The Martin Van Buren biography I chose was written by an author I'd never heard of. It is part of The American Presidents series. I am such a fan of biography giants David McCollough and Jon Meacham that I had the sense that reading biographies from this series was a bit of a step down. [Snob Alert!]
I could not have been more wrong. Aside from the fact that this book by Ted Widmer was under 200 pages, I sincerely enjoyed reading his take on the eighth president. I had braced myself for what my Brad-Dad called “the boring reading” of this project, but it never happened.
Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., another giant in the world of history, is the general editor of this series and I really appreciated this excerpt from his Editor's note:
“Biography offers an easy education in American history, rendering the past more human, more vivid, more intimate, more accessible, more connected to ourselves. Biography reminds us that presidents are not supermen. They are human beings too,worrying about decisions, attending to wives and children, juggling balls in the air, and putting their pants on one leg at a time. Indeed, as Emerson contended, 'There is properly no history; only biography'”
I really love that. It helps frame for me precisely why I'm reading my way through the presidents. I am not out to become a presidential scholar. I just want to understand U.S. history better and exploring it from the perspective of the men who have led it seems one way to do it. I really had no way of predicting how enjoyable this project would be. Widmer's approach to Martin Van Buren will be a highlight of the entire project.
Between pages two and 41, Widmer had this reader on speed dial with her phone's dictionary. He used GOOD words like:
Velleity – a wish or inclination not strong enough to lead to action.
Quixotic – romantic behavior or following beliefs even though they are foolish or unreachable goals (I swear I have to look up this word every time I run across it. Maybe the definition with stick with me this time.)
Rodomontade – arrogant boasting or blustering, ranting talk.
Internecine – something that is harmful or destructive to both sides involved.
Perfervid – intense and impassioned.
Jingoistic – overly patriotic or nationalistic.
Bellicosity – warlike or hostile attitude or nature.
The word Calumny (slander) happened to appear in every biography from Washington to Jackson. Van Buren is the first time I did not read it.
Martin Van Buren was the first president from the state of New York and was the first ethnic president. His family was Dutch. He overcame incredible odds (he did not come from money, he was not a descendent of the English, he was not well educated) to make his way to the highest post in the country.
When a friend texted me that Van Buren didn't do a lot, so the biography would be a quick one, I texted back, “The author would argue VB deserves more attention than he's received.”
Van Buren “was a gifted legislator” and was easy to get along with “even his enemies admitted.” He created the Democratic Party. Widmer writes, this “was the achievement of a lifetime, and too many biographers pass over these years to get to his presidency. If he had never been elected, he still would have been important for his guerilla activity in the middle of the 1820s. He defeated more than an administration; he destroyed an entire system that had ossified and installed in its place something far more modern.”
Van Buren's presidency was the low light of his career. Soon after he took office, a great depression hit. “The Panic of 1837 was simply the worst financial catastrophe in American history until the crash of 1929.”
Of slavery, another difficulty Van Buren's presidency couldn't overcome, Widmer writes, “It was the most glaringly undemocratic idea in our history, so powerful that we are still wrestling with its legacy in the 21st century. But until Van Buren's administration, it was largely invisible as a matter of public discourse.”
The experience of reading Van Buren's biography was so enjoyable because of Widmer's ability to connect historical dots and highlight contrasts and comparisons with other presidents through U.S history. This is one of my favorite passages of the entire book: “It goes without saying we need our Lincolns and Washingtons – the United States would not exist without them. But we need our Van Burens, too – the schemers and sharps working to defend people from all backgrounds against their natural predators. For democracy to stay realistic, we need to remain realistic about our leaders and what they can and cannot do.”