American leaders should strive to be more like the 8th president: a master tactician who got things done.
There has been considerable talk over the past two years of the requirements of leadership. Critics of President Donald Trump from the left and the right have sought new leaders who would emulate the selflessness, dedication, and ingenuity of previous American presidents. Martin Van Buren, president from 1837 to 1841, rarely emerges in the American consciousness as a leader to be emulated. He is seen as a marginal transitional president, one who came too late to found the nation and too early to prevent the Civil War. When he is remembered at all, it is for his position as the heir to Andrew Jackson or his failure to contain the Panic of 1837. However, Van Buren’s career actually presents a number of lessons for contemporary Americans. His ability to shape American politics before, during, and after his presidency show the power of a pragmatic mind and what a politician with a mastery of the party system can accomplish.
In many ways, Van Buren was the father of the modern party system. He understood the potential pragmatic benefits of a party built on personal relationships. Van Buren’s greatest innovation was to formally connect elected politicians with jobs and federal money and use those connections to implement policy. A party that properly used the tools of patronage and federal money could overcome its internal ideological differences. This effort occurred throughout the 1830s, as several states ejected their conservative leaders and elevated populist thinkers like Orestes Brownson and George Bancroft to high-level jobs. A cohesive party with funding sources and a coherent message, crafted by the men to whom Van Buren gave jobs, was able to dominate American politics in one form or another for five decades.
While in office, Van Buren used his political machinery and patrons to craft and enact radical policies that would have been impossible fifteen years before. With the help of Bancroft and others, Van Buren replaced the Bank of the United States with a public sub-treasury system, a “full divorce of bank and state.” Van Buren also took one of the first federal acts to protect labor in American history. Influenced by the nascent Workingman’s Party, Van Buren in 1840 issued an executive order requiring a maximum ten-hour day for all federal workers. Arthur Schlesinger Jr., a historian supportive of Van Buren, wrote glowingly of the decision: “his measure was an unmistakable declaration that the people’s government would act on behalf of the people as freely as in the past the capitalists’ government had acted on behalf of the capitalists.”
These three broad accomplishments (the modernization of a party, a government-oriented banking system, and a restriction of the workday) should certainly be emulated by contemporary politicians to a certain degree. There is, of course, no more spoils system in which political appointees fill the ranks of government jobs. But there does need to be a return to the pork barrel spending that made American politics work throughout much of the 20th century. As Jonathan Rauch wrote in a 2016 Atlantic article, “Pork-barrel spending never really cost very much, and it helped glue Congress together by giving members a kind of currency to trade: You support my pork, and I’ll support yours.”
In addition to the return of pork, reforms of corporate power through anti-monopoly and minimum wage legislation would be popular on both the left and the right, and would further Van Buren’s goal of separating the state from its corporate benefactors. Finally, a bold act taken in favor of workers would be a psychological boost to the nation’s waning labor movement. Instead of an arcane policy like President Obama’s card check, a restriction on working hours or a policy that repealed all right-to-work laws could be easily understood and supported by the nation’s middle class.
Politicians should still aspire to be like George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt. These prominent leaders transcended their era and led the country through its most challenging years. But not every president will have a Great Depression to overcome or a Civil War to win. The vast majority of presidents will have to secure partisan accomplishments through deal-making and compromise. Instead of attempting to be the greatest president, they should strive to be like Martin Van Buren and enact rules and laws that will influence American society for decades to come.