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The Elbert Files: Alike but different


During an autumn trip to upstate New York, my wife and I visited Lindenwald, the home of our eighth president, Martin Van Buren, near Kinderhook. The day before, we’d toured Franklin Roosevelt’s Hyde Park home 50 miles south.

I was struck by the similarities between two of our best- and least-known chief executives.

Both master manipulators were of Dutch heritage, born a century apart in small towns near the Hudson River – Van Buren in 1782, the son of a Kinderhook tavern keeper; Roosevelt in 1882 at Hyde Park to a wealthy businessman. 

Both married cousins. Van Buren’s wife, Hannah Hoes, gave birth to four sons before dying in 1819, while Martin was still launching his political career. Eleanor Roosevelt was the mother of five sons and one daughter and a major factor in Franklin’s political success. She died in 1962.

Van Buren was the first president born in New York. Roosevelt was the last until Donald Trump took office a year ago.
Van Buren was the first of eight presidents who served single terms or less (two died in office) during a pre-Civil War period fraught with economic, geographic and cultural turmoil. 

When Van Buren took office in 1837, Andrew Jackson’s “Bank War” had left the country short of hard money and credit, creating the nation’s worst economic depression until Roosevelt faced the Great Depression in 1933. 

Van Buren was also challenged by westward expansion – Texas and Iowa became states during the mid-1840s — and a border war with Canada. 

Then there was slavery. 

Because Van Buren was building a national political party with Southern support, he was usually viewed as pro-slavery. He did briefly oppose slavery during his post-presidential life, but changed again before dying in 1862.

An interesting sidelight was Van Buren’s vice president, Richard Mentor Johnson of Kentucky, who lived with a woman of African descent and fathered mixed-race children. That did not seem to bother many Southern voters, because Johnson was widely, although wrongly, renowned as the man who killed the great Shawnee warrior Tecumseh in Canada during the War of 1812.

As a young lawyer, Van Buren was a protégé of Aaron Burr. Their physical resemblance prompted rumors that Van Buren was Burr’s illegitimate son. He was not, but Van Buren was Burr’s political heir and turned Burr’s political organization into a state and national power.

Burr and Van Buren were both regarded as political schemers, although their “schemes” consisted largely of choosing their words carefully and avoiding controversial positions. Those who knew them best considered Burr and Van Buren to be honest and gracious men who were able to control their emotions, traits that Roosevelt also shared.

Van Buren was named “the magician” for his ability to organize votes and exploit patronage. He advanced through New York politics and a series of offices, including U.S. senator and governor before becoming Andrew Jackson’s secretary of state and second vice president.

He ran as a Democrat to replace Jackson in 1836 and defeated the Whig Party, which split its vote among four candidates.

In 1840, Whigs united behind war hero William Henry Harrison and exploited the economy to easily defeat Van Buren.

Four years later, Van Buren attempted a comeback but failed to capture the Democratic nomination, which went to James Polk, who went on to win. Polk did not run in 1848, but Van Buren did. As a third-party candidate, he received enough Democratic votes to swing the election to Whig candidate Zachary Taylor.

While Van Buren was, like Roosevelt, a master political strategist and an innovative campaigner, his biographer Donald B. Cole said Van Buren failed as president because “he failed to grow in the White House.”

That was a mistake Van Buren’s Hyde Park neighbor never made.

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