Useful Notes: Martin Van Buren
"Martin Van Buren was known as something of a free-spending dandy, favoring brightly colored vests and ascots and strange, luminous waistcoats. Only later did we find out that this was because he was a Time Lord."
—More Information Than You Require
Van Buren served one term, but he wasn't bad. Martin/Maarten Van Buren
—"The Presidents", by Jonathan Coulton
(December 5, 1782 — July 24, 1862) was the eighth president (serving from 1837 to 1841)
, and the second from the Democratic Party, after Andrew Jackson
and before Whig president William Henry Harrison
. He was the first president born after America gained its independence, and unlike his British-descended predecessors, he was from the Dutch-speaking people who originally colonized the Hudson River valley, nicknamed the Knickerbockers (the New York Knicks basketball team derives its name from these settlers). His primary language, naturally, was Dutch, making him the only president whose first language wasn't English. Van Buren, having had no ancestry from the British Isles, also has the distinction of being the only President not descended from King John Of England
although he was
descended from William The Conqueror
. He was also famous for possessing Hot-Blooded Sideburns
Following the election of 1824
, Van Buren and his allies banded together and created the Democratic Party to support Andrew Jackson
. Van Buren effectively ran the new party from behind the scenes and made it the leading political party in the nation. Before becoming president, he served as a Senator, the Governor of New York, Secretary of State, ambassador to the United Kingdom, and finally Jackson's vice president. Along with Thomas Jefferson
, he is the only American who has served as Secretary of State, Vice President, and President.
His nickname while running for President was "Old Kinderhook" (Kinderhook was the town where he was born - and died), and his election campaign was known as "The Democratic O.K. Club". While the term "O.K." had been known for a few years, it seems to have been popularized by the election campaign. Van Buren could scarcely have been more different from his hard-assed predecessor. His public image was of an effete intellectual, and opponents criticized him for serving "unmanly" fare like strawberries and celery in the White House.
While a shrewd, brilliant political operator and a very decent man, he was unfortunate to preside over a period of economic hardship. Unable to stop the stinging downturn, he was given the rather embarrassing nickname "Martin Van Ruin" by his political enemies. This was just one of many domestic issues that he ended up on the losing end of. Disputes between America and British Canada nearly led to war, with many criticizing his supposedly weak stance on the issue. He also denied the newly-created Republic of Texas' first request for American annexation on the understandable but unpopular grounds that it would strain relations between the North and South. The Amistad
trial occurred during his presidency; he supported giving the kidnapped slaves back to Spain. Also, contrary to how most people remember it, the forced and bloody relocation of the Cherokee to reservations west of the Mississippi River (an event known as the "Trail of Tears" ) did not happen under Jackson's presidency, but Van Buren's.
Widely unpopular, Van Buren lost reelection in 1840. When he left office, he said "As to the presidency, the two happiest days of my life were those of my entrance upon the office and my surrender of it."
On a side note, in 1839, he became the first sitting president to grant an exclusive interview to a reporter (James Gordon Bennett, Sr., of the New York Herald
He tried to gain the Democrat nomination again for the following election in 1844, though ultimately dropped out in order to help James K. Polk
secure the nomination over Van Buren's Arch-Enemy
, Lewis Cass. Cass eventually did get nominated four years later, and so Van Buren decided to form his own party, the Free Soil Party in order to split the vote and prevent Cass from getting elected. This likely wasn't necessary in retrospect, since Cass's opponent, the hugely popular Zachary Taylor
pretty much had the election in the bag from early on, though Van Buren did get the satisfaction of putting in a relatively good performance for a third-party candidate with a poorly-received Presidential tenure already on his resume.
On the subject of slavery, he was personally opposed to it, but he was willing to let it continue since it was justified under the Constitution. While initially skeptical of Abraham Lincoln
, Van Buren would praise his handling of the war effort
not long before he died.
Martin Van Buren would be the last sitting Vice President to be elected President for 152 years—the next would be George H. W. Bush
. Coincidentally, he also followed a popular two-term president
and lost reelection largely due to a weak economy.
Tropes he embodied:
- Lewis Cass. Van Buren went as far as forming his own political party to split the Democrat vote so that Cass wouldn't win the election of 1848.
- Van Buren also had a particular enmity with his predecessor as Vice President, John C. Calhoun. You may be seeing a pattern here.
- Bilingual Bonus: Dutch was his first language and would often pepper his speeches with gratuitous dutch words and idioms.
- The Chessmaster: Despite his foppish exterior, Van Buren was a political mastermind. He, along with Andrew Jackson, organized and created the Democratic Party almost by themselves; he skilfully used the Eaton Affair to advance himself as John Calhoun's succesor to the Jackson vice-presidency and he was instrumental for Jackson in the dechartering of the Second Bank of the United States and in passing of the Internal Improvements Bills that led to the creation of the Westward Expansion program. For good measure he even did it in his presidential campaign in 1848, deliberately focusing on taking votes away from Lewis Cass in New England in order to throw those states (and by extention, the election) to Zachary Taylor.
- The Dandy.
- Embarrassing Nickname: Matty Van, a moniker he detested.
- The Little Magician was another nickname that embarassed him, since he was rather self-conscious about his short stature.
- After the economic crisis of 1839, he was also given the unfortunately catchy nickname of Martin Van Ruin by his enemies, which also stuck in the public consciousness.
- Heterosexual Life-Partners: With Andrew Jackson.
- Hot-Blooded Sideburns: Rocking mutton chops was one of his biggest achievements as president.
- Intergenerational Friendship: Andrew Jackson was fifteen years his junior.
- Memetic Mutation: Van Buren would say that people who were brave and noble were "from Old Kinderhook" (referring to his hometown). The abreviation of this term Van Buren used is believed by some historians to be the origin of the word "OK".
- Sensitive Guy and Manly Man: The sensitive guy to his presidential predecessor and friend Andrew Jackson's manly man.
Van Buren in fiction
- In an episode of The Monkees entitled "Dance, Monkee, Dance", Martin Van Buren is the answer to a trivia question entitling callers to a free dance lesson. Later in the episode, Van Buren himself shows up for the lesson.
- In Gore Vidal's novel Burr, Van Buren is secretly the illegitimate son of Aaron Burr.
- In a popular episode of Seinfeld entitled "The Van Buren Boys," Kramer and George are threatened by a street gang called the Van Buren Boys with the secret sign of the number 8 because Van Buren was the 8th president. They apparently picked that name because Van Buren was the man they most admired. The gang is apparently "every bit as mean as he was".
- In the 2000 PBS documentary series The American President, Van Buren's voice was provided by Mario Cuomo. In the 1997 film Amistad, he was played, more conventionally, by Nigel Hawthorne.
- In The Simpsons episode "Mr. Spritz Goes to Washington", Krusty is assigned petty janitorial jobs as his first term in the House. One of them is to clean off "Capitol Hill graffiti", reading "Martin Van Buren is a wiener", followed by:
Walter Mondale: Leave that. Lest we forget.
- In an episode of The Adventures of Pete & Pete, Little Pete gets a piece of cereal that resembles Martin Van Buren stuck in his nostril.
- In 2004 version movie of "The Alamo", Martin Van Buren appeared uncredited with another character portraying Andrew Jackson during the scene at Washington, DC. Van Buren was talking to Sam Houston (portrayed by Dennis Quaid) while Jackson stood beside him.
- On the Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode Soul Taker, we see towards the start of the episode a fuzzy TV screen with a picture of him and Crow T. Robot says that its Martin Van Buren.
- He appeared as a character in the podcast RPPR in the episode "Dodgeball to Save the World" with electricity, liquid and portal powers.
- "Project Van Buren" was the code name of an early version of Fallout 3, when it was still in production by Black Isle.
- As noted, according to John Hodgman Van Buren is a Time Lord.
- In the second book of Eric Flint's Trail of Glory Alternate History series, he's referred to as "The Little Magician" for his political acumen.
- Don't forget the Duck Dodgers series, in which the titular character was forced to compete in "roller derby TO THE DEATH" against the "Lesser Known American Presidents," among which were William "Tippiecanoe" Harrison, Grover "Uncle Jumbo" Cleveland, John "Tyler Too" Tyler, and, of course, Martin "Red Fox of Kinderhook" Van Buren.
- A bust of him is occasionally seen on Homestar Runner.
- The Weekenders makes a reference to him when Tino has a bad dream, fuelled by his mother's cooking. "Down with the cotton gin! Down with the cotton gin!"
- He's one of the Presidents of the independent Republic of New England in the Alternate History story Decades of Darkness.
- In an August 2014 episode of The Daily Show, when there was controversy about political dynasties between Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush being considered as the 2016 presidential nominees for the Democratic and Republican respectively, Michael Che met with Martin Van Buren's great-great-great-granddaughter Lily Van Buren.