- Historic Sites
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
Van Buren was not the only party of interest hungering for the succession. His most redoubtable competitor was John C. Calhoun, a man of consuming drive, mattner national political experience, and witter public fame. The Van Buren-Calhoun competition was hardly a matter of conjecture; it was starkly manifested even before the inauguration when both camps launched a series of maneuvers designed to control the selection of the Cabinet. Van Euren trained his guns on the two departments richest in patronage, the Treasury and the Post Office. To his great chagrin, both posts went to loyal Calhounites. As Secretary of War, Jackson chose his longtime friend from Tennessee, John H. Eaton, whose preference between Van Buren and Calhoun was not at all clear. The two other members of the Cabinet, the Attorney General and the Secretary of the Navy, were mediocrities who, when the cards were down, were expected to throw in with Calhoun. However, Van Buren’s companionship was much welcomed, both during business hours and after, by a President just emerging from the pit of tragedy. Van Buren was also a widower (Hannah had died in i8ig), and Jackson found in him the solace of shared experience. The New Yorker was a constant visitor at the Executive Mansion. Unconstrained by the demands of family, he could respond to every beck and call.
Van Buren moved easily in the considerable circle of personalities residing in the White House. In its si/e and essential informality, the circle was unprecedented. Besides the President, it included his nephew and confidential secretary, the astute and discreet Andrew Jackson Donelson, and his wife Emily, a spare, aristocratic beauty who presided expertly as official White House hostess. Also in residence were the President’s old friend and political bodyguard, William B. Lewis; Mrs. Donelson’s attractive cousin, Alary Eastin (Van Buren’s eldest son, Abraham, was courting her); and the President’s adopted son, Andrew, and his family. Together, the several families contributed four children to the White House population. These were considerably augmented by other juveniles of the far-flung Jackson clan, who constantly visited the President.
Evening callers like Van Buren ordinarily found Jackson well attended in the family sitting room. Reposing in his easy chair, puffing gently on a great Powhatan pipe whose bowl rested upon his knees, Jackson was an island of composure in a sea of chaos. Children would be romping around the room, rolling, climbing, falling, and brawling while the adults were bravely trying to read, sew, or converse. Entering unannounced, Van Buren would retire to a corner with Jackson for conversation that was continually interrupted. After finishing with the President, Van Buren paid heed to the ladies, with whom he got on famously.
Jackson and his friend transacted most of their business not in their evening encounters, however, but in a reserved hour during the day. Every afternoon at about three thirty, Van Buren would meet Jackson at the White House, and the two would slip out the back door for a canter on horseback. Although he preferred a coach, Van Buren threw desire and comfort to the winds and acquired a trusty charger.
It was during such outings that the seed of Jackson’s earlier invitation for Van Buren to function as general adviser and confidant was coming to real fruition. Anything and everything was discussed. Legislation, appointments to office, correspondence, messages to Congress—on such instruments of policy Van Buren constantly impressed his influence. Together with Lewis and Donelson, he was also functioning as a drafter of the President’s speeches and messages. Jackson, from all indications, required considerable help along these lines. His prose tended to be abrupt and disconnected, his intelligence expressing itself in judgment rather than in analysis. But Van Buren’s particular forte, on which Jackson relied most, whether in speech drafting or on other occasions of decision, was his skill in political tactics and in discerning the motives of men.
To the casual observer of the political scene, Washington, in the crisp autumn of 1829, glowed with serenity. This was a condition sedulously cultivated by the two contenders for the succession. Duff Green, editor of the administration organ, the United States Telegraph , appears to have been instructed by his de facto chief, Calhoun, to scotch all rumors of discord and to chant in his columns a steady song of bliss. Van Buren reciprocated by endorsing Green’s appointment to the lush post of Public Printer. Toward Calhoun personally, Van Buren was sweetness itself. He wined and dined the Vice President and his family regularly, and in all other respects their dealings persisted, in Van Buren’s phrase, on “a friendly and familiar footing.”
Behind the façade of official beatific calm, Van Buren was advancing his fortunes with ruthless vigor. In private sessions with Jackson he was quietly but effectively taking over a principal source of power in the new administration: patronage. With his sure touch, he pursued the policy of holding dismissals of Adams’ appointees to moderate numbers, on the assumption that the incumbent clerks were generally sympathetic to his cause, while the clamoring jobseekers were decidedly disposed toward Calhoun and the western faction of Jackson supporters.