Martin Van Buren: Impact and Legacy

Martin Van Buren: Impact and Legacy

When assessing the impact and legacy of Martin Van Buren, scholars have generally drawn a distinction between Van Buren's presidency, which they often judge lacking and troubled, and his contributions to the development of the American political system, which they find singular and significant.

Martin Van Buren was surely one of the most important politicians in American history. He entered politics in the early 1800s and joined the party of Thomas Jefferson, the Democratic-Republicans. Van Buren rose to prominence—first in New York state and then nationally—at a time when his party was beset by factionalism, by vicious in-fighting, and by a lack of organizational and ideological unity. Van Buren recognized these weaknesses and set about to rectify them by constructing a cohesive and unified political organization, first in New York and then nationally. Van Buren believed that political conflict, both among allies and between opponents, was unavoidable. The trick, though, was to manage this conflict. Thus, the importance of his crowning achievement—the Democratic Party—which Van Buren hoped could control this intra-party conflict in order to defeat its opponents.

Van Buren's critics focused on his role in party-building and charged that his efforts were the work of a cynical, manipulative, and power-hungry politician. To be sure, there was some truth to these accusations: all politicians want to build their power base, and often do so by engaging in practices that are both deceptive and manipulative. This critique of Van Buren, however, is overly harsh and misleading.

Van Buren wanted to build an effective and efficient political organization principally because he thought it the best mechanism for defending and extending the Jeffersonian and Jacksonian political ideals. These principles—the preeminence of state and local concerns, the wisdom of limiting the power of the federal government, and the importance of protecting Americans from government or public institutions that supposedly threatened their liberty—he held dearly and believed vital to the nation's political and economic future. Van Buren's adherence to this political ideology deserves discussion and criticism, of course. But one must acknowledge that unflagging belief in this ideology fueled his political activities.

While Van Buren has earned the accolades of scholars for his contributions to the development of the American political system, he has not been judged a great, nor even good, President. The main challenge President Van Buren faced was the nation's economic depression. His chief response—a proposal for an independent treasury system—reflected his Jeffersonian and Jacksonian political beliefs. Ironically, Van Buren, the great party builder and advocate of Democratic unity, lacked the political strength to win quick congressional endorsement of the independent treasury; Congress approved it only in late 1840, after the depression had been raging, largely uninterrupted, for three years. Would earlier passage of the independent treasury bill have lifted the nation out of its economic woes? It is impossible to know. It is clear, though, that Van Buren could not win its passage.

Should Van Buren have embraced more drastic and activist measures than the independent treasury to try to end the depression? Historians disagree about whether this approach would have worked. The most perceptive scholars, though, point out that such a course would have required Van Buren to jettison his political beliefs, something he was loathe to do. Thus, we are left with a final irony. As a man of the Democratic party, he could not muster its strength. As a man of strong Jeffersonian and Jacksonian principles, he would not choose (and saw no need to choose) another path. Van Buren perhaps paid the final price for these limitations in 1840 when voters chose not to send him back to the White House for another four years.