the French and Indian War, which had opened up vast reaches of New York's hinterland, and the American Revolution, which did more of the same. Travelers streamed over the highway from the east, eager to start something better in the new world that always lay just over the horizon. Many tarried for a night or two in a modest tavern run by the easygoing Abraham Van Buren. And it was here, on December 5, 1782, that Martin Van Buren entered the world, literally born to the bosom of politics, for his father's tavern doubled as the local polling place at election time.
At first, there was precious little to indicate that the infant would merit the future interest of historians. The first Van Burens had slouched toward Kinderhook in 1631 after a long journey from Holland. The progenitor, Cornelis, did not even have a proper last name, so his son Marten added the Van Buren (being thousands of miles from the old country made a distinguished lineage that much easier to fabricate). They were joined by neighbors and cousins - more or less one and the same - and discovered an early form of the American Dream, defined as agriculture and the creation of more Van Burens. If the myth is that Americans are always on the move, always improving themselves, there was little in the Van Buren saga to support it. For a century and a half, they stayed exactly where they were - close to the land and close to each other. Like characters in a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel, they regenerated themselves across the centuries, oblivious to the upheavals happening around them. Kinderhook was as inbred as any island, and more than a few Van Burens married their kin, including Van Buren's father and grandfather. In his autobiography, the future president boasted with a Bosnian insularity: "My family was from Holland, without a single intermarriage with one of different extraction from the time of the arrival of the first emigrant to that of the marriage of my eldest son, embracing a period of over two centuries and including six generations."
You can get a pretty good idea of life in old Kinderhook by looking at any Dutch genre painting of the seventeenth century - families sitting around the hearth, cows lowing in the fields, young men and women flirting in the shadows. It was a world that Vermeer would have instantly recognized - the sleepy town rising and setting with the sun, and following the same harvest rhythms of any farm community. Authority flowed lazily downward from the local gentry, like a mountain stream. Information was spread through conversation and eavesdropping, and outsiders were distrusted. In the 1780s, after some farm animals disappeared, a local rumor blamed a wild, mixed-race family of blacks, whites, and Indians, all named Johnston, who allegedly lived in little huts in the Pine Woods outside of town, and allowed illicit relations between brother and sister. Like their neighbors, the Van Burens - all seven families with that name - spoke furtively in Dutch to one another, attended the Dutch Reformed Church, and prayed to a Dutch God. Those who were not Van Burens were more than likely to be Van Alens, Van Nesses, or Van Schaacks. Washington Irving was captivated by these aspects of Kinderhook during his stay there, and in turn captured some of it in his writing - the low-roofed dwelling, the spreading sycamore, the henpecked husband sneaking out of earshot for a dram.
In many ways, Abraham Van Buren was the embodiment of an Irving character - a bit careless about money, and not the most eager young man to settle down with a wife. In fact, he was thirty-nine by the time that he surrendered his independence in, of all years, 1776. That year he married Maria Hoes Van Alen, a widow with three children. There is some evidence that she completes the Irving profile as a sturdy, self-reliant housewife, not one to suffer fools gladly, although in truth very little is known about this crucial formative influence on the future president. She bore two more children to Van Buren before Martin was born, five days before a provisional treaty was signed ending the war. Three more children would follow, giving Martin eight siblings, spread out evenly around him. It was a middling debut in every sense.
Excerpted from Martin Van Buren by Ted Widmer Copyright © 2005 by Ted Widmer. Excerpted by permission.
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