Thursday, December 18, 2008

Martin Van Buren

It’s certainly possible to make the case that Martin Van Buren was one of the most important American political figures of the first half of the 19th Century. The man conceived and constructed the Democratic Party and, with it, the Second Party System, which defined and held the country together between the War of 1812 and the Civil War. Later, the decision of the ultimate party man to accept the nomination of the Free Soil Party in 1848 must have stunned his contemporaries.

At the outset of his biography, Martin Van Buren: The Romantic Age of American Politics, John Niven announces his intention to demonstrate that Van Buren was far more than “an unprincipled manipulator, a magician, a Talleyrand, who debased the pure coin of American democracy through the spoils system.”

There was, Niven argues, “a strong moral fiber to the man, a cast of mind that could transcend the immediate and the practical and adopt the unpopular view because he thought it was right.” Niven cites as an example that decision in 1848:
Though in retirement and against all of his political instincts, Van Buren accepted the nomination of the Free-Soil party for President in the campaign of 1848. He knew he would be defeated, but he was willing to put his reputation on the line to administer what he felt would be a timely warning to southern extremists that the North would resist further expansion of slavery.

Niven seems tacitly to be rejecting the argument that Van Buren’s principal motivation in 1848 was personal (such as getting back at the Democrats who had stymied his nomination in 1844) or parochial (such as getting back at the Polk administration for having sided with the Hunkers in cabinet appointments and patronage). It should be a fascinating read.

About the illustration:
A humorous commentary on Barnburner Democrat Martin Van Buren's opposition to regular Democratic party nominee Lewis Cass. Van Buren and his son John were active in the Free Soil effort to prevent the extension of slavery into new American territories. In this he opposed the conservative Cass, who advocated deferring to popular sovereignty on the question. In "Smoking Him Out," Van Buren and his son (wearing smock, far right) feed an already raging fire in a dilapidated barn. (radical New York Democrats supporting Van Buren were referred to as "Barnburners" because in their zeal for social reforms and anticurrency fiscal policy they were likened to farmers burning their barns to drive out the rats). On the left, Lewis Cass prepares to leap from the roof of the flaming structure while several rats likewise escape below him. The artist seems to favor Van Buren, and his attempt to force the slavery issue in the campaign. The Free Soilers, unlike the Democrats, supported enforcement of the Wilmot Proviso, an act introduced by David Wilmot which prohibited slavery in territories acquired in the Mexican War. John Van Buren, adding another pitchfork of hay to the flames, exclaims, "That's you Dad! more 'Free Soil.' We'll rat'em out yet. Long life to Davy Wilmot."

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