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The Rise Of The Little Magician
Martin Van Buren, Andrew Jackson’s right-hand man, was a master of political intrigue who let nothing block his one unwavering ambition—the Presidency. But sometimes he was too smart for his own good
June 1962 | Volume 13, Issue 4
Early one spring evening in 1829, a brougham, handsomely carved and immaculately kept, jogged at a dignified pace down Pennsylvania Avenue toward the White House. Within was a solitary figure sitting with the pompous grace of a Hindu rajah. He was the new Secretary of State, Martin Van Buren of New York, just arrived after a hard journey from Albany through the wilderness and cities of the seaboard. Recollections of that journey made his solitude welcome. He had much to think about. For the step he was to take this evening, in committing his services to the new President, defied the urgent warnings of many friends whose judgment he had leaned upon from the day he had become a figure in national politics. They considered him foolhardy to join this administration, and the force of their reasons still haunted his mind. The Cabinet, they unanimously contended, was packed with the minions of Vice President John C. Calhoun, who proposed to dominate the administration and advance ruthlessly to his long-cherished goal, the Presidency itself. In such company, Martin Van Buren and his political future would be hopelessly submerged.
The alarums of his friends were still ringing in Van Buren’s ears even as his carriage entered the White House grounds and approached the front portico. A lackey was on hand to open the door and help him alight. The figure that emerged was in dress and form most outstanding—scarcely more than five and a half feet and free of the corpulence that afflicts middle age. It was a pleasantry of Washington society that he wore a corset. Everything about his features seemed exaggerated; his hair was emphatically yellow and curly, parted over the right temple and combed back in wavy masses, hiding his ears. His forehead was of great proportions. Red sideburns came to the point of his jaw. His long and aggressive Roman nose suggested the fox, and his guileless, deep-set blue eyes seemed to promise, as the mood required, easy laughter and prodigious determination. His clothes were a cartoonist’s delight. For years his dandylike dress had been the butt of political broadsides, and on this evening he sustained his reputation: he wore a snulf-colored coat, while trousers, lace-tipped cravat, yellow gloves, and morocco shoes.
Into the White House ihis impeccable little creature walked, with light tiny steps. The doorman ushered him through the vestibule lo the President’s office and opened the door. In the dim light of the single candle that lit that enormous room, he saw a haggard face from which bereavement had drained all spirit. For Andrew Jackson had just buried his beloved wife, and that event—coupled with the torment of ceaseless physical illness—had left him with the countenance of Job: cadaverous eyes with anguished lines beneath them, and withered white hair. But when Jackson rose, there occurred a miraculous transformation from despair and exhaustion, and his affectionate and eager greeting melted every anxiety in Van Buren’s mind. Leaving his own misfortunes immentioncd, Jackson inquired anxiously about Van Buren’s recent illness and, noticing his weariness, insisted that all business be postponed until the next day. Paternally, he ordered Van Buren to bed. fn that short interlude, from those few gestures, Van Buren considered his decision vindicated.
The new Secretary of State had been born December 5, 1782, in a long, low, one-and-a-half-story clapboard farmhouse in Kinderhook, New York. His parents were second-generation Dutch-Americans, who regularly spoke the ancestral language at the dinner table. The father, Abraham, a farmer and tavern operator, was one of the few local residents well-to-do enough to meet the stiff suffrage requirement— ownership of land valued at a hundred pounds over arid above encumbrances. At school age, Martin was enrolled in the Kinderhook Academy, where he compiled a good record. His heart was set on entering Columbia College, when his father’s finances went into an unexpected tailspin and the boy was forced to go to work. The change of plan left its scar. Forever after, Van Buren venerated the learning that had been denied him—so much so that he developed a conspicuous sense of intellectual inferiority.
His dandyish dress had origins in his youth, too. His schooling ended, family friends secured a clerkship for him in the ollices of Francis Sylvester, first lawyer of Kinderhook. Van Buren showed up for his job in coarse homespun linens and woolens made by his economy-minded mother. His employer, appalled by this ungainly apparition, finally took his clerk aside and ardently lectured him on the importance of proper dress. Next day Van Buren had undergone a sartorial transformation that left Sylvester gasping: he was decked out in a complete gentleman’s outfit consisting of a black broad-brimmed cocked hat, a waistcoat with layers of frilly lace, velvet breeches, silken hose, and huge flashing silver buckles.
Although Van Buren rose rapidly in the legal profession, politics was his consuming passion. He so excelled at composing différences in the local Democratic caucus that he was rewarded with a major plum—election at twenty-six as surrogate of Columbia County. A year later, in 1809, he cut short his honeymoon with Hannah Hoes to go off into the deep snows for the hustings. In 1812, Van Buren was elected state senator.