From Publishers Weekly
In the latest volume of Arthur Schlesinger's American Presidents series, Widmer (Young America
) paints a brief but elegant portrait of our eighth president, who, Widmer says, created the modern political party system, for which he deserves our "grudging respect." Andrew Jackson's successor, Martin Van Buren (1782–1862) was also at various times Jackson's secretary of state, ambassador to the Court of St. James's and vice president. As Widmer relates, some newspapermen called the New York Democrat "the little magician" because of his diminutive frame and his deftness at political sleight of hand. Others—who criticized his response when the American economy ground to a halt shortly after his election in 1836—called him "Martin Van Ruin." Despite the collapse of financial markets in 1837, Van Buren held fast to his belief in the Jacksonian principles of limited federal government, states' rights and protection of the "people" from the "powerful." This led him to reject calls for a national bank and an independent treasury. Throughout his term, Van Buren effectively took no federal action to alleviate the economic crisis. Thus it was not surprising when, despite building the Democratic Party into a well-oiled machine, he went down to defeat after just one term, beaten by William Henry Harrison, the Virginian Whig of aristocratic background who posed as a simple rustic. All this Widmer relates powerfully, engagingly and efficiently.
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Clinton administration speechwriter Widmer sparks his assessment of the eighth president with the contemporary allusions, color, and humor of a good speech. Van Buren had a tough, undistinguished single term (1837-41). The first great U.S. depression hit days after he succeeded his mentor, Andrew Jackson, and he declined to deal with slavery, which became an elephant-in-the-bedroom issue during his administration. His finest achievements preceded and followed his presidency. After John Quincy Adams' 1824 selection as president by the House of Representatives despite Jackson's winning a plurality of the vote, Van Buren, a consummate schmoozer and deal maker, built the Democratic Party, mollifying the slave-holding South to do so. In 1848, however, he led the antislavery Free Soil ticket, at the risk of destroying the party he had created. Further endearing him, Van Buren was the first rags-to-riches president and the first (of two; the other is Kennedy) lacking Anglo-Saxon forebears. Contra Widmer, however, he didn't enjoy the third-longest postpresidency, after Hoover and Carter, but the fifth, after Adams I and Ford, as well. Ray OlsonCopyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved