Sunday, July 18, 2010

Done With Martin Van Buren

now finished: Martin Van Buren (The American Presidents Series) by Ted Widmer

Yikes, do I need to catch up! I suppose it's time for some brief summaries, back dated to approximately when I finished the books. As careful readers will recall, I abandoned a Martin Van Buren tome almost 300 pages in -- it was that bad, and that long (600-some odd pages). I did learn a lot from it, laboriously, and so when I subsequently read the Widmer bio of Mr. Van B, from the American Presidents series, I had a good, solid, in-depth background, so I can't be accused of reading only a brief surface account.

The book was good! Well-written (what a relief!) in a very engaging style, the opposite of academic prose. Funny, informative, and really pointed out the struggles and possible motivations of Martin without slamming him or taking his side with blind devotion. In fact, I truly recommend it, and not just for people interested in history or presidential dorks like me. I recommend it for the writing and the insight into a major transition this country made, from being a post-Revolution new kid on the block to a modern, working country of the 19th century that would have to deal with crises. Big ones.

Martin Van Buren is unjustly overlooked. I don't even mean that to defend him, necessarily, but just to say that he played a far larger role than he is given credit (or blame) for. He basically invented the Democratic party - at least as much as Jackson if not more so - and the system of party loyalty. It's interesting because on the one hand, many of us roll our eyes at the whole two-party system and party loyalty that leads to things like entirely predictable votes in Congress, nasty campaign ads, and a whole lot of ignorance about actual issues (let alone no chance for independents and 3rd parties). But reading these books about Martin helped me see how they saw the party loyalty as a positive thing to counteract the blind regional loyalty of North vs. South, especially at a time when the volatile issue was slavery and nothing else was going to get done if you just had that split all the time.

Also, Martin lived for some time after his presidency. He had always had the ability to gather support on these mysterious journeys he would take, traveling through the farthest reaches of New York state, or into the South, to talk with important figures and win them to his side. He continued his little journeys post-Presidency, including being the first prez to visit Chicago. On his way there, he stopped at some random town in Illinois for the night, and the town officials wanted to bring out their biggest guns to impress/entertain the ex-President. They brought a rising young political star to the tavern, one Abraham Lincoln, and he and Van Buren totally hit it off and talked politics 'til the wee hours of the morning. Van B recalled it as one of the most pleasant nights he'd spent in his life. Who knew?

More fun facts: he is sometimes portrayed as a pro-slavery villain, but he was really more of a pro-not-losing-the-tenuous-alliance-with-the-South villain, as explained above. He did come out against slavery later in his life. Furthermore, he was not an upper class man, and his family of Dutch speakers, who had intermarried only within the Dutch immigrant community for several generations, made up the name "Van Buren" when they arrived here, because it sounded important and no one in the "new" world would know they weren't some noble household. Ha!

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