Martin Van Buren is probably one of most maligned, and paradoxically one of the most forgotten United States presidents. However, in his time, he was one of the biggest forces to occupy the Democratic Party. While most historians tend to dismiss him in favor of more "activist" presidents, I wish to afford his proper place as one of the centerpieces of the Jacksonian movement of the 1830s and 40s.
Martin Van Buren was the first president to be born an American citizen despite his first language being Dutch. Working from humble beginnings, he passed the bar without any formal education and eventually came to dominate the NY political machine, and more specifically the infamous Tammany Hall. While it would become a haven of corruption and bribery under William "Boss" Tweed's tenure, at this time, it was mainly an organization that appealed to the new Irish immigrants.
Van Buren was not simply a career politician, however. He was able to transform the political scene away from the mushy (and often fractious) centrism that characterized the mislabeled Era of Good Feeling, and towards the reemergence of ideological polarization. While many would count this as a negative, I would argue that it allowed for the public to be able to make clearer choices when it came to candidates, and allowed for the hardcore Jeffersonians to have a home again after Madison and Monroe's flip flopping.
It was Van Buren that was one of the principal architects of the Democratic Party, a new coalition of Old Republicans, Irish immigrants, and the working class. And while there is much to critique about their first candidate Andrew Jackson, Van Buren's presidency would be altogether different from the tempestuous and nationalistic general. While he was short and rapidly balding/graying, he was one of our most level-headed and respectful occupiers of the White House. In contrast to Jackson and Calhoun, he sought to maintain alliances and friendships. While men like John Randolph were more consistent, Van Buren, unlike Jefferson when his time came for the presidency, maintained a more consistently antistatist line during his time in office. While one can disagree with his political ideology, he provides a useful model for how one can maintain their principles even after you get into office.
So let's review some of his achievements in office. The first, and most laudatory, was his peaceful foreign policy. Unlike others who sought to expand the U.S. influence and territory, Van Buren opposed any further empire building. He was also successful in preventing two wars with Mexico and the U.K. by maintaining a neutral stance that promoted free trade over mercantilist conflict. He also opposed the annexation of Texas for fear it would divide the party over the slavery question (and boy was he right about that!). This was a trait seen during the Jackson administration, when he successfully negotiated a trade settlement with the British West Indies, and prevented a war with France over Jackson's hot temper. He was also a strong opponent of nationalizing state militias and was encouraged by the trend towards voluntary rather than compulsory service.
Van Buren stated that, "We have a character among the nations of the earth to maintain. [While] the lust of power, with fraud and violence in the train, has led other and differently constituted governments to aggression and conquest, our movements in these respects have always been regulated by reason and justice" (Charles Sellers, The Market Revolution. Jacksonian America, 1815 — 1846 [New York Oxford University Press 1991], p. 415). However, Americans were enthralled by expansion to the Southwest and into Canada, and it would be Van Buren's refusal to start a war that would be a huge cost to him politically during the election of 1840.
Domestically, Van Buren was much more mixed. While most historians would point to his inability to control the Panic of 1837 as a strike against him, looking into the issue deeper reveals a much different picture. Van Buren, contrary to popular misconception, was not at the mercy of a financial meltdown due to a lack of "modern presidential tools." His diagnoses of the situation resembled that of William Leggett and the Locofocos. In sum, it was due to the 2nd BUS' inflationary policies that caused over-speculation and turned boom into bust. While the complex financial situation is too detailed for this post, I recommend that the reader check out H.A. Scott Trask's essay on the Panic of 1837 for details. Van Buren's advocated an Independent Treasury system that would separate banking from state, and would allow for a more stable economic system. If one looks at the evidence, the "free banking" era as it's known among economic historians, it was the most stable of any period in U.S. history. The only major panic in 1857 was due to the non-adoption of this system by the various state "pet" banks.
This is not to say there aren't some major issues with his presidency. For one thing, Van Buren continued Jackson's policy of Native American removal from the Southeast in direct defiance of John Marshall's ruling that they possessed private property to the land they occupied. He also became entrenched in the vicious and expensive Second Seminole War that his predecessor had started. By continuing the Trail of Tears, he solidified his place in history as someone who did not fully embrace all people's natural rights. He was also forced by political considerations into refraining from defending the new Mormon faith from mob and state violence that pervaded in Missouri.
In terms of the slavery question, Little Van has an even more unfortunate legacy. Early on, Calhoun and his supporters had attacked him as an abolitionist (a smear used against any threat to the institution). Van Buren, while personally anti-slavery but always wanting to keep political alliances, denied this and stated explicitly he would go along with the "gag rules" active in Congress and not attempt to abolish slavery in D.C.
This undertook a dramatic turn in the 1841 case of Armistead v. U.S. In the case, the Supreme Court had freed the captured Africans aboard a Spanish ship that they had grounded and successfully mutinied on. Van Buren, before the case was decided, was very willing to give up the slaves back if it meant continued peace with Spain. Pragmatism overrode natural rights once again. However, it is important to keep in mind that Van Buren was not a James Buchanan in the way that he dealt with the Southern section of his party. He was very willing to defy them and side with blacks when it came to minor incidents. However, when it came to major issues, he would not go as far as John Quincy Adams in defending African American rights.
Van Buren was deflated by his defeat to the Whig general William Henry Harrison, who used "log and hard cider" populist tactics and fake news to win the Presidency (although his early death allowed the Jeffersonian John Tyler to continue many of the same policies as his predecessor). While he would have a run in 1848 for the anti-slavery free soil party, his vindication for his peaceful and pragmatic policies would never come.
All in all, what can historical hindsight make of Van Buren's legacy. There is a notion in public choice economics called the median voter model whereby most presidents will cater to the center while in office. Van Buren defies this model by advocating for a radical laissez-faire position. Compared to other similarly forgotten presidents like Grover Cleveland and John Tyler, he remained the most consistent in the face of heavy political pressures. While the negatives are certainly a major drag (but not unique among both men of his and later times), The Little Magician's positive political accomplishments are worth taking seriously, and should serve as inspiration for those who care deeply about principles and advancing causes they believe in. He was able to bring clarity and consistency in the laissez-faire faction of the Democratic Party, and reinvigorated the Old Jeffersonians and the new Locofocos into coming together. To conclude, Martin Van Buren is America's most underrated president, and one of its best to boot.