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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
On March 4, 1837, the scepter passed. The day was bright, glistening with the exhilaration of spring and the sense of renewal implicit in an inauguration. Seated side by side in the carriage Constitution, drawn by the famous grays, were the outgoing President and his confidential adviser and chosen successor. After a dignified passage down Pennsylvania Avenue, the two men on whom all interest centered appeared on the east portico of the Capitol. Below was a vast crowd wedged breathlessly together, faces upturned—”a field,” said one observer, “paved with human faces.” They were silent, still and reverent. The inaugural proceeded. The Chief Justice of the United States stepped forward to administer the oath to the President-elect. The new President began delivering his message, but its urbane substance was lost in the droning monotone of his speaking style. No cheers interrupted it; the applause at the end was polite but unenthusiastic.
The old General, now divested of power, rose to descend the broad steps of the portico to take his seat in the carriage. The feelings of the crowd, so long restrained, rolled forth like a giant thunderclap. The cheers burst and burst again from three thousand hearts. The new President descended too, but he was all but unnoticed and forgotten. All eyes were on General Jackson as he uncovered and bowed, the wind stirring his silver locks. A part, indeed a substantial part, of the tribute being paid the General and his outgoing administration belonged to the unnoticed men behind him, and Jackson, more than anyone, knew it. But the crowd did not know, and never would know. Martin Van Buren, on his most glorious day, the day for which he had plotted and gambled and maneuvered and flattered for eight anxious years, was paying the price for the secrecy of his success in the palace shadows. “For once,” as Thomas Hart Benton remarked, “the rising was eclipsed by the setting sun.”