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Mission to France

William C. Rives

After Van Buren’s success with Britain’s trade disputes, he turned his attention to France. There he faced a taller order. American citizens had financial claims against the French government dating back to the Napoleonic era, and Van Buren was eager to put the issue to rest. Previous administrations had tried to resolve the issue but got nowhere, so the possibility of bringing to an end another long-simmering feud with another one of Europe’s great powers greatly appealed to the ambitious politician. Once again he had to simmer down his boss. If Jackson didn’t like the Brits, he disliked the French even more: “The claims of our citizens,” he said in his first annual message to Congress, could result in “possible collisions between the two Governments.” Van Buren’s hand-picked ambassador to France, William C. Rives, boarded the same Europe-bound boat as British ambassador Louis McLane late in 1829. He met with French officials and after months of negotiations they offered him a deal: the government would pay the claims in return for a reduction in duties on French wines, which must have appealed to the oenophile Van Buren. Rives suggested Van Buren advise the president to tone down the bellicose rhetoric and to say a few kind words about the French in his 1830 annual message. Jackson obliged, lauding the new French monarch, Louis Philippe, and his “enlarged views and pure integrity.” A settlement was signed on July 4, 1831.

The issue dragged on for another five years, but Van Buren paved the way for the resolution. It was another feather in his cap. Van Buren was quickly becoming a star in Jackson’s quarreling cabinet.

Gold Spoons

William C. Preston, a Whig Senator from South Carolina, was one of Van Buren’s bitterest critics, despite the fact that he was a cousin of Van Buren’s daughter-in-law. Preston led the charge in the 1840 election that the president had purchased gold spoons from the French. This was all part of the Whigs’ campaign to depict Van Buren as an out-of-touch aristocrat with regal tastes. The charge had no foundation. Van Buren points out in his autobiography that the French donated furniture and cutlery to the White House during the Monroe administration and that they were all still there when he became president. “I was charged with having purchased them,” Van Buren wrote. “Several prominent Whig politicians who were perfectly conversant with the facts, so far forgot themselves as to introduce the subject in their electioneering speeches … and Mr. Preston was, unhappily, one of the number.”

“The Prestons are a peculiar race,” he concluded.

Everything Old Is New Again

Horace Greeley, the editor and founder of the influential New York Tribune, began his career as a prominent Whig activist. In 1840, he edited the Log Cabin, which had 90,000 subscribers nationwide. And what did he think of the Democrats? “Wherever you find a bitter, blasphemous Atheist and enemy of Marriage, Morality, and Social Order, there you may be certain of one vote for Van Buren.”

Some editorials still say the same thing about Democrats.

Very Able!

In 1827, Van Buren delivered an address in the Capitol on the great tariff question. He spoke for two hours. In attendance was his friend Benjamin Knower and a number of New York business leaderes. “Mr. Knower, Mr. Knower,” an Albany wool merchant said at the conclusion of the address. “That was a very able speech.”

“Very able,” Knower replied.

“Mr. Knower,” the wool merchant said, after a considerable pause, “on which side of the tariff question was it?”

The story was often told about Martin Van Buren—usually by Van Buren himself. Referring to the speech, Van Buren confessed many years later, “Directness … had not been its most prominent feature.”

The Era of Good Feelings, by George Dangerfield

My copy of the book

I first read The Era of Good Feelings in the mid-1980s, when I was an undergraduate. At first I didn’t know what to make of the book. It had a tone and style completely different from any work of history I had ever read. The author was brash, opinionated, and (especially) irreverent. Even the finest historians are sometimes guilty of glorifying politicians, but not George Dangerfield (1904-1986), a native of England (perhaps that’s why) who later became an American citizen and is perhaps best known for The Strange Death of Liberal England (1937). The book, published in 1952, covers the period between the War of 1812 and the ascendancy of Andrew Jackson, and it’s a story told with remarkable skill and wit and the sort of beautiful writing you just don’t encounter anymore. Here’s how he sums up the major political figures of the book:

Henry Clay: “He was a man born to please, high-tempered and mettlesome, but soothing his way through life with an indolent charm… When ladies were not present, his conversations were apt to be more salty.”

John Quincy Adams: “He spent his life in the public service, for which he was peculiarly fitted except in one respect—he was almost totally deficient in the art of getting on with other people.”

James Monroe: “Like every other public man who had reached a certain eminence, he was not insensible to the allurements of power and fame. … He may well have been one of the few Presidents, or public men, or rulers of any kind, of whom it may be said that he had an easy conscience.”

John C. Calhoun: “He was and continued to be the most original political theorist of his time, with a supple and steely dialectic at his command: yet the fruit of all his political theorizing was a scheme which, if worked out to its logical conclusion, would have reduced the nation to immobility within a year.”

Andrew Jackson: “Feral in his enmities, conservative in his politics, absorbed in the pursuit of wealth, Andrew Jackson might have crouched forever among the lights and shadows of middle Tennessee, perfectly camouflaged against the aim of history. … He was shrewd and calculating, as his environment required him to be; one could not survive otherwise on the frontier, or just behind it.”

And, of course,  Martin Van Buren:

He was a deadly opponent who assassinated quietly and with a smile. Often it was not until his designs had succeeded that his victims realized who had been responsible for their downfall. He ‘rowed to his objective with muffled oars,’ said John Randolph, in one of his happiest phrases. When all was over, Van Buren would greet his enemy with the utmost kindness; or, if he himself chanced to be defeated, without any signs of chagrin. He was one of those detached personages who can separate the social from the political in everyday life. Short, plump, flaxen-haired, beautifully dressed, he was a poised, a charming, a witty companion; and no man realized that he was preyed upon by the snowing conviction that he had been insufficiently prepared for public life. A man of humble birth, he was largely self-educated and had never gone to college. The feeling of inadequacy may account for a certain lack of originality in his political thinking: even at the end of his career, when his practices as a statesman had carried him far beyond the Jeffersonian pale, he contented himself, as a thinker, with a dry repetition of the Jeffersonian dogmas. It may account for his singular unwillingness ever to commit himself.”

The only drawback of The Era of Good Feelings is that it’s dated. Some of Dangerfield’s conclusions have been long rejected, but so what? Writing this good is a such a rarity, you can overlook its flaws. The Era of Good Feelings won the Pulitzer and Bancroft Prizes, and it’s one of my most very favorite works of nonfiction.

American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House, by Jon Meacham

This 2007 book is a balanced and competent account of Jackson’s eight years in the White House (calling it a biography is a bit of a stretch), but it’s nothing extraordinary and quite undeserving of a Pulitzer Prize, if that award has any meaning. Meacham, then the Newsweek editor and now the head of Random House as well as a frequent television commentator, makes good use of primary materials to provide a vivid portrait of life in Jackson’s White House, but it’s all been done before—and better—by Marquis James, Arthur Schlesinger, and Sean Wilentz. Meacham’s book stands apart from the older, more scholarly treatments of Jackson with its concision, light touch and sympathetic treatment of the Indians, reflecting today’s sensibilities, but like most of Old Hickory’s biographers, Meacham clearly admires his subject, warts and all.

Meacham focuses on the showdowns that took place during Jackson’s presidency—the Eaton affair, Indian Removal, the Bank War, the nullification crisis—to illustrate his point that Jackson was a man who struggled “between grace and rage, generosity and violence, justice and cruelty.” The other theme that runs throughout American Lion is that Jackson, as opposed to the Founders, “is in many ways the most like us. … To understand him and his time helps us to understand America’s perennially competing impulses.” He has said in interviews that Jackson “represents the best and the worst in us” and that the issues that dominated Jackson’s time “feel contemporary.” I find this a bit much. Yes, reading history can shine a light on the present, but Meachem appears to be making exaggerated claims of Jackson’s modern relevance in order to make his subject more interesting to readers.

Meacham’s assigns Van Buren a diminished role in Jackson’s White House, failing to give the Little Magician proper credit in getting Jackson elected president and in defeating his most formidable nemesis, John C. Calhoun. (He gives Van Buren’s participation in the election of 1828 one sentence.) Still, some of the personal touches about Van Buren are charming, particularly one image Meacham paints of the Little Magician running around the White House playing with children.

If you want a book about Jackson’s years in the White House that centers on the more personal details, a far superior book is Marquis James’ Andrew Jackson: Portrait of a President, published in 1937 and also the recipient of a Pulitzer Prize.

Throes of Democracy: The American Civil War Era, 1829-1877, by Walter McDougall

This is a magnificent book by Pulitzer Prize-winner McDougall, the follow-up to his Freedom Just Around the Corner: A New American History, 1585-1828 (alas, McDougall has said he will not write another volume). The Penn prof writes with humor and panache unusual for the academic world in this thick, dense account of America from Jackson to Reconstruction, published in 2008 by HarperCollins. Supposedly McDougall’s volumes were commissioned to counter the political (but very popular) books of Howard Zinn and Paul Johnson. In this he certainly succeeds, but the absence of any political agenda doesn’t mean we don’t get a strong narrative and bold opinions. He’s occasionally given to smart-alecky prose that some might find annoying, but history buffs who like their tomes weighty and broad will find much to like here.

About Van Buren, McDougall writes:

The magical powers attributed to Martin Van Buren deserted him the moment he entered the White House. … There was little the federal government could do about the deepening depression even if Van Buren had jettisoned his laissez-faire principles. Instead, he wasted his term pushing for a bill to deposit federal assets in an independent treasury rather than rickety private banks. Van Buren also paid the political price for the Trail of Tears and the Seminole War. His refusal to press for the annexation of Texas, though prudent, angered expansionists throughout the South. His neutrality with regard to a Canadian revolt against Britain in 1837, though prudent, angered idealists throughout the North. His dispatch of General Scott to prevent loggers in Maine and New Brunswick from going to war over a boundary dispute, though prudent, angered spread-eagle nationalists everywhere …”

He also looks at the broad historical interpretations of the Jackson years and sums things up thus:

All these interpretations have more or less merit, but their authors would probably agree there is a ‘blind man and the elephant’ quality about Jacksonian scholarship. How can there not be, given the national parties could win elections, and thus survive, only by cobbling together disparate and sometimes contradictory blocs of voters? This means it is futile to apply such phrases as ‘the age of Jackson,’ ‘the Jacksonian persuasion,’ or ‘the concept of Jacksonian democracy.’ If some single phenomenon did unite most of the people who waved hickory sticks, it was not ideology, group cohesion, or a legislative agenda, but rather moods of the sort that shaped the contemporaneous Romantic era in culture.”

Walter McDougall is one of my favorite historians. He should be one of yours too.

Liberty and Power: The Politics of Jacksonian America, by Harry L. Watson

So many books about Jacksonian America are intimidating in their size and breadth, but this superb study by Harry L. Watson, published in 1990, is concise, taut, and highly readable. Free of clunky academic jargon and not in the least bit esoteric, Liberty and Power (Hill and Wang) is the first book I would recommend to any newcomer to this period. Watson vividly captures the wild, frenzied times of the years between the War of 1812 and the Mexican War and the upheavals in culture, economics and politics, delivering fresh and balanced insights that adroitly synthesize recent scholarship with classic accounts of the era. The focus of his book is politics, as the title suggests, and how it was profoundly shaped by the rapid changes in communication, immigration and religious revivalism.

Watson naturally has much to say about Van Buren, and most of it is uncontroversial, but, referring to the rebirth of party politics that Van Buren spearheaded in the early 1820s, he does proffer this intriguing tidbit:

Without entirely realizing it, Van Buren’s Bucktails had stumbled on a device that could bring coherence to social, economic, and political conflict in all the states and equilibrium to the national government. When rival political parties linked local and national issues, the sectional controversy that frightened Jefferson and many others could be evaded for a while. … The revised party system would likewise leave ample room for personal rivalries and individual ambition, without allowing these potentially disruptive energies to gain destructive momentum.”

I don’t know about this. It could have brought coherence, but it didn’t, so I think this is a peculiar point to make. Moreover, Van Buren’s Bucktails were stringent Jeffersonians devoted to state sovereignty, so I’m puzzled why Watson thinks they devised a formula for quelling sectional rivalries. On this issue I side with Daniel Walker Howe, who believes that the Whigs and their “American System” of integrated economic development had greater potential to heal the nation’s fractured body politic.

The chapter on his presidency is very strong. On Van Buren’s insistence on pushing for the ill-fated Independent Treasury, Watson writes, “Another president might have accepted defeat and changed course, but Van Buren persisted. Unwilling to embrace a bold Loco-Foco program to press beyond banking and currency reform to a full-scale attack on ‘monopoly,’ he also feared the political consequences of abandoning the hallowed anti-bank formulas of Andrew Jackson.” It’s forgotten how stubborn Van Buren could be, so this is a welcome point. “Undisturbed by the opposition to the Independent Treasury, Van Buren left the hard work of enacting his proposal to his followers in Congress and seemed to concentrate instead on the pleasures of being President.” One of the lessens of Van Buren’s presidency, Watson writes, is that “no President could survive on party strength alone.”

I also learned a new Van Buren nickname: the “Slippery Elm.” And I thought I knew them all.

Presidents Day

Today is the day we pay tribute to the men who have led this country. Martin Van Buren was not a great president, as this blog has made clear, but his presidency was not unimportant. There are some accomplishments to speak of. To wit, he:

  • Issued an executive order establishing a 10-hour workday for government employees without reduction of pay, an important reform.
  • Signed an act establishing the Territory of Iowa.
  • Twice avoided war with Great Britain over Canada. Some historians have given the bulk of the credit to Winfield Scott, who deftly negotiated with the warring parties, but it was Van Buren who selected the Whig partisan to quell the unrest.
  • Courageously refused to give in to the bellicose elements in his party by acquiescing in the annexation of Texas. This move played a big role in costing him his presidency and aborted future presidential runs.
  • Set up a system of bonds for financing the national debt.

Of course, there were many failures. Van Buren was, and always will be, remembered for failing to make genuine progress in alleviating the nation’s economic palsy after the Panic of 1837, but it must be noted that the nation never experienced a recession of this magnitude, and it was widely believed that presidents should do nothing and let the economy runs its true course. Presidents didn’t have the power they do now to take action. There’s also Indian Removal, slavery and the Amistad case, all shameful episodes for which Van Buren deserves criticism. But today I will focus on the Little Magician’s accomplishments and how the son of a struggling tavern owner, whose first language was Dutch, rose to become one of the most influential Americans of the early 19th century.


Lord Aberdeen

The details are unclear, but somewhere along the way McLane and Lord Aberdeen worked out a trade agreement. Van Buren was worried that his impetuous president would scuttle the negotiations, but suddenly a letter came from McLane requesting that Van Buren and Cambreleng—who received a letter as well—present legislation that would allow British ships to use American ports as soon as they did the same in the West Indies. Jackson went to Congress on May 26 requesting such a bill, and it passed on May 29—a remarkable turnaround in those days. As historian Donald S. Cole wrote, “The speed with which Congress complied suggested that Cambreleng and Van Buren had already prepared the way.”

Jackson issued a proclamation on the 5th of October reopening trade between the two nations. He was so delighted about the news that he cut short his vacation in Tennessee and rushed to Washington, hoping the proclamation would give his party a boost in the upcoming elections. It proved to be too late for that, but Maine had moved to Jackson’s corner, appreciative that the new law allowed its local merchants to compete with its Canadian neighbors for trade in the British West Indies.

Van Buren deserves great credit for putting an end to nearly a half century of trade wars between the United States and Great Britain. He dispatched McLane with specific instructions, held off the irascible Jackson, and used Cambreleng to great effect, first by keeping him at bay when he presence stirred up controversy, then by having him use his power to shepherd the bill quickly through Congress. He used his aides brilliantly, proving that his Regency brand of politics worked as well on the international scene as it did in Albany.