Even the most ardent history lover can be forgiven for not knowing much about Martin van Buren – at least out of the source of “OK”. Time magazine named him one of America’s 10 Most Forgotten Presidents, and C-Span’s 2021 Presidential Historians Survey ranked him as America’s 34th best president, putting Van Buren close to the worst from the first.
I am not claiming that Van Buren was secretly the greatest president of America; He was not to blame for his weak response to the terror of 1837 and his reluctance to deal with the evils of slavery until it was too late to blame his administration and subsequent political career. Much like his political rival John Quincy Adams, however, what Van Buren did outside of the presidency is far more interesting (and important) than what he did as president.
This is because Van Buren’s political philosophy has undergone one of the most important and enduring institutions of American politics – the modern political party. And in a polarized political environment like ours, understanding the mechanics and concepts behind the initial wave of formal bias is important for understanding American politics as a whole. These first steps would not have happened without Van Buren. Therefore, despite his apparent unpopularity, Van Buren deserves your attention.
Although many blame Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton for the origins of American political parties, these early parties were not ubiquitous political instruments that would emerge later. They were ideologically highly divided, and regional and personal differences provoked widespread internal conflicts – especially in the post-war era of so-called good feelings.
Van Buren wanted something different. Like any politician, he wanted to win, but political parties were also important to Van Buren on a philosophical level. Van Buren argued in his autobiography that “the nature of the abuse of power, so deeply ingrained in the human heart, cannot be tested more effectively than in any other way.” [than by a political party]; And so it has always struck me as more dignified and masculine … recognizing their needs, giving them the credit they deserve. “
In other words, Van Buren sees political parties as an essential mediating institution that prevents an individual from gaining too much power. Party leadership, he hoped, would limit any influence that a particularly ambitious or popular person could achieve. This approach was consistent with Van Buren’s Jeffersonian liberalism, as he was more broadly skeptical of non-local government and government intervention.
He dedicated his life and his political career to building a political machine that was competent, intellectual and united. This effort has given birth to two organizations. The first was the Albany Regency, which effectively controlled New York politics from 1822 to 1838. At his height, the Regency was so strong that the now-infamous Tamani Hall in New York City served at his behest. It was in 1828, when the Tamani Regency was under control, that the organization began to organize Irish immigrants for the first time, a move that has since influenced city politics.
Van Buren’s second, more complex and more important project was the founding of the Modern Democratic Party. As Donald Cole describes in his Van Buren biography, the old Democratic-Republican Party was the subject of frequent disputes between the North and the South, and Van Buren hoped that a political alliance between New York and Virginia would heal these divisions and allow a unified organization. . Initially, this method was successful. The New Democratic Party won the 1828, 1832, and 1836 elections with a broad coalition of states.
Of course, like today’s political parties, Van Buren was unable to keep everyone united forever. Regional differences (especially over slavery) intensified again and Van Buren (probably unsolicited) was blamed for the 1837 terror. His defeat at the hands of William Henry Harrison was inevitable. After another failed presidential campaign as part of the Free Soil Party in 1848, Van Buren faded into obscurity.
But his fingerprints remain in American politics. The Democratic Party has survived for nearly 200 years, and many of Van Buren’s structures and institutions have proven stable. Furthermore, historian Robert Remini writes American Biographical EncyclopediaVan Buren “emphasized the importance of the popular majority and … the perfect political strategy that would appeal to the people …. previously parties were considered evil enough to tolerate.”
Martin van Buren may not be everyone’s favorite president, but he deserves study. After all, an estimated 28 percent are familiar with the American Democratic Party. People should at least know how their political party came to be and why it lasted.