Putting It All Together
Van Buren was part of a great change that took place in American politics during the 1830s and 1840s. Party conventions became institutionalized in the election of 1832, when Andrew Jackson was nominated by the Democrats, the party that succeeded the Democratic-Republicans. In 1834 Jackson’s political opponents formed a new party called the Whigs. Have students perform the following activities as a way of becoming more familiar with that era of history.
Activity 1: Democrats and Whigs
Divide the class into two groups, Democrats and Whigs, and ask each group to use American history textbooks and other sources to research the activities of the party they have been assigned. They should concentrate on the 1830s and try to answer the following questions: How did the party stand on issues such as slavery, states’ rights, tariffs? What slogans or campaign songs did they develop? What candidate did they choose for the election of 1840? What promises did their presidential candidate make?
When the research is completed, have one person in each group act as candidate for president and debate his opponent. During each candidate’s speech, the members of the opposite party may wish to distract or influence the other by singing campaign songs or shouting slogans. After both candidates have spoken, have students decide how they might have voted had they lived in that time period. Ask them to discuss what issues are no longer important and which ones remain of concern.
Activity 2: Comparing Presidents
Both Van Buren and Herbert Hoover lost their opportunity for a second term when they were blamed for depressions that were not their fault. Have students research the financial panic and depression of 1837 and compare it with the Great Depression that began in 1929. Have them compare the positions of Van Buren and Hoover on the role of government in ending a depression. Facilitate students’ thinking by reading aloud the following: (1) When questioned as to why he did not do more to alleviate suffering during the depression of 1837, Van Buren replied, "It is not the objective of government to make men rich—nor repair their losses"; (2) Hoover claimed that federal aid would cause "degeneration of that independence and initiation which are the very foundation of democracy." Then ask students to write short papers in which they discuss the current accepted responsibility of the president and the federal government for the economic welfare of the nation.
Activity 3: Political Cartoons
Have students make a collection of current political cartoons from newspapers and news magazines. Review several of the more biting political cartoons and ask students to decide if they believe exposure to ridicule and criticism is fair or unfair. Ask them how much influence they think such cartoons have on the general public. Do they find visual criticisms (cartoons) more effective than editorials? What part do they think humor ought to play in politics? To what degree do they believe political cartoons reflect the issues? Do they encourage or distract valid debate?
Many cartoons are developed from popular comments made about an important person. Tell students that Congressman Davy Crockett once said that when Van Buren entered the Senate chamber, he "struts and swaggers like a crow in the gutter." Van Buren was considered to be a bit vain about his personal appearance, which was always impeccable, and in cartoons he was usually depicted to be somewhat of a dandy. Do students consider the image of Van Buren projected by Crockett a fair one? Do students believe that his personal taste was reflected in the way he remodeled and refurbished Lindenwald? Are polished manners and taste for fashionable attire suggestive of the attitude a person might have toward the appearance of his or her house?
Activity 4: Local Political Campaigns
Ask the class as a whole to choose a recent or current local political race to investigate. Divide the class into two groups and have each group choose one of the candidates and gather information on his/her campaign. Groups should address the following issues in their investigations: office being sought, major campaign issues, slogans, nicknames of candidates, use of advertisements, propaganda, local media coverage of the campaign and election, and results of the election. After students have gathered their information, ask a spokesperson from each group to present their findings to the class. Hold a classroom discussion comparing the two campaigns. Ask students whom they would vote for and why. Find out if students became biased in favor of the candidate they researched. Why or why not? Next discuss some similarities and differences between these modern local campaigns and national campaigns of the 1830s.