First, some trivial facts about President Van Buren:
- First president born a citizen of the United States (after the Declaration of Independence).
- First president from the state of New York.
- Last vice president elected to the presidency until Richard Nixon, and the last sitting vice president to do so until George HW Bush.
- First former president to run again for president in a later election after losing the office.
- Third widower president (Jefferson, Jackson).
- Third one-term president but the first not named John Adams.
Today I wrapped up John Niven’s Martin Van Buren: The Romantic Age of Politics, and gave it just three stars on Goodreads. I found it almost as challenging as Ralph Ketcham’s biography of James Madison, because of its detailed look at the magic tricks behind candidates and elections. It was 600 pages of campaigns, for the most part, and some have suggested a shorter work would have done the job adequately.
However, I don’t fault Niven for the length, I only wish there were more personal information about the man who became America’s eighth president. Like Jon Meacham’s Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, Niven’s focus is revealed in the title–it’s about politics more than the man.
I was not pleased with the editing, and the final chapter covered the last 15 years of Van Buren’s life while the rest crawled slowly through the years, making it feel very rushed. I also found very few one-liners that I could hang onto, and little creative personality of the author in the work.
I started my presidential biography mission marking favorite lines in my book of Ron Chernow’s Washington for saving or sharing later, but have come to realize I can’t spend that much time on these biographies if I’m ever going to finish them all. Even so, I remember only two or three I might have recorded from Niven’s work, a number that pales dramatically by comparison to the others that I’ve previously read. One line that I did find particularly memorable was this one:
“As with all the libelous campaign literature, Weed’s philippics were millet seeds of truth embedded in husks of fabrication.”
I also found the block quotes mostly uninteresting, as though they were inserted only to add some longer quotations here and there and take up some space. But overall, I did like it, and have gained a broader understanding of the maneuvering that goes on within political parties and caucuses.
Now on to the next one: The one-month president!