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Van Buren and Washington Irving

Martin Van Buren enjoyed the company of intellectuals and artists. This was unusual for politicians of his time, but Van Buren, always insecure about his lack of formal schooling and intellectual abilities, was fascinated with people in the fine arts. Among his acquaintances were the novelist James K. Paulding, reformer and freethinker Frances Wright, the poet and newspaper editor William Cullen Bryant, and the early utopian Robert Dale Owen. (When Van Buren became president, he appointed Nathaniel Hawthorne, Orestes Brownson and George Bancroft to government posts.) But his closest friendship among men of letters was with Washington Irving, one of America’s most beloved authors (still) and one of the first to earn international acclaim. Van Buren and Irving had much in common: both were the same age, natives of the Hudson Valley and interested in politics. Irving had also spent much time in Kinderhook and had a long interest in the Dutch in New York. Irving found Van Buren’s hometown to be a place time had passed over, inspiring his most well-known works and characters, from Rip Van Winkle to Ichabod Crane. The two sparked up a friendship in the 1830s that was long-lasting and affectionate.

Van Buren was on friendly terms with many New York intellectuals of the 1820s, but he did not know Irving, who spent most of this period in Europe researching and writing. In 1829, President Jackson appointed him secretary to the American emissary in London. Irving was not wild about the idea of abandoning his writing for diplomatic work, but he felt it was his duty to accept the post. He was there for nearly three years, working as aide-de-camp on a treaty over the West Indies and fulfilling other duties. In 1832, Van Buren was selected by Jackson to be Minister to England. There he met Irving, and the two immediately became great friends. Van Buren thought his confirmation from the Senate would be a mere formality, but he underestimated his enemies back home. Forces mobilized against him, and when the Senate vote ended up a tie, Jackson’s vice president, John C. Calhoun—with whom he had a bitter falling out over nullification—voted against his own president! The move was the last straw in a long and contentious feud between these onetime allies, and Calhoun soon stepped down from office, the first vice president to do so. Van Buren was bitterly disappointed by the setback, but he was consoled by Irving, who correctly predicted that Calhoun’s mischief would be a political boon to the Little Magician. “I should not be surprised,” Irving wrote, “if this vote of the Senate goes far toward elevating him to the presidential chair.”

The two returned to New York and maintained a long and close friendship, writing letters and going on trips together. Among their favorites pastimes was to visit Dutch communities in New York and New Jersey. Irving had high praise for his fellow New Yorker. “The more I see of Mr. V.B.,” he wrote, “the more I feel confirmed in a strong personal regard for him. He is one of the gentlest and most amiable men I have ever met with.”