8. Martin Van Buren

  • Birthplace: Kinderhook, New York
  • Home: Lindenwald, Kinderhook, New York
  • Grave: Kinderhook Reformed Cemetery, Kinderhook, New York
  • Books you might enjoy if you're a smart dude like me: The Election of Andrew Jackson by Robert Remini

Dutch Wonderland (August 3, 2008)

Martin Van Buren was tiny, but his house was honkingly huge:

That's Lindenwald you're looking at, and it's where MVB grew potatoes. In his spare time, he ran two presidential campaigns and tried to be a domineering political puppetmaster, but if you want to keep up a nice spread like that, you gotta focus on the potatoes. It's where the money is!

If you've got a soft spot for historic redheads, then you owe to yourself to get to the Dutch settlement of Kinderhook for the full Martin Van Buren Experience (thought sadly not in theme park form): he was born there, he lived there, and he's buried there. Beginning at the beginning ...

He was born on December 5, 1782, the son of a tavernkeeper. This is honored today with a sign on someone's front lawn. Growing up around drunks helped him deal with Andrew Jackson's friends later in life.

There are no signs marking where he became a lawyer or politican, forged the prototype of the modern political party, rose to national prominence as a senator and managing Jackson's presidential campaign, served as secretary of State and vice president, and then was Jackson's hand-picked successor.

But then there's Lindenwald! When Van Buren was a kid, it was the estate of some local big-shot judge and the top status symbol in town; Van Buren bought it for his post-presidency estate to let everyone know that he was the biggerest shot. According to the excellent Park Service guide, MVP probably had a bit of a chip on his shoulder from growing up relatively poor; this explains not only the purchase of the farm, but the money bin and the 24/7 dancing girls on the front lawn.

He bought it with something like 18 rooms, and by the time he was done it was up to 36, with an Italian-style tower, which would help you keep a lookout in case a mob of poor people ever tried to rush the place. The house is sprawling, airy, high-ceilinged ... and luxurious. Here's one of the parlors:

It's very green. The color green was first invented in 1836, so at the time this would have been a VERY expensive room. The pieces they have in there now aren't too overstated, but you do get the idea that Van Buren liked the finer things. He had a reputation as a dandy and the Italian-made ironing press to back it up; he was enough of a gadget freak to have a coffeemaker, which wasn't a standard appliance in the 1830s; and he actually had a flush toilet, though the flushing mechanism involved four Irish servingwomen, a rubber hose and a considerable amount of cursing. He entertained all the Albany big shots and anyone else who would care to stop by; from his library he actually ran twice more for the presidency, falling short both times.

MVB had a good 20 years in the place, and he built rooms for all his kids to come visit (Van Buren was a widower from his early 30s and never remarried); plus it worked as a functioning farm. That land is mostly sold off, so now all that's left is the house, but it's definitely worth it for that alone. Because you get to see his bed!

That's a Craftmatic adjustable, the first one ever sold in the states, and if I'm remembering the tour correctly Van Buren died in it. The hickory cane you see there was a gift from "Old Hickory" Andrew Jackson; each knob on the cane has a letter on it, spelling Jackson's name. The way the room is set up today, there's also a picture of Jackson on MVB's bedroom wall, directly opposite his bed. It's refreshingly creepy.

Of course, they couldn't leave him there forever, and so he's now buried about two miles away in the Kinderhook Reformed Cemetery. It's a pretty modest marker -- just a small obelisk with some worn engraving. After seeing the house, I was expecting something a little more brazen, but no fog machines, no laser light show, no nothing. Sigh.

One final note: if you have the chance, always talk to your park rangers. And don't just pester them with questions about history. Get to know them. At Lindenwald, a brief conversation with the guy in the visitor center uncovered the fact that he has tried to do stand-up comedy at a local open mic AS MARTIN VAN BUREN. He tried both period jokes ("What is the deal with William Henry Harrison?") and some of Van Buren's takes on modern politics. Folks, that takes BALLS. God willing a tape of this will surface one day. Internet, do my bidding!

FUN VAN BUREN FACTS!

  • Lindenwald is just down the road from the schoolhouse where Jesse Merwin taught. Merwin is believed to be the inspiration for Ichabod Crane in "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow."
  • Believed in the Jeffersonian ideals of limited federal power, a strict interpretation of the Constitution, and a doctrine of absolutely no fat chicks.
  • White House hostess duties were handled by his daughter-in-law Angelica Singleton, who greeted guests from an elevated platform and at such a distance they could not touch the hem of her dress. She would also have every third guest flogged for good measure.
  • MVB owned a walking cane made from the timber of the U.S.S. Lawrence, whose famous battle flag read, "Don't Give Up the Ship, Except For Use as Walking Cane Stock."
  • Van Buren bragged that the potatoes from Lindenwald were the finest in the country. Those who disagreed were beaten with a bag of potatoes.
  • The Panic of 1837 (the worst economic crisis until the Great Depression) hobbled Van Buren's presidency from the start, and could not be stopped by the Good Solid Smack of 1838 or the Big Honking Valium of 1839.
  • He decorated his library with political cartoons that mocked him, but only because "Ziggy" hadn't been invented yet.
  • The only president to speak English as a second language. His first language? Ass-kickings.
  • Nicknamed "The Little Wizard" thanks to his tiny stature (he was 5'6") and insistence on animal sacrifice before every meeting of the Senate.
  • The campaign of 1840 saw the creation of Old Kinderhook Democratic Clubs, or "O.K. Clubs," in support of Van Buren's re-election. This is often cited as the popularization of the slang term "O.K." Even with the clubs, Van Buren was unable to defeat William Henry Harrison, who relied on the venerable tradition of giving away free booze.
  • Despite their vastly different lives, Van Buren built a long partnership with Jackson around their mutual guilty love of chili cheese fries.
  • Often credited as the organizer of the first national political party. So the next time you're watching "Countdown," remember: it's Van Buren's fault.



One man's quest to be the humblest person alive
Copyright 2013, Chris White