The trouble with history is that there’s never less of it. In 1850 you could spend an hour a day — after church but before instructing your children which immigrant group to hate — reflecting on all the U.S. presidents and the rich bounties they provided. Now there are more than 40 presidents, so who has the time? Realistically, you’re not giving a second thought to any president who hasn’t become an easily recognizable Halloween costume.
This means you’re forgetting someone. Someone is getting no credit for his contribution to our national character. Someone has lots of untrampled grass on his grave. Someone gets no mentions outside of the douchiest bar trivia contests. That someone is Martin Van Buren.
If we’re keeping it real, his presidency sucked. Van Buren took the reins from Andrew Jackson in March 1837. Two months later, the nation honored his Dutch heritage by succumbing to a speculative bubble. Banks stopped extending credit for all kinds of land deals in the rapidly gentrifying West, as Native Americans suddenly realized that they didn’t need another mixed-used town center with an Applebee’s. It triggered the worst depression the nation had seen. Yes, the Panic of 1837 was even worse than the Shame Spiral of 1807.
Martin didn’t have the economic tools to deal with it, because Jackson had dismantled America’s national bank during his presidency. Martin also didn’t have the inclination to deal with it. He was Jackson’s vice president, so crawling back to a national banking system would have been off-brand. You can’t break up with the national bank, trash it on Facebook, and then casually bring it to your cousin’s wedding as though nothing happened.
But as many Florida State grads can attest, no man should be judged solely by a four-year period of his life. To truly appreciate MVB, you have to go back further.
He was born in Kinderhook, N.Y., in 1782, making him the first president calved in the United States. His dad was a Dutch tavern owner. In that era, taverns were filled with booze-soaked political analysis of traveling guests; it was the 18th-century equivalent of either a think tank, or an Internet comment thread. Van Buren soaked it all in, studied the law, then got into state politics. Back then, state legislatures still picked U.S. senators, the federal government was tinier, and New York was on its way to becoming the biggest state. State politics was a sexy, sexy field, and Van Buren wanted to be Emilia Clarke.
In the 19th century, most political fights boiled down to North vs. South. The cultures were different, the economies were different, and (little known fact) one side had lots more slaves. Van Buren’s dream was a government that got past those nutty divisions and focused on the Jeffersonian ideal: A weak federal government, and lots more opportunity for slobs who grew up in bars.
He had the political talents to make it happen. Van Buren scrupulously avoided pissing people off unnecessarily. He knew about grass-roots organization, focused on voter turnout and used government jobs as rewards for loyalty. In the 1810s, he became one of the most important power brokers in the state. His faction was called the Bucktails, and no one even realized how lame that sounded until a century later.
All this got him sent to Washington as a U.S. senator, where he applied his strategies on a national scale. Van Buren wanted Jeffersonian democracy locked-in nationwide, and all he needed was an ass-kicker who could be the public face of the movement. Jackson had killed enough Indians and British to be a national hero; he was from the South; and he had roughly the same political beliefs. They entered into some kind of Sith lord relationship, and the galaxy was never the same.
After Jackson got beat in the 1824 presidential election, there was no question that he’d try again in 1828. Van Buren used all four years to put together a campaign like no one had ever seen. His team went after a new class of lower-class voter. They started newspapers (a form of media that used to exist), organized conventions and devised propaganda focusing on Jackson’s status as a war hero. They stayed away from major political statements, put together pep rallies and made cutting-edge use of opinion polling, even though much of the population legally could not have opinions. They accused the incumbent, President John Quincy Adams, of being a pimp.
By many a grizzled historian’s judgment, it was the first modern political campaign. Aided by Van Buren’s professional political machine, Jackson took out Adams with relative ease. The consequences were far-reaching: French guy Alexis de Tocqueville toured the states in 1831, and his impressions of the energized electorate were recorded in “Democracy in America” — a hugely influential guidebook that advertised the U.S. system to the curious world. Even the losers had to appreciate how exquisitely their asses had been kicked. Those on the losing side regrouped into what became the Whig Party, and twelve years later they used almost identical tactics to put William Henry Harrison in the White House. Over President Van Buren. [Insert Price is Right tuba here.]
Van Buren never recovered; he couldn’t secure the nomination in 1844, then (after some philosophical shifts) lost as the candidate of the anti-slavery Free Soil Party in ’48. But he rewrote the rules of campaigning and solidified the two-party system people still bitch about today. It was his gift to the ages.
Go visit Lindenwald, Van Buren’s home. After making it big, he didn’t skip town. Instead, he bought the biggest house in Kinderhook and politely rubbed everyone’s nose in it. It has a giant Italianate tower, so it looks like the world’s biggest Olive Garden. Van Buren lived there mostly after leaving the White House, so the home you see is that of a man at full maturity. He tried to project an air of class — among other things, he was a gadget freak with a flush toilet, which was in the 1850s was like being the first guy on the block with an iPad.
But there’s also a sense of composure and gravity. Van Buren’s library, from which he ran those last two campaigns, was a nerve center for a creature that stretched from Maine to Florida. Whatever his aspirations for regaining power, you do get the sense that Martin appreciated the beast he had created. There’s a little bit of Van Buren behind every president since 1828, whether you remember him or not.
Save your forgetting for that other guy. You know, what’s his face.