Chestertown, MD, February 7, 2005 — Ted Widmer, Ph.D., Director of Washington College's C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience, has released a new book on the nation's eighth president, Martin Van Buren, as part of Times Books' American Presidents Series edited by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. Though his presidential ambitions were cut short after one contentious term, the lessons of Van Buren's political career cast a long shadow over the history and development of the American two-party system.
“My book is an attempt to rescue one of the deader ex-presidents from obscurity, and, in the process, show how much he contributed to the rise of modern parties and bare-knuckles presidential campaigning,” said Widmer. “Van Buren is barely known to most of us, except for his ample sideburns and the word ‘OK'—short for his slogan, ‘Old Kinderhook.' But he was a huge political force in his day, invented the modern Democratic party, and left a long trail of defeated rivals behind him.”
Widmer explores the unknown breakthroughs as well as the discord that plagued Van Buren's political career from his beginnings in New York to his term in the White House. A native Dutch speaker, he was America's first ethnic president as well as the first New Yorker to hold the office, at a time when Manhattan was bursting with new arrivals. “The Little Magician” was a sharp political operator who established himself as a powerhouse in New York, becoming a U.S. senator, secretary of state, and vice president under Jackson, whose election he managed. A master of the political machine, his ascendancy to the Oval Office was virtually a foregone conclusion. But once he held the reins of presidential power, Van Buren found the road quite a bit rougher, Widmer notes.
His attempts to find a middle ground on the most pressing issues of his day, such as the growing conflict over slavery, eroded his effectiveness, and his inability to prevent the great banking panic of 1837 all but ensured his fall from grace. Still, his long career after the White House produced some fascinating moments, including his friendship with a young Abraham Lincoln, and his dramatic run on the Free Soil ticket in 1848.
“Oddly, Van Buren is dismissed as the first professional politician, as if that is a put-down,” said Widmer. “But the mark he left on the American scene has never been erased. For all his flaws, he deepened democracy and helped the United States live up to its founding ideals.”
Ted Widmer is the director of the C. V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience, an innovative forum for new scholarship about American history drawing on the special historical strengths of Washington College and Chestertown, and dedicated to exploring the early republic, the rise of democracy, and the manifold ways in which the founding era continues to shape American culture. He is the author of Young America and the co-author, with Alan Brinkley, of Campaigns: A Century of Presidential Races. Widmer also served as a senior adviser to President Clinton and director of speechwriting at the National Security Council.