Book review: The American Talleyrand: The Career and Contemporaries of Martin Van Buren, by Holmes Alexander (1935)
I hardly expected a biography of the eighth President of the United States to be one of my favorite reads of 2015 and one of the most enjoyable of my Presidential Reading Project so far. Apparently, Martin Van Buren, aka The Little Magician, continues to work his magic in mysterious ways.
Following such heavy hitters as Washington, Jefferson, Monroe, Madison, Jackson and the two Adams, Van Buren was a big unknown for me. As a relatively forgotten president, I had low expectations for any biography of this man and his times, and sure enough, the first book I checked out from the library (selected from a very small pool of Van Buren biographies) was about as dull as you’d expect. (Martin Van Buren: The Romantic Age of American Politics, by John Niven (2000), read as a dry recitation of facts about early 19th-century New York state politics, and I bailed 100 pages in, refusing to soldier through 700 pages to the end.) Thankfully I persevered with my project, checking out a musty book published 80 years ago, with yellowed pages and an old-school library cover all in blue.
Written with personality, charm, and an entertaining (and clearly opinionated) voice, author Holmes Alexander unspools the life of America’s first master politician, warts and all, in a thorough yet brisk four hundred pages. To say it was a page-turner for this history buff would not be an exaggeration. I learned much about Van Buren, a lackluster President who achieved more on his way to the White House than in it, notable as the first true Politician (with a capital P) in every sense of the word as we know it today. Here was a man who, while not a great leader or brilliant thinker, could read the political current and masterfully hitch his kite to the most providential tradewinds, navigating a rise from humble beginnings in Kinderhook, New York, to the halls of power in Albany and Washington D.C., where he served as governor, senator, Secretary of State, V.P., and finally (and unexceptionally) as a one-term President.
U.S. Presidents who preceded Van Buren were true statesmen, eloquent great thinkers, many of them Founding Fathers, who put the good of the fledgling country before personal gain. Martin Van Buren changed the game; he made his mark on the U.S. political landscape as the vanguard of the quintessential politician–scheming, manipulative, opportunistic, vague, and self-serving. With his trademark practice of ignoring pointed questions on policy or pressing issues of the day, Van Buren would have thrived in a contemporary presidential election. We have Van Buren to thank, in part, for bringing political patronage to a national stage, having perfected the “spoils system” during his years orchestrating the Albany Regency, an organization that controlled New York politics for years and cemented party politics, with the Little Magician pulling the strings from off stage.
During the 1828 presidential election (a battle between war hero and “man of the people” Andrew Jackson vs. aristocrat and incumbent John Quincy Adams), Van Buren worked his political hocus-pocus on behalf of his ally, Old Hickory. This first truly democratic election (what historian Lynn Hudson Parsons called The Birth of Modern Politics) had the Little Magician’s fingerprints all over it, and was colored by unsavory practices such as mudslinging, personal attacks, and party electioneering.
The Red Fox of Kinderhook, as Van Buren came to be known, was much more interested in playing politics than serving the people, and author Holmes Alexander demonstrates how, time and again, “Matty B” chose the politically expedient path over the greater good. He also shows how Van Buren’s political gamesmanship came back to hinder his presidency, his ultimate career aspirations, and his place in the pantheon of American historical greats.
A desire to dig deep into American history was the impetus for my Presidential Reading Project. Discovering books such as The American Talleyrand has been an unexpected and delightful consequence.