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Martin Van Buren by Ted Widmer
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The author tried to give an objective narrative of Van Buren's political career - and he largely succeeds. However, the book contains all kinds of references - sometimes totally not related to the subject - that shows authors biases. The book is short but would be much better without author going on the tangent. ( )
  everfresh1 | May 31, 2014 |
This biography of Martin Van Buren, our 8th President, reminded me of Tom Stoppard's play Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, in which Shakespeare's Hamlet is seen through the eyes of two minor characters. In Stoppard's case, the result is very funny, although it helps to know the main story to start with. Here, Van Buren's story, which would seem to be the main topic, is seen only in glimpses sprinkled through a history of the times. For a President so little known to modern readers, the result is frustration.

I'm not sure this is the author's fault, given his subject. Most of Van Buren's career was dedicated to forging a new political party, accomplished by years of backroom (and therefore hidden, even to historians) political maneuvering, which often found him promoting a middle ground between opponents he was trying to woo. In many instances he was thought to have no strong views himself, and, unlike his predecessors, he left no reams of correspondence or voluminous diaries to give us a peak at his inner turmoil. (He did leave an autobiography written only late in life.)

Van Buren was the first of a lesser-known group to hold the Presidency between Jackson and Lincoln. It was a difficult time for the nation, as the addition of territory brought to a head the oft-sidetracked issue of slavery. Sectional divisions strengthened, and, like others, Van Buren foresaw the Civil War, but it was only in the late 1840s that he could bring himself to publicly criticize slavery and call for its end, after many years of letting the issue slide as he courted Southerners. Although his presidency was expected to be at least somewhat successful, the economic policies of previous years came to a head within weeks of his inauguration, and the Panic of 1837 was only the beginning of the downswing which led to Van Buren's defeat in 1840. Born near the end of the Revolution, he lived to see the beginning of the Civil War, having survived most of his political contemporaries.

Two quotes of note:
p. 69. To this day we still do not know how close young Andrew Jackson came to throwing his lot in with Burr's efforts to create an American empire outside the jurisdiction of the United States. (OK, that's not a thread I recall from the bio of Jackson I just read.)

p. 16. His failures showed how difficult it was to assemble a democratic coalition in the face of withering pressure from economic chaos, regional discord, and the conservative enemies who never gave him a moment's peace. (Doesn't that sound familiar?)

And I was surprised to read that Davy Crockett wrote a (very negative) biography of him leading up to the election of 1836. (RIP Fess Parker, who died this week.)

For all its brevity and lack of detail on a personal level, this entry in Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.'s The American Presidents Series is a very readable introduction. I would have liked more information on Van Buren's home life and children, and sometimes the author's style is off-putting, as when he refers to Van Buren by all the cute/sarcastic/nasty nicknames employed by his adversaries. But I found myself drawn in and interested till the end. ( )
2 vote auntmarge64 | Mar 22, 2010 |
Short and easy to read, if a little dull, biography of our little-known 8th president. This was the man credited with the formation of a national Democratic party at a time when regional parties were more common. He was also the first sitting president to actively seek re-election. Previously, it was considered unseemly to engage in campaigning. Van Buren was the youngest man elected to the office of president to date, after being active in state and local politics in his native New York - the first New Yorker to become president, and distant cousin to fellow NY presidents Franklin and Theodore Roosevelt. Van Buren's term in office saw the economic panic of 1837 and the continuation of disagreements over slavery which eventually led to the civil war.

The book is part of the American Presidents series of books - short and generally well-written biographies of most of our former leaders. This volume was written by Bill Clinton's head speech writer and contained several uncalled-for jabs at Reagan and both Bushes, as well as unnecessary adulations of Clinton, Kennedy and LBJ. I couldn't understand why any of these men are relevent to a biography of Van Buren, and the blatant partisianship caused me to have serious doubts about the author's dependability. There are relatively few biographies of Van Buren available and this one is easily obtainable which makes it a good choice for the person with only a casual interest in learing about Martin Van Buren. ( )
2 vote sjmccreary | Mar 9, 2010 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0805069224, Hardcover)

The first president born after America's independence ushers in a new era of no-holds-barred democracy

The first "professional politician" to become president, the slick and dandyish Martin Van Buren was to all appearances the opposite of his predecessor, the rugged general and Democratic champion Andrew Jackson. Van Buren, a native Dutch speaker, was America's first ethnic president as well as the first New Yorker to hold the office, at a time when Manhattan was bursting with new arrivals. A sharp and adroit political operator, he established himself as a powerhouse in New York, becoming a U.S. senator, secretary of state, and vice president under Jackson, whose election he managed. His ascendancy to the Oval Office was virtually a foregone conclusion.

Once he had the reins of power, however, Van Buren found the road quite a bit rougher. His attempts to find a middle ground on the most pressing issues of his day-such as the growing regional conflict over slavery-eroded his effectiveness. But it was his inability to prevent the great banking panic of 1837, and the ensuing depression, that all but ensured his fall from grace and made him the third president to be denied a second term. His many years of outfoxing his opponents finally caught up with him.

Ted Widmer, a veteran of the Clinton White House, vividly brings to life the chaos and contention that plagued Van Buren's presidency-and ultimately offered an early lesson in the power of democracy.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:53:41 -0400)

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