June 1962 | Volume 13, Issue 4
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
The alarums of his friends were still ringing in Van Buren’s ears even as his carriage entered the White House grounds and approached the front portico. A lackey was on hand to open the door and help him alight. The figure that emerged was in dress and form most outstanding—scarcely more than five and a half feet and free of the corpulence that afflicts middle age. It was a pleasantry of Washington society that he wore a corset. Everything about his features seemed exaggerated; his hair was emphatically yellow and curly, parted over the right temple and combed back in wavy masses, hiding his ears. His forehead was of great proportions. Red sideburns came to the point of his jaw. His long and aggressive Roman nose suggested the fox, and his guileless, deep-set blue eyes seemed to promise, as the mood required, easy laughter and prodigious determination. His clothes were a cartoonist’s delight. For years his dandylike dress had been the butt of political broadsides, and on this evening he sustained his reputation: he wore a snulf-colored coat, while trousers, lace-tipped cravat, yellow gloves, and morocco shoes.
Into the White House ihis impeccable little creature walked, with light tiny steps. The doorman ushered him through the vestibule lo the President’s office and opened the door. In the dim light of the single candle that lit that enormous room, he saw a haggard face from which bereavement had drained all spirit. For Andrew Jackson had just buried his beloved wife, and that event—coupled with the torment of ceaseless physical illness—had left him with the countenance of Job: cadaverous eyes with anguished lines beneath them, and withered white hair. But when Jackson rose, there occurred a miraculous transformation from despair and exhaustion, and his affectionate and eager greeting melted every anxiety in Van Buren’s mind. Leaving his own misfortunes immentioncd, Jackson inquired anxiously about Van Buren’s recent illness and, noticing his weariness, insisted that all business be postponed until the next day. Paternally, he ordered Van Buren to bed. fn that short interlude, from those few gestures, Van Buren considered his decision vindicated.
The new Secretary of State had been born December 5, 1782, in a long, low, one-and-a-half-story clapboard farmhouse in Kinderhook, New York. His parents were second-generation Dutch-Americans, who regularly spoke the ancestral language at the dinner table. The father, Abraham, a farmer and tavern operator, was one of the few local residents well-to-do enough to meet the stiff suffrage requirement— ownership of land valued at a hundred pounds over arid above encumbrances. At school age, Martin was enrolled in the Kinderhook Academy, where he compiled a good record. His heart was set on entering Columbia College, when his father’s finances went into an unexpected tailspin and the boy was forced to go to work. The change of plan left its scar. Forever after, Van Buren venerated the learning that had been denied him—so much so that he developed a conspicuous sense of intellectual inferiority.
His dandyish dress had origins in his youth, too. His schooling ended, family friends secured a clerkship for him in the ollices of Francis Sylvester, first lawyer of Kinderhook. Van Buren showed up for his job in coarse homespun linens and woolens made by his economy-minded mother. His employer, appalled by this ungainly apparition, finally took his clerk aside and ardently lectured him on the importance of proper dress. Next day Van Buren had undergone a sartorial transformation that left Sylvester gasping: he was decked out in a complete gentleman’s outfit consisting of a black broad-brimmed cocked hat, a waistcoat with layers of frilly lace, velvet breeches, silken hose, and huge flashing silver buckles.
Although Van Buren rose rapidly in the legal profession, politics was his consuming passion. He so excelled at composing différences in the local Democratic caucus that he was rewarded with a major plum—election at twenty-six as surrogate of Columbia County. A year later, in 1809, he cut short his honeymoon with Hannah Hoes to go off into the deep snows for the hustings. In 1812, Van Buren was elected state senator.
Simultaneously, Van Buren was ascending to a leading place in party councils, owing not so much to his devotion to policy as to his gifts at political management. Hc presided over an enormously successful Democratic organization, the “Albany Regency,” a handful of state leaders who traded jobs in the executive branch for votes in the legislature and made their bargains stick.
In 1821, after a term as New York’s attorney general, Van Buren stepped onto the national political stage when the Regency boosted him into the United States Senate. By every appearance, his coming made no great splash. Though Van Buren toiled with exem-plary diligence on the finance and judiciary committees, he became identified with no significant legislation. He spoke infrequently on the door and seldom with much impact, his pianissimo style of oratory being hopelessly drowned out by the organ tones of titans like Daniel Webster, Robert Hayne, and John C. Calhoun.
As head of the prevailing party in New York, however, he became a leading influence in the congressional caucus and in the wide-open presidential race of 1824. In choosing among the many candidates entreating his support, Van Buren, in the manner of his hero, Thomas Jefferson, aimed to link the power of New York with that of the South. Accordingly he came out for the leading southern candidate, William H. Crawford, a Georgian who had been Secretary of the Treasury in the Monroe Cabinet.
Van Buren’s first venture in the “art and business of President-making,” as he called it, was totally disastrous. Hardly had Crawford announced his candidacy when he was felled by a general paralytic stroke. His nervous system was shattered; he permanently lost the use of his lower limbs and temporarily, his sight and speech. Still, pressed by Van Buren, Crawford stayed in the race. The candidate’s distraught promoters labored overtime at hiding his distress from public view. He made no speeches; a tightly covered coach carried him about when travel was unavoidable. Whenever a meeting with impressionable visitors was necessary, they were ushered into a room so darkened by heavy curtains and dimmed lights that the pitiful Crawford, propped between several devoted associates, was scarcely visible. Hardly had a visitor settled into his chair when he was, on some pretext or other, whisked out. Notwithstanding these precautions, rumors got around that Crawford was a very sick man. In desperation, Van Buren attempted a bold eleventh-hour deal: he offered Henry Clay of Kentucky the Vice Presidency if he would support Crawford. Clay turned him down cold.
The sly maneuver and the ruthless machination provide the basis for much of Martin Van Buren’s lasting political reputation. All his nicknames—and no other public figure in his time or perhaps since has had so many—betoken the unprincipled political trickster. “The Little Magician” and “the Red Fox of Kinderhook” he was first called in New York politics, and later “the American Talleyrand.” DeWitt Clinton spoke of Van Buren as “the prince of villains” and “a confirmed knave.” Calhoun, a later foe, said of him: “He is not … of the race of the lion or of the tiger; he belonged to a lower order—the fox.”
In his private ruminations following the calamitous elections of 1824, Van Buren decided to hitch his wagon to the rising star of Andrew Jackson, fir the three-way race among Jackson, Cruwford, and John Ouincy Adams, the hero of New Orleans had, after all, garnered the largest popular vote, and had lost to Adams only when the election was thrown into the House of Representatives. For the next several years, Van Buren worked quietly and successfully to bring the Crawford men into Jackson’s fold. In 1828, Old Hickory triumphed at the polls and fittingly offered “the Magician,” who in the same year became Governor of New York, the choicest spot in the new administration, the post of Secretary of State.
By every indication, Van Buren proposed to be far more than a mere presidential counselor: he intended to do nothing less than succeed General Jackson in the Presidency itself, and, everything considered, this steadily burning ambition was altogether reasonable. It was widely believed that Jackson did not have long to live. The creeping dropsy, the racking cough, the wizened frame signified a man whose days were numbered. There was, further, an enthralling statistic in Van Burcn’s favor: in the twenty-eight years subsequent to 1800, four secretaries of state had become President.
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.
Van Buren was also launching his moves against the Calhoun camp in another locale. Being an intensely social animal, the Secretary of State had become a major figure in Washington society, a tireless party-giver and partygoer, and it was in these enterprises that he found his finest opportunities to advance his long-range purposes. The situation that worked to his greatest profit was the marriage of Secretary of War Eaton to Mrs. Margaret “Peggy” O’Neale Timberlake on January 1, 1829.
The uncommonly beautiful Peggy was the daughter of a Washington tavernkeeper and the widow of a Navy purser who had allegedly committed suicide because of her extramarital flirtations. Her wedding to Eaton, which should have been an all-out social event, was boycotted en masse by proper and indignant capital ladies. At the inaugural dinner in March they would not speak to her, and Mrs. Calhoun established the precedent, which others quickly followed, of refusing to call on her. The President, gallant and sensitive to suffering femininity, became concerned. The lady herself, meanwhile, was facing up to the situation not like a frail violet but with the ferocity of a tigress. Given Mrs. Baton’s gameness, the President’s interest, and the unyielding opposition of the CaIhouns, Van Buren had all the ingredients of a highly profitable situation. He lost no time in exploiting it.
He proceeded to pay, as Jackson was to term it, “the most devoted and assiduous attention to Mrs. Eaton.” While other Cabinet members were bulldozed by incensed wives and squeamish daughters into slighting the wife of the Secretary of War against the President’s well-known wishes, the unattached Van Buren could maneuver as he pleased. He called on Mrs. Eaton. He gave parties in her honor. He prodded his friends, the British and the Russian ministers, both of whom were bachelors, to give dances at which the Secretary’s lady was treated with pointed distinction.
L’affaire Eaton, strenuously fanned by the enterprising Van Buren, quickly became a roaring holoaust. It gutted the Cabinet. The President, who was choleric on the subject, called his Secretaries together and admonished them to order their wives to be hospitable to Mrs. Eaton. At another point, he proposed to fire a Secretary whose wife was one of the shriller buglers of the crusade against her. But Van Buren managed to pull the President off; there was bigger game to bag.
In the White House the ranks were bitterly divided. Although Jackson was pure loyalty to Mrs. Eaton, the Donelsons with equal conviction deemed her a terrible blot on the social register. Not only that, Mrs. Donelson was blaming Van Buren and Van Buren alone for keeping her there, and the intensity of her feelings was becoming increasingly apparent to him. Until these recent rending events, Emily Donelson had been his favorite companion at dances and dinners. Of late, however, she had become noticeably distant.
One evening Van Buren dropped in at the White House, as was his habit, for a chat with anyone who happened to be about the sitting room. Jackson, he was disappointed to find, was not there. But Emily Donelson and several of her friends were. After some small talk, she drew Van Buren aside and with deadly candor told him that she was puzzled about his disposition toward Mrs. Eaton and would appreciate having the point cleared up. Awkwardly and ingloriously, the trapped Van Buren squirmed out of the situation by declaring that he had an engagement for which he had to leave at once. Under Emily’s exacting gaze, he felt compelled to add that he would be glad to discuss the subject further at their earliest mutual convenience. Emily insisted on a definite date.
At the appointed time, Van Buren and the piquant Mrs. Donelson commenced a long, lively discussion in the sitting room. Also on hand and quite alert was Emily’s cousin, Mary Eastin, who shared her opinion of Mrs. Eaton. The discussion quickly became heated. Greatly affected, Miss Eastin withdrew to the embrasure of a nearby window, sobbing heavily. Alarmed by the deterioration of the situation, and even more concerned that Jackson might enter at any moment, Van Buren worked desperately to set things aright. He launched into a long, consoling monologue; the upshot was that Miss Eastin’s tears were checked. Perhaps more important, Emily Donelson agreed that they should never discuss the subject again.
In the weeks that followed, Van Buren zealously plied the ruffled lady with attentions; the Donelsons, after all, were much too close to Jackson to be alienated. It worked. When Emily Donelson’s first-born daughter was christened in an elaborate ceremony at the White House, the mother had the pick of Washington’s manpower in selecting godfathers for her child; the two she unhesitatingly chose were the President and her recent antagonist, Mr. Van Buren.
A new and momentous issue now rose to restore Martin Van Buren’s still uncertain fortunes. While the Eaton affair was running its merry pace, the country’s attention was turning to the infinitely more complex and menacing issue of nullification. Nothing less than the safety and future of the Union turned on the outcome. The igniting spark had been provided by the Tariff Act of 1828—“the tariff of abominations” it was called in the South—the last of a series of acts discriminating strongly against that region. In Calhoun’s own state of South Carolina, men spoke openly of declaring the act to be null and void and making Charleston a free port; Calhoun himself was nullification’s most articulate advocate.
Andrew Jackson was slow to speak out publicly on the great issue until it squarely confronted him. The occasion was Thomas Jefferson’s birthday anniversary—April 13, 1830. In the four years since his death it had not been the object of any special celebration, however much Jefferson was venerated by his countrymen and the party he had founded. Now, however, Senators Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri and Robert Hayne of South Carolina proposed a grand subscription dinner, ostensibly to remedy this oversight. To Van Buren, the plot was clear. The celebration, he told Jackson, would be used as “a stalking horse” for linking Jefferson’s prestige to the current doctrines expounded by Calhoun and Hayne.
When Van Buren, with Jackson and Donelson, joined the nearly one hundred celebrants in the dining hall of Brown’s Indian Queen Hotel on April 13, they found the atmosphere already decidedly chilly. Van Buren quickly discovered the cause when he picked up from one of the tables a card on which had been printed the formal toasts to be offered in the course of the evening. It was clear at a glance that the banquet hall would resound with sentiments dear to the nullifiers. Only a few minutes before the arrival of the presidential party, the Pennsylvania delegation, taking one look at the toast cards, had walked out in a pique. Several other delegations were feverishly conferring on the same decision. The Marine band, meanwhile, was blaring away with extra vigor to drown out the rising tension.
Somehow the meal began and passed without incident. Then, after what seemed interminable preliminaries, the toast of the President of the United States was called for. The room crackled with expectation. The short-statured Van Buren, his view hopelessly blocked by the crowd, climbed up on a chair to observe the President. Jackson at last rose. In a voice rough with defiance, he declared, “Our Union: It must and shall be preserved.” Without a word more, he lifted his glass as a sign that the toast was to be drunk standing. Chairs scraped and there was a hum of excited whispering as the company rose. Calhoun stood with them. “His glass,” noticed a nearby participant, “trembled in his hand and a little of the amber fluid trickled down the side.”
The fight was now in the open. A visitor to the Senate gallery observed, not long after, that the Vice President seemed “more wrinkled and careworn than I had expected from his reputed age.… His voice is shrill.… His manners have in them an uneasiness, a hurried, incoherent air.” With the stealth and evil grace of the fox, Van Buren came in for the kill. His route was typically circuitous, and the weapon he counted upon to destroy Calhoun was a letter. It was a very special letter, solicited by Van Buren’s trusted aide, James A. Hamilton, and written long ago by William H. Crawford while serving as Secretary of the Treasury in the Cabinet of James Monroe.
Secretary Crawford’s letter centered upon a climactic episode of the Seminole Indian War in 1818, when Jackson as commanding general in the field invaded Florida without consulting President Monroe and seized the Spanish forts of St. Marks and Pensacola. To the nation, Jackson was instantaneously a hero; to the President he was arrant and insubordinate. Monroe took up the problem with his Cabinet. There, according to the Crawford letter, John C. Calhoun, then Secretary of War, forthrightly recommended that General Jackson be arrested and punished.
The letter, which had been retrieved from an old trunk in Crawford’s Georgia home, reached Jackson via a number of trusted hands, including those of Van Buren’s faithful White House ally, W. B. Lewis. Through Lewis, the letter finally came to Donelson and thence to the President. Jackson, to whom the disclosures were not altogether a surprise—only recently he had discussed the entire incident with ex-President Monroe himself—was still seething from the Jefferson Day dinner. The evidence is impressive that he desired to strike further at Calhoun, and Van Buren’s conveniently timed skulduggery gave him a pretext for doing so. The President, accordingly, lost no time in dispatching a peremptory request to Calhoun to explain his conduct in the Monroe Cabinet. In a painstaking answer of some fifty-two pages, the Vice President freely admitted the charges, defended his own conduct, and condemned Crawford for betraying the secrets of the Cabinet. Evidently eager to keep the fight going, Jackson tartly informed Calhoun that his reply was unsatisfactory. Their break was now complete.
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.
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.
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.
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.
On March 4, 1837, the scepter passed. The day was bright, glistening with the exhilaration of spring and the sense of renewal implicit in an inauguration. Seated side by side in the carriage Constitution, drawn by the famous grays, were the outgoing President and his confidential adviser and chosen successor. After a dignified passage down Pennsylvania Avenue, the two men on whom all interest centered appeared on the east portico of the Capitol. Below was a vast crowd wedged breathlessly together, faces upturned—”a field,” said one observer, “paved with human faces.” They were silent, still and reverent. The inaugural proceeded. The Chief Justice of the United States stepped forward to administer the oath to the President-elect. The new President began delivering his message, but its urbane substance was lost in the droning monotone of his speaking style. No cheers interrupted it; the applause at the end was polite but unenthusiastic.
The old General, now divested of power, rose to descend the broad steps of the portico to take his seat in the carriage. The feelings of the crowd, so long restrained, rolled forth like a giant thunderclap. The cheers burst and burst again from three thousand hearts. The new President descended too, but he was all but unnoticed and forgotten. All eyes were on General Jackson as he uncovered and bowed, the wind stirring his silver locks. A part, indeed a substantial part, of the tribute being paid the General and his outgoing administration belonged to the unnoticed men behind him, and Jackson, more than anyone, knew it. But the crowd did not know, and never would know. Martin Van Buren, on his most glorious day, the day for which he had plotted and gambled and maneuvered and flattered for eight anxious years, was paying the price for the secrecy of his success in the palace shadows. “For once,” as Thomas Hart Benton remarked, “the rising was eclipsed by the setting sun.”