Martin Van Buren usually receives short shrift from most historians and indeed Americans for his alleged failed Presidency. However, his life and Presidency do present several concrete leadership lessons. In this episode, we explore the interesting life of the first American born President of the US, Martin Van Buren the Little Magician.
Van Buren was elected to the Presidency on the heels of one of the most popular Presidents, Andrew Jackson. Hailing from New York state, Van Buren served loyally as Jackson’s Vice President in Jackson’s second term. Unfortunately for Van Buren, many of the policies of Jackson laid the foundation for the failure of the Van Buren Presidency. Chief among them was the denial of the Second Bank Charter which caused the Panic of 1837 and from which the country did not recover during the Van Buren Presidency.
Van Buren as Futurist
One of the most interesting aspects of the Van Buren Presidency how far he was ahead of his time as he proposed the establishment of an independent U.S. treasury, which would take the politics out of the nation’s money supply; the government would hold all its money balances in the form of gold or silver and would be restricted from printing paper money at will, a measure designed to prevent inflation. Unfortunately, it did not become law until 1840. This became the fore-runner of the modern day Federal Reserve Bank, which was not chartered until 1913.
Van Buren is rarely seen as providing such foresight. However, his concepts around money balances and the restrictions on the printing of paper money were both key components of the initial Federal Reserve policies. Unfortunately, Van Buren’s creation lasted only one year—the Whigs, who won a congressional majority and the presidency in the 1840 elections, promptly repealed the law.
Van Buren as Moderator
Van Buren blocked the annexation of Texas in to the United States. This move had been favored by President Jackson but many northerners were leery of a slave-owner conspiracy and adding Texas, which would have been a slave state; would have played into that theme. If Texas had been admitted it would have tipped the balance to slave states in Congress. Van Buren blocked the annexation in 1837, in part because of the slavery issue but also to avoid further tensions with Mexico, which controlled the territory until 1836.
Van Buren was a student of history and understood the concept of balance of power. Coming relatively soon as the Missouri Compromise and Nullification Crisis, a move to upset the balance of power in both houses of Congress may well have tipped the nation into further turmoil. Unfortunately, this ongoing debate between free soil and slave states continued to play out until the cataclysm of the Civil War.
Van Buren as Innovator
Finally, and also largely forgotten to history were Van Buren’s contributions to America’s final resolution with England on the territorial split in North America. This came through Van Buren’s deft avoidance of two conflicts with British Canada. The first involved a revolt in Canada, which threatened to spread to the US, when the British chased the rebels into American territory and inadvertently killed some Americans in the process along Lake Erie.
The second conflict on the Maine–New Brunswick frontier, where Americans were settling on disputed land claimed by the United States and Great Britain. Both American and New Brunswick lumberjacks cut timber in the disputed territory during the winter of 1838–39. Tensions quickly boiled over into a near war with both Maine and New Brunswick arresting each other’s citizens. The crisis seemed ready to turn into an armed conflict. British troops began to gather on the Saint John River. The American press clamored for war; “Maine and her soil, or BLOOD!” screamed one editorial. “Let the sword be drawn and the scabbard thrown away!” Congress authorized 50,000 troops and a $10 million budget.
Van Buren settled the crisis with deft diplomacy. Initially he met with Her Majesty’s representative in Washington and they agreed to settle the crisis diplomatically. Van Buren then sent General Winfield Scott to the northern border area to show military resolve and more importantly to lower the tensions. Scott successfully convinced all sides to submit the border issue to arbitration. The dispute was put to rest a few years later, with the signing of the 1842 Webster–Ashburton Treaty.
The innovative use of arbitration to settle this border dispute averted yet again another conflict with Great Britain. But perhaps even more important was that it laid the foundation for the resolution of the much greater territorial dispute between the US and Great Britain in the Pacific Northwest. In 1846, the US and Great Britain signed the Treaty of Oregon, which set the boundary for what is now Washington state at the 49th parallel with the exception of Vancouver Island, which was retained in its entirety by the British.
Van Buren as Globalist
There is one further legacy which Van Buren left to not only the US but indeed the entire world. It is the expression “OK” and it was attributed to Van Buren himself. It is believed to come from “Old Kinderhook,” which was one of the many nicknames for Van Buren. Wikipedia noted” The first recorded use of “OK” in the sense of approval dates back to 1839 when a newspaper referred to a Democratic meeting of “the roarers, the butt-enders, ringtails and OKs,” adding, “the allusion was probably to those who put their OK on the nomination of Van Buren.”
Martin Van Buren is never found on any top lists of US Presidents. However most of the men who have acceded to the high office got their because they had some leadership skills. The skill demonstrated by Van Buren still resonate for today’s business leaders.
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