Martin Van Buren, Compromise, and Privilege

Dagurreotype of Martin Van Buren in a suit
Van Buren after his presidency; circa 1849

Daguerreotype portrait of Hon. Martin Van Buren, taken at Philadelphia, Penn., 1849-1850, by the photographer Mathew Brady. Courtesy of the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University

(This article expands upon this video which was produced by our staff during the COVID-19 pandemic)

Martin Van Buren was a political compromiser. His nickname "The Little Magician" references not only his short stature, but also his ability to make things happen that others thought impossible. He created coalitions, political parties, and alliances over the course of his career in both the State and Federal governments. Most of this work was in the service of Van Buren's major political goal: preserving the union. He saw the nation as priceless and sought to defend it via compromise, to bridge gaps, and bring people together. Many people, past and present, see these compromises as victories. The Civil War was delayed, and unity is of course valuable. However, the compromises of Van Buren's career were not victories for everyone. What did those compromises cost, and who did they leave behind?

The United States is a nation built on compromise, and the antebellum period saw more than its fair share of compromises. At the core of these deals was often the preservation and expansion of the institution of slavery. It was the most important political issue in Van Buren's lifetime, so its importance in these compromises is understandable. Many of the antebellum compromises, such as the Missouri compromise, directly benefited slaveholders. They all benefited white America more broadly because they delayed conflict over slavery. The Civil War was terrible. Hundreds of thousands of lives were lost, and many more were negatively affected in some way or another. However, every compromise that delayed some reckoning over slavery was no victory for those enslaved.

An excellent example of this is Van Buren's post-presidency opinions on slavery. In the immediate aftermath of his presidency, he ran for reelection in 1844 and 1848. Both times he ran, at least vaguely, on some anti-slavery policies. In 1844, Van Buren ran against the annexation of Texas as a slave state, and in 1848, he ran on a third party ticket. The Free Soil party was against the extension of slavery into any new territories, and Van Buren even stated that, although he did not think it wise, he would allow legislation to ban slavery in Washington, DC. Some historians have construed these facts to argue that Van Buren may have been, in his heart, an abolitionist. Yet less than ten years later, in 1857, the Dred Scott case would be decided by the Supreme Court. One key element of their verdict was that Dred Scott could not bring suit for his freedom because those of African descent were not meant to be citizens under the constitution. In his book on the history of political parties, Van Buren endorsed this decision, writing, "I am now convinced that the sense in which the word "citizen" was used by those who framed and ratified the Federal Constitution was not intended to embrace the African race." Given the sources we have, Van Buren never seems to go back on this position.

In the days before the Civil War, Van Buren was still promoting compromise and believed that Civil War could be avoided. At the same time, Fredrick Douglass, the most famous self-emancipated enslaved man in U.S. history, was terrified that a compromise would be reached. Because he recognized that compromise would leave behind the three million people enslaved in the south, Douglass knew what that enslavement was like, and thus could not walk away from the Civil War via compromise. Van Buren could walk away. He had that privilege. His political position on slavery would vary wildly over the course of his career, because to him it was just another political issue. If he did have strong feelings on the subject, they seemingly paled in comparison to his wanting to keep the country together, but those compromises always had a cost. It was just not a cost that he often had to bear.
In modern times, what do you have the privilige to walk away from?

Last updated: September 22, 2022

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