Notes Towards a Biography of Martin Van Buren

I’m in the middle of the rightly much-lauded How to Hide an Empire by Daniel Immerwahr – expect a review shortly. Importantly, although Immerwahr has unimpeachable credentials when it comes to academic history, Hide an Empire is not meant to overturn our understanding of belle-epoque American imperialism; it’s a popular work, briskly written, with at least a few passages that have made me gasp out loud. It’s great! And it has got me fiddling with my own American history passion project, a biography of our 8th president, Martin Van Buren.

I came to be fascinated with Van Buren from the facts of his childhood. Born Maarten Van Buren in Kinderhook, NY, he spent many years before speaking a word of English, the only president so far to pick up the language later in life. He singlehandedly reinvigorated partisan politics in the Monroe administration and schmoozed his way to the top job through decades of party politics. Other salient interesting features include:

  • His ancestors left Holland amid the Dutch Golden Age and came to be part of a large section of Dutch families in New York, whose impact is of course endemic throughout the city and state
  • He was the first one-termer not named Adams, and played dirty politics following his 1840 defeat with presidential nominations
  • Between him and George HW Bush, no vice president would take over the reins from his termed-out predecessor
  • The Panic of 1837 began barely 60 days into his administration, an economic crisis without parallel until the Great Depression
  • His vice president, Richard Mentor Johnson, was the only one elected under the provisions of the 12th Amendment
  • His foreign policy had to deal with Indian wars, Mormon wars, Upper and Lower Canadian wars, the Amistad, and Texas
  • As regards slavery, he was in modern eyes, “on the right side of history”. He lived until 1862 and strongly backed Lincoln’s efforts to persecute the war against the South

&c., &c. Anyway, if there are any desirous publishers out there, please don’t hesitate to send me over a wad of cash. You’ll get a nicely padded biography for your efforts. I can’t promise it’ll become a best-seller, but I am very interested to pursue it!

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