In This Review

Martin Van Buren
Martin Van Buren
By Ted Widmer
Times Books, 2005, 208 pp

For readers who dismiss Martin Van Buren as a forgettable minor figure, Widmer's short biography may come as a revelation. Van Buren was in many respects the father of American mass democratic politics, leading the transformation of the elite republic of the Founding Fathers into the mass democracy of today. Widmer's book itself, unfortunately, is an uneven production that fails both the reader and Van Buren. Repeatedly confessing his inability to track Van Buren's devious steps in New York and national politics, Widmer is too frequently reduced to windy speculation. But forget the subtle background shading and the elusive facts: even Widmer's grasp on the obvious and the well known is not strong. Van Buren's rival and successor William Henry Harrison was not ill when he ran for president in 1840. Van Buren's predecessor and patron did not make "more than a few widows in Tennessee" regret sharp exchanges their husbands had with him. Andrew Jackson killed one married man in a duel, not "more than a few." And nothing could be less useful than Widmer's hapless account of the sub-treasury system that was the centerpiece of Van Buren's economic program -- except his superficial account of the economic forces behind the Panic of 1837.