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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
Although Calhoun was now in full eclipse, Van Buren’s own situation was not without peril. The Cabinet was still strongly pro-Calhoun; the Eaton affair was still roaring along. Calling upon all his skill at co-ordinating seemingly disparate forces, Van Buren hit upon a bit of vivid dramaturgy designed to solve the Eaton affair, reconstitute the Cabinet, and project himself before the public as a selfless magistrate dedicated to the commonweal.
The crux of the plan entailed nothing less than his resigning as Secretary of State, ostensibly for so noble a purpose as the peace and welfare of the administration. His real object was to compel not only the resignation of Eaton but that of Calhoun’s supporters in the Cabinet.
With Calhoun out of the way, he need no longer be on hand at the White House to protect his interests and could afford at least a brief absence from that arena of destiny. As a place of temporary refuge once he had resigned, Van Buren fixed his enterprising gaze upon a post outside the country, the ministership to Great Britain, rich in prestige and far from the tumult of Washington. He packed his bag of tricks and waited for an opportune moment to break the news to Jackson. He struggled unavailingly for weeks to muster his courage, so fearful was he of the General’s reaction. Finally, Van Buren came to grips with fate while horseback riding with the President one afternoon through Georgetown and down the Tenallytown road. The subject under discussion was the Eatons and the disintegration of the Cabinet. Van Buren somehow managed to seize the gaping opening and blurted out nervously: “No, General, there is but one thing can give you peace!”
“What is that, sir?”
The President, in Van Buren’s word, “blanched.” “Never, sir,” replied Jackson with peremptory vigor. “Even you know little of Andrew Jackson if you suppose him capable of consenting to such humiliation of his friends by his enemies.”
For hours that day and next, Van Buren sought to justify his course to the President. As the discussion wore on inconclusively into the late afternoon of the second day, the western circle—Lewis, Eaton, and Postmaster General Barry—was called in. There was more discussion, equally futile, whereupon Van Buren invited the three westerners to his home for dinner. Along the way, Eaton suddenly stopped as though transfixed. It was wrong for Van Buren, “the most valuable member of the Cabinet, to resign, he exclaimed. Then, after a breath, tumbled out the statement for which the Magician had so expertly and painstakingly built the foundations in the discussions through the long afternoon. It was he, Eaton, who should resign. He, not Van Buren, had brought the administration its woe.
For a long moment no one spoke, a hiatus that must have seemed like ages to Eaton, if he was waiting for someone to say that he was mistaken, that he too was indispensable. No one did, and Van Buren, after a decent interval, swooped in with the clinching blow. “What about Mrs. Eaton?” he asked with quiet finality. The Secretary of War managed to mumble that he was sure she would not object. Within a matter of days Eaton sent in his resignation, and Van Buren’s quickly followed. When the President and Van Buren, now the minister-designate to England, went around to the departing Eatons one day to pay their respects, Peggy was decidedly chilly.
The remainder of the Cabinet, as Van Buren had hoped, likewise resigned. As he had also calculated, the reconstituted Cabinet was predominantly loyal to himself. Thereupon he took off for England, bearing a presidential recess appointment, and fell avidly to work in London, having exceptionally long and cordial audiences with King William IV and the royal ministers. With Washington Irving, first secretary of the United States legation, he became fast friends, but best of all, he was sustained by the obvious fact that Jackson missed his counsel. “Any suggestions which your leisure will permit,” wrote the President, “you may choose to make on any subject will be kindly received.” And in another dispatch, “I am … anxious to have you near me.”
Jackson’s prayer for Van Buren’s homecoming was suddenly, and not altogether unexpectedly, answered by no less an agency than the United States Senate. Van Buren’s being a recess appointment, Jackson passed along his name to the Senate when the regular legislative session commenced in December. The titans of Capitol Hill, Calhoun, Clay, and Webster, smarting under Van Buren’s unchecked rise, were sharpening their claws for vengeance. Burying momentarily their own past differences, these doughty individualists united to consign the nomination to slow death.
Three months dragged by before Van Buren’s name was even referred to the Foreign Relations Committee, a step which under normal circumstances was instantaneous. In the committee and on the Senate floor, a long, mudslinging discussion ensued, linking Van Buren with every known evil of the day. A special strategy was concocted to subject the minister-designate to the most excruciating humiliation. The remaining cards were played: his nomination was reported out favorably by the Foreign Relations Committee, and when the floor vote was taken, it resulted, by careful prearrangement, in a tie.