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The Self-Made Man: Martin Van Buren
There’s been a lot of talk lately, as there is with every presidential election, about how rich the primary candidates are, and how detached they must be from the plight of the average American. This is a callous and unfair assumption that is nonetheless completely true. I mean, most of our presidents have come from money, especially back when people without money pretty much weren’t allowed to vote.
But even so, a few of our presidents were self-made, in that they weren’t born into well-connected political families with copious land holdings and piles of money just lying around to be thrown at whatever. Some of them – Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln – are celebrated for their modest beginnings, but one president who never gets brought up as a self-made man is Martin Van Buren.
In fact, he barely gets mentioned for anything that isn’t a joke about his facial hair. Which is understandable – his sideburns look like an approaching thunderstorm – but there’s more to him than that.
Van Buren was born to poor Dutch tenant farmers (his father was also a tavern-keeper) in Kinderhook, New York. His first language was Dutch, which makes him an anomaly among US presidents to this day, and only had a very basic education from what’s described as “a poorly lit schoolhouse in his native village” before studying law at 14 at the office of attorney Francis Sylvester, who was prominent enough to get young Martin an apprenticeship with William Van Ness, who was a big wheel in New York politics at the time. Van Buren found himself involved in them as well, and even though he returned to his hometown to open a law practice after passing the bar, he couldn’t stay away.
Since Van Buren had only tenuous connections to the rich and important, and because his Dutch upbringing made him an outsider among the developing Anglo power structure, he developed a reputation for being ambitious and crafty, and for seizing opportunities wherever they arose. As a lawyer, a Senator, and later as governor of New York, he commanded the state’s machine politics so well that he was nicknamed “the Little Magician,” and he was able to maintain an effective, if fragile, coalition of southern planters, New York financiers, New England industrialists, and other natural enemies when he was helping Andrew Jackson ascend to the presidency. Jackson was so enamored with Van Buren’s ability to bend bureaucracy to his will that he chose him as his vice-president and championed him as a successor and probably shot at him once or twice because, hey, it’s Andrew Jackson.
Van Buren was also a snappy dresser, a leftover from his childhood where he often had to wear shabby secondhand clothes. Perhaps he was an early advocate of the Iceberg Slim theory that you held power over people around you if you always looked better than them. Sounds dumb, but on the other hand, Henry Clay and Daniel Webster wanted to be president and they both had the name and the money to get themselves there, but they didn’t. Van Buren did.
Of course, things kinda fell apart for him once he got there (the Panic of 1837 eroded a lot of the goodwill he’d generated up to that point), but few other American political figures climbed the ladder as skillfully as Martin Van Buren, and he’s worth remembering for that. I mean, pragmatism and deal-making in lieu of actual leadership are hallmarks of the modern presidency, so he’s useful just as someone to blame for how our political system turned out.