Martin Van Buren (1782–1862) came of age in the rough-and-tumble world of New York party politics of the early 1800s and eventually became a major force in the state’s democratic party. Known as the “Little Magician” because of his ability to make political victories appear against all odds, Van Buren headed up what was known as the New York Regency. The New York Regency was a new kind of political machine that made active use of the patronage (government jobs in exchange for political loyalty) to build strong party coalitions in support of candidates. Van Buren rejected the anti-party ideology of the founders and instead saw parties as a way in which individuals could pool resources to try to control the government. In addition, Van Buren not only defended the legitimacy of his own party but also advocated for the establishment of permanent opposition in politics, something that he saw as preventing the abuse of power and the creation of sectional prejudices.
As Van Buren transitioned into national politics, he took his party ideas to the national stage and played a major role in the establishment of a permanent two-party system in the United States. He was instrumental in the formation of the Democratic Party and convincing Andrew Jackson to attach himself to the new party organization. He would eventually succeed Jackson in office when he became president himself. Van Buren’s emphasis on permanent opposition helped legitimize dissent and normalize the contentiousness of politics.
Source: Martin Van Buren, The Autobiography of Martin Van Buren, ed. John C. Fitzpatrick (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1920), 123–126.
. . . . For the present it needs only to be stated that in the ranks of one or the other of these parties were arrayed almost all the People who took an interest in the management of public affairs. These differences were first developed in Congress and in Society during the last term of Gen. Washington’s administration, had a partial and comparatively silent influence in the election of his successor, but were openly proclaimed and maintained with much earnestness during that successor’s entire administration. The result of this conflict of opinions was the expulsion of John Adams from the office of President and the election of Thomas Jefferson in his place. Not intolerant by nature Mr. Jefferson made an ineffectual effort to allay the warmth of these party differences and to prevent them from invading and poisoning the personal relations of individuals. But, true to his trust, he not only administered the government upon the principles for which a majority of the People had shown their preference, but he carried the spirit of that preference into his appointments to office to an extent sufficient to establish the predominance of those principles in every branch of the public service. This he did, not by way of punishing obnoxious opinions, or to gratify personal antipathies, but to give full effect to the will of the majority, submission to which he regarded as the vital principle of our Government. Mr. [James] Madison, elected by the same Party, tho’ proverbial for his amiable temper and for the absence of anything like a proscriptive disposition, pursued the same course, and upon the same principle—the performance of a public trust in regard to the terms of which there was no room for doubt.
The Administrations of Jefferson and Madison, embracing a period of sixteen years, were, from first to last, opposed by the federal party with a degree of violence unsurpassed in modern times. From this statement one of two conclusions must result. Either the conduct of these two parties which had been kept on foot so long, been sustained with such determined zeal and under such patriotic professions and had created distinctions that became the badges of families—transmitted from father to son—was a series of shameless impostures, covering mere struggles for power and patronage; or there were differences of opinion and principle between them of the greatest character, to which their respective devotion and active service could not be relaxed with safety or abandoned without dishonor. We should, I think, be doing great injustice to our predecessors if we doubted for a moment the sincerity of those differences, or the honesty with which they were entertained at least by the masses on both sides. The majority of the People, the sovereign power in our Government, had again and again, and on every occasion since those differences of opinion had been distinctly disclosed, decided them in favor of the Republican creed. That creed required only that unity among its friends should be preserved to make it the ark of their political safety. The Country had been prosperous and happy under its sway, and has been so through our whole history excepting only the period when it was convulsed and confounded by the criminal intrigues and commercial disturbances of the Bank of the United States. To maintain that unity became the obligation of him whom its supporters had elevated to the highest place among its guardians. Jefferson and Madison so interpreted their duty. On the other hand, Mr. [James] Monroe, at the commencement of his second term, took the ground openly, and maintained it against all remonstrances, that no difference should be made by the Government in the distribution of its patronage and confidence on account of the political opinions and course of applicants. The question was distinctly brought before him for decision by the Republican representatives from the states of Pennsylvania and New York, in cases that had deeply excited the feelings of their constituents and in which those constituents had very formally and decidedly expressed their opinions.
If the movement grew out of a belief that an actual dissolution of the federal party was likely to take place or could be produced by the course that was adopted, it showed little acquaintance with the nature of Parties to suppose that a political association that had existed so long, that had so many traditions to appeal to its pride, and so many grievances, real and fancied, to cry out for redness, could be disbanded by means of personal favors from the Executive or by the connivance of any of its leaders. Such has not been the fate of long established political parties in any country. Their course may be qualified and their pretentions abated for a season by ill success, but the cohesive influences and innate qualities which originally united them remain with the mass and spring up in their former vigor with the return of propitious skies. Of this truth we need no more striking illustrations than are furnished by our own experience. Without going into the details of events familiar to all, I need only say that during the very “Era of Good Feelings,” the federal party, under the names of federal republicans and whigs, elected their President over those old republicans William H. Crawford, Andrew Jackson and John C. Calhoun—have, since his time twice elected old school federalists—have possessed the most effective portions of the power of the Federal Government during their respective terms, with the exception, (if it was one) of the politically episodical administration of Vice President Tyler and are at this time in power of the government of almost every free state. We shall find as a general rule that among the native inhabitants of each State, the politics of families who were federalists during the War of 1812, are the same now—holding, for the most part, under the name of Whigs, to the political opinions and governed by the feelings of their ancestors.
I have been led to take a more extended notice of this subject by my repugnance to a species of cant against Parties in which too many are apt to indulge when their own side is out of power and to forget when they come in. I have not, I think, been considered even by opponents as particularly rancorous in my party prejudices, and might not perhaps have anything to apprehend from a comparison, in this respect, with my contemporaries. But knowing, as all men of sense know, that political parties are inseparable from free governments, and that in many and material respects they are highly useful to the country, I never could bring myself for party purposes to deprecate their existence. Doubtless excesses frequently attend them and produce many evils, but not so many as are prevented by the maintenance of their organization and vigilance. The disposition to abuse power, so deeply planted in the human heart, can by no other means be more effectually checked; and it has always therefore struck me as more honorable and manly and more in harmony with the character of our People and of our Institutions to deal with the subject of Political Parties in a sincerer and wiser spirit—to recognize their necessity, to give them the credit they deserve, and to devote ourselves to improve and to elevate the principles and objects of our own and to support it ingenuously and faithfully. . . .
- 1. George Washington (1732–1799), president from 1789 to1797.
- 2. John Adams (1735–1826), president from 1797 to1801.
- 3. See Jefferson’s First Inaugural Address.
- 4. James Madison (1751–1836) helped draft the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and served as president from 1809 to 1817.
- 5. Van Buren does not capitalize “federal” in the original, perhaps as a slight to the Federalist Party whose politics were antithetical to his own. (Note that he does capitalize “Republican” when referring to the Democratic-Republican party led by Jefferson.) We are faithful to his choice throughout this text.
- 6. Van Buren refers here to the Bank War when President Jackson vetoed an attempt by Congress to draw up a new charter for the bank. Jackson then removed all federal funds from the Second Bank of the United States, redistributing the funds to various state banks.
- 7. James Monroe (1758–1831), the fifth US president, was known for overseeing westward expansion of the country and strengthening American foreign policy in 1823 with the Monroe Doctrine, which warned European powers about further colonization and intervention in the Western Hemisphere.
- 8. A popular term for the Monroe administration, referring to his attempt to quell partisanship.
- 9. 1772–1834, former secretary of war and secretary of the treasury who ran for president in the 1824 election.
- 10. 1767–1845, earned national fame as a war hero and would later become president of the United States, leading the country as its most influential and polarizing figure.
- 11. 1782–1850, prominent statesman, senator, and spokesman for the slave-plantation system of the old South.
- 12. We suspect Van Buren had William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor in mind here as these were the only Whig presidents elected in the era he describes.
- 13. 1790–1862, tenth president of the US after being the tenth vice-president. Van Buren is likely alluding to the fact that Tyler was the first vice president to succeed to the presidency without an election. Tyler also had a falling out with his own Whig Party over policies he endorsed, having most of his cabinet resign and being formally expelled from the Whig Party.
- 14. Cf. Federalist 10 on the spirit of faction.
Conversation-based seminars for collegial PD, one-day and multi-day seminars, graduate credit seminars (MA degree), online and in-person.
Our Core Document Collection allows students to read history in the words of those who made it. Available in hard copy and for download.