my year with 44 men

Reading the Presidents One by One

Matty Van

When I started this project, I mentioned that there was one thing I was good at.  That thing was reading.  I failed to mention that above all else in the world, the one thing I was terrible at (besides anything that requires athletic coordination and skill) is blogging.  I’m terrible.  I’ve been done with the book I’m about to review for over a week, but I never even got around to mentioning that I was starting it.  I’m sure that the three of you that I can continually persuade to read my blog are terribly disappointed.  Sorry dudes.

Onto a less self-deprivating topic now. Martin Van Buren.  This guy might be the most forgettable president yet.  It’s sad to say that he really didn’t do much aside from both hold the country together and help it fall apart.

The Book: The book that I read was simply called Martin Van Buren and was written by Ted Widmer.  It was the shortest one I’ve read yet, and rightfully so, because so far Van Buren has done the least worth mentioning.  Widmer did something rather silly at the beginning of the book; he welcomed me into an elite club of people who actually care to read about the 8th President.  Even he knew that few people give a rat’s tail about what the man actually did.  Widmer did seem a little flippant, giving the impression that his editor said, “You’re going to write about X” and he sort of agreed because it was something to do.  Because of this, he comes off as feeling ambivalent towards him, and uninvested in the project.  On the other hand, Widmer was an entertaining enough storyteller.  Reading about Van Buren and Lincoln sitting down, getting drunk and telling political horror stories sounds like an amazing time.

The President: Martin Van Buren, or Matty Van as he was known to friends and mocking enemies of the day, was maybe not the most interesting president, but he certainly did some changing to American politics.  He is known as the first professional politician to fulfill his aspirations of becoming President.  However, as President he left no lasting social legislation, sustained disastrous reverses, and ended in defeat after a four-year term.  Very forgettable indeed.  Part of what made him different than his predecessors was that he was the first ethnic President.  Though he was born and raised in New York, he spoke Dutch as his native tongue, and that made him a little suspect to many Americans.  He also was the first President that was born after American was recognized as an independent nation, so technically he was the first “American born” President.  He totally used this to his advantage, claiming that he would usher in American politics and leave behind the old ways leftover from former British-influenced leaders.

In the political realm, he idolized Thomas Jefferson and managed to get mentorship with Jefferson, which of course influenced his politics (62).  His relationship with other leaders wasn’t focused on, with the exception of Andrew Jackson, to whom he couldn’t be any more different.  Even though their differences were great, they were offput by mutual respect.  Jackson was known for being irrational and temperamental, loud and persuasive.  Van Buren, if this gives you an idea was nicknamed the Careful Dutchman, and was not particularly good at wooing the people.  As Davy Crocket said, “Van Buren is as opposite to Jackson as dung is to a diamond.” (76).  Well, there we go.  Even still, Van Buren managed to help Jackson win his Presidency, and so in return, when Matty was running, Andy J gave his blessing, which put people at ease over this new little guy.

Once he was in office, though, things weren’t so great.  We all know good and well what happens to a president when disaster strikes shortly after one takes office, in the style of George W Bush.  Just like that, only some 165 years before, the Panic of 1837, which is considered the worst economic crisis in American history (save for the Crash of 29), happened just 13 days after Van Buren swore in.  What terrible timing!  As Widmer sums it up, “Van Buren inherited a superheated economy that was completely unregulated in some ways and draconically controlled in others.” (101).  There had been too much credit given to banks, inflation had skyrocketed, international banks demanded that American pay them back and we had diddly to do that.  Pair that with crop failure (the primary income of Americas) and it was the equivalent to a match being lit at a gas-station, only a giant nation-sized gas station.  It sucked.  To try and fix the situation, Matty Van created our independent treasury to try and put more money into circulation.  It worked for a bit, but wasn’t the best solution.

Meanwhile, there was that whole slavery issue.  It had been growing for years now, and no one had the solution. The South wanted to become more independent (and they wanted some locomotives like the North had), the North wasn’t going for that.  It was a civil war waiting to happen.  So what did Matty do?  Nothing.  In fact, he knew he was not the most well-liked guy, so instead of having a polarizing opinion that could turn more people off to him, he didn’t express an opinion at all.  He just kind of let things slide and hoped he wouldn’t have to deal with the aftermath.  Things finally came to a head in the well-known incident of the Amistad in 1939.  Basically, if you haven’t seen the movie (which funny story, I had to watch it in one of my classes, but my professor couldn’t figure out how to turn the sound on, so we watched the whole thing on mute, which was so confusing!), a ship carrying slaves from Africa was taken over by the slaves in a revolt off the coast of Cuba.  There was a huge amount of drama over what was to become of the slaves, and to whom they should be returned.  Matty Van, who was President at the time, was worried about our relations with Spain (since no one else in Europe seemed to like us) and acted accordingly.  Meanwhile, John Quincy Adams gets his turn to shine (finally) and delivered a stirring defense for the freedom of the slaves.  Other than his famous silence on the issues of slavery and creating the independent treasury, not much else is noteworthy.

Martin van Buren died in July 1862, the same day that Lincoln delivered the Emancipation Proclamation.  He was born during the American Revolution that created America, and died during the Civil War that nearly destroyed it.  In the middle, he was the ruler that did neither to advance nor degrade it.

A few fun facts about Matty Van:

  • He did most of his campaigning in bars.  Because of this he became a highly-functional alcoholic and for a little guy could carry on perfectly rational conversations while highly intoxicated.
  • He is the only President to date that can’t trace their lineage back to King John (yes, the same King John from Robin Hood)
  • His skull was taken by grave robbers and it’s still never turned up.

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