Monday, November 2, 2015

Martin Van Buren: A most significant president

Martin Van Buren is one of those presidents considered insignificant by many historians despite evidence to the contrary.

Those who cite him as significant cite his creation of the current political system.

In 1800 he entered into the Democratic-Republican party of Thomas Jefferson. He later rose to political prominence, first in New York and then on the national stage. Yet he did so at a time when his party was suffering from "infighting, and by lack of organizational and ideological unity.

He believed that it was impossible to have everyone in a party agree on everything, although he believed this infighting could be better organized to defeat political opponents.  It was for this reason that he created the democratic party.  So, while Thomas Jefferson is often cited as the father of the democratic party, the true father was Martin Van Buren.

He used this new political structure to his advantage politically, particularly in succeeding Andrew Jackson as the eighth President of the United States in 1936.  He became the first president to be born within the borders of the United States.

Those who say he was insignificant site his failure to end the economic down-turn that following the panic of 1837.  It began on May 10 of that year when banks in New York ran out of hard currency and refused to convert money into gold and silver.  This resulted in other banks following suit.

This resulted in banks declining to give out loans to prospective investors, resulting in lack of new purchases by prospective buyers.  Since paper money seemed to be losing its value, many creditors refused to accept it.

Being that the panic occurred only a few months after his inauguration, Van Buren's policies could not be blamed.  So, what was the cause?

One possible blame was financial troubles in Great Britain causing them to stop pumpting money into the American economy. This was considered significant because British lending was considered a contributing factor for the the booming economy of the two decades prior to the panic.

A second possible blame was the Andrew Jackson 1835 Specie Circular. In order to stabilize what Jackson considered an out of control economy, he decided it was necessary to purchase government lands with "hard money" rather than "soft money."  In other words, to purchase land with precious metal as opposed to paper money.

A third possible cause was an "over-extension" of credit by banks.  It was this, along with "greedy business practices" that Van Buren cited as the cause.  It was this that he acted upon when he called for an emergency session of Congress that convened in September of 1837.

He called for a reversal of Andrew Jackson's decision to deposit Federal money into Private Banks. Instead, he called for Federal money to be placed into independent banks. This, he believed, would prevent private banks from giving out reckless loans to overzealous and "greedy" investors.

His political opponents, the Whigs, along with prominent members of his own party, were quick to criticize Van Buren's idea. And by the time an independent treasury bill was passed in 1840, it was much too late to save the Van Buren Presidency.

Those who claim he was significant claim this was a success.  For instance, the Whigs championed for a national bank that would have increased the scope and size of the federal government and taken away personal liberties.  Van Buren opposed this idea.

Significant is the fact he vetoed bills designed to create governmental solutions to end the depression, as such solutions would almost assuredly abdicate liberties.  Those who say insignificant cite this as a failure, as such inaction is considered the antithesis of a solution.  They don't see a problem with abdicating liberties when such a sacrifice would benefit the whole.

Those who say significant site the fact he deregulated finances, the fact he considered gold and silver as money, the fact he advocated low tariffs, the fact he advocated free trade, and the fact he opposed war abroad as successes.

Significant is that he was an ardent opponent of a strong central authority, as evidenced by his sound money policy, low taxes, light spending, low debt, and low tariffs policies.  Despite the push for an increase in the size and scope of government, he fought against this.  And he did so at the risk to his own legacy.

You see, Van Buren was a proponent of state and local rights, and was an ardent supporter of a limited Federal government. Due to these beliefs, he refused to use the depression as an excuse to increase the size and scope of government -- at the expense of personal liberties -- in order to end the depression.  

In other words, he created a precedence of laissez-fair government, whereby no government would resort to government regulation for the purpose of influencing commerce (beyond the minimal necessary), until Herbert Hoover was elected in 1928.  For this he should be heralded as significant, not insignificant.

In fact, significant is the fact that his laissez-faire policies during Panic of 1837 set a precedent that was followed by nearly every president for the next 90 years.

Significant is he kept the young nation out of foreign wars.  Early on in his presidency there was conflict between Americans, Canadians, and British soldiers along the borders of New York and Canada.

In 1837 a small group of Canadians sought independence from Britain.  After an unsuccessful uprising, they retreated to the U.S., where they found supporters.  They took refuge along the Niagara river that separates New York from Canada.  Some Americans began selling them weapons and supplies.  The British government encouraged loyalists in Canada to attack such supply ships.  

While some called for war, Van Buren encouraged a peaceful resolution.  He discouraged Americans from attacking the British, and he declared American neutrality in the plight of Canadians to obtain independence from Britain.  All of Van Buren's actions seemed to allay the situation.

Still, regardless of his policies, the depression continued: banks failed, businesses failed, prices declined, wages declined, workers lost their jobs, and unemployment rose. Despite his successes, his failure to end the depression spelled his doom, and rankled his legacy, at least among the authors whose writings are most likely to be taught in schools.

Van Buren lacked the political strength to get the independent treasury bill passed prior to 1940.  Had it passed before then, perhaps it would have lead to the end of the depression early enough to save his presidency.

In their attempts to defeat him, the Whigs highlighted his failures.  They opposed the unpopular independent treasury bill, and instead called for a national bank to stabilize the economy.  It was through such efforts that William Henry Harrison was able to defeat Van Buren in the election of 1840.

The depression would linger on for seven long years, and through three presidential terms: Van Buren, William Henry Harrison, and John Tyler.  It was by this event, and the propaganda used by the Whigs, that tarnished the legacy of Van Buren.

Yet this is unfortunate.  Because, despite what most writers say, he was actually very significant.  Instead of being defined by the propaganda, he should be viewed as a president who kept us out of wars and defended liberties.  He should be viewed as one of the most significant presidents of all time.