President Martin Van Buren does not usually receive high marks from historians. Born of humble Dutch ancestry in December 1782 in the small, upstate New York village of Kinderhook, Van Buren gained admittance to the bar in 1803 without benefit of higher education. Building on a successful country legal practice, he became one of the Empire State's most influential and prominent politicians while the state was surging ahead as the country's wealthiest and most populous. After his election to the U.S. Senate in 1821, this consummate back-room strategist helped mastermind a reemergence of ideologically distinct political organizations out of the corrupt and faction-ridden interlude of single-party rule--euphemistically labeled the Era of Good Feelings--that had followed the War of 1812. A new Democratic Party resuscitated the old Jeffersonian alliance between planters of the South and plain Republicans of the North, united behind the charismatic hero of the West, General Andrew Jackson, and Jackson was elected to the White House in 1828.
Van Buren succeeded to the presidency as Old Hickory's heir apparent on March 4, 1837, but this triumphant fulfillment of a lustrous career would prove short-lived. The eighth U.S. president was soundly defeated in his bid for reelection in 1840, and so became the first in a series of single-term chief executives. Four years later the Democracy rejected its venerable architect as presidential nominee, and Van Buren's 1848 candidacy as standard-bearer for the Free Soilers, an antislavery third party, failed to carry a single state. The elderly New Yorker survived long enough to witness the outbreak of Civil War but passed away in July 1862 at the age of seventy-nine.
Van Buren was a lawyer-president who represented a new breed of Professional politician. His opponents denounced him during his life for subtle intrigue, scheming pragmatism, and indecisive "non committalism." Those charges were reflected in such popular nicknames as the Little Magician, the Red Fox of Kinderhook, and the American Talleyrand. The ideologically compatible but personally acerbic John Randolph of Roanoke once observed that "he rowed to his objective with muffled oars," faulting him as "an adroit, dapper, little managing man," who "can't Inspire respect" (quoted in Bruce 1922, vol. 2,203, and Niven 1983, 358). Van Buren's demeanor reinforced such impressions. Appearing shorter than his five feet and six inches, he was stout and balding by the time of his inauguration, his formerly red side-burns now grey and framing a large head with a prominent brow and calculating blue eyes. Always fashionably dressed, charmingly witty, and imperturbably amiable, Van Buren never let political differences master his emotions or cloud his social relations. He was not a daring, original intellect in the mold of John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, and his ability to draw out the views of others often masked his pious devotion to orthodox Jeffersonianism.
Even sympathetic historians tend to slight Van Buren's term in office as the "third Jackson administration." Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., concludes that, while president, "Van Buren was weak in the very respect in which he might have been expected to excel--as a politician." Except during the last year in office, his management was "negligent and maladroit" and showed very little "executive energy" (Schlesinger 1945, 263). On the other hand, modern advocates of decentralization and states' rights are often more taken with Van Buren's better-known rival, Calhoun, and his doctrine of nullification. Van Buren admittedly would not go to the lengths of a John Randolph in sacrificing political success for ideological purity. Yet the New Yorker's overall career displayed far more consistency in opposing government power at all levels than did the twisting, turning path of the swaggering opportunist from South Carolina. Van Buren was also better attuned to Old Republican antistatism than the irascible, impulsive, and militaristic Old Hickory as strikingly illustrated by Van Buren's more conciliatory rejection of nullification in spite of bitter personal differences with Calhoun. Above all, in sharp contrast to his political mentor, Thomas Jefferson, the Little Magician managed to hew more closely to principle when he was in the White House than when he was not. Indeed, a close examination of Van Buren's four years in office reveals that historians have grossly underrated his many remarkable accomplishments in the face of heavy odds. Those accomplishments, in my opinion, rank Martin Van Buren as the greatest president in American history.(1)
Greatness must be measured against some standard. Let us begin our Examination with foreign policy, the area in which a president's individual traits probably can make the most difference in history's trajectory. Conventional historians tend to have a nationalist bias that makes them appreciate a strong executive who lastingly contributes to the growth of central authority. They thus have a particular weakness for wartime presidents. Unless the commander in chief turns out to be utterly inept, war allows him to show off forceful, dynamic leadership. In a 1961 collection of scholarly articles titled America's Ten Greatest Presidents, for instance, half the subjects were presidents who had dragged the country into war. And when the collection was revised ten years later and published as America's Eleven Greatest Presidents, the addition was Harry Truman, a president whose reign spread over two hot wars plus a cold war.(2)
I suggest, in contrast, that presidents merit recognition for keeping the United States out of war, and Van Buren has the unique distinction of keeping the country out of two: one with Mexico, another with Britain. Van Buren's deep commitment to peace and neutrality was evident even before he assumed the highest office. He was instrumental, as Jackson's first Secretary of State, in negotiating the opening of direct trade with the British West Indies, a long-standing American goal that the administration of John Quincy Adams had completely botched. In the midst of Old Hickory's second term, while Van Buren was serving as vice president, the president's hot temper almost provoked conflict with France over spoliation claims arising out of depredations on American commerce during the Napoleonic Wars. The vice president, fortunately, helped moderate Jackson's belligerence and bring the dispute to an amicable settlement.
Jackson's closing policies, however, handed the president-elect another potential conflict. The hero of New Orleans had looked on with pleasure as American settlers in the Mexican province of Texas declared independence in 1836 and staged a successful revolt. Popular expectations ran high on both sides of the southwest border that the fledgling Texas Republic would soon join the United States. But Mexico refused to recognize the new nation, and the Texas constitution sanctioned slavery, setting off a hue and cry among American abolitionists about the Slave Power's latest expansion into new territory. Any annexation by the United States threatened both a foreign war and domestic political controversy between Southerners and Northerners. Although the Little Magician helped to delay formal U.S. recognition of Texas independence until he had won the 1836 presidential election, the retiring Jackson menacingly pressed American claims for monetary damages against the Mexican government.
But the new president, unlike his predecessor, was not eager for war in the southwest. On top of his sincere desire for friendly relations with all foreign powers, Van Buren correctly foresaw that territorial expansion might split Democratic ranks. He therefore deftly rebuffed Texan overtures, and his Secretary of State, John Forsyth of Georgia, announced on August 25, 1837, the administration's formal rejection of the offer of annexation. Over the next two years Van Buren's diplomatic skill and patience got the Mexican government to accept arbitration of U.S. claims by a commission made up of two members from each country and one member designated by the King of Prussia.
The eighth president's hope for peace endured well after he left office. Machinations by President John Tyler of Virginia and none other than John C. Calhoun subsequently catapulted Texas annexation into the midst of the 1844 presidential campaign. Van Buren was then front-runner for the Democratic nomination. Yet he issued a public statement favoring annexation only if it could be accomplished without upsetting U.S. relations with Mexico, fully aware that the qualification would cost him politically. "We have a character among the nations of the earth to maintain," Van Buren avowed. Whereas "the lust of power, with fraud and violence in the train, has led Other and differently constituted governments to aggression and conquest, our movements in these respects have always been regulated by reason and justice" (quoted by Sellers 1991, 415). An increasing number of Southern Democrats, including the dying but still influential Jackson himself, turned away from the New Yorker. The Little Magician held support from a majority of delegates as the party's convention opened in Baltimore, but the convention rules required a two-thirds vote to nominate. After eight deadlocked ballots, the delegates settled on the first dark-horse candidate in American history: James Knox Polk of Tennessee, an ardent expansionist. Polk would win a slim victory at the presidential polls and then conduct the very war that Van Buren had tried so hard to prevent.(3)
President Van Buren also could have had a war over Canada. The United States had twice mounted military expeditions to conquer its northern neighbor, first during the American Revolution and again during the War of 1812. At other times, annexation was considered, sometimes to the point of encouraging insurgencies...