This blog is called American Talleyrand because that was one of Martin Van Buren’s nicknames. He had many of them. Most were not terribly flattering. You can count American Talleyrand as one of the unflattering ones. Does this mean I think poorly of the eighth president? Not at all. Truth be told, I gave the blog this name but it was the only URL still available. I wish I had thought of this sooner.
Why a blog about Martin Van Buren? Well, for one thing, he was a president of the United States. His face may not adorn monuments or currency (the temporary dollar coin notwithstanding), but he did serve one term as chief executive from 1837 to 1841, and anyone, really, who has led this nation has some importance. But Van Buren was much more than one of the dull and mediocre (at best) antebellum presidents. He was, in fact, one of the most important political figures of the first half of the 19th century—a pivotal period in American history. For nearly 30 years, Martin Van Buren was a major force in America’s political life; there are not many figures in our history who can match him in terms of influence and longevity: lawyer, state senator, state attorney general, U.S. senator, governor of New York, U.S. secretary of state, vice president, president. In his post-presidential years he helped form another political party and played a key role in the slavery debate. That’s a far cry from Millard Fillmore. What’s more, I like Martin Van Buren. He rose from humble beginnings to become president. He was also the first real politician to be president. He loved politics and everything about it. Presidents before him scorned politics and considered themselves statesmen. Not Van Buren.
This blog will be no hagiography. Van Buren was not a great man, but he was an important one. He is also an endlessly fascinating personality, a true political giant of his era, and he has accomplishments to speak of. He pulled off some impressive diplomatic coups as secretary of state and president; he was the right-hand man of Andrew Jackson; he was a wily political operative and, for better or worse (mostly better, I would argue), a founder of the two-party system we have today; and he made a gallant effort to reverse his earlier craven acquiescence in slavery by running for president with the Free Soil party.
There has been a bizarre movement in recent years from the right-wing libertarian fringe to declare him a great president, but these people are wildly off the mark. I have great affection for the Little Magician, but he doesn’t merit a place on Mount Rushmore. At the same time, Van Buren does not deserve to be consigned to historical oblivion either or, worse, the butt of jokes for his unusual name and his unruly hair and muttonchops. Martin Van Buren’s greatest years were not as president, but he was probably a better president than he is generally given credit for.
Finally, you will notice that these blog posts have a scattered, discursive quality. They will veer from important topics like slavery and the Panic of 1837 to bits of triviality. This, of course, is quite deliberate. I have no desire to tell Van Buren’s life story sequentially. That’s what biographies are for, and there are some fine ones out there. In the end, I hope a true picture of Martin Van Buren emerges.