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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
It was Van Buren’s expectation and hope that the veto would bring down the curtain on the drama of the United States Bank until 1836, when its charter was due to expire. Further warfare upon the Bank would clearly invite serious dislocation of the economy and gravely endanger his own prospects for the Presidency. But his policy of passivity quickly ran into an unyielding wall: Amos Kendall. Kendall argued that the Bank, with its huge assets and far-flung branches, was capable of enormous self-interested maneuver. He proposed that the government remove its very large deposits of funds. Kendall was so convincing that Jackson in March of 1833 instructed his aide to draft a withdrawal request to the Secretary of the Treasury, Louis McLane. Encouraged by Van Buren, McLane forthrightly opposed the request.
Van Buren himself met Kendall head-on at a White House “family dinner.” During the meal, the New Yorker protested with hearty candor that the removal plan would start a needless fight entailing grave risks for the administration and the party. The ordinarily mild Kendall rose from the table in great excitement. In a voice taut with anger, he said that under Van Buren’s policy the Bank would surely win and that faced with the certainty of that dismal prospect, he and other administration journalists might as well lay down their pens. “I can live under a corrupt despotism as well as any other man by keeping out of its way,” exclaimed Kendall, resuming his seat. As the evening wore on, Van Buren concluded that Jackson was unmistakably veering toward Kendall’s plan. The Vice President of the United States found it politic to apologize fully to the Fourth Auditor of the Treasury and assume blame for the unfortunate incident.
In June of 1833, the Cabinet was reorganized. McLane stepped up as Secretary of State and handpicked the new Secretary of the Treasury, the little-known William J. Duane, primarily for his proven loyalty to Van Buren’s interests. These, to be sure, had been undergoing redefinition. Convinced that Jackson was unalterably in favor of withdrawing the government’s funds, Van Buren was now arguing that he should not do so until after Congress reconvened, for the statute governing removal seemed to require congressional approval. Kendall, however, in a counterthrust, proposed that removal be accomplished by executive fiat before Congress met, rather than risk the embarrassment of legislative defeat. The President again sided with Kendall and on June 26 ordered Duane to arrange the removal. For weeks, the Secretary ingeniously dillydallied, shielded by Van Buren. The latter’s friends, Washington Irving and James Gordon Bennett, editor of the New York Enquirer, were convinced that Kendall was craftily employing the Bank issue to throttle Van Buren’s presidential hopes.
By late summer, Jackson had come around fully to the position of Kendall and his allies, Attorney General Roger Taney and Frank Blair, a leading administration penman. The government’s deposits, the President decreed, were to be removed from the great Bank well before Congress reconvened. With this policy settled and ready for launching, the support of Van Buren and his party following was imperative. It was high time to crack down, which Jackson proceeded to do by directing a strong letter to the Vice President, then sojourning in Albany. “It is already hinted,” the President wrote bluntly on August 16, 1833, “that you are opposed to the removal of the Deposits, and of course privately a friend to the Bank. This must be removed or it will do us both much harm .”
Van Buren’s response was mellifluously noncommittal; Jackson requested that he return to Washington at once. Van Buren, at this moment with Washington Irving on a month’s tour of the old Dutch settlements on the North River and Long Island, begged off. While Van Buren pored over Long Island antiquities, the bank crisis rushed toward its climax. Duane was fired, and Attorney General Taney, who took over the Treasury via a recess appointment, promptly announced that the government would cease placing deposits in the Bank of the United States after September 30. When Congress finally reconvened, the pro-Bank majority in the Senate retaliated by refusing to approve Taney’s appointment to the Treasury.
Van Buren quickly adjusted his own line to the changing situation by writing to the President, lavishing praise upon his course of action. “I now invite you here,” Jackson magnanimously responded. “I have my dear Sarah’s room prepared for you, until your own House can be put in order.”
For all of his tempestuous interludes and narrow squeaks, the Magician emerged with the hard core of his fortunes intact. No unmendable schisms rent his following. The President still counted him as the heir apparent. Van Buren duly captured the Democratic presidential nomination in May of 1835 and swept on to victory at the polls.