Friday, May 18, 2007

Number 9: William Henry Harrison

Years in office: 1841
Pre-service occupations: general, territorial representative, governor of Indiana Territory, U.S. representative, state senator, U.S. senator, minister to Colombia
Key event during his administration: his death, which created a crisis

Presidential rating: none, but very popular


William Henry Harrison has gone down in history as the answer to a couple of trivia questions, and that’s a shame. The questions:

Who was the first president to die in office? (Harrison, of course)

Who had the shortest term? (Harrison’s term lasted one month: it ended on April 4, 1841.)

Who spoke the longest inaugural address? (At 8,445 words, his speech clocked in at close to two hours.)

Who had the most memorable campaign slogan of the 19th century? (Harrison’s primary campaign slogan was “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too.”)

But there was more to the man than trivia, of course. You are probably thinking, how can you assess a man who was in office for just one month? Easy. It’s not his time in office that I want to look at—make that can look at; it’s his campaign for that office (and President Martin Van Buren’s failed re-election campaign, for that matter). And besides, becoming president of the United States of America is no small thing. Only 42 men have achieved it, either in their own right or by default.

American politics would never quite be the same after the election of ol’ Tip in 1840, and his shocking death one month into his presidency. If Martin Van Buren set the stage for the modern political party, Harrison—or more properly, his Whig supporters—played a huge role in establishing a new type of election template: a candidate who was more style than substance.

That’s not to say that Harrison didn’t have substance, because some historians have lamented a presidency that never was and a road not taken. But the hype didn’t quite match the man, and in this current age of the “media anal exam” of every single cotton-pickin’ aspect of a candidate’s life, it’s fascinating to place Harrison the man and Harrison the candidate side by side.

The man was fascinating and quite qualified for the office, but he pales next to the larger-than-life rustic caricature hero his supporters created—which, it must be said, Harrison allowed to be created.

The hero of Tippecanoe
William Henry Harrison was Andrew Jackson’s contemporary, but their similarities are superficial. Both were western generals and Indian fighters. Both won famous battles, secured a section of the American frontier for future expansion and turned fame to political advantage. Both were seen as war heroes, though Jackson loomed larger than Harrison, as New Orleans truly was the bigger victory than Tippecanoe in all respects.

Still, when the Whigs selected Harrison as their champion in 1840, they couldn’t have done much better.

William Henry Harrison was born a British citizen, the last president to bear that distinction. But he harbored no love for the British: his father, Benjamin Harrison V, signed the Declaration of Independence. His father’s untimely death left him with no money to further his schooling, so young William (then 18) went west as a soldier where he gained a different type of education under “Mad Anthony” Wayne, one of the hardest fighting men in early America. Under Wayne, Harrison learned how to fight Indians, and he participated in the decisive battle of Fallen Timbers in the Northwest Territory in 1794.

Politics, however, soon beckoned, and at decade’s end, young William became secretary, then acting governor, of the new Northwest Territory. He was elected representative of the territory for a year, and then resigned to become governor of the Indiana territory (which then included Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois and some of Minnesota). As governor, Harrison went after Indian lands, buying millions of acres from tribes and tribal leaders. Resentment against this expansion grew, however, and finally found an outlet under the leadership of Tecumseh and his brother, “The Prophet” Tenskwatawa, both Shawnees.

The trouble had been brewing for some time, with Tenskwatawa and Tecumseh attracting spiritual followers from many different tribes. In essence, it was a religious revival, with the goal of stopping the sale of land and resisting expansion. But other tribal leaders disagreed, refused to recognize the two Shawnee leaders, and continued to work with Harrison. Things came to a head when Tecumseh demanded that the treaty of Fort Wayne be rescinded in 1811. Harrison refused, but Tecumseh assured Harrison that he wanted peace and would not seek war.

While Tecumseh was away in the south recruiting
among the “Five Civilized Tribes” (only the Creeks answered his call, and they would soon meet Andrew Jackson), Harrison was ordered to demonstrate (e.g., put on a show but not attack) against Tenskwatawa and his followers at Prophetstown along the Tippecanoe. This they did; but Tenskwatawa requested a cease fire for a peaceful meeting. Harrison agreed to meet the next day, Nov. 7, 1811.

But Tenskwatawa, fearing an attack, launched his own attack early the next morning, which Harrison and his men beat off. The American forces repulsed repeated charges all morning long, and Harrison’s men were left in command of the field when the Prophet’s warriors finally withdrew. On the morning of the 8th, Harrison’s men entered the deserted Prophetstown, which they burned. Harrison lost 68 killed and 126 wounded, while Tenskwatawa lost at least 50 killed and at least 70 wounded.

Thus was the great battle of Tippecanoe, the event that propelled William Henry Harrison to the presidency 29 years later.

But the legend was a little greater than the reality. Tippecanoe didn’t quite break Tecumseh’s confederacy, but rather seriously wounded it and embarrassed its leader. Tenskwatawa and Tecumseh would not meet final defeat until two years later during the War of 1812 at Harrison’s hands.

(Side note: there is absolutely no truth to the story that Tecumseh put a curse on Harrison that every president elected in a year ending in zero would die in office. The story is apocryphal and the deaths freak coincidences.)

Political career
Gen. Harrison built upon his reputation as an Indian fighter and soldier during the War of 1812, winning further victories in the Northwest. The real climax of his military career was a spirit-lifting smashing victory in Canada in 1813, the Battle of the Thames, where Tecumseh was killed. But he soon resigned from the army over disputes with Secretary of War Armstrong.

After the war, he turned to politics once more, and never looked back. Ohio elected him to the U.S. House, the state senate and the U.S. Senate. John Quincy Adams sent him to Colombia as minister in 1828, but Jackson’s election ended that posting the next year. In fact, there was bad blood between Jackson and Harrison, stemming from Jackson’s 1819 Florida incursion beyond the extent of his orders. Harrison was among the Congressmen who wanted to censure Jackson. Old Hickory, of course, never forgave Harrison.

The Whig Party, which formed in direct opposition to Jackson and the Van Buren Democrats, began to see Harrison as something of an anti-Jackson: a western war hero opposed to “King Andrew” and looking to undo the “excesses” of Jacksonianism. In 1836, Harrison did extremely well among four Whig candidates arranged against Jackson’s hand-picked successor, Van Buren. Harrison’s second-place showing in 1836 and his hero status convinced Whigs that Harrison was their go-to guy in 1840—especially because the Panic of 1837 had left the incumbent extremely vulnerable.

The origins of the modern campaign
The Whig Party finally ran a national campaign in 1840—and what a campaign it was. Harrison’s image during this campaign was brilliantly—if not expertly—crafted. And large parts of it were bald-faced lies.

Chances are, you’ve heard or read the phrase “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” sometime in your life, whether in school, on TV, in a commercial, or as a passing reference. To this day, the phrase has staying power. It’s that good.

You might have heard of another one: “Log Cabins and Hard Cider.” And you, like countless other Americans, have undoubtedly used a third phrase that gained currency at the same time: OK (though this one was associated with Harrison’s opponent, Martin Van Buren. According to one story, Van Buren was supposedly called Old Kinderhook, or “O.K.”).

Martin Van Buren’s unpopularity, stemming from the crushing Panic of 1837, left him wounded and unpopular. It almost seems as if anyone could have waltzed in and defeated him—at least, anyone with a catchy slogan or two. But that didn’t stop Van Buren from campaigning hard, nor Democrats from ridiculing Harrison as a “granny” (too old) and as the butt of a joke (“Will we elect Harrison? No sirrah!” which is his name in reverse). On Democratic newspaper derided Harrison as someone who would simply sit around his log cabin drinking hard cider.

Harrison’s people—namely, the Whig press and the
state party bosses—jumped on the log cabin and hard cider crack and brilliantly turned it to their advantage. Harrison, they claimed—stealing the Democratic press slur—was a rough-and-tumble westerner, born in a log cabin and very much at home drinking hard cider with the common man. “Log Cabins and Hard Cider” became one of the Harrison camp rallying cries. Actual log cabins were erected all over the country to serve as Harrison campaign headquarters.

Of course it was a lie, as Harrison lived rather comfortably in a mansion and came from wealthy stock, while his opponent was the one who came from a family of quite modest means.

But it stuck. The theme of the common man against the wealthy continued throughout the campaign, which had to have stung Van Buren hard, considering it was the same theme that the Jacksonians used to gain power. The most biting was Whig Rep. Charles Ogle’s “Golden Spoon oration,” an often unintentionally hilarious diatribe against the president given on the House floor against the outrageous “opulence” of Van Buren’s White House while the common man suffered. Ogle praised Harrison and damned Van Buren, and distributed 10,000 copies of his hysterical, over-the-top and highly imaginative attack nationwide. Little of it was true, except for the list of (necessary) improvements that Van Buren did to the White House—which historians still consult to this day!

Certainly one of the stranger features of the campaign was the sight of Harrison supporters rolling huge leather balls at their rallies, signifying how the Harrison campaign was gaining momentum everywhere it went.

Another staple of the campaign were the songs and rallies, which were actually family-friendly: women and children were welcomed at political rallies in large numbers for the first time (even though women’s voting rights was not on the Whig platform). Men and boys also wore coonskin caps to identify with Harrison’s supposed rustic roots.

A typical campaign poster could feature Harrison at work on a farm, with a log cabin and barrels of hard cider nearby. Others would show a hapless “Maddy” Van Buren and other Jacksonians being outfoxed by “ol’ Tip” as Harrison showed them the way out of the White House.

But the most memorable aspect of the campaign was the chief slogan: Tippecanoe and Tyler Too. After winning the nomination at the Whigs’ 1839 convention (the party’s first), Harrison selected former Democrat John Tyler as his running mate. This marked another change in American politics, as the vice president was no longer going to run separate from the presidential candidate.

Tyler seemed closer to Whig Henry Clay in his views than Van Buren, and he was something of a “maverick,” to use the modern connotation, so the choice seemed safe. Harrison selected the Virginian to placate the South and also to avoid talking about slavery—or anything at all. Instead, Tyler became part of the most memorable slogan of the 19th century. It rhymed and celebrated an overblown battle that many people probably ranked below more important battles, such as New Orleans, Yorktown and Fallen Timbers. Harrison hung his hat on that battle, magnifying it to a fantastic and decisive victory, which helped deflect Democratic charges that Harrison was a “silk robe” general who quit the War of 1812 before it was over.

But it ultimately didn’t matter. Van Buren, the man more responsible than anyone else for the creation of the Democratic Party and party organization, was overwhelmed by the Harrison machine. Armed with memorable slogans, leather balls, log cabins, campaign songs and a hyped personality—style over substance—Harrison defeated Van Buren rather easily. Harrison took the popular vote by a 5% margin, but won the electoral college in a blowout.

The shortest presidency
But in a month, Harrison was dead. He caught a cold during
his inaugural, and thanks to the demands of his new office—mainly office-seekers—and poor 1840s medical know-how, his cold turned to pneumonia. He died on April 4, 1841, the first president to die in office. His death created a constitutional crisis—which I’ll discuss in the next installment—and shocked the nation. Presidents had been sick before, but never had one actually died.

What would his presidency have been like? Bruce Frohnen, an associate law professor at Ave Maria School of Law and co-editor of American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia, wrote i
n National Review Online in early February 2007 that Harrison was his favorite president:

"William Henry Harrison was only president for about a month. And he spent that month in a sick bed, dying of pneumonia. Why is he my favorite president? No other president has done so much to live up to the original intent of the framers, that ours was to be a republic, with a representative assembly at its center and at the apex of power. Ironically, Harrison entered office with the intention of increasing congressional responsibility and power. Unfortunately, his death brought in the Jacksonian John Tyler who sought to act as an Imperial President. But Harrison, in his plans and in his deeds, stood for a true, free republic, answerable to the people in their local constituencies, and not as some democratic mass speaking only through circus-like plebiscites held every four years. He valued our Constitution and its fundamentally localist, limited government principles over dreams of greatness for himself or his party. And it was those principles, and the customs they fostered, that made our country great."
It is fascinating to speculate whether Harrison would have lived up to Frohnen’s expectations, and taken the country in a different direction than the 10th president, John Tyler. Would a full Harrison presidency have led the country away from war—both the Civil War and war with Mexico? We can only guess.

Final Assessment

Historians never rank Harrison with the other presidents because in his month-long service, he didn’t do anything with which to truly gage him against the others, except, perhaps, select an interesting and strong cabinet, which included the great orator Daniel Webster as secretary of state. But he did do something of lasting consequence, something for which America can be eternally grateful, at least in one respect: he selected John Tyler to be his vice president.

As I’ll talk about in my next installment, selecting Tyler was a tremendously fateful choice, because Tyler, the first vice president to assume the presidency upon the death of the chief executive, made sure that he became president.

And as the Whigs were to discover, “and Tyler Too” was very bad for their party.


Usually, you have to read about Harrison lumped in with other presidents and events. The most recent adult biography of him is 17 years old, as it seems Harrison is just not that interesting a person to modern America, despite the groundbreaking campaign of 1840.

So far, Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s The American Presidents series has no entry for Harrison, although the web site promises to profile all 42 men who have served as president. The most recent resources are The Presidencies of William Henry Harrison and John Tyler (1989) by Norma Lois Peterson, part of the University of Kansas’ American Presidency Series, and Old Tippecanoe: William Henry Harrison and His Time (1990) by Freeman Cleaves.


All images are public domain and from the Library of Congress Prints and Potographs Division unless otherwise noted.

1. Official White House portrait

2. Charles Fenderich created this lithograph of William Henry Harrison circa 1841.

3. “The Tippecanoe Quickstep” was composed for the 1840 presidential campaign. The fanciful cover depicts Gen. Harrison “leading the charge” at the Battle of Tippecanoe on Nov. 6, 1811.

4. The National Whig Song, another 1840 campaign song, with the cover featuring William Henry Harrison

5. A campaign poster depicting real and imagined events from the life of the hero of the Whigs

6. William Henry Harrison - Late President of the United States, painted by James R. Lambdin and engraved by J. Sartain

7. An illustrated broadside announcing a “general meeting of the friends of Harrison & Reform” in Alton, Ill. on May 9, 1840. Harrison, in farmer's clothes and broad-brimmed hat, stands next to a plough. Behind him is a barrel of hard cider, a log cabin, and another log building or shed. Overhead an eagle flies a streamer bearing the slogan “William Henry Harrison. The Farmer of North Bend.”

8. Death of President Harrison, printed 1846

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Number 8: Martin Van Buren

Years in office: 1837-1841
Pre-service occupations: governor of New York, U.S. Senator, secretary of state (Jackson), vice president (Jackson)
Key events during his administration: Panic of 1837 (financial depression), Trail of Tears (1838), Aroostook “War” (1837-38), Missouri Mormon War (1838), Amistad Supreme Court Case (1840-41)

Presidential rating: Near failure, and mixed on popularity, but nevertheless a brilliant politician


Martin Van Buren was robbed.

Robbed of his rightful place in American politics. In truth, Democrats should be celebrating Jefferson-Jackson-Van Buren dinners every year. Not because Van Buren was a great president—neither was Jefferson (or more correctly, Jefferson didn’t want his presidency to even be remembered)—but because Van Buren had as much, if not more, to do with the foundation of the Democratic Party as did the scion of Monticello.

In fact, Martin Van Buren was one of the most brilliant politicos this country has ever produced. He just wasn’t a good president—or rather, he was utterly squashed by a massive event mere weeks into his presidency that he never recovered from—and hence, he remains the first of many “forgotten” presidents.

These days, Van Buren turns up as a crank and tool of slave owners in Spielberg’s movie Amistad and as the butt of a joke in a hilarious Sienfeld episode where Kramer joins a gang dedicated to the 8th president’s memory.

But the real man was a lawyer and wily professional politician who rarely lost—until he won the biggest office in the land. Van Buren sought to succeed Jackson in the White House, but when he did, the Little Magician became the first in a long line of one-term presidents (sans Harrison and Taylor) of dubious success between 1837 and 1860, most of whom are equally “forgotten.”

Democratic kingpin
Van Buren, as fluent in Dutch as he was in English, would become the first president not of British stock—and the first one bor
n in America after she became a country. He called “home” the mid-state New York town of Kinderhook, a closed, private Dutch community that also attracted Washington Irving to its Old World charms.

He would fall in love and marry young, but his wife would die of tuberculosis in 1819, and Van Buren remained a widower the rest of his life. It could be said that ever-after, his first love was the political arena: for many a man went into battle against the mild-mannered and squat Van Buren and came away wondering what in the heck happened to him.

As Van Buren made his reputation in the courtroom, he turned toward politics. He found a mentor in the most infamous character from the early republic: fellow New Yorker Aaron Burr. A vicious rumor survived into the 20th century that Burr was Van Buren’s illegitimate father (most recently propagated by Gore Vidal in his novel about Burr) but there never was proof of it. Van Buren started out as an ally of the Clintonians, but soon made an enemy in the powerful DeWitt Clinton, who would be the longtime mayor of New York City and then New York governor.

After he had been in state government service for a decade—and had split with the Clintonians—Van Buren’s brilliance for political organization first emerged. During the teens, the man from Kinderhook created a new type of political creature encompassing the entire state. This machine was built upon respect, discipline, cooperation, and communication and voting. Nothing like it had been seen before in America. He didn’t do it alone, but rather took advantage of existing structures and groups and streamlined them, took them over, guided them or exploited them in order to mold them into a single entity. Van Buren’s overarching group became known as the Albany Regency. For this, he earned the knick name, the Little Magician.

In 1821, Van Buren moved to the national scene, being elected to the U.S. Senate, and set about repeating what he had done in New York. It didn’t happen smoothly, and not all at once. He received a “laying of the hands” by Jefferson himself before the latter died, and vowed to rescue the nation from “misrule.” Eventually, he would throw in with Andrew Jackson’s second attempt at the presidency when it became clear that the unpopular John Quincy Adams would not stand against the Jackson juggernaut.

Van Buren essentially created a grassroots-style of politicking that we’re familiar with: parties, parades, speeches, rallies, and communications. The Jackson press was already fired up in 1828, as were Jackson’s supporters, but Van Buren targeted the people themselves. Without votes, all the newspapers and high-level supporters were worthless. It was an incredible effort, as the “old Democrat” party of Jefferson, organized by Van Buren behind the scenes, literally rallied for Jackson all over the country. Even without the nastiness of the 1828 election, Adams wouldn’t have stood a chance.

In Jackson’s shadow – or casting a shadow?
Meanwhile, Van Buren had been elected to a new position of his own—governor of New York—but the position was short lived, as the new president soon called his benefactor (is there really another word?) to the capitol to be his secretary of state. After the doings of John C. Calhoun (see the entry on President Jackson), Van Buren would four years later become the vice president—a new type of heir-apparent.

It is interesting to look at Van Buren and Jackson through different eyes. Admirers of Jackson see Van Buren as one of Jackson’s strongest supporters, while admirers of Van Buren—they do exist—view Van Buren as the soothing architect who would mollify the extremes of Jackson’s positions, especially when the president would go on a tear against a chosen target, such as the Second Bank of the United States. Who is right depends on where one’s sympathies rest, it seems.

But there is little doubt that Van Buren was a much cooler head in the Jackson administration that the president himself. And it also became apparent that the then-secretary of state was Jackson’s chosen successor. A second new party, to counter the new “Democracy,” formed against Jackson and Van Buren: the Whigs, which included such political luminaries as Daniel Webster and Henry Clay. Succession became even more certain when Jackson easily crushed Clay in 1832, crushed the Nullifiers in 1833, and the Bank soon after, and appeared to be shepherding the country to good times through the end of his second term.

The Little Magician, with the sainted Jackson’s full blessing, easily defeated three Whig candidates opposing him. The Democratic Party fully came into existence and was here to stay by the 1836 election. Although Van Buren didn’t do it alone, he was the chief architect in the party’s formation and therefore of his own victory. And now he was about to enjoy—so he rightfully believed—the ultimate fruit of a decade and a half’s worth of labor.

But neither he nor anyone else, really, was aware of just how bad life was going to get just a few weeks after the March 1837 inauguration.

The Panic of 1837 shook America to its core. It was worse than the previous financial crisis, and that’s not just hyperbole.

The limits of Jeffersonian democracy became all-too apparent, because for all Van Buren’s political wizardry in organizing a party, the party’s ideals were centered around a limited government: one not equipped to deal with major financial depression. Biographer Ted Widmer describes the impact on Van Buren and America (with somewhat flowery imagery):

“Only ten years before Van Buren’s election, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams had died on the same day, July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Sermons across the land proclaimed that a special providence was guiding America’s destiny, and it was hard at the time to refute the evidence. But now retribution was at hand. The Panic caused a terrible shock, both financially and psychologically. It drained confidence—that precious resource that Americans seem to drink in like oxygen. And the Panic was really only the surface manifestation of other problems that suddenly were revealed in the harsher light that accompanies hard times. What had felt like effortless progress was badly interrupted in 1837. Everything Van Buren had worked to build—his party, his presidency, his reputation for political sagacity—was imperiled by the tsunami that struck almost the exact moment he took office.” (pp.106-107)
The description is mostly accurate, because although America had experienced financial distress before (such as after the War of 1812), the effects were less severe because the country was less connected, and in 1837 there was much more speculation and much more growth affecting far more ordinary and wealthy people. Until 1837, the government had no means to deal with a financial panic, and really wouldn’t for several more decades, though President Van Buren did his best to handle something the federal government was as yet not equipped to handle.

There were things he could do to affect the high unemployment, banks issuing increasingly worthless paper money (as opposed to “hard” currency of gold and silver coins), etc. Some of his best ideas included selling U.S. bonds and lowering the tariff. But Congress failed to act on his best idea, making the U.S. Treasury independent, until 1840. Van Buren’s most interesting idea was to have the Treasury control all federal funds and require all payments be made in legal tender instead of bank notes. The act was repealed in 1841.

Ultimately, the country recovered from the shock and years of the depression without too much in the way of government assistance. Remember, this was an age when state governments had much more impact on life than the federal government—but Van Buren was still blamed mercilessly, and never recovered.

Chains, or Van Buren trapped in his own party
While the country started inching back from the Panic, slavery finally began to take center stage. After a brief moment in the public eye during the tense fight in 1820 that led to the Missouri Compromise, America’s “peculiar institution” and great contradiction retreated behind polite conversation.

But a combination of events forced slavery out into the open in the 1830s, where it remained for the next three decades until the climatic clash of arms. First, there was the Nat Turner rebellion in 1831 in Virginia, where the slave revolt killed 51 whites and freaked out slaveholders for the rest of the decade. Then there was the Transcendental movement, the tail end of the Second Great Awakening, and the growth of the abolitionist movement in the 1830s, which saw the rise of William Lloyd Garrison, authors Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Edgar Allen Poe—and they all made proficient use of the printing press to disseminate their ideas by book and newspaper. One of those newspaper’s editors, Elijah Lovejoy, was murdered in Illinois the same year Van Buren became president. Finally, anti-slavery forces found an unlikely free speech champion in Congress in the form of John Quincy Adams, who railed frequently against the Gag rules preventing slavery from being discussed in Congress (see the Adams entry for more).

It’s difficult to know where President Van Buren stood on slavery because the Little Magician deliberately kept his intentions hidden. After all, he had a national coalition to hold together, which was not easy; Southern Democrats, led by the resurgent Calhoun, were becoming more outspoken in defending slavery while Northern Democrats were becoming wary of it. Consequently, each section thought that Van Buren favored the other!

What did he really think? On the surface,
we get clues that he wanted the abolitionists to shut up so they wouldn’t disrupt his political party, but secretly he did not care for slavery. As president, he pledged to not interfere with it—he became the first president to mention it in his inaugural address. But on a different level, Van Buren was strangely—or refreshingly, to look at it one way—unconcerned about it, at least as far as race was concerned. His vice president was Richard M. Johnson of Kentucky, a slave owner who did the heretical thing of falling in love with one of his slaves, Julia Chinn. They had two daughters. Biographer Widmer points out that it is fascinating to speculate the firestorm that would have erupted had Van Buren died or been removed from office, and Johnson became president—and his ex-slave had been his wife!

Van Buren was fully aware of Johnson’s familial situation and didn’t care. But he only publicly cared about slavery, it seemed, only as far as it affected the Democratic Party, which he had labored so long to build. He had to maintain the balancing act to keep his national party together. But occupying a neutral ground on what was becoming a public, emotionally charged and permanent issue proved impossible even for the Little Magician—and it hurt him in 1840.

He was further hurt by fudging on the annexation of Texas into the Union, an action that wouldn’t seriously hurt him until his attempt to regain the White House in 1844.

Biographer Widmer doesn’t use much ink on the Trail of Tears, but this event happened during Van Buren’s administration, not Jackson’s. Van Buren continued Jackson’s policy of total removal with minimal restitution. The hardships of the Cherokees and other tribes is well-documented elsewhere, but as far as Van Buren is concerned, he set no new policies and appeared to have let these matters take their course.

Though it is interesting to note that one of Van Buren’s nieces told him that he deserved to lose re-election because of what he let happen to the Indians.

Matters had been quiet with America’s neighbor to the north since 1815, but trouble flared in 1837, and then the next year. The trouble was mainly over the Maine-New Brunswick boundary, which had never really been settled. Militia from both sides started each other down, but cooler heads prevailed. The “Aroostook War” was bloodless, and was settled peacefully by 1842.

The social scene
Not all was doom and gloom during Van Buren’s administration. As mentioned above, the American literary scene began to find its voice largely during his term. Van Buren himself played a role, financially backing the new literary magazine (and party organ) the Democratic Review, edited by John O’Sullivan and attracting authors such a Nathaniel Hawthorn, van Buren’s friend Washington Irving, Emerson, Thoreau and others. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who counted himself among the Whigs, nevertheless took an interest in the project.

Emerson’s transcendental movement started to grow during this period, and anti-slavery agitation began to find its voice.

At the White House, Van Buren’s four sons were the toast of the town, with his handsome young son, John, dancing with the newly crowned young Queen Victoria. And although Van Buren was not an extravagant host, he fulfilled his duties (a daughter-in-law served as White House hostess) with relish and kept both parties entertained.

But his purchases to update and repair the presidential mansion came back to bite him hard in the 1840 campaign, just as the Democrats had wailed on John Quincy Adams for purchasing “gambling” devices for his White House.

Defeat and the third party
Despite his political brilliance, Martin Van “Ruin” was overwhelmed in 1840. He was unable to overcome the albatross of the Panic of 1837, which people blamed on him and Whigs pinned on him, largely unfairly. His foot-dragging to the annexation of Texas clearly hurt him in the South, too.

Also, if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, during this campaign it was a gross insult. The Whigs imitated his party organization and put forth another Jackson-type: war-hero-turned-legislator, William Henry Harrison. They held parties, rallies, tightly controlled their press, lampooned the incumbent and blamed the president for all of the country’s woes.

And despite all that Van Buren had done, and despite his solid arguments for why he should be re-elected, and despite the fact that he actually campaigned on his own behalf—an unprecedented act—he was soundly defeated. Northerners saw him as a tool of the South, and Southerners, likewise, saw him as a tool of the North. In other words, his balancing act had played out, and was no longer serving him, especially with slavery no longer under political wraps.

Because the new president died so shortly into his term, and the campaign of 1840 is really all there is to talk about concerning William Henry Harrison, I’ll save the details of that fantastic and amazing year until the next entry.

Van Buren never held another elective office, but he
did make another try at it, first for the Democratic nomination in 1844 and then as the standard bearer of the first real third party insurgency in American history in 1848 on the Free Soil Party. But the Little Magician had no more tricks up his sleeve. In the ’44 campaign, Texas loomed large, and public and political opinion, especially in the South, strongly favored snatching Texas before Mexico could latch onto it again. Van Buren seemed to have a lock on the nomination until he shocked the political establishment by stating his opposition to annexation. He argued that it was wrong to take in disputed land and such action would likely lead to war with Mexico.

Van Buren’s political fortunes dropped and Tennessee’s James K. Polk won the nomination and the presidency. Two years later, just Van Buren feared, Polk went to war over Texas.

Van Buren fared a little better on the Free Soil ticket in 1848 (running with Charles, the son of John Quincy Adams); although gaining no electoral votes, it can be argued that he garnered enough votes to ensure that yet another war hero became president, the Whig Zachary Taylor.

Final Assessment

It actually seems unfair to label Martin Van Buren a presidential failure, but in truth he was. But understand, this came about because of the self-imposed limits of presidential power and the limits of the Democratic Party vision of the “old Democracy” of Jeffersonian ideals. By the time the brilliant Van Buren had organized the Democratic Party into a nationwide entity—and held it together—the nation was groaning to break free from the limits of Jefferson’s agrarian America. Cities were becoming more central to American life, as was manufacturing and industry, with railroads connecting urban and rural. The amount of track in the north went from 23 miles in 1830 to 2,182 in 1840.

So, in a sense, Van Buren was a victim of his own success. He was very forward thinking—in his inaugural, he said he was a child of a new generation—but not forward enough. By forming a nationwide party, he believed he could hold it together through common interests by playing the middle road, mollifying and soothing each side. Without slavery in the picture, it probably would have worked. But slavery came out in the open, and revealed the major flaw in national party-building in that era.

At the same time, the Panic of 1837 was a huge blow that would have knocked flat anyone who held that office. Even though things got better by the next election, whoever was president was tarred with the Panic, fairly or unfairly. And Van Buren simply didn’t have the tools to deal with it. He tried, and came up with novel ideas, including the Treasury, but they weren’t enough. He might as well have demanded a hurricane turn around and head back to sea.

It's interesting to speculate what would have happened had the Panic hit while Jackson was still president—not too unlike idle speculation of the Muslim terrorist attacks of September 11 occurring during Bill Clinton's final year in office. How much different would history view those four presidents had these major disasters happened a few months earlier—bewing disasters that knocked most veryone senseless when they hit?

Final assessment: Near failure (reluctantly labled as such), and mixed on popularity, but nevertheless a brilliant politician


I read only one resource on Van Buren, but it was more than sufficient. Ted Widmer’s biography in The American Presidency series was lively, entertaining and even riveting. He succeeded—at least for me—in rescuing Van Buren from the dustbin of history, and elevating the Little Magician to his rightful place as the true—and brilliant—architect of the Democratic Party.

Anyone who wants to make it big in politics would do well to learn from him. (Well, at least make it to the top. Model a different president for staying at the top.)

Note: Widmer was a minor Clinton administration official, and his experience sometimes come through with weird asides—such as a pretty silly swipe at Rush Limbaugh and a completely untrue attack on George W. Bush—as well as modern coloring of enemies and opponents, and use of the term “Van Buren haters.”


All images are public domain and from the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division unless otherwise noted.

1. Actual photograph of Martin Van Buren, taken in 1848 at the firm of Nathaniel Currier.

2. Martin Van Buren’s adult home in Kinderhook, New York. Photo by Samuel Herman Gottscho, 1961.

3. Reproduction of a full-length 1839 Henry Inman painting of Martin Van Buren. Engraved by John Sarain.

4. Official White House portrait of President Martin Van Buren (White House Historical Association)

5. Southern belle Angelica Van Buren, wife of the president’s son, Abraham, served as White House hostess and unofficial First Lady for the widowed president.

6. Campaign banner for the Free Soil Party ticket in 1848 of Martin Van Buren and Charles T. Adams.