My quest to read (at least) one biography per President continues with Martin Van Buren, the eighth President of the United States. The biography I chose with my selection process (reading reviews online and utilizing and this website- My Journey Through the Best Presidential Biographies), I picked Martin Van Buren and the American Political System by Donald Cole.
Here, I’ll offer my thoughts on that biography, and proceed to the DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES!!!!!!
Martin Van Buren and the American Political System by Donald B. Cole
Martin Van Buren – Lived 1782-1862 ; President 1837-1841
Van Buren was a true politician, though not in the way that we may think of that term today. Yes, at times it seems that he simply followed the winds of popularity, but at other times he picked a stance and stood up for it regardless of possible consequences. It is difficult to get a feel for him as a person, however, due to this propensity for changing positions and picking battles. Who was Van Buren, truly? I’m not sure I have a good answer to that question after this biography. However, from reading comments about him other places, I find that to be a somewhat typical response.
A capable lawyer who spoke English as a second language (Dutch being his first), Van Buren leveraged his acumen for people to organize the Democractic-Republican Party in New York. He also helped found the Albany Regency, a powerful political machine that is certainly one of the first organizations that may rightly claim that label. The Regency was a group that exerted much power politically both in New York state and nationwide. Van Buren would spearhead this group and ride its influence to the White House.
Van Buren was very careful to try to give balance to his statements and positions. He allied himself with Jackson and leveraged that connection to expand his influence. He even managed to turn his resignation as Secretary of State during the Petticoat Affair (a scandal in the White House involving members of Jackson’s cabinet in which the wives of several cabinet members worked to ostracize another) into a political win and increase of his power.
One example of how he rode the line between positions is his treatment of slavery. For many years and throughout the Jackson Presidency, he was concerned with alienating Southern power and so he continued to favor policies which slaveowners also favored. However, later in his life he became known as a major proponent of abolition and supporter of Abraham Lincoln. The latter was perhaps not as large a swing as one may think, however. At the time, many Republicans favored abolition, though certainly did not favor equality of all people. Van Buren’s shift on this question may not truly show a change of heart so much as a change on feelings towards forced labor. It was, perhaps, a change of politics, as with many parts of Van Buren’s life.
As President, Van Buren wasn’t as successful as one may have anticipated given his demonstrated capabilities related to political maneuvering otherwise. The beginning of his Presidency was struck with a depression, leading to several blaming him for the economic collapse. He came up with a plan that would eventually turn around the economy of the country by keeping federal funds independent of various state banks, but this plan wouldn’t be implemented until enough hardship had happened for many to become embittered against him. Van Buren was also hesitant to upset the balance that was created from the Missouri Compromise and so fought against annexation of Texas, not only hoping to prevent war with Mexico but also seeing it as something that could spur on further North-South conflict. Though Van Buren preached a Jacksonian policy–and certainly continued the horrors that were visited upon various Native groups in the North America through these policies–he modified it towards his own ends, spurring on the strength of the Democractic Party. As President, however, few of his policies were adopted.
After his Presidency, Van Buren leaned increasingly towards abolition and, as I said, became a large supporter of Abraham Lincoln in his anti-slavery efforts.
Martin Van Buren and the American Political System is a worthy read, if it is a bit dry at times. Cole certainly gives a huge amount of background on the issues that surrounded Van Buren throughout his life. Van Buren is a difficult figure to analyze
THE DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES*
My criteria for ranking the Presidents will be somewhat arbitrary. Random things I’ve thought of so far is whether they improved our infrastructure, how Presidential they acted/looked, whether they got us into any silly wars, and the like. As you can see, these criteria are somewhat… subjective. So you’ll probably end up disagreeing with me. I look forward to your comments!
1. George Washington (1st President- original ranking- #1): Washington basically defined the office of the President for all who followed him. It was left intentionally vague by the framers, so he had to work within those strictures while trying to expand on them. Not easy, but he seems to have done it rather ably, refusing to become a major partisan while still demanding certain powers of the Executive Branch. During his Presidency the national bank was created, the country’s credit recovered, massive trade booms occurred, the Mississippi was opened for exploration, and beneficial partnerships with other countries were being formed. On the other hand, during his Presidency and life generally, slavery was tolerated and even expanded, Native Americans were brutalized, and throughout it all Washington either participated directly or turned his face the other way. It is difficult to underestimate the impact of Washington on the office of the President. On the other hand, we ought not to lionize him or see him as perfection itself.
2. Thomas Jefferson (3rd President- original ranking- #2): Jefferson’s accomplishments as President, Secretary of State, and Revolutionary cannot be understated. He deftly handled relationships with such countries as France and Spain, while also helping to secure borders of the United States for decades to come. One of the biggest splashes of his Presidency was the Louisiana Purchase, which vastly increased the size of the country. However, Jefferson was also a blatant womanizer, a slave owner who pandered to abolitionist leanings while owning slaves, was clearly racist, and encouraged the destruction of Native groups living on the land that was “purchased” from Napoleon. Back on the positive side, he advocated for religious tolerance–even of other faiths–despite his Deistic leanings. His diplomatic skill is beyond dispute. He actively sought compromise and valued even minority opinions–lessons we need to re-learn now. The legacy he left would impact almost every aspect of the country going forward, for good or ill. It is difficult to fully analyze such a complex, contradictory man.
3. James Madison (4th President- original ranking- #3): Called the “Father of the Constitution,” Madison’s impact is perhaps most important for what he did prior to becoming President. The sheer amount of work he did to get the Constitution written, improve upon it, amend it, and put it to vote is astonishing. As President, perhaps the most important event in his career was the War of 1812, itself a possible foreshadowing of the many and sundry conflicts the United States has entered with tenuous justification since. Though often disastrous, the War did lead to, somewhat paradoxically, better relations between the United States and Britain going forward. Perhaps it is best said that Madison was the consummate compromiser, for good or ill. As with many others, his owning of slaves directly conflicted with his affirmation of the idea that all people are created equal.
4. John Quincy Adams (6th President – original ranking #4): It would be easy to argue that John Quincy Adams was a more successful member of Congress and Foreign Minister than he was a President, and I would concede that argument. So yes, I absolutely tilted his score based on his achievements outside of the Presidency, but that’s because they were such monumental and important achievements it is tough to mark him down due to the opposition his Presidency received. What were those achievements? He negotiated the end of the War of 1812, drafted the Monroe Doctrine, helped shape our country through treaties regarding borders along Canada, Florida, Texas, and California, successfully regained the right of petition for the American people, and stood up against slavery in the courts–specifically with the Amistad case. Yeah, I think that’s worth a significant bump on this list.
5. James Monroe (5th President – original ranking- #4): Monroe was a master of foreign policy, and his Presidency and political career reflected that. Certainly left his mark on U.S. policy in ways that we still feel regarding Europe and South America in particular. Probably to be considered a “moderate” regarding relations with Native Americans and for his stance on slavery, though his positions were still bigoted and rather arrogant regarding both groups of people. Little by way of scandal (see Jefferson for an early example of some rather scandalous things going on with Presidents), so that makes him more Presidential than some. Also, he appeared to be a loving husband and father, overall.
6. John Adams (2nd President- original ranking- #2): There’s something to be said for the fact that Adams basically held the line against all the forces threatening to either break the United States back apart or subsume it under an “alliance” that would turn it into a kind of vassal state. Adams did that, and he managed to keep the US out of another war in its infancy. The political treatises Adams wrote went on to define the constitutions of many states and help clarify the relationship between the state and federal government. Adams did, however, fail to hold his own political party together, whether through inaction or simply not being charismatic enough or willing enough to step into the leadership role he needed to take. Moreover, Adams was an absentee (at best) father and husband.
7. Martin Van Buren (8th President- original ranking- #7): How do you analyze a man who was perhaps first and foremost a politician? Though that word has become something of a pejorative depending on its usage now, Van Buren didn’t play the system so much as he created one. He created what would develop into the modern day political party, taking what Andrew Jackson had started and running with it. He did so on a local and then national level, leveraging it to eventually become President of the United States. His continuation of Jackson’s policies towards Native groups caused enormous harm. His outright support of slavery may be baffling in light of his being remembered by contemporaries as a voracious abolitionist, but this change in policy was later in life and cynics may argue that it was a policy of convenience. He struggled as President to get much passed, largely due to his shouldering the blame for the economic crisis that greeted the beginning of his Presidency. His political skill helped create our modern political system, for better or ill. No matter what you think of him, he does at least give me the chance to use my new favorite phrase of this list: “He’s still a better President than Andrew Jackson.”
8. Andrew Jackson (7th President- original ranking- #7): I’m genuinely flabbergasted by how Jackson manages to get ranked so highly on so many lists of Presidents. On the positive side, he did help prevent an earlier Civil War by, eventually, ending the nullification crisis. He defined the office of President as representative of the people. He also was the first to truly form up a political party around himself and help use it to shape the dynamics of policy. Not an unimpressive list of accomplishments. Yet he was also an extremely staunch defender of slavery, to the point of failing in his office to enforce the law by allowing freedom of speech to be impeded by federal postmasters through the south. He personally oversaw slaughters of Native groups and set up and endorsed policies that would lead to countless thousands of deaths and atrocities against Native Americans. He callously saw only white people as worthy of the words of the Constitution, as demonstrated in both of these actions. Moreover, he used federal power and authority only when it suited him–if he wanted something to happen, he had no qualms about using federal authority; if he did not, he shamelessly looked the other way. He was concerned primarily with himself and ensuring his own success. He is vastly overrated.
*Rankings not definitive
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