This Presidents Day, I propose a toast to Martin Van Buren—a president who looms large in the history of American democracy, although historians far too often overlook his stature.
His metaphorical stature, that is. In height, “the Little Magician,” at 5 feet, 6 inches, is tied for our second-shortest president with Benjamin Harrison, standing above only James “Little Jemmy” Madison. But although the Little Magician was altitude-challenged compared to other Oval Officers, including the three tallest—Abraham Lincoln, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Donald J. Trump—he helped to democratize American politics by developing the national political party as a mass organization that could promote the interests of ordinary citizens.
The son of a tavern owner, Van Buren, who spoke Dutch before he learned English, sided with small farmers against the Dutch “patroons” of the Hudson River Valley and thought of politics as democracy versus aristocracy. In the context of the time, when public works projects tended to enrich the already rich and well-connected, the opposition of small-government Jacksonians like Van Buren to the Second Bank of the United States and to ambitious national economic development schemes like Henry Clay’s American System made emotional if not economic sense.
Having used his skills to build a political machine in New York called the Albany Regency, “the careful Dutchman” created the national political coalition that elected Andrew Jackson in 1828. In 1832, “the Great Manager,” as he was now known, orchestrated the first national convention of the Democratic Party. While the Anti-Masonic and National Republican parties had held conventions before, the Democratic Party outlived them; it survived in name to this day. In 1848 Van Buren broke with his own Democrats over slavery and ran again for president as candidate for the Free Soil Party.
Van Buren succeeded John C. Calhoun as Andrew Jackson’s second vice president in 1832. In 1836, he became the second Democratic president of the United States. But it was downhill from there. “The American Talleyrand” proved less effective as a chief executive than a behind-the-scenes wire-puller, in a single term blighted by economic crisis, controversies over Canada and the Republic of Texas, and his continuation of Jackson’s brutal “Indian removal” policy in the South.
Both the presidential and post-presidential careers of “Martin Van Ruin” were failures. But the institution he helped to shape, the national party that selected presidential candidates in conventions, often after multiple ballots that filtered out all but the most electable candidates, meaning those who were agreeable to the most factions in the party, survived up until the 1970s.
The American political party system that Van Buren helped to create did not die of old age. It was murdered by well-meaning reformers, who promoted the use of state primaries or caucuses open to the public instead of conventions run by state politicians. The primaries and caucuses got rid of the corrupt bosses, all right—only to replace them with ideological zealots on both the left and the right who tend to be unrepresentative of the broader public and who are inclined to treat politics as an arena for self-expression or moral crusades, rather than compromise.
The result of the death of the party machines that Van Buren pioneered has been a kind of return to the elite factional politics of the early republic, with cabals forming around prominent politicians—Clinton World, Obama World—and hereditary dynasties like the Bushes, along with factions centered on billionaire donors, some of whom, like Michael Bloomberg and Donald Trump, decide to dispense with the intermediaries and run for public office themselves. Politics as a contest between dynastic families and demagogic rabble-rousers is familiar to citizens of Third World countries; now it is familiar to Americans, too. The parties were mere shells by 2016, when the son and brother of presidents, Jeb Bush, and the wife of another president, Hillary Clinton, were challenged by two outsiders leading their own personal mass movements—Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.
Like today’s decimated trade unions and declining churches, America’s political parties were once mass membership organizations that represented their constituents, however imperfectly. As we know all too well at this point in our history, even 10 million ordinary citizens are no match for one billionaire or celebrity or influence network unless they are organized and disciplined.
The national parties that “the Master Spirit” and others assembled from state parties weeded out demagogues, conciliated different party factions and allowed individuals from modest backgrounds like Abraham Lincoln and Harry Truman to work their way up in national politics while helping build the wealthiest and most powerful country on the planet. So here’s to the Little Magician, who figured out how to empower the little people. America could use some of his magic today.
Michael Lind is a columnist at Tablet and a fellow at New America. His most recent book is The New Class War: Saving Democracy from the Managerial Elite.