Book: Martin Van Buren: The Romantic Age of American Politics
Author: John Niven
1. Date- Replacing Shepard’s 1894 Van Buren biography, this work has the modern scholarly feel that a contemporary reader may be accustomed. Originally published in 1983, the heyday of smaller government, the thinking of Reaganomics is on full display. The dangers of an obtrusive and all-encompassing government remain present throughout the entire narrative. Some potent examples of a jaded look at large government is in the criticism of the centralizing Monroe/Adams era juxtaposed to the reforms and “re-entrenchment” so central to Jacksonian Democracy. Though the Van Buren legacy is heavily discussed in the scholarly community in regard to political skill and party discipline, the Van Buren cradle to grave biography is very rare. In fact, between Shepard’s 1894 work and Niven’s 1983 tome, there are next to no examples of a traditional Van Buren biography. Today, over 30 years have passed since the standard has been re-set and the eighth president is overdue for a biography. However, if Van Buren is your man, then Niven’s work is as current as it gets. It is not mean spirited to say that this work can feel dated.
2. Scope- The scope of this work is complete. From the early Van Buren stories in Kinderhook, New York to Van Buren’s death in the heat of the Civil War, the narrative totally bookends his life. For a man who almost single-handedly popularizes American party discipline, the intricate stories of his rise to prominence through his influence well into old age, makes this scope appropriate. Fans of rise to power will find much here. Van Buren’s place in the Albany Regency is well documented whether he was opposing Clintonian New York or foes as he moved to Washington. Once a national figure, the Jackson administration is well tuned to the efforts of Van Buren, but anyone happy to hear about Andrew Jackson will only see it through Van Buren’s lens. It is obvious from the volume of Jackson writings (not to mention that $20 bill in your wallet) that Van Buren’s predecessor cast a heavy shadow. Showing Van Buren as the main figure in a dominant administration greatly develops the scope in this work. Though the Van Buren Presidency subsequently feels all too brief, the narrative thoroughly covers the post-presidency. Van Buren is one of the few ex-presidents to wield beyond token influence and Niven correctly showcases his constant presence on the American conscience. Perhaps it is fitting that Niven ends his work with the unfinished Van Buren autobiography. The autobiography covered almost to minute detail the Regency before his presidency and only briefly touches on his work as the chief magistrate. Seems like Niven stole his playbook.
3. Author- John Niven is a scholar and notable writer from the Jacksonian and Civil War era. His works range from discussions on the era The Coming of the Civil War (1990) to other biographies of the era’s national figures. While attempting at times to connect Van Buren on an accessible level, Niven rarely strays from his academic writing style. Much of his material assumes that the reader has a reasonable grasp on the central characters. All too often he errors too much on assumed knowledge and it can be challenging to follow his characters. As a writer, there is little doubt to his extraordinary skill, but his storytelling ability rarely flourishes. It is doubtful that anyone less than a Jacksonian expert would appreciate all the references and the needlessly voluminous amount of characters. Great writer and well written, but at times tediously boring.
4. Length- While Shepard’s 400+ work quickly moved through eras and triumphs, Niven’s work can be exhausting. The 715 page work may not seem to be endlessly daunting but this work is dense. The era is totally and completely covered ad nauseam and there are almost no aspects of short biography here. If an issue is covered in this work, it is thorough with multiple characters, multiple perspectives and at times, multiple chapters. Bookworms everywhere know that there are quick 700 page works and slow 700 page works. This one clearly goes for the latter. However, there is no reason to see this as a negative. As one of the very few complete Van Buren biographies it is hard to see how much more Niven could have covered. For example, Shepard almost barely covers Van Buren as a person with his young wife being mentioned once. Here, Niven is able to use the long biography to introduce and develop the role of family to Van Buren. For a common president, this work is needlessly long, but for Van Buren it nevertheless works.
5. Mission- Through the course of Niven’s research he found that Van Buren was a polarizing figure. There were few educated or informed citizens of the mid-19th century who did not have an opinion on the man. Rarely was this opinion ambivalent or blase. Niven attempted to recreate a highly partisan man almost entirely immersed in political polarization and compromise. Just as partisan ex-presidents remain lightning rods of opinion, Van Buren never left the American conscious. In Niven’s mission he successfully re-created this sense focusing many times on American events and Van Buren’s usual role at least implicitly in its outcome. The mission works because Niven does not always have to emphasize Van Buren’s thoughts or actions but how his viewpoints absolutely shaped how others reacted. While many see ante-bellum America as a sectional struggle between North and South, Niven lets the reader see it differently. Each election is the disciplined regiment of Democrats (and Free-Soilers) against the opposition. For Van Buren it was always about the party and not the section. As the nation changed its mind, the eighth president refused to accede to the changing times. With Van Buren as his constant, Niven shows how much can change in one’s lifetime.