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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
The situation called for John Calhoun, as Vice President of the United States and President of the Senate, to cast the deciding vote. Preening himself under the clamorous encouragement of the onlooking senators, Calhoun committed his long-awaited act of revenge, and voted against Van Buren. The Senate rang with cheers, as the crowd does when the matador makes his death thrust at the fallen bull. In the exhilaration of accomplishment, the Vice President was heard to declare, “It will kill him, sir, kill him dead. He will never kick, sir, never kick.”
But Calhoun’s victory was short-lived. The stab in the back only succeeded in incensing the local party organizations, which viewed the Senate’s action as a gross personal injustice and a travesty on party integrity, and all but clinched the vice presidential nomination for Van Buren. The first national convention of the Democratic party, which assembled in Baltimore on May 21, 1832, unanimously nominated Van Buren on the second ballot. The Magician, spurned in Washington, was now redeemed in Baltimore.
With characteristic foresight, Van Buren had long had in readiness a central issue for the ensuing electoral campaign. His circling eye had alighted on the mighty financial fortress of the Bank of the United States. Chartered in 1816 for a period of twenty years, the Bank was predominantly private in character, with but one-fifth of its capital subscribed by the federal government. But it was the depository of government funds; by demanding or threatening to demand specie for the state bank notes it took in, or by refusing to take them altogether, the great Bank exercised a powerful check upon state banking activity.
In terms of the political necessities of Martin Van Buren, a fight with the Bank of the United States had great allure. His popularity would surely rise. Operating free of the safety-fund requirements imposed by state law upon New York banks, and having its headquarters in Philadelphia, the Bank of the United States made that city the financial capital of the country. New York—its manufacture, trade, and population soaring—was chafing to wrest supremacy from Philadelphia. In the South, Van Buren’s supporters could be counted on to jump at the opportunity to avenge their states’ rights principles by exterminating a major national institution like the Bank. But to Van Buren the most valuable feature of the Bank was its unpopularity in the West, where it was hated and feared.
As early as December 8, 1829, in his annual message to Congress, Jackson had openly expressed his hostility to the Bank. Meanwhile Van Buren was assaulting it by less direct means. Although he never discussed the Bank publicly or even in his most confidential letters, his trusted lieutenant, James A. Hamilton, busied himself for weeks at Jackson’s side arranging the details of a new banking structure. Van Buren himself was quietly working with Amos Kendall, a leading westerner whose influence in the administration was rocketing. A journalist with a gift for piercing invective, he occupied the nominal post of Fourth Auditor of the Treasury, but devoted most of his energies to major drafting chores around the White House.
Not all the maneuvering concerning the Bank was going on at the White House. Henry Clay, his presidential ambitions charged with a new intensity, also regarded it as a useful issue. He prodded the Bank into directing its lieutenants in the House of Representatives to introduce legislation on January 6, 1832, providing for recharter. The great Bank dispatched its shrewdest lobbyists to Washington, and Daniel Webster and John Calhoun added their might and prestige to Clay’s cause. Recharter passed both houses of Congress by comfortable margins in the summer of 1832.
By this time Martin Van Buren, having lost his job in London, had returned to the United States. Indeed, he managed to reach Washington by stage on Sunday, July 8, just as the presidential veto, which Jackson had ordered prepared, was being put into final shape. The little band of draftsmen still were hard at it when Van Buren rolled up to the White House portico in his brougham. The President, who was ailing, welcomed him in his bedroom. “Holding my hand in one of his own,” the anxious Van Buren later reported, “and passing the other thro’ his long white locks, he said, with the clearest indications of a mind composed, and in a tone entirely devoid of passion or bluster—‘the bank, Mr. Van Buren, is trying to kill me, but I will kill it !’” After fittingly acknowledging his agreement, Van Buren was installed as a guest in the bedroom recently vacated by Sarah Yorke Jackson, the President’s favorite daughter-in-law.
The Bank’s supporters contended that Van Buren— “before he could unpack his bags”—was put to work polishing up the veto for transmittal to Congress early the next morning. Plainly bearing the touch of a practiced political hand, the veto ultimately prevailed in Congress. In the subsequent presidential campaign, the Jackson-Van Buren ticket triumphed mightily.