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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
Simultaneously, Van Buren was ascending to a leading place in party councils, owing not so much to his devotion to policy as to his gifts at political management. Hc presided over an enormously successful Democratic organization, the “Albany Regency,” a handful of state leaders who traded jobs in the executive branch for votes in the legislature and made their bargains stick.
In 1821, after a term as New York’s attorney general, Van Buren stepped onto the national political stage when the Regency boosted him into the United States Senate. By every appearance, his coming made no great splash. Though Van Buren toiled with exem-plary diligence on the finance and judiciary committees, he became identified with no significant legislation. He spoke infrequently on the door and seldom with much impact, his pianissimo style of oratory being hopelessly drowned out by the organ tones of titans like Daniel Webster, Robert Hayne, and John C. Calhoun.
As head of the prevailing party in New York, however, he became a leading influence in the congressional caucus and in the wide-open presidential race of 1824. In choosing among the many candidates entreating his support, Van Buren, in the manner of his hero, Thomas Jefferson, aimed to link the power of New York with that of the South. Accordingly he came out for the leading southern candidate, William H. Crawford, a Georgian who had been Secretary of the Treasury in the Monroe Cabinet.
Van Buren’s first venture in the “art and business of President-making,” as he called it, was totally disastrous. Hardly had Crawford announced his candidacy when he was felled by a general paralytic stroke. His nervous system was shattered; he permanently lost the use of his lower limbs and temporarily, his sight and speech. Still, pressed by Van Buren, Crawford stayed in the race. The candidate’s distraught promoters labored overtime at hiding his distress from public view. He made no speeches; a tightly covered coach carried him about when travel was unavoidable. Whenever a meeting with impressionable visitors was necessary, they were ushered into a room so darkened by heavy curtains and dimmed lights that the pitiful Crawford, propped between several devoted associates, was scarcely visible. Hardly had a visitor settled into his chair when he was, on some pretext or other, whisked out. Notwithstanding these precautions, rumors got around that Crawford was a very sick man. In desperation, Van Buren attempted a bold eleventh-hour deal: he offered Henry Clay of Kentucky the Vice Presidency if he would support Crawford. Clay turned him down cold.
The sly maneuver and the ruthless machination provide the basis for much of Martin Van Buren’s lasting political reputation. All his nicknames—and no other public figure in his time or perhaps since has had so many—betoken the unprincipled political trickster. “The Little Magician” and “the Red Fox of Kinderhook” he was first called in New York politics, and later “the American Talleyrand.” DeWitt Clinton spoke of Van Buren as “the prince of villains” and “a confirmed knave.” Calhoun, a later foe, said of him: “He is not … of the race of the lion or of the tiger; he belonged to a lower order—the fox.”
In his private ruminations following the calamitous elections of 1824, Van Buren decided to hitch his wagon to the rising star of Andrew Jackson, fir the three-way race among Jackson, Cruwford, and John Ouincy Adams, the hero of New Orleans had, after all, garnered the largest popular vote, and had lost to Adams only when the election was thrown into the House of Representatives. For the next several years, Van Buren worked quietly and successfully to bring the Crawford men into Jackson’s fold. In 1828, Old Hickory triumphed at the polls and fittingly offered “the Magician,” who in the same year became Governor of New York, the choicest spot in the new administration, the post of Secretary of State.
By every indication, Van Buren proposed to be far more than a mere presidential counselor: he intended to do nothing less than succeed General Jackson in the Presidency itself, and, everything considered, this steadily burning ambition was altogether reasonable. It was widely believed that Jackson did not have long to live. The creeping dropsy, the racking cough, the wizened frame signified a man whose days were numbered. There was, further, an enthralling statistic in Van Burcn’s favor: in the twenty-eight years subsequent to 1800, four secretaries of state had become President.