- Historic Sites
How To Become President
November 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 7
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 idleness...is 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....
To come to a right conclusion in respect to your future course in so grave a matter we must look at the subject all round, at the past as well as the probable future. We must do so freely without reproaches on either side, and without being thin-skinned, sensibly, and looking the truth in the face. It is now somewhat over a quarter of a century since you were fairly launched as a lawyer and a politician [and]...it must be admitted that you have not been very successful. Compare the results of your career with mine during the same period and the comparison is unfavourable to yours. We will admit that the free soil business has been an obstacle, and we will throw the blame of that on me....Still, your career has been an unsuccessful one. We now see how we both gave power to inferior men by weakening our hold on the party. That is all past now, as you have re-established yourself in that respect very fully, and the only question is in respect to the best course to be pursued for the future....If I were in your situation, the following is the course I would pursue, and I would adhere to it as steadily as time....
You have succeeded in establishing your character as the “greatest election orator in this or any other country,” according to the Union, and the Union for once is right....How is this, the greatest of all political accomplishments, to be employed?...Now, instead of speaking often, I would speak but seldom. I would not, as before, go about the country making speeches. I would only attend the meetings at Tammany on great occasions, when great questions are in agitation. These I would ponder upon and study deeply, and throw light upon the subject not accessable to others; these I would utter in a sober, statesmanlike way, dealing only in wit and merriment, making flashes as much as will suffice when given in small doses for the groundlings. I would not forget or neglect them altogether, as nature has conferred the gift upon you, but I would make their gratification a secondary subject, aiming chiefly at the public judgment, the public conscience, and the public good....Farther than this, I would not meddle with politics. I would continue, as you have already begun, to have nothing to do with appointments. I would attend no conventions, and enter in no intrigues about nominations, and discuss as little as possible the character and pretension of my contemporaries, political or professional. Upon these points you have already improved....I would make it a point to speak invariably well of...other would-be great men in the State, particularly those who think they deserve to be well-spoken of; taking no part, and feeling no preference in, their intrigues and intentions about nominations, etc. None of these things pay in any way. Seven out of ten of those you benefit will prove ungrateful, all of your opponents will be vindictive, you will fritter away your strength, and worry yourself to no purpose by caring about, and still more by meddling in any of these matters.
But you must keep yourself before the people, and you must continue to attract the attention of observers, and to be the subject of the remarks of mankind. That is indispensable, and fortunately the course that leads to it is directly before you....A vigorous and almost exclusive pursuit of the duties of your profession would be with you the course that would not fail to lead to honour, pleasure, happiness, satisfaction, and prosperity. Nothing will be easier for you to obtain in a very short period than a decided lead at the bar. None of those that enjoy that distinction now, have pressed their advantageous points decidedly. They are beginning to sit heavily on the public taste....
You can push your success to a much higher point, indeed there is scarcely any limit which with care and study you might not be able to reach. Business in the Courts in Washington should be a principal object. One really great argument in the presence of intelligent men from all parts of the United States would do you more good than could be accomplished by a year’s work in any other way....Thus, fairly started on a natural track that has less annoyances than any other...you would soon become not only the ablest political and professional orator, but stand a fair chance to become also in one twelvemonths the best looking man among your contemporaries....
“The people will never make a man President who is so importunate as to show...that he...is in active pursuit of the office.”
I am really ashamed of writing you so long a letter, but as this is the first time that you have complained of me for not giving you advice, I have decided to give you enough and to spare. You may felicitate yourself on the circumstance that it will require no answer....
Very Truly Yours, M. VAN BUREN