by John Niven ‧ RELEASE DATE: June 1, 1983
This is not only the first modern biography of Martin Van Buren (1782-1862), it ranks with the better political biographies of recent years. Prof. Niven (History, Claremont Graduate School) confidently and intelligently threads his way through the story of how Van Buren, son of an upstate New York tavern keeper, assembled the most formidable political organization of the era, humbled the mighty De Witt Clinton, then maneuvered around Clay, Calhoun, and Webster to become eighth president of the United States: a story so packed with gothic complication and byzantine intrigue that Van Buren's contemporaries took to calling him ""the Little Magician"" and ""The Sly Fox,"" and historians have spoken of him as the country's first authentic professional politician. (""Is it possible to be anything in this country without being a politician?"" Van Buren himself once asked.) Niven's version doesn't present any dramatically new material on Van Buren, nor does it attempt any really new interpretations of the extraordinary events in which he played a part: the emergence of the second party system and the democratization of American political life; the growth of abolitionism and deepening sectional antagonism; the ideological brawling over internal improvements, the tariff, and the Second Bank. (Why Nivan thinks this was the ""Romantic Age"" of American politics remains obscure.) His objective, rather, is to see Van Buren as he was--not as his enemies or followers saw him, and certainly not as he wished to be seen. This results in some fine and wholly convincing accounts of Van Buren's miscalculations, lapses of attention, and flat-out drubbings at the hands of men as foxy as he. The secret of his success, Niven suggests, was not superior guile, but greater patience and attention to detail: when those failed him, as they did more than once, he failed. Niven is also at some pains to show, less successfully, that Van Buren was far from being the jumped-up, hypocritical opportunist that many have thought. He was sufficiently consistent a Jeffersonian, it's evident, that his public life makes no sense in any other context--but glimpses of his private life (his sartorial elegance, his desire to be seen in the best society, his extensive purchase of land at sheriffs' sales) suggest why many of his contemporaries thought him an unscrupulous fraud. A solid piece of work--even if it doesn't settle the old doubts about its subject.
Pub Date: June 1, 1983
Page Count: -
Publisher: Oxford Univ. Press
Review Posted Online: N/A
Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 1983
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