Presidential Review: Martin Van Buren

13 Apr

One of the hardest positions in American politics is that of a Vice-President just upgraded to presidency, particularly after the term of a very popular president, even though that popularity is the very reason the Vice President ascended in the first place.  Van Buren is the first of many vice-presidents who found himself in this predicament (No I don’t count John Adams–he was more than capable of being unpopular on his own merits–also nobody was expecting him to be another Washington.)

The Vice-President trap goes like this–if Van Buren, for instance, changed anything that Jackson did, he’ll be criticized for ruining a good thing, but if he just continues Jackson’s policies he’ll be criticized for not having his own ideas.  See what I mean?  Nothing of his own.    Also, I think that Vice-Presidents who rise up are more prone to get blamed for the weaknesses of a popular president’s policies–and Martin Van Buren certainly got his share of that–it just was so much easier to lay fault on Van Buren than Jackson, particularly for Jackson supporters.

Though Van Buren might (and I emphasize might) be the source of O.K. as an American saying.  Van Buren’s nickname was Old Kinderhook, and this shortening was used heavily  in that election cycle.

Van Buren kept the entire Jackson cabinet intact, continued already existing policies, and in general avoided doing anything that wasn’t sufficiently Jackson-y.  For instance, he continued the trail of tears.  Also he continued Jackson’s economic policies miring the country in a depression.   These are both pretty bad things, however, I can blunt criticism of him a bit–it’s much more difficult to stop a policy politically once it had started than otherwise.

One thing I can give positive points to is Van Buren’s insistence to stay out of the Texas-Mexican conflict going on at the time.   This did not make Van Buren more popular, but really a country can’t just stomp around the world demanding more land just because they want it.   Yes, Mexico wasn’t exactly treating the homesteaders in Texas with respect, and they might have had a million reasons to want to leave, but at the same time, it really wasn’t the United States government’s business other than the fact that it was next door to us.  Van Buren even denied Texas’s request to join the union, probably ensuring his status as one-term president.

On the Amistad case, Van Buren’s cautiousness is a little less laudable.   To give a mini-history, Amistad was a ship that was docking in Cuba.  On that ship were illegal slaves meant for international trade.  The slaves mutinied and took over the ship, keeping only a couple of the crew to steer.  The ship was apprehended off the coast of the United States.

So we’ve got these illegal slaves–and a bunch of laws that are contradictory.  If this was considered to be a regular mutiny, the mutineers were to be sent to the ship’s country for that country to deal with as they see fit (in this case, Spain.)  However the people were being transported as goods, and according to international law, goods belong to whoever finds the ship.    You can probably imagine that this case had powder-keg potential.

Van Buren wanted to send the ship back to Spain, not because I think he had any sort of view as to the nature of human freedom, but because he wanted to be done with the issue.  Happily, the case went for the Africans who got to go back home.  Honestly, knowing the state of affairs, I am shocked the Supreme Court came to this conclusion.     (Oh and by the way, guess who was the defender for the African side of all these lawsuits?  John Quincy Adams, that’s who!   Really, in a bunch of ways, John Quincy Adams was often the one voice of reason that kept the Jacksonians at bay.)

Honestly at looking at Van Buren’s time in office, I wonder if he really wanted to be president at all.   He certainly didn’t go out of his way to put his own stamp on the position, and there’s no evidence that Van Buren had any kind of grand philosophical vision.  (Here’s an example–his views on slavery, at the time of his presidency, was that it was evil, but it was legal so there was nothing he could do about it.)  And that’s another reason why ex vice-presidents don’t always perform well as president–they are almost always chosen to reflect on the president, not to have views and visions of their own.

Interestingly, one of Van Buren’s nicknames is the “Little Magician.”  What I really think is that he was someone who did very well at the wheeling and dealing part of politics, but was stuck in an economic depression without having the proper public connection needed to get America through a financial crisis.

So in the end, while I can see why he only lasted one term, my final grade is a shrug.  God only knows why this man got so much anger heaped on him while Jackson is held as a near American saint because they both had exactly the same policies.   Actually I like Van Buren a smidge bit more because there’s some times he showed a little bit of restraint while Andrew Jackson never did.    I think Van Buren got spanked because around the time he was president was when Jacksonian policies started having negative consequences.  But that’s just my take.

Next up William Henry Harrison!   Who, unlike Van Buren, created some real lasting changes in American policy.  I mean got elected and promptly keeled over.

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