Fifty pages into the autobiography Van Buren writes about an important chapter in his life—his involvement in the War of 1812, an episode that has been largely glossed over by his biographers, in my view. Van Buren aims to clarify his record. He and his fellow Republicans were selflessly devoted to the war and their country. The Federalists were in every way the opposite—with the lone exception of Rufus King, who remained a lifelong friend and sometimes ally of Van Buren as a result. Van Buren brags that he and other Republicans supported the war, for which they were rewarded by capturing many seats in 1814, a development that “gladdened the heart of every patriot in the land.” He praises governor Daniel Tompkins and quotes in full a speech that Van Buren delivered before the state legislature. It’s one of the peculiarities of the book that Van Buren quotes official speeches in total, since these papers were in the public record. Then again, this is a peculiar book.
I’ve long suspected that this is the point where most people put the book down. It’s brutal. Van Buren goes into great minutiae about the war and the conscription campaign, citing legislation in full—and remember, he wrote this by hand. Why such abundance of information? He wants readers to know the full extent of how hard he and other patriots worked for the cause, an effort that resulted in public acclaim—”a most gratifying exhibition of the character of our People under circumstances more trying than any to which our Country has been exposed since the War of the Revolution.” This is hyperbole, of course. There was plenty of opposition to the war, and not all critics were guilty of treason.
Puzzlingly, Van Buren omitted to mention his role in the famous court-martial trial of Gen. William Hull. A Revolutionary War hero and governor of Michigan, Hull surrendered Fort Detroit to the British and was brought up on court-martial charges. Van Buren was one of the prosecutors in this trial, which resulted in a guilty verdict and death sentence (later remanded by President Madison). We don’t know why Van Buren was selected as a prosecutor on this case, and it would have been helpful to learn more about this. But Van Buren is silent, and this is a terrible pity.
In rounding out his take on the war and its critics, Van Buren examines that role of Chancellor James Kent, the prominent Federalist and bitter opponent of the war. Van Buren has nothing but praise for Kent’s manners, personality and conduct. Lumping him with James Madison and Bushrod Washington, Van Buren wrote that Kent “owned a delightful cheerfulness of temperament and an unvarying desire to develop that heaven-born quality in others.” He possessed “a buoyancy of spirits and manners sometimes bordering on levity.” But he also writes at some length about Kent’s foray into party politics, which Van Buren sees as unfortunate. He describes the time he first met Kent, who was eating cake with the great lawyers of his day— William P. Van Ness, Elisha Williams, Thomas P. Grosvenor. When they left, Kent said to Van Buren, “Oh! these politicians! What trouble and vexation do they not cause! for myself I have been content to eat my cake in peace … don’t you think that is the wisest course, young man!” That was the first time they met. Kent ran into Van Buren 40 years later. Now an ex-president, Van Buren had left Washington and was in New York City. Kent stopped him on the street and said, “I have to ask your pardon, Sir, for the part I have taken in assisting to turn you out, and putting a man in your palce, who is wholly unfit for it.” He added that Van Buren “made a very good President.”
So we see more of the same in chapter four. Van Buren is defensive; he wants readers to know that his motives were always pure and that the same cannot be said for his critics. He also derides party politics, despite that this was the period when he was forming the structure for a two-party system of American politics. Clearly, looking back in retirement, Van Buren was not happy with the beast he unleashed, the beast known as party politics.