How To Become President


Martin Van Buren had his eye on the Presidency for most of his political career, and he managed to pave the way to the White House door first for Andrew Jackson and then for himself. His son John was evidently less ambitious. While at Yale the boy gambled and caroused and made a general nuisance of himself. But John managed to graduate and get admitted to the Albany bar; by 1845 he was the New York State attorney general; and he was known as one of the best orators of his day. None of this was enough to satisfy the dynastic yearnings of his father, however, so in 1858 the seventy-five-year-old former President sat down to give his son some advice.

The result was a densely written twenty-page letter plotting a campaign aimed at putting John in the White House within the next decade. The elder Van Buren’s last presidential dream never materialized, but his remarkable exhortation—which recently required five hundred hours of deciphering to render it into typescript—not only offers us a glimpse of the political mechanisms of its era but contains a good deal of advice that remains pertinent today—as is evidenced by the excerpt printed here.

The letter is on display through December, along with a wealth of other unusual memorabilia relating to the hectic and exhilarating quadrennial process of getting ourselves a President, in the Forbes Galleries at 60 Fifth Avenue in New York City.

Lindenwald, March 16, 1858

My Dear John,

...The more I have reflected upon it the more I am satisfied that the suggestion I threw out as much in sport as in earnest, in respect to the practicability of your reaching the Presidency, if your life is spared long enough, is neither unreasonable or extravagant.


New York must one of these days...get politically sound again and possess a safe practicable and working majority. When that period shall have clearly arrived in the opinion of the Democracy of the United States, she will be looked to...for a Presidential candidate....The period which may be looked to as one in which my anticipations may be realized, if any, will be either 1865 at the shortest, or 1869 at the farthest. The latter would find you under 60, less I believe than the average age of our Presidents, and as early as a modest man ought to aspire to such a place....The extent to which the result of that [presidential candidacy] will depend upon the personal demeanor, public course, and private action, or rather business conscience, of the aspirant, must of necessity be very great. Past experience has supplied us with rules upon these points, which deserve attention. The hardy character of our people is to be employed. Idlers seldom establish strong claims upon their respect. Speaking of the masses, who in the end govern elections and most other things, we are a nation of Workers. Nothing is therefore better calculated to win their respect and favour, political as well as personal, on the part of an individual, than to be a man of business, one who as they do, gets his bread and acquires his substance by his own exertions.

The line in which those exertions are made, so [long as] it be respectable, requires industry, and is conducted with probity, is not as material. The masses take pleasure and feel a pride in doing for such a man what they can. They look upon him as a representative of their own position, and cherish a fellow-feeling for him. The man, on the other hand, who lives in a standing reproach among themselves and their occupations, and they seldom give him their support when they can avoid it. Another rule is that the people will never make a man President who is so importunate as to show by his life and conversation that he not only has an eye upon, but is in active pursuit of the office....Some men who have reached it by accident in the peculiar conjecture of affairs, but no man who laid himself out for it, and was unwise enough to let the people into his secret, ever yet obtained it. Clay, Calhoun, Webster, Scott, and a host of lesser lights, should serve as a guide-post to future aspirants....

Another rule established by the experience of the past is, that there is no “one” in whose pockets the people are so prone to pour lead, as a man who pursues politics for a living. They soon come to regard him as a wanton upon Providence, and are constantly disposed to show him the cold shoulder. Although many make their living by it, they get it by hook or crook, and no public honors sit well upon them. It is not regarded by the masses as making an honest livelyhood.

These views leave it scarcely necessary to add that I am opposed to giving up your profession or making it secondary to any other pursuit....