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The Internet and James I. Van Alen

This just in: the Internet is not always reliable. Case in point, the Wikipedia entry on James I. Van Alen, half brother of Martin Van Buren. In fact, much of this page is egregiously wrong. First, it claims that Van Alen was born in 1776, which is hardly likely since his father died in 1773, at the very latest. It also says that Van Alen died in 1870, which is off by a mere 47 years. His place of death is listed as Newburgh, when in fact it was Kinderhook. It seems as if the writer/editor of this page used as a source the website Find a Grave. I went to this site and found much of the same misinformation. This one had the added error of claiming that this childless, lifelong bachelor was married and had a daughter named Sophie Van Alen Grinnell. The website contains photographs of Van Alen’s tombstone. There’s just one problem—it’s not his. If you look closely, it’s the gravesite of John J. Van Alen. A relative, no doubt, but a different person. The same untruths can be found in the Biographical Dictionary of the United States Congress.

I’ve been reading a lot lately about Van Alen, as I believe he was an important influence in Van Buren’s early years. The amount of misinformation about him is astounding. Part of the confusion stems from the varieties of ways his name is spelled. His surname can be found as “Van Alen” and “Van Allen.” His middle initial can be either “I” or “J” or “Q.” His first name can be found as “James” but nearly as often as “John.” He was born Jacobus Van Alen on December 31, 1772, the third child of Johannes Van Alen and Maria Hoes Van Alen, who would later give birth to Martin Van Buren. By the time Jacobus was born, he father might have already been dead; his will refers to his pregnant wife. He rarely merits more than a passing mention in the history books, but I believe there’s good reason to suppose that James Van Alen had a formative influence on Martin, who was ten years his junior. I will have more posts about him soon.

I will be correcting the Wikipedia entry on Van Alen shortly, unless one of you beats me to it.

Q&A with Cumberland University Professor Mark Cheathem

EJ0G_MarkCheathemInterest in Andrew Jackson never seems to wane. Like Lincoln, Washington and Jefferson, he’s one of those seminal presidents whose life and times inspire admirers and detractors, whether they’re scholars or history buffs. One of the finest historians of the Jacksonian period today is Mark Cheathem, who recently published Andrew Jackson, Southerner, from the Louisiana State University Press as part of its Southern Biography series, edited by Andrew Burstein (author of a controversial Jackson biography himself). This is Cheathem’s third book about Jackson, following Old Hickory’s Nephew (about Andrew Donelson) and Jacksonian and Antebellum Age. His latest is a superb and necessary book, shedding new light on this fascinating and enigmatic figure while eschewing the excessive partisanship that mars even the finest books about Jackson. I’ve been fortunate to strike up a digital friendship with Professor Cheathem (he’s always retweeting me; thanks, Mark!), and we’ve been planning this interview for a while. It’s impossible to write about Jackson without studying Martin Van Buren, as Professor Cheathem demonstrates below in our recent interview.

AT: We’ll get to Van Buren in a moment, but first, tell us what your new book is about.

MC: Andrew Jackson, Southerner reorients the way that we think about Old Hickory. Considering him as a southern gentleman, planter, and slave owner creates a more robust understanding of Jackson’s private life that goes beyond the usual discussions of his controversial marriage to Rachel and his propensity toward violence (although the book discusses both of those things). Thinking of Jackson as a southerner also provides a different perspective on his military and political careers. For example, his pursuit of Manifest Destiny, which required removing Native Americans, was partially born out of a desire to speculate in land and establish more plantations, not just to protect the nation’s borders.

AT: Given your thesis that Old Hickory was more of a southerner than a westerner, the Jackson-Van Buren alliance makes more sense.

MC: Absolutely. Van Buren’s desire to form a national party in the mid-1820s required members of the southern planter class. Historians have focused on the Calhoun wing as representative of that group, but Jackson fits the description as well. I find it interesting that when historians discuss the 1836 presidential election, they evaluate Van Buren’s chances as Jackson’s successor in relationship to the Tennessean’s appeal to southerners, not to westerners. Southern Jacksonians wanted assurances that Van Buren was going to protect their interests, as Jackson had the previous year, for example, when he supported the suppression of abolitionist mailings targeting the South. Jackson does not suddenly become a southerner near the end of his second presidential term—he was always a southerner, but circumstances during his presidency bring that identity to the forefront in very dramatic ways.

AT: Why have so many historians missed this essential part of Jackson’s upbringing? Are many of them squeamish about the subject of class?

MC: I don’t think historians are squeamish about class, but I do think that they (and American society generally) have neglected to update their understanding of Jackson. For example, if you trace Jacksonian historiography, there are very specific themes that have governed historical interpretations of Jackson. Was he the embodiment of the frontier spirit? Was he truly a (small-d) democrat? Was he a defender of the working class? Was he a genocidal maniac? All of those questions are certainly worth asking, but they are old questions that historians have discussed ad nauseam. In many ways, they also make it easy to make simplistic assumptions about Jackson. I wanted to come at Jackson from a different perspective that placed him in historical context, as someone who was raised in southern society and who pursued the elite planter status as an adult. My perspective does not dismiss these other ways of looking at Jackson, which are important; rather, it asks different questions about who he was, what motivated him, and how he influenced, and was influenced by, the society surrounding him. I think examining Jackson as a southerner complicates not only the way that we view him but also the way that we define southern identity. For example, how did two elite slaveholding politicians like Jackson and Calhoun arrive at very different ways of evaluating the importance of the Union? Instead of starting with the nullification crisis and their differences, working forward from their common southern identity allows us to understand where their conceptions of that identity diverged.

AT: How would you assess the nature of Van Buren’s relationship with Jackson?

MC: They were an interesting pair, weren’t they? Van Buren seemed to view Jackson within the big picture of American politics; in other words, how could the Tennessean help him construct a national party? I have never believed that Van Buren saw him as a true friend. Jackson, on the other hand, seemed to accept Van Buren as a member of his inner circle, which included his closest friends, men such as John Eaton and William B. Lewis. When Jackson abandoned Van Buren after the New Yorker decided to oppose annexation in 1844, he truly seemed to grieve the loss of their relationship in ways that Van Buren did not.

AT: Andrew Jackson obviously fascinates you. What’s the attraction?

MC: I get asked that question a lot. In many ways, Jackson both reflected and influenced the decades between the founding of the Union and the early stages of its dissolution. I disagree with Daniel Walker Howe—the era deserves to be named for Jackson because his personality and policies set the tone for many of the issues faced by antebellum Americans. Jackson was a complex, fascinating individual whose life still remains understudied, and I have a long list of Jackson-related research topics that I would like to write about if I live long enough.

AT: What is Martin Van Buren’s proper place in history?

MC: I think Van Buren is an overlooked political genius. Virtually no one gives him credit for creating the Democratic party, which was obviously a major contribution to American political history. Unfortunately, he hurt his own case through his passive presidential leadership. Still, I hope there is renewed interest in Van Buren in the near future—he deserves more attention by historians and the public.

My great thanks to Mark Cheathem for this interview. As you can gather from this picture, he is a young man and I think we can look forward to many more fascinating books from him about Andrew Jackson. You can purchase his latest book here.

First Mention

James_G_Montresor_bwWhen did the Van Buren family switch from farming to tavern keeping? We’ll never know. But we know that at the very least there was a tavern in operation in 1759. At this point, Abraham Van Buren—the president’s father—would have been 22. Did he start the business or did his father, Marten Van Buren? Again, impossible to determine with certainty. We happen to know less about Marten Van Buren than many others in the family genealogy, including those who preceded him by a century. We don’t even know when he died or if he left a will. But we know this much: when the highly decorated British military engineer Col. James Montresor was traveling by sleigh from Albany to New York City, the inclement weather forced him to stop in Kinderhook.

Montresor won much acclaim for his military service at Gibraltar in 1731, where he was stationed for the next 16 years. During that period he excelled at engineering, which would land him in New York during the French and Indian War. He was based in Albany and designed numerous military forts, leading to his appointment as Chief Engineer in the Provinces, a position that earned him property as well as military plaudits: the crown granted him 10,000 acres of land near Lake Champlain.

The Journals of Col. James Montresor, published in 1882, gives an account of his grueling journey between New York’s two largest cities in December of 1759. You’d think he was in Siberia by the description of things. His journal makes frequent reference to frost, snow, wind, and “excessive cold.” His brief entry in his journal on the 18th of December: “Set out from Albany at 12 o’clock in Sleighs. Lay at Kinderhook at Van Buren’s.”

That’s all we have. One Van Buren biographer called Montresor’s journals “maddeningly laconic.” Very true.

Playing in a Barn

I almost never find any detailed anecdotes about Van Buren’s youth, so I was surprised to see this nugget from American Biographical Sketch Book, published in 1848. It’s a strange book, a series of short profiles of prominent and obscure Americans “who, by unwearied perseverance, have triumphed over difficulties.” It has John Quincy Adams but not John Adams. Dolley Madison but not James Madison. It has Henry Clay and Daniel Webster but not Andrew Jackson. I don’t understand the criteria used to select who would was profiled and who wasn’t. The entry on Martin Van Buren is two pages. It contains almost nothing illuminating except for this tidbit. Supposedly the author, William Hull, interviewed an unnamed childhood friend of the 8th president, who told the following story.

Martin and I, when quite young lads, were accustomed to play together in a barn near our dwelling. On one occasion he lay on his back upon the barn floor for a considerable time, as if in deep study. What ails you, Martin? said I; whereupon he sat up, and slapping his thigh, said, ‘I’ll tell you what—from this time I’m determined to be something or nothing.'”

Not sure why, this story just doesn’t ring true to me. That might be why I never found it in any Van Buren biography.

Van Buren and the Smoking Turtle

In 1841, 12-year-old John Ward Cooney found himself in a new home, the sprawling estate owned by former president Martin Van Buren, which he recently dubbed “Lindenwald.” Van Buren hired Cooney’s father, Patrick, to run the house.  For the next 10 years, John Cooney often accompanied the president on various activities, usually recreational ones like fishing and long walks. Some 70 years later, Cooney recalled his experiences as “the president’s boy” —an appellation he resented—for the Historical Society of California. The ex-president, he wrote, “was a little man with keen eyes, a gentle smile, a wide full forehead and gray side whiskers, which he had a habit of twisting sidewise to a point when he was very much moved.”

One day Van Buren and Cooney went fishing. The former president had just spent $10—quite a lot of money then—for a new fishing rod. On their way to the lake, Van Buren saw an enormous turtle, and, “with the almost childish curiosity which was one of his characteristics,” poked the reptile with his pole. The critter didn’t appreciate this and grabbed the rod with its mouth and walked away. They tried to pry the rod from his mouth, but the turtle wouldn’t let go.

“Johnny, why, Johnny!” Van Buren said. “What shall we do to make him let go?”

Cooney thought he had no choice but to kill the turtle. Van Buren couldn’t agree to this. They walked for a long way, Van Buren grabbing on end of the rod, the turtle chomping on the other.

“No, Johnny, we can’t kill the poor thing,” he said. “Cut off the rod as close as you can.”

And so he did. At which point the turtle strutted away “with a triumphant air.” Van Buren sat on the nearest rock and began to laugh uproariously.

“Look at him, Johnny,” Van Buren said. “Why, he looks like a drunken sailor smoking a cigar.”

More Autobiography, Chapter Five (Cont.)

Perhaps to show a bit of even-handedness, Van Buren tells us a story about how his side behaved badly in an episode he calls “disgraceful” (he is rarely this blunt). In an election for an assembly seat—a body Van Buren was not part of—Federalist Henry Fellows beat Republican Peter Allen by a small margin. When it was discovered that some of the ballots were for “Hen. Fellows” instead of “Henry Fellows,” Van Buren’s Republicans called the election into question. The clerk in Ontario County, where the election took place, gave the seat to Allen. But this was meant to be temporary. It was understood by all that Fellows won the election and would take his seat eventually, but if Allen was an assemblyman, even for a brief period, that would give the Van Buren faction the upper hand in determining who sat on the council of appointment, from which would result, Van Buren notes, “patronage then supposed to be amount to a million of dollars”—a staggering amount 200 years ago. In a stunning admission, Van Buren writes, “Although not a member of that house I was quite as much to blame in the matter as if I had aided the step directly, as I was pressed forward by my political associates to take a more active part in that body than was proper.” But Van Buren also notes that his side was doing only what any political faction would do under the same circumstances: “The case was in truth one of those abuses of power to which parties are subject, but which I am sure I could never again be induced to countenance.” Of course, the Republicans got their way.

More Autobiography, Chapter Five (cont.)


Peter B. Porter

As his power accumulates, Van Buren is suddenly faced with all kinds of temptations. He’s the attorney general and a state senator (people could hold two positions back then). Opportunities are now available to him. Porter goes to Van Buren and suggests the two go in on a land deal, an island at the head of Niagara Falls. Van Buren agrees to this, because he likes making money (though not as much as Porter, of whom he notes, “the acquisition of wealth was his master passion, to which every other was made subsidiary”). Things then got complicated. Van Buren discovers that the land purchase must be approved by a government office of which he and Porter are members. Van Buren thinks this is not proper. He wants out of the deal. Porter “laughs” at his “fastidiousness” and dutifully returns his down payment of $1,000. Porter “made a very considerable fortune out of the transaction.”

More Autobiography: Chapter Five (Cont.)


Elisha Jenkins

More intrigue! Van Buren is not through with Spencer. Now the two go to battle over the selection of secretary of state. Spencer wants his man Elisha Jenkins to get the position. Van Buren moves to block this. He wants Senator Sanford to intervene on his behalf. But he discovers that one of Van Buren’s men on the council doesn’t like being viewed as Sanford’s lackey, so Van Buren is advised not to go that route. Another one of Van Buren’s allies also decides to side with Spencer on this one issue, since he feels sorry for him for losing so many other big seats. (Such squeamishness really must have bothered Van Buren.) One night, Van Buren is having dinner with friends. He’s too upset to enjoy himself. He looks out the window and wonders how to get out of this situation. He has an idea. He’s going to nominate a war hero, Gen. Peter B. Porter. He sees Ruggles Hubbard roaming about outside, and sends someone to inform him that he must rush to the council at once and nominate Porter. But what if Porter doesn’t want the job? Van Buren finds this unlikely, but thinks at the very least that Porter would hang on to the position until they find a suitable replacement. Very clever move on Van Buren’s part. Porter was a hero for his war efforts, while Jenkins worked behind a desk during the conflict, “without personal exposure to danger.” He had no chance of beating Porter. And so Van Buren triumphs again—”a source of deep mortification to Judge Spencer.”

More Autobiography of Martin Van Buren, or I’ll Read It So You Don’t Have To: Chapter Five


Ambrose Spencer

This chapter is mostly about Van Buren’s battles with Ambrose Spencer. The war is over and New York’s politicians are jockeying to fill a U.S. senate vacancy. This presents Van Buren with the chance to make his mark on the political scene. He takes on Spencer, a supreme court justice and one of the state’s political kingpins. A legend in Columbia County for his legal work, Spencer at this point was nearly 50 years old and had had quite a legal and political career: In addition to his work as an attorney, he was also a state assemblyman, senator, attorney general, associate justice of the supreme court. Spencer wants the U.S. senate seat to go to an old friend, but Van Buren has other ideas. He throws his support behind Nathan Sanford. Upon hearing the news that Van Buren is going against him, Spencer turns “somewhat excited”—this is Van Buren-speak for blows his top—but hopes that there will be no lingering bitterness between the two. Van Buren doesn’t believe him. He thinks that Spencer will seek revenge, so he looks for “means of self defense.” He decides that he must gain control of the “council of appointment.” This was the state’s most powerful governing body, consisting of five members: the governor and four state senators, selected by the assembly. The council wielded enormous power: It could appoint all state, county and municipal officials within the state, from comptroller to attorney general to mayor of New York City. Van Buren then proceeds to secure that three of the four senate members on the council are allies of his, making him “safe from persecution.”

Sanford wins the seat, by the way. Spencer never forgives Van Buren for this.

The shenanigans are not over. Spencer wants blood. Van Buren expects the council to name him attorney general (“The desire of the party that I should be appointed to that office was so general that until that time no other name had been spoken of”), but Spencer seeks to foil his nemesis and wants the post to go to another friend, one Judge Woodworth, who approaches one of Van Buren’s allies, Ruggles Hubbard—there are some great names in this section—and tells him he’ll withdraw his nomination and let Van Buren have the job if the Van Burenites agree to support Spencer’s plan to increase the size of the bench and appoint two judges friendly to Spencer. Van Buren called the proposal “corrupt” and advised his people to vote for Woodworth, for reasons unclear to me—something to do with avoiding a family rupture (Hubbard was related to Woodworth through marriage). Hubbard refuses, saying he could never vote against his beloved mentor, Van Buren. Then, a stroke of good luck: the governor, Daniel Tompkins, informs Hubbard that he will vote for Van Buren in case of a tie, thereby assuring his election regardless of Hubbard’s vote. Van Buren is named attorney general. Of Judge Spencer’s indefatigable quest to hurt him, Van Buren writes: “A more active or more indomitable spirit … never existed.”

It gets better.

Funny Little Tune

An anti-Buren screed, set to the tune of “Auld Lang Syne,” published in the Albany Evening Journal, during the 1840 campaign.

And who’s Van Buren?–where, or when

Did he lead on the brave;

Or rise his voice or wield his pen,

Or ope his purse, to save?

While Top gave fight, he styled the War

“Disastrous” and “malign,”

And richly earn’d a coat of tar,

As Tories did lang syne