Martin Van Buren
Eighth President of the United States
Martin Van Buren is one president that, thanks to my cultural background, I was always aware of – but before Cole’s book, I never realized his impact on the modern political system. If Andrew Jackson gave birth to the Democratic Party, Van Buren fathered the modern rendition of the political party system. While I came away from this book liking Van Buren’s politics even less than I did before, I was still interested in how he brought so many conflicting opinions together to organize a solid political party. Cole’s presentation of Van Buren and his political life puts a greater emphasis on the party, and its evolution than he does on Van Buren as a man. This made the book a little monotonous at times and even a little hard to follow the political infighting that figures prevalently throughout the book. But it is an interesting look into the birth of the party struggles that continue to shape our government today.
I have never been a big fan of political parties. I believe they have grown into a strong impediment of government effectiveness. Cole suggests that “political parties were democratic organizations that enabled the people to take part in government. More than that, political parties protected the state against selfish individuals by subordinating the individual to the will of the party.” This is the core of the political party paradox – which has plagued societies since their inception. Even today, we can see that while the political party is essential to accomplishing anything in government, the political infighting has reduced the efficacy of government efforts, as the will of the party undermines the identity and moral convictions of its individual members.
Starting on a local level, Van Buren initially rose through the ranks of New York politics during the 1820s and 30s. During this time period, the face of government and the political system as a whole was forced into dramatic changes as a means of adapting to the dramatically evolving American society. It was a time of massive change, innovation and evolution that put the nation on a course of economic upheaval that wouldn’t find resolution until the Civil War.
In addition to the steamboat, which changed the speed and ability to travel, [n]ew technology revolutionized the nation’s economy. The cotton gin and steel plow enabled farmers to specialize and produce greater crops than before, while textile mills springing up on the streams of New England and New York allowed manufacturing to start competing with agriculture and commerce for economic leadership. The rise of banks and the growth of cities furthered the transformation of the economy.
Van Buren’s political career began in the middle of these dramatic social and economic changes. Outside of the influence and protection of Tammany Hall, Van Buren needed to find a way of surviving politically, without the strong arm tactics of the political Tammany powerhouse. Through close political associations and keen political savvy, Van Buren founded a loose political organization known as The Regency – which would eventually merge with the Jacksonian Democrats to create a political party that would long outlive the machinations of Tammany Hall. But what I found interesting about this whole process, which Cole explains in long and often pedantic detail is the paradox of political party systems – under whatever name they operate – that
would eventually produce some of the most catastrophic events in history, in myriad nations and continents. This makes the life of Van Buren an interesting study into the dangers of political parties – through the study of their inception in a nation that was already in the early stages of crisis.
Cole uses many primary accounts to demonstrate Van Buren’s concept of political parties as having primacy over all other considerations. Through the Regency, Van Buren “emphasized . . . his conviction that the party should come before the individual.” Through this conviction Van Buren found that at times it was difficult to remain consistent in a rapidly changing community because political considerations “often outweighed ideological considerations.” Simply put, Van Buren believed that “once the party had made a decision all its members should rally behind it.” The party came first and foremost in everything and all politics and governmental efforts should be premised on this understanding.
These beliefs are inherently dangerous – and they demonstrate the paradox of the political party construct – namely the potential that a party can and usually is carried to extremism. In the early stages of The Regency, political factions dominated the political landscape of American government. Most of these factions were generally regionally founded and rallied around specific individuals who represented similar regional ideas. Since the early United States was a highly fractious society with myriad dividing fault lines i.e. North and South; East and West; City and Country; Waterfront and Western Interior; Slave and Free; Agrarian and Commercialized. The American society struggled to come together on anything. However, like the Socialists of Nazi Germany or the Communists in Czarist Russia – the political party system would become a unifying agent that only needed the vision of an individual to organize it. Once organized, the evolution was inevitable and generally moved, inexorably towards radicalism and/or extremism.
This shift can be seen through Van Buren’s move from state to national politics. Starting with his advancement to Jackson’s cabinet and his eventual election to the presidency in 1836, Van Buren demonstrated how a small political faction was able to emerge onto a national stage and effectuate sweeping changes through a loyalty to party mentality. “The election of 1836 marked an important turning point in American political history because of the part it played in establishing the second American party system. . . . By the end of the campaign of 1836 the new party system was almost complete, as nearly every faction had been absorbed by either the Democrats or the Whigs.” This election also represented the introduction of a change in the political campaign process. Van Buren was “the first presidential candidate to run in a campaign that downplayed the nominee and stressed the party” over all other considerations, which opened the door to the party system we know so well today.
Once introduced on a national level, political parties emerged as a means of dealing with the escalating national problems that were creating the first cracks that would eventually lead to the Civil War. National problems such as tariffs, the need for internal improvements to the nation’s infrastructure, banking and slavery created the foundation that would give impetus to the rise of the party system, before they tore the country apart. “With the rise of these national issues, national elections and national political parties began to surpass state elections and state parties in importance.” This opened the door to political parties as a means of allowing people to take part in the political process and engage with the government on a local level – in a party that had national influence.
The paradox is that the political party system was “premised on a new concept of society – one based not on consensus but on unavoidable conflict.” Add this to the already crumbling societal foundation and the results were inevitable. But it is also highly suggestive of the dangerous power of the parties that they survived with little collapse through the war that ended or altered completely, much about the early American society. I would also suggest that the power and influence of the political party system – for both good and bad – is perhaps more effectively judged today than it in the early days of the party’s origins.
Simply put, Cole’s book provides more than a simply biography of one of the little known presidents of American history. Rather, this is a book that provides a great insight and foundation into the origins of party politics and how they came to have such an influence on our governmental system as a whole. While it is a struggle to read at places and at times it can be more confusing than anything – it is a great learning tool for understanding our government today.