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Martin Van Buren and the American Political System
By Donald B. Cole
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1984 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
A REPUBLICAN IN A FEDERALIST WORLD
Like Webster, Clay, and others of his generation, Martin Van Buren had roots deep in American colonial history. In 1631, Cornells Maessen (Cornells, son of Maes) of the village of Buren in Holland, sailed to America, where he leased a plot of land from Kiliaen Van Rensselaer near Fort Orange, now Albany, on the Hudson River. After a trip back to Holland, he returned with a wife and two children to a farm at Papsknee, on the east bank of the Hudson south of Albany. He was soon producing a thousand bushels of wheat, oats, rye, and peas a year, employing two hired men, and was rich enough to buy a valuable plot of land on Manhattan Island. When he and his wife died suddenly in 1648, they left five children and a large amount of property.
Cornells' eldest son called himself Marten Cornelisen Van Buren (Marten, son of Cornells from Buren) and thereby established the Van Buren family name in America. Twice married, a member of the Dutch Church of Albany and a captain in the regiment of Colonel Pieter Schuyler, he was a man of substance; he leased half an island south of Albany and bought outright a plot of land in Kinderhook Village. His son Pieter, grandson Marten, and great-grandson Abraham were freeholding farmers during the eighteenth century. When Martin Van Buren, son of Abraham, was born in 1782, he was one of the sixth generation of Van Burens in America. Though successive generations of Van Burens had progressed from leaseholder to freeholder, they had displayed little of the fabled American mobility. Abraham Van Buren tilled the soil in Kinderhook, only a few miles from where his ancestors had first settled, and he was less prosperous than Cornells Maessen. Abraham did, to be sure, own six slaves, but the value of his real estate was only about average for the town, and he had been forced to turn his farmhouse into a tavern in order to support his family. Martin Van Buren rose from a "small freeholder" family, like many others in Kinderhook and the rest of the United States, a family not unlike those of Clay, Benton and Webster.
The isolated farming community in which he grew up was similar to those of his famous contemporaries. Like Webster's Salisbury in New Hampshire, Clay's Hanover County in Virginia, and Benton's Hillsboro in North Carolina, Kinderhook was a placid backwater that had changed little with the passage of time. Washington Irving drew the scenes and characters for "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" from the life he observed on a visit to Kinderhook. According to the story, a "drowsy, dreamy influence" hung over the town, making it "one of the quietest places in the whole world," a town in which "population, manners, and customs remain[ed] fixed." Located on the east bank of the Hudson River in Columbia County twenty miles south of Albany, Kinderhook in the 1790s was isolated. Roads were rudimentary, and steamboat travel to New York City was two decades away. Most residents of Kinderhook lived as their ancestors had on farms surrounded by pines and decorated by lilacs, cherry and plum trees. The boyhood world of Martin Van Buren had the same "drowsy tranquillity" that Irving described in another of his famous tales, "Rip Van Winkle."
In Martin Van Buren's boyhood, Kinderhook was still a Dutch town. The names of the heads of families in 1790 were mostly Dutch with Van Shaacks, Van Valkenburghs, Van Nesses, and Vosburghs rivalling Van Burens in frequency. The steep-gabled houses that the early Dutch settlers had built with oak sills, pine frames, and tiles imported from Holland still adorned the town. Dutch farmers still worshiped at the Dutch Reformed Church erected in 1727. Dutch was spoken in many homes. Washington Irving caught the Dutch flavor of old Kinderhook. Ichabod Crane, wrote Irving, enjoyed the "ample charms of a genuine Dutch country tea-table" with "sweet cakes and short cakes, ginger cakes and honeycakes," and spent evenings with "old Dutch wives, as they sat spinning by the fire, with a row of apples roasting and sputtering along the hearth." Crane listened apprehensively to "their marvellous tales of ghosts and goblins, and haunted fields and haunted brooks."
The early Van Burens were as Dutch as Kinderhook. They spoke Dutch at home, they were members of the Dutch Reformed Church, and they married into other Dutch families. From the moment that Cornells Maessen married in Holland until the American Revolution, Martin Van Buren's ancestors married only Dutch men and women. Surnames such as Hoes, Van Alen, Van Dusen, and Van Schaick were common in the family tree. Intermarriage was not unusual: Martin's father and grandfather each married women with Van Buren blood.
There was a pattern in the family history that the men waited a while before they married, and when they finally took the step, married women considerably younger than themselves. Martin's paternal grandfather, for example, who married at thirty-three, was thirteen years older than his bride. Once married the Van Burens had large families; Martin's father, grandfather and great-grandfather were all members of families with at least eight children. By 1780, there were seven Van Buren families in Kinderhook.
Martin Van Buren's immediate family followed the Van Buren tradition. After remaining single until he was thirty-nine, in 1776 Abraham Van Buren married the widow Maria Hoes Van Alen, a woman ten years his junior, who already had two sons and a daughter. Before a year had passed Maria gave birth to a daughter, Dirckie, and then in short order produced another girl, Janetje, and three boys, Martin, Lawrence, and Abraham. By the time he was ten in 1792, Martin's siblings including all these children, numbered seven, ranging in age from four to twenty-four.
Martin's family and community helped to shape his emerging personality. His father was both a political and a gentle man. A captain in the militia and a tavern keeper whose tavern served as a polling place, Abraham was a leading figure in the politics of Kinderhook. The epitaph on his gravestone describes him as "tender and indulgent ... benevolent and charitable, a good man [of] mild temper and conciliatory manners." It is easy to surmise that this "amiable" man, as Van Buren described him, taught his son how to get along with people and introduced him to politics. As for his mother, tradition holds that she recognized Martin's potential and saw to it that he got as much education as possible. On her death Van Buren recalled her "domestic virtues [and] undeviating fidelity." Van Buren received help and cooperation in varying degrees from other family members. One of his sisters helped bring up his children after his wife died. His brother Lawrence, although described as a "weak purposeless man," took over the family farm with Martin's blessing. In the 1840s, while former President Van Buren lived on his estate Lindenwald in Kinderhook, Lawrence ran a variety store, where he sold toys, candy and ice cream. Martin exchanged friendly letters with his other brother Abraham, who served in the War of 1812 and had a modest law practice. His two half brothers helped him when they could, one by lending money, the other by taking him in as a law partner. From the scanty evidence available it appears that Martin received love and support from his family, having no heavy-handed father, overbearing mother or challenging siblings to shake his security.
He was also influenced by years spent in the convivial, busy atmosphere of a village tavern. Abraham Van Buren's crowded one-and-a-half-story farmhouse sheltered two adults, eight children, six slaves, and paying customers; a favorite stopping-off point on the road from New York City to Albany, it introduced Martin to a wide variety of people. Years of living at close quarters not only with his family but also with strangers conditioned Van Buren to seek ways of adjusting to others, sometimes accommodating himself to them, at other times manipulating them to gain his wishes. In short he learned the art of compromising for which he later became famous. As amiable and political as his father, Martin developed into a pleasant, outgoing person who got on well with people.
But beneath the cheerful, sociable exterior lay insecurities that followed him throughout his life, and it is this combination of outward sociability and inner insecurity that helps explain Van Buren's behavior both as a boy and as a man. Part of the insecurity came from Kinderhook, where slavery and the patroon system had created a class society in which people knew their places. Although slavery was outlawed in New York soon after the Revolution, it was not completely eradicated until 1827. In 1790, slaves made up fourteen percent of the population of Kinderhook, and a quarter of the heads of families owned slaves; but although he owned six slaves Abraham Van Buren stood well down in the social hierarchy of the town.13 Conscious of this position, Martin learned as a boy to defer to those above him and continued to do so throughout his life. In his autobiography he recalled the upper-class Silvesters as "persons of much reputation and distinction" and as "men of no common mark." A half-century later he still recalled painfully an incident in which Peter Van Ness refused to speak to him, and Van Buren described with much satisfaction how he bought the Van Ness mansion and made it his own country estate.14 At times Van Buren exaggerated his lowly beginning, as, for example, when he boasted that he had risen from rags to riches, but there is little doubt that his inferior status bothered him. It is striking that never once in his correspondence or other writings did he admit that his father had been a common tavern keeper.
Van Buren was also ill-at-ease about his lack of education. His only schooling was at the village academy, where he learned to read and write, and received enough instruction in Latin to help him in his career in the law. With his lack of academic training Van Buren differed from Webster, who attended Phillips Exeter Academy and Dartmouth, Benton, who studied briefly at the University of North Carolina, and from John C. Calhoun, who graduated from Yale. Van Buren envied such men. "How often," he confessed, "have I felt the necessity of a regular course of reading ... to sustain me in my conflicts with able and better-educated men." He cautioned his young readers against letting the prospects of fame tempt them into entering a profession too early in life, pointing out that he would have been more successful if he had had a better education.
Van Buren's rivals and colleagues were well aware of his deficiencies. His New York political crony, James A. Hamilton, later wrote that Van Buren had not been adequately prepared for the State Department by his education, "which was very limited." When Andrew Jackson appointed Van Buren minister to England, John Randolph of Virginia warned the President that Van Buren could not "speak, or write the English language correctly," and would substitute "will" for "shall." Randolph was being unfair. Van Buren found writing so difficult that he rewrote his letters over and over and often relied on his sons and others to write for him. But even so he managed to turn out a prodigious quantity of letters and public papers. His writing was tangled, wordy, ornate, and confusing, but often by design and with the intent to obscure rather than from lack of skill. The important point is that Van Buren was painfully conscious of his lack of training. In recalling Randolph's criticism years later, Van Buren claimed that he and Jackson merely laughed at the assessment, but the fact that he told the story suggests that for Van Buren it was not a laughing matter.
Van Buren's insecurity continued to dog him when he left home in 1796 to be apprenticed to the lawyer Francis Silvester. Working for the aristocratic Silvesters Van Buren was constantly reminded of his inferior social position, while at the same time receiving his baptism in New York state politics. Supported by the Livingstons and the Clintons, the Jeffersonian Republicans had won the elections of 1789 and 1792 in New York, but in 1795 the Federalists under Alexander Hamilton succeeded in electing John Jay governor. The bitter battles between Republicans and Federalists showed an embryonic two-party system at its best, and provided Van Buren with an ideal that he never forgot. Van Buren found himself among Federalists, for his employer was the son of Peter Silvester, Federalist state senator from Kinderhook, and was related to two other prominent Federalist families, the wealthy Van Schaacks and Van Rensselaers. Peter Van Schaack and Jacob R. Van Rensselaer led the famous Columbia County Junto, which kept the county staunchly Federalist. It was obvious to Van Buren that on all counts Federalists outranked Republicans in his community.
The Silvesters did all they could to force Van Buren into the Federalist mold, particularly in 1798, when Peter Silvester was running for reelection. When Silvester was declared victorious, Federalists in Kinderhook staged a jubilant celebration; they fired cannon and caroused late into the night. Instead of joining in the festivities, the fifteen-year-old Van Buren retreated to his bed in the back of the Silvester store, where Francis Silvester's brother, Cornelius spent over an hour trying to convince the boy to become a Federalist. In the days that followed Van Buren found that the constant Federalist pressure of the Silvesters made his situation extremely unpleasant.
The way in which he responded to this situation suggests a good deal about the sort of person he had become and foreshadows the way in which he would deal with similar situations and similar threats to his security throughout his life. The easy course would have been for him to join the Federalists, but he resisted and moved rapidly into Republican politics. One reason he was able to make this difficult decision was the strong support he got from his family. Even though Kinderhook had been the home of Tories during the Revolution and Federalists thereafter, his father had been an ardent patriot and a convinced Jeffersonian who made his tavern a gathering place for Republicans in the 1790s. Legend has it that the famous Republican Aaron Burr often frequented the tavern on his way from New York to Albany. Ideology also played a part. For Martin Van Buren, who grew up on tales of the Revolution and learned from the political battles of the 1790s, the ideas of the Revolution seemed better articulated by Thomas Jefferson than by Alexander Hamilton.
Van Buren took advantage of his ability to adapt to new situations. His experiences in the family, in the tavern and in Kinderhook had taught him to compromise, accommodate, and even to defer in order to succeed. They had also taught him that appearances counted. When he first started to work for the Silvesters, he was so poorly dressed that his employers suggested that he get a new wardrobe. Instead of reacting angrily, he decided to acquiesce, and with the help of his family was soon able to deck himself out in clothes similar to those worn by his master. From that point on Van Buren was able to use his fine clothes and his attractive physical appearance to his political advantage. Though short and slight (he was only five feet six inches tall), he carried himself erectly, and his sharp, well-formed nose, blue eyes, and curly blond hair attracted attention. His reputation as a dandy followed him wherever he went. Not only was his attractive appearance a political asset, but it also helped him to compensate for his social insecurities.
To his further advantage Van Buren found that he could use aristocrats even when he felt inferior to them. For example, to help him escape the Silvesters and succeed both in politics and in the law, Van Buren turned to the aristocratic Van Nesses, who led the Republicans in Kinderhook. The Van Nesses helped him become a delegate to the Republican party caucus in Troy in 1801, and he in turn helped John P. Van Ness win a seat in the United States House of Representatives the same year. Van Ness repaid Van Buren by lending him enough money to move out of Kinderhook, and Van Ness's brother William made a place for Van Buren in his new law office in New York City.
Van Buren's five years with the Silvesters gave him the opportunity to develop the political style that he used throughout his career. Handsome, attractively dressed, pleasant, deferential, and accommodating, Van Buren made an impression that was hard to resist. But this agreeable exterior hid not only the old insecurity but also a strong resolute character. Although he had learned to accommodate and defer, he had not learned to give in.
The next two years — 1802-1803 — his first away from Kinderhook, were difficult and uncertain. When he wrote to Congressman Van Ness requesting money and asking advice on such matters as attending the theater, Van Ness could spare only forty dollars, but was more liberal with his advice. On the one hand, he pointed out the advantages of the city and recommended that his young friend mix with "good society." On the other hand, Van Ness warned of the "temptations to vice," especially the vice of "idleness." Van Buren might properly attend the theater, but he should not make it a habit. The congressman was urging the young lawyer to work hard and move up in society, advice that the ambitious Van Buren followed without much prompting.
Excerpted from Martin Van Buren and the American Political System by Donald B. Cole. Copyright © 1984 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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