Martin Van Buren: Party Animal

I'm not just calling Van Buren a party animal because the term 'booze' was coined because of the E.B. Booz liquor company which supplied the log cabin shaped liquor bottles in his unsuccessful campaign against the Whigs.

Van Buren helped to form one of the first truly national movements in America. To this point, with some exceptions, most politics were defined by regional interests. The Federalist party, or what little was left of it at this point represented the Northeastern manufacturing interests. The Democratic-Republicans represented the Southern agricultural interests.

At one time to be from Massachusetts was to be a Federalist, to be from Virginia was to be a Republican (different meaning then). Van Buren changed all that.

He had modern advances in technology and transportation on his side. Now was the heyday of steam ship travel, the start of efficient train travel and the golden age of party newspapers.

Presidents and politicians in the northeast or Virginia in the early 1800's would never have dreamed of taking months off to travel out west to Ohio or down south to Georgia. To do so would have presented great risks, been excruciatingly slow, uncomfortable and cost prohibitive.

Now, if Van Buren wanted to consult his mentor Andrew Jackson on a policy matter, he could board a train to Tennessee and be back to Washington D.C. in a matter of days, not months.

Newspaper presses started to cater more towards general political sentiments than regional interests. They were also becoming easier to operate and could get readers undivided attention, unlike the political pamphlets of the early 1800's which were only read by those already inclined to agree with them.

These are the tools that allowed Van Buren to forge his national democratic party and are the same tools that the Whig party, copying his methods would use to defeat him four years after took office.


Martin Van Buren: O.K.

Few people who say 'ok' reflexively to a question realize that the term comes from Van Buren.

He used to sign his letters 'O.K.' which stood for 'Old Kinderhook' (his hometown in NY)- one of his many nicknames. This one was use mostly by his operatives to give a homey feel to his policies (think Old Hickory for Jackson or the fireside chats of FDR)

For whatever reason, the phrase stuck around for much longer than people's memories of the president.

Some other interesting nicknames of Van Buren (he had many)

"The Careful Dutchman" (his native language)
"The Little Magician" (he was a kingmaker and very short)
"Martin Van Ruin" (Whig critics name for him due to the Panic of 1837)
"The Red Fox of Kinderhook" (the best kind of nickname, used by friends and enemies)


Martin Van Ruin: Specie Circular

Political Cartoon "The Ghost of Commerce"

Martin Van Buren's presidency was dominated by an economic crisis that known as the Panic of 1837.

It's hard to say if government policy was completely to blame for this economic crisis, but it's fair to say that Martin Van Buren was unjustly blamed for it with his Whig Party critics calling him 'Martin Van Ruin'.

The crisis stemmed from land speculation in taken Indian Lands. If you recall from my posts on Jackson, the Indians by this time were mostly pushed out of the South and East. Jackson's poor Democratic constituents rushed in to purchase cheap land from the government and homestead it.

Speculators got in on the act buying and selling large parcels of this land to resell to people looking to come out and ranch or farm on it. Many of these speculators borrowed from state banks whose paper currency was not backed by specie (gold and silver). This led to massive inflation and a devaluation of paper currency.

In response, Jackson towards the end of his second term issued the Specie Circular act which required that Federal (old Indian) lands be purchased by gold or silver. This essentially froze the credit markets (similar to the credit freeze that escalated the 08' banking crisis, but actually imposed by the government) since the state banks and the borrowers were relying on and trading in drastically inflated paper money they issued.

It's fair to say also that in not renewing the National Bank's charter in his crusade against the bankers and moving the Fed's reserves to state banks, Jackson created the conditions that the state banks could cause this credit bubble.

Van Buren was caught between a rock and a hard place, since he did not want to take responsibility for the crisis himself and did not want to sell out his old friend Jackson. He could have done better in the PR department as he was the first man to really start a political machine, but this was his undoing. The Jackson administration had made so many enemies, the opposition had a very easy time covering the story in their partisan newspapers.

It's the economy stupid. Martin Van Buren was doomed to be a one term president.


Martin Van Buren: A Few Words

(From the White House Historical Association)

As Jackson's Secretary of State, Martin Van Buren was the Super Ego to Jackson's Id. While Jackson was known for challenging his opponents with the (actual) threat of bodily harm, Van Buren was much more likely to invite them to dinner.

His style was not of a gentleman of rank and status like Jefferson and Washington but also was not the hard charging, take no prisoners strategy of Jackson. He was much more of a political animal, understanding that he could not always make a stand on his own pure principals and that sometimes you have to make an alliance with your opponent to get what you want.

This dedication to preserving the peace helped him serve as a moderating influence in the Jackson administration, curbing some of Jackson's wilder instincts. It also helped him serve as a fixer in the constant infighting in the cabinet. He befriended the scandalized Peggy Eaton who had embroiled the administration in sex scandals and who the cabinet members' wives had shunned.

He helped to found the Democratic Party (he and Jackson called it The Democracy) which was not quite like Barack Obama or Nancy Pelosi's party, but still was a political party in the true sense. He united slave owning interests in the South with populist interests in the North, creating the first truly National party.

He has the ironic distinction of being the first President born an American citizen and the only president ever whose native language is something other than English (Dutch). Lou Dobbs and his Birthers would be very confused!


Andrew Jackson: Indian Policy- Could the results have been different?

The American Indian Policy of the early 1800's was similar to most other European powers of the time. That's to say that there was forced or nearly forced assimilation of religion, agriculture and laws. Native Peoples were expected to adopt the language and customs of the more powerful colonizer in a very short time frame, often within a lifetime of running into the foreign power.

This is different than in the Ancient world where for example, the expanding Roman Empire would often let native religion and customs flourish, assimilating the natives over several lifetimes. This assimilation was often carried out through incentives such as positions of influence that were rewarded or simply leading by example and making the natives wish to adopt customs of 'civilization' rather than doling out punishments. The military would often resettle lands that were conquered and over 100 yrs or so, the conquered lands began to look more roman and less 'barbarian'.

I think to look at the possibilities for the way things could have turned out differently in America greatly depended on the individual Indian Nation/Tribe.

I'm of the belief that tribes like the Apaches in the Southwest never could have lived peacefully amongst settlers. This is because their way of life was nomadic and there wasn't really a concept of land ownership or boundaries like there is in Western Culture. Raiding rival tribes was an accepted part of life. There's no possible way that the American people, who came West precisely to own and homestead land could ever have lived in peace with them.

In fact, if you want to look at an ancient parallel, you could look to the Germans in the Roman Empire who even when defeated, Rome could never truly colonize and assimilate until very late in its history. This is because their entire way of life depended on warfare. Agriculture and settlement were actually forbidden by the chieftains because they were afraid that it would make their people too peaceable and unprepared for war.

I do however believe that relations between the '5 civilized tribes' could have gone very differently than they did. The Cherokee, Chicksaw, Choktaw, Seminole and Creek tribes had all adopted regular, settled agriculture to varying degrees. These are the nations that the Supreme Court and many leading citizens of Jackson's time wanted to maintain treaties and trade with.

In my opinion, if it weren't for such a pro Indian removal Executive in the White House at this time that marshaled the US Army for his purposes, these tribes could have remained in the Southeast through the Civil War and possibly to this day. I would also say that if it weren't for the British and Spanish manipulating and convincing the Seminoles and Creeks to fight the United States in the War of 1812, sympathy for Jackson's policies would most likely have been less.

These tribes had villages and cities, some had adopted the Christian religion to varying degrees, many had adopted the Western form of dress and many had learned English, conversed regularly and traded with the White settlers that lived near them.

It's very easy to imagine if not for the forced resettlement, these tribes holding on to much of their culture and evolving and modernizing along with the White Settlers. It's interesting to think about what the country would look like now if the Southeast were some sort of semi autonomous or fully autonomous country.

I think that most of the Tribes would simply have been eventually annexed by the United States and would be sort of like Puerto Rico or Hawaii today- places with their own history and identity, but also are undeniably American.

It's a shame that the populists and speculators won the day in Jackson's time and the stage was set for ethnic cleansing and the forced removal of people from their land.


Andrew Jackson: Indian Policy

Map of the Trail of Tears showing the path that the Cherokee nation had to take to where they resettled in Oklahoma.

from mapoftheunitedstates.org

To the Native Americans in this country, Andrew Jackson is like Hitler. I've talked before about how some tribes will make efforts not to accept twenty dollar bills and the long running campaigns to remove him from the twenty dollar bill.

Jackson got his start as the famous Indian Fighter in the Tennessee Militia in skirmishes with the Creek Indians who had sympathies towards the British after the War of 1812. He later fought the Seminole Indians in Spanish Florida, nearly leading to renewed war with the British when he executed two British Citizens whom he accused of spying.

He capped off his reputation as the enemy of the Indians by siding with the State of Georgia in the 1830's when the State, having found gold on the Cherokees' land, wanted to kick them out. The surprising thing about this is that the Supreme Court at the time actually ruled against the State interfering on Indian lands due to previous treaties and Jackson went against it, eventually putting in motion the Trail of Tears, where thousands of Cherokees who were forced off of their land by the US Army died of exposure, disease and starvation in their forced Western march. The friend of democracy was not a friend of judicial supremacy apparently.

It's without a doubt, that Jackson certainly is the poster boy for the horrible policies against Indians, but I have to wonder if he's to some degree a scapegoat or convenient target. Jackson's views were extreme compared with people like Jefferson and Q. Adams who favored peaceful relations and coexistence or at least tolerance of Indians that abandoned their hunter gatherer ways and adopted agricultural practices. However, they weren't that far out of the mainstream.

Several groups favored abandoning previous Treaties that U.S. had agreed to and favored the policy of pushing Indians off their land. The poor who Jackson identified with had much to gain in homesteading fertile land that was once held by the Creeks, Cherokees or Seminoles. Wealthy land speculators wanted to buy and sell huge swaths of land for development and banking interests wanted to lend to those speculators. Religious interests feared that the Indians among them would erode morality.

Even the most compassionate/law and order whites usually only favored tolerating the presence of civilized, agriculture based tribes, not groups that still made a subsistence from hunting and gathering.

Jackson, in carrying out the policy of forced removal with the Trail of Tears, was simply removing the pretense of law and order that his predecessors had clung to. In his mind, he was bringing democracy to the masses (whites at least).

He also justified these policies as more than simple land grabs by making flimsy arguments that it's in the Cherokees' best interest to move West where tensions with the White Man would cease and they could live their own way of life (never mind that the Whites were causing most of the tension).


Andrew Jackson: The Irony of Paper Money

(from getjacksonoffthe20.net)
very subtle!

There's two major reasons why it's ironic that Andrew Jackson is on the twenty dollar bill.
First and most obvious-he hated paper money.

Jackson was an opponent of the central banking system which printed currency and one of his major legacies was to not renew its charter and remove its gold deposits to state banks.

Andrew Jackson was a populist and always was suspicious of power in the hands of the elite. He saw the bank as something that could buy influence of politicians (there was probably some truth to this) and something that was inherently undemocratic as it could print money without oversight of elected officials (also some truth to that)

He favored an economic system with gold and other precious metals as the currency. He felt that these are the only monetary instruments that cannot be manipulated by powerful interests.

Second, there's the fact that Indian reserves to this day will often not accept twenty dollar bills.

Why do you ask? Well, his policies towards the Indians are worthy of an entirely separate blog post. Remember the Trail of Tears? That's Jackson.

This is doubly ironic due to the fact that Jackson would most likely not want to accept his own twenty dollar bill due to his stance on paper money vs. gold.


Andrew Jackson: SEX Scandals

Peggy Eaton (from academicamerican.com)

Apologies to any new readers, that was just a cheap trick to get you to visit this blog.

Sex scandals have been around for all of American History- certainly there was Sally Hemings with Thomas Jefferson and in almost every Presidential Election- there were accusations from the opposition candidate that their rival had sired children with their slaves (with the exception of John Adams and his son John Quincy Adams since they were the only Presidents so far to not own slaves)

Two major scandals dominated Jackson's administration.

The first I think would even be hard to take even in today's much more forgiving world. Jackson had married a woman before she was technically divorced from her husband. There's lots of opinions on this- for example some feel that in the frontier, marriage could be annulled by mutual consent, some claim that the woman was in an abusive relationship etc...

But seriously, can you even imagine if a presidential candidate married someone before they were legally divorced from their spouse???

Jackson was called a bigamist and adulterer as well as home breaker and wife stealer. In the end, his wife died right before he took office and he blamed the whole affair (no pun intended) on John Quincy Adams' political operatives. Both men went to their death as bitter enemies.

Secondly, there was Peggy Eaton. Peggy was the wife of Jackson's Secretary of War.

The accusations against her were basically that she was a loose woman. She had been married to a man in the Navy who had ended up killing himself and the rumor was that it was because he was distraught over his wife's infidelity.

She was the daughter of a Washington Inn Keeper and would always flirt with the politicians that came in, striking up conversations with men she found interesting. This being un-natural for a woman of these times only fueled the rumors.

The cloud that followed Jackson into the White House would have eventually dispersed, had the feelings on this woman not led to an internal squabble between the wives of his cabinet members.

In those days, there was great importance put on woman calling on or receiving other women of their social rank as guests. Peggy Eaton felt that since she had married into political prominence, she was entitled to be treated as a lady of distinction. The other wives of the cabinat members however, felt that it would insult their virtue to associate with such a woman and refused her visits.

I won't go on anymore about the nuances of the Petticoat Scandal except to say that it ends with an armed posse, one of Jackson's cabinet members fleeing D.C. for his life as Jackson looks on, and the Eatons living an alcohol fueled retirement where they consumed on average two bottles of wine and one bottle of rum a day, an excessive amount even for the times. (I should mention that the cocktail was invented as a breakfast drink in the 1800's)

I can promise you though- as we're getting into the time of cheap, partisan newspapers, the sex scandals will become much more visceral from here on out, and the whisper campaigns will eventually become the shouting matches that we're all so familiar with.