Book: Martin Van Buren
Author: Edward Morse Shepard
1. Date- Few casual fans of the project will be salivating at this rare relic from 1894. The writing style is firmly in yesteryear with a heavy emphasis on public works. This was high time for presidential biography that barely even mentions a private life while exploring the minute details of a public one. Put simply, it is a perfect illustration of how far the presidential biography has evolved. For better or worse there is no insinuation of impropriety, no emphasis on shady dealings and no real insight on his family life. Throwaway sentences accompany his early childhood life. This “Jesus-style” narrative leads a modern reader to believe he was born. He may have even lived a full life. However, it was on to the good stuff. Though scope is further explored in the next section, it is important to understand that most if not all works from the 1890s were expected to be depicted in this manner and a deep probing into Martin Van Buren “the man” would have swept this work to the dustbin or given it the brand of personal quackery. A far more interesting aspect of the date for this entry is the emphasis on moral implications. While this era is reflected upon through the slavery debate, the lasting wounds of patronage and the “spoils system” were still fresh. Almost in tandem in the frank discussion of slavery and its lasting legacy, the spoils system arrives in tow. This is not surprising given the author but the pervasive nature of the practice along with the subsequent damage it did to the American physique is heavily the reader’s thrust for objective discussion. While a Jefferson biography or even a tour of Monticello features the obligatory talk about slaves, Shepard seems to feel more than obligated to mention the spoils system. This is perhaps the most glaring example that this book is written in 1894 and not 1994. This fear stemming from slavery shows the inevitable downfall of being too close to your subject.
2. Scope- As briefly discussed above, this is clearly and distinctly a work on Van Buren the public official and not the man. Though there is some discussion about his hometown of Kinderhook, this work almost always uses it to describe the Albany Registry or other directly public acts. It is not meant to explore what made the man tick. There is barely any mention of the fact that he was the son of a slaveowner, the first president born post-revolution and still the only president to hold English as a second language, speaking Dutch throughout his formative years. Barely 25 pages into his work, Shepard puts Van Buren as a state senator of New York, nearly halfway through his 12 year marriage to Hannah Hoes. For a discussion of his public views and career, Shepard’s narrative is solid. Despite no mention of his private life, his public is covered in full blister following Van Buren’s steady and sure accumulation of power. In this sense his scope is total, giving due coverage to his presidency and ex-presidency. Unlike most of his predecessors, Van Buren was more than a contender and at times assumed candidate to go back to the first place in the nation. The tales of his ultimate shortcoming in this regard bring this presidential biography to its strength. In fact, ironically, Shepard’s work on President Martin Van Buren really peaks in his discussion of the ex-president. The pace is perfect, the extenuating and contextual information is placed soundly, and the work that dulls along in an average way suddenly gets excellent. However, there are more misses in this work to overcome the lackadaisical yet complete scope.
3. Author- Perhaps no finer man at the turn of the 20th century could have written about the Empire State’s ultimate executive. When Shepard penned this work in 1894, 30+ years after Van Buren’s death, New York had thrived in post-war America. Despite the fact that skyscrapers and modern New York were still years away, Shepard had the unique perspective to see Van Buren as the political mastermind from Kinderhook. His critique of Van Buren’s dealings in the spoils system are hardly shocking as Shepard’s resume includes Chairman of the Brooklyn Civil Service Board and years of support to reform-minded Democrats. This bias does become apparent and makes some of the objectivity choppy as Shepard struggles to make excuses for Van Buren’s supposed impropriety. After his work on Van Buren, Shepard, this relic of Tammany Hall, became the consummate peacemaker, often being tapped to heal party divisions and antagonism, tasks that all too regularly fell to Mr. Van Buren himself. In a curious yet interesting insight on Shepard’s touch of brush with presidential life, the elder politician ran into a deadlock for his US Senate nomination in 1911. The leader of the “insurgent” Democrats? Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The man who was elected president in 1933, almost 100 years to the day that Vice President Van Buren was sworn into office. In 1894, the first authoritative biography on Martin Van Buren had the right man for the mission.
4. Length- Though clocking in nearly at 400 pages, Shepard’s work would easily fall quite short of that number had a modern publisher done the work. Reprints often have the work at 200-225 pages which firmly places this work in the short biography category. That is not to say there is anything lacking in the story. In true short biography form, this work goes from issue to issue quite rapidly but often giving enough information to progress the narrative. For a short work there are also many times that issues are explored specifically and then lightly revisited later. In this sense Shepard’s writing style shines as the purposely crafted brevity removes all dangers of a lagging work. This speed read would be perfect for a modern reader with the extreme caution that this work is indeed from 1894. There is much political reality that is assumed to the reader and there is no time to fill in modern eyes. Shepard expects you to be caught up to 1894 because he does not have the space to bring you up to speed. As long as you know that going in, you’ll be fine. If not, this short work may be done quickly with an awful lot of head scratching as the result.
5. Mission- Without a clear introduction or specific statement of purpose, Shepard allows his work to speak for itself. It is clear that he hopes to inform as well as extol in this volume as slavery and spoils system clearly weigh on the moral fiber of late-19th century readers. Both topics receive extensive attention all within the chronological evolution of Van Buren the political with almost a total lack of Van Buren the man. From start to finish, the work moves at a brisk pace as the events seem to affect the man and then suddenly the reverse. Shepard does an excellent job of showing how the progressive and ahead of the curve nature of Van Buren slowly but surely fell behind. Shepard creates a story about a man struggling to keep his political fortitude while the nation slowly unraveled to Civil War. Perhaps fittingly, the story ends in the heat of the Civil War, just as Van Buren does. There is nothing left to tell. Shepard assumes the audience already knows that story. Assumption can be dangerous. As for assumption in this mission, it hurts the overall effort as determined as it seems.