Thursday, February 20, 2014

Better Know a President! Series II (Part Three): Squirt-Wirt-Wirt

Like the Adamses, Martin Van Buren had a more distinguished, or rather a more significant, pre-presidential career than his presidential one. In the 1820s he served as a U.S. Senator from New York and helped organize the highly-disciplined political machine, the Albany Regency, that became one of the nuclei of the Democratic Party. To a great extent Van Buren was the inventor of the national Democratic Party, which he believed could unify sections of the country that had clashed with one another over the issue of slavery expansion, in the Missouri Crisis of 1819-21. Party discipline, and the rewards of patronage, could prevent Northern and Southern whites from fighting with one another and instead turn them against the real enemies: the National Republicans and Whigs. Ostensibly, this meant that the two sections' Democratic politicians would settle disputes over slavery with compromises. In reality, Southern Democrats inevitably demanded that their Northern counterparts protect the interests of slaveholders, and they found ample support from Northern Democrats (“Doughfaces”) who favored party unity more than human rights. Hence the anti-abolitionist Congressional “gag rule” of 1836-44, the de facto placement of the U.S. Post Office under state censorship in the South, the re-enslavement and sale of slaves taken by the U.S. Navy from illegal slave traders, and other pro-slavery federal policies. Van Buren supported these policies even if he did not sponsor all of them.

None of these issues greatly affected Van Buren's presidency, in part because his Whig rivals were not an anti-slavery party and did not use slavery as a political cudgel against the Democrats, and in part because he spent his time in office dealing with the consequences of Jackson's presidency. While Indian Removal was Andrew Jackson's legacy Van Buren was just as determined to carry the program through; it was he who sent federal troops into the Cherokee nation to remove the Cherokees at gunpoint, resulting in the death of 4,500 people. It was Van Buren, not Jackson, who had to deal with the Panic of 1837 and the economic depression that followed it, even though Jackson's deflationary Specie Circular had probably contributed to the downturn. The depression was still underway at the end of Van Buren's first term and was the principal factor leading to his defeat in the 1840 election, though William Harrison's partisans did put together a very creative, Barnum-esque presidential campaign, including such ditties as these:

Old Tip he wears a homespun coat
He has no ruffled shirt-wirt-wirt,
But Mat he wears the golden plate
And he's a little squirt-wirt-wirt.

Or so reports Joe Queenan (Imperial Caddy [Hyperion, 1992], 115.) “Tip,” by the way, is short for “Tippecanoe,” Harrison's nickname, and “Mat” for “Matty Van,” the Whig's nickname for their opponent.

President Van Buren also had to deal with the toxic issue of slavery expansion, when representatives of the newly-independent Republic of Texas applied for annexation to the United States. Matty Van's predecessor, Jackson, favored the annexation of Texas, but Van Buren feared that adding a large new slave state to the Union could split the Democratic Party, and so he instead recognized Texas as an independent nation. This was one instance when Van Buren actually stood up to the pro-slavery faction in his party, and at the time it worked: Southern whites chose not to fight and instead merely loaned Texas a lot of money. To his credit, and eventual downfall, Matty stuck to his guns on the Texas annexation issue. When Van B. sought the Democratic presidential nomination again in 1844, Southern slave-owners denied him the prize because of his stance on Texas, which John Tyler had persuaded Southern whites they could now obtain as a new slave state (or possibly as many as five if Texans chose to divide the territory). Van Buren's defeat won him a consolation prize four years later, when the Free Soil Party made him their presidential nominee. It would be going too far, as They Might Be Giants did (in their song “James K. Polk”), to call Mssr. Van Buren an “abolitionist,” but he did lead opponents of slavery expansion out of the Democratic Party, helping ensure the Democrats' electoral loss in 1848 and ultimately the breakup of that party along sectional lines in the 1850s. Clio, the Muse of History, rarely shows a sense of humor, but she does appreciate irony.

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