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Determining the Facts

Reading 2: Martin Van Buren as Compromiser

In the days of President Jackson, a Washington establishment known as Jess Brown's Indian Queen Hotel was a favored meeting place of members of Congress and other influential men of the government. If a man sought to express his political convictions, it was there he could readily find an audience and, inevitably, an argument. One April evening, the Indian Queen was the stage for a portentous confrontation — a head­on collision of individual wills, which foretold the coming of the darkest days of the Republic.

In 1830 a traditional Democratic banquet celebrating the birthday of Thomas Jefferson progressed in a predictable manner until the time came for the offering of toasts. The gathering gradually hushed itself and looked expectantly toward the tall, severe form of its chief. President Andrew Jackson had sat straight and silent throughout the evening. He was in a dark temper, his quarrel with Vice President John C. Calhoun over the tariff and the right of states to nullify federal laws had turned ugly. Those who knew him anticipated a storm. Now the president rose and gazed upon the attentive gentlemen who overfilled the tobacco-sullied hall. He lifted his glass. His fierce eyes now sought those of his vice president. He offered not a toast, but rather a command: "Our Union — it must be preserved!"

Stricken by the force of the challenge, Calhoun's face was drained of its color. All that he represented had been unexpectedly challenged. The "cast iron man" stiffened, recovered and lifted his own glass. "Our Union," Calhoun replied, "next to our liberty, most dear! May we always remember that it can only be preserved by distributing equally the benefits and the burdens of the Union."

The abiding question was expressed in the clash of those contradictory toasts: federal union vs. state sovereignty, liberty vs. union, the one vs. the many. Which should prevail? In time, hundreds of thousands of Americans would die, in part, over that question. Yet on this pleasant spring evening the specters of war were still only shadows. There was still time for compromise.

A third toast was given that night; it went unheeded and was all but forgotten. Yet the voice of moderation and reconciliation was also present at that dinner party. The third toast, offered by a polished, rotund little Dutchman from the Hudson River Valley, came while the tension of the exchange between Jackson and Calhoun was still in the air. Secretary of State Martin Van Buren drew himself erect and proclaimed: "Mutual forbearance and reciprocal concessions. Through their agency our Union was founded. The patriotic spirit from which they emanated will forever sustain it."

Mutual forbearance. Reciprocal concessions. Compromise had always served Van Buren well. Its skillful employment had generated his spiraling career and culminated in his rise to the presidency. It was said that he "rowed to his objectives with muffled oars." Fellow politicians often claimed that he was evasive and noncommittal, an equivocator. A story that may be apocryphal, but which appears in nearly every biography of Van Buren, claims that an acquaintance once asked in jest if Van Buren thought the sun rose in the east. "I have heard that that is the common belief," Van Buren told him, "however, I do not arise before dawn, so I could not say with any certainty." When tested however, Van Buren held true to his own beliefs even when they were unpopular. Van Buren was a man of compromise in a time desperately in need of compromise.

1. What issues brought about the conflict between President Jackson and Vice President John C. Calhoun?

2. What was meant by Jackson's toast? What was the meaning of Calhoun's rejoinder? How did those two positions foreshadow the Civil War?

3. What did Van Buren mean by his toast?

4. Early in Van Buren's career, the noun "noncommittalism" was used to criticize him. What evidence in the reading suggests that this might have been an accurate statement?

5. What might be some of the advantages of having a model for compromise?

Reading 2 was compiled from John Niven, Martin Van Buren: Romantic Age of Politics (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983); and Robert V. Remini, Martin Van Buren and the Making of the Democratic Party (New York: Columbia University Press, 1959).

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