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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 onrushing events in South Carolina, meanwhile, had reached a point of alarming deterioration. The nullifiers had called a special convention and swiftly passed an ordinance holding the existing tariff laws unconstitutional and not binding upon the state. Outright secession was boldly threatened. Jackson responded by dispatching a naval force to Charleston. When the more rabid nullifiers cried out for troops to be raised to “defend” the state, Jackson countered by ordering the federal garrison at Charleston alerted and dispatched General Winfield Scott to take command.
Martin Van Buren, for his part, found himself caught in a vise. At opposite and seemingly irreconcilable extremes of the nullification controversy were the two principal claimants to his loyalty, his party following in the South and Andrew Jackson. If he pleased Jackson, he would displease the southern element of his party, and vice versa.
The line Van Buren proceeded to follow was heralded by the substance of the toast he had offered at the famous Jefferson Day dinner. “Mutual forbearance and reciprocal concessions,” he had said, “thro’ their agency the Union was established—the patriotic spirit from which they emanated will forever sustain it.” Now, late in 1832, Van Buren toiled busily applying his formula for peace. In private letters to his southern friends, he forthrightly disapproved the nullification doctrine. In counsel to Jackson, he tirelessly sought to reduce the intensity of the conflict, or at least head off measures threatening to aggravate it.
While flagging down the President, Van Buren was eyeing the tariff laws for possible reforms as the most promising solution to the nullification crisis. To avoid antagonizing the Calhounites, whose natural interests favored tariff reduction but whose zest for vengeance might tempt them to reject anything identified with himself, Van Buren worked secretly through Congressman Gulian Crommelin Verplanck, Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, an independent not previously identified with Van Buren’s enterprises.
After weeks of intensive work, Verplanck emerged with a bill to which southerners of all camps so warmed that Van Buren began openly and confidently identifying himself as its real instigator. He stood at the brink of new fame. If the bill passed—and according to every indication it would—the Magician would surely be hailed as “the Great Compromiser.” For the first time in his career he would gain a genuine national popularity among a people who desperately did not want a civil war.
The serene progress of Van Buren’s plans was suddenly and unexpectedly throttled. His mighty rivals—Clay and Calhoun—met and decided that at any cost the indomitable palace politician must not become a popular hero. So anxious was Clay to block Van Buren that he put aside his long-standing high-tariff convictions and introduced his own reform bill. His object, plainly, was to snatch away the accolade of “Compromiser” from the grasping hands of Van Buren. Although Clay’s tariff bill called for only a portion of the cuts that Verplanck had proposed, militant southerners, led in both houses of Congress by John CaIhoun, rallied around Clay. The Clay-Calhoun juggernaut swept the Kentuckian’s measure into enactment.
While events were reaching their climax behind the scenes in Washington, state legislatures in both North and South were passing resolutions disavowing the nullifiers and assuring the President of their support. In conspicuous contrast, Van Buren’s own state organization in Albany was discreetly tight-lipped, fearful of offending their hero’s southern followers. Meanwhile, the New York Whigs, led by two wily rising politicos, William H. Seward and Thurlow Weed, put Van Buren squarely on the spot by introducing their own resolutions into the state legislature, approving Jackson’s proclamation in lavish terms.
The Red Fox was trapped; the kill seemed near. Van Buren could not avoid taking a stand, and whatever he did would be ruinous. If he supported the resolution, he would break up his party and lose his status as Jackson’s most likely successor. If he opposed it, he risked breaking with Jackson. As always, Van Buren chose his party. He prepared a resolution forthrightly taking issue with the “history given by the President on the formation of our Government.” Accompanying it was a labored report expounding a states’ rights position which would hardly fail to please his most fastidious southern supporters.
To Jackson he forwarded the resolution, the report, and a letter of explanation. Upon receiving the documents, an eyewitness reported, Jackson perused them thoroughly, drawing hard all the while on his Powhatan pipe. Then, without comment, he handed them over to his secretary for filing.