National Geographic : 1965 Jan
National Geographic, January, 1965 Buren in the eyes of western Jacksonians, who until then had scarcely known of his existence. He was elected Vice President on the Jack sonian ticket in 1832, and nominated for the Presidency in 1836. The Whigs tried to defeat Van Buren by running several candidates, each strong in his own section of the country, but Van Buren won 170 electoral votes compared with 124 for his four opponents combined. One of the Whig leaders, William H. Seward, explained Van Buren's triumph. "The people are for him," Seward pointed out. "Not so much for him as for the principle they suppose he rep resents. That principle is Democracy." In his Inaugural Address, Van Buren held up the American experiment as an example to the rest of the world. At that particular moment the experiment seemed highly suc cessful, for the Nation enjoyed unprecedented prosperity and serenity. But less than three months later the Panic of 1837 punctured the economic bubble. The 19th-century cyclical economy of "boom-and-bust" was merely following its regular pattern, but Jackson's financial meas ures contributed to the crash. His destruction of the Second Bank of the United States had removed restrictions upon the reckless and inflationary practices of some state banks; wild speculation in lands, based on easy bank credit, had swept the West. To put an end to this speculation, Jackson in 1836 had taken a deflationary step; he issued a Specie Circular requiring that lands be purchased with hard money-gold or silver. Nation Wracked by Five Lean Years In 1837 hundreds of banks and businesses failed. Unemployment became serious in towns and cities. Thousands of speculators lost their lands. Railroad and canal construc tion almost halted, and several states tem porarily repudiated their debts. For some five years the United States was wracked by the worst depression of its young history. It did not occur to President Van Buren or his advisers that the Government should try to alleviate the crisis. They followed the poli- cies that President Jackson had initiated. If these had any effect at all upon the depres sion, it was to deepen and prolong it. Declaring that the panic was due to reck lessness in business and overexpansion of credit, Van Buren devoted himself to main taining the solvency of the Government. He wished the "money power" to be cut off com pletely from access to Federal funds, and opposed not only creation of a new Bank of the United States but also the placing of Gov ernment funds in state banks. He fought for an independent treasury system to handle Government receipts and disbursements. He cut Federal expenditures so deeply that the Government even sold the tools it had used on public works. Symbols of Luxury Led to Defeat Despite his humble background, Van Buren had developed a taste for elegance. He was only about 5 feet 6 inches tall, but trim and erect, and he dressed fastidiously. An observer, seeing him attired for church one Sunday in 1828, described him in these words: "He wore an elegant snuff-colored broadcloth coat with a velvet collar; his cravat was orange with modest lace tips; his vest was of a pearl hue; his trousers were white duck; his shoes were morocco; his neatly fitting gloves were yellow kid; his long-furred beaver hat with a broad brim was of a Quaker color." As President, Van Buren rode in an olive green carriage attended by liveried footmen and pulled by fine horses with silver-mounted harness. These touches of luxury, belying Van Buren's amiable accessibility, made him an easy target for the Whigs in 1840. Out of office, Van Buren inclined more and more to oppose the expansion of slavery. In deed, as President, he had blocked the annex ation of Texas because it might bring war with Mexico and assuredly would add to slave territory. In 1848 he ran unsuccessfully for President on the Free Soil ticket, and by the time of his death in 1862 had placed his faith in Abraham Lincoln. The House of His tory in Kinderhook preserves mementos of Van Buren the man and the President. Ninety-nine-step tower of Van Buren's Lindenwald estate at Kinderhook, New York, overlooks the lush valley of the Hudson River. Ex-President Van Buren, born nearby, bought this farmhouse, turned it into a mansion, and added the Italianate tower, in the hope that his home of retirement would become another Monticello. It never did, and survives today in private ownership. "Old Kinderhook," abbreviated to "O.K.," became a Democratic catchword in the 1840 campaign, thus popularizing the slang synonym for anything that was all right. KODACHROME BYDAVIDS. BOYER,NATIONALGEOGRAPHIC STAFFC N.G.S .