Van Buren’s Dirty Game

Martin Van Buren was intellectually committed to laissez-faire and limited government, but the devil is always in the details.

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The average Free Soiler was a radical Loco-Foco, probably from New York, touched by more than a decade of early libertarianism. But always and everywhere there were also the opportunists, the schemers, the self-advancing office seekers, desperate to leverage free soil into greater personal power, and right there at the top of this magnificent new party was the schemer in chief, the little magician, the Red Fox of Kinderhook, the architect of the Second Party System itself, and now the perpetrator of one of the dirtiest double games in all of politics, Martin Van Buren.

Further Readings/References:

For an overview of the later Loco-Foco movement

Blue, Frederick. The Free Soilers, Third Party Politics, 1848-54. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press. 1973.

Earle, Jonathan. Jacksonian Antislavery & the Politics of Free Soil, 1824-1854. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. 2004.

Mayfield, John. Rehearsal for Republicanism: Free Soil and the Politics of Antislavery. Port Washington, New York: Kennikat Press. 1980.

Rayback, Joseph G. Free Soil: The Election of 1848. Lexington, KY: The University of Kentucky Press. 1970.

Music by Kai Engel

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00:08 Anthony Comegna: For the average Free Soil Party activist or voter, and even many of the politicians, the party was a revolutionary vehicle. It was the last best method of affecting necessary reform before armed revolution became a justifiable alternative, the last political means to prevent the spread of slavery and overturn the rule of King Cotton. These Free Soilers of 1848 were people who had been abolitionists for decades and finally saw their hopes rising to the level of reality. These were Conscience Whigs who felt ashamed that their party was so beholden to the south’s great planters and the northern bankers who invested in the purchase of slaves and new cotton crops. But more than anything else, the average Free Soiler was a radical Loco-Foco, probably from New York, touched by more than a decade of early libertarianism. But always and everywhere there were also the opportunists, the schemers, the self-advancing office seekers, desperate to leverage free soil into greater personal power, and right there at the top of this magnificent new party was the schemer in chief, the little magician, the Red Fox of Kinderhook, the architect of the Second Party System itself, and now the perpetrator of one of the dirtiest double games in all of politics, Martin Van Buren.

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01:43 Anthony Comegna: Welcome to Liberty Chronicles, a project of libertarianism.org. I’m Anthony Comegna.

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01:57 Anthony Comegna: Okay. Well, maybe that was a little rough on our 8th President and the man many libertarians would rank as their favourite. I will certainly give Van Buren a few things. He was intellectually committed to laissez-faire and limited government, but the devil is always in the details, and for a politician who rose as high as him, the devil stocks, literally, every deal made, every compromised measure, every line item and every single communication with operatives. A quick jaunt through his personal papers would be all the evidence you need for the sort of man Van Buren was in daily life. It is a steady stream of intelligence communicates with lieutenants in different states, editors of major papers, operatives working with other campaigns and political actors of all sorts. It is a vast compendium of deal-making, scheme-hatching, and faction-wrangling. It is not to say that principle had no place in his operations, but Van Buren was the quintessential party politician and his life reflected that.

02:58 Anthony Comegna: For Whigs observing the Free Soil Party, the fact that Van Buren was chosen to represent such a principled and ideologically passionate base of voters was very significant. It was purely a political choice meant to ensure the largest number of voters from former Democrats, it made Free Soil into less of a principled party and more into a Democratic Civil War. How else to explain the party’s commitment to a man who only became anti-slavery when he accepted their nomination? The Washington Pennsylvania Reporter diligently followed defections of democratic papers and activists to the Free Soilers, keeping records for each state with a substantial Free Soil presence, including about 50 Loco-Foco papers in New York, sustained by Loco-Foco papers in each of the states of Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Michigan, Iowa, Wisconsin, and some of the New England states.

03:58 Anthony Comegna: In Pennsylvania, David Wilmot’s district openly declared it’s hostility to Cass and Butler and raised the Van Buren flag. Lawyer and Jurist David Dudley Field spoke on Van Buren’s behalf, in Westchester, which was expected to provide about 1,500 to 2,000 votes for Free Soil. The Susquehanna register estimated half of the Democrats in Northern Pennsylvania were Free Soilers, and in Southern Michigan, the case was thought to be much the same. The Ann Arbor True Democrat, the Allegan Record, the Grand Rapids Inquirer, the Jackson Patriot and The Battle Creek Press all left the Cass campaign for Van Buren. In Massachusetts, Marcus Morton and his lieutenants spoke at county conventions while the Springfield Sentinel declared for Free Soil. In New York, the Utica Democrat published a list of 49 Loco-Foco journals, which repudiate the Cass ticket and support Van Buren for President. The Walworth County Wisconsin Democrat and the Southport Telegraph also abandoned the democracy and their candidate Lewis Cass’s chances appeared grimmer by the day. But everywhere, Whig editors cautioned their audiences against premature celebration. Those Democrats, scorned by the party during the Polk years, were simply trying to achieve vengeance by playing the Free soil game.

05:20 Speaker 2: Brattleboro Semi-weekly Eagle: Van Buren and the Free Soil game, 21st of August 1848. In The Eagle of the 14th, we put Mister Van Buren, this newborn champion of Free Soil as we are told, upon the witnesses stand, not in person, to be sure, but in a more reliable way, by his recorded testimony, upon the question of slavery and free soil, how he appeared in connection with the principle of Free Soil of which the new coalition declare him the exponent and embodiment. We leave others to judge. Sorry enough, we confess he looks to us upon this canvas painting, this new picture recently brought into market. It is an old-fashioned maxim that there’s no accounting for taste. And we are inclined to the belief that this maxim is quite as true in politics as in art. We will not attempt to analyze the grounds of their pleasure, but certain it is that all, who like a light foreground with a very dark background must be highly pleased with this new exhibition of political skill in painting.

06:37 Speaker 2: Just look how graceful, how beautiful the gray, the almost white head of this un-repented, Mr. Van Buren appears just at this time, set off as it is in contrast with the dark background of his recorded life. And this, they tell us, is a Free Soil picture. It looks to us like Free Soil with a vengeance. Indeed, anyone familiar with the history of the individuals now figuring so extensively in this pretended Free Soil Movement might well suppose the whole affair to have been got up as a burlesque. To be played off as a fancy game, a grand take off upon political gambling. And we do not believe the leaders behind the curtain regard this new sprung up movement much else than a joke, a trap, a lie. Some show of reason, some respectability, we grant. Attached to his cue and cry of free soil, until the true character of the thing was shown up at Buffalo by the nomination of Martin Van Buren. A nomination, however, which we expected would be made.

07:51 Speaker 2: And we confess, we looked with a good deal of curiosity to the event, in order to see of a spectacle so humiliating would be presented, as would be that of the Whigs. Men calling themselves consciences, Whigs. Men who call conventions because General Taylor is not a reliable Whig. Men who attend conventions, because as they say, the Philadelphia Convention cheated them by not giving them a Whig candidate. Yes, we were anxious to see if such men would be found crawling along after the train and trying to toss up their caps for Martin Van Buren, that old and tried Whig, that Whig of the conscience kidney. Such a sorry sight to some extent will be witnessed, but thanks to the intelligence, the honesty and patriotism of the Whigs of Vermont, they are not to be so easily caught. They do not, quite so well, relish the looks of that heap of meal yonder. Under the cry of Free Soil, southern dictation, northern dough-faces, etcetera. Quite a number of good, honest Whigs had been enticed from their posts to see the lion.

09:05 Speaker 2: But now that the real character of the animal has been revealed by the appearance of the long ears through the lion’s skin, we have the fullest confidence that they will be found again at their old places, doing good service in the Whig ranks. And why should they not? For what is this new movement at bottom and in reality, but a family quarrel among the Loco-Focos in New York. Everybody knows it had its origin in the disappointment of Mr. Van Buren, in not getting the nomination of the Loco-Foco Party in 1844. A quarrel which he could not espouse with Mr. Polk, as he was not personally implicated. Lewis Cass was the political sinner, who then and there, defeated the hero of the famous Albany Regency and against him was to be directed in due time, the weapons of sweet revenge.

10:02 Speaker 2: If anybody supposes that Free Soil is the main ground of division between the sections of the New York democracy, he is much mistaken, for even at the last Baltimore convention, the very party which Mr. Van Buren heads in New York, appeared in full force and contended that they, and not the Hunkers, were the true members of the Great Democratic Church. And then expressly denied that the Wilmot Proviso was the ground of difference between them, or that it was an essential article in their creed. But failing to receive the right hand of fellowship of the Democratic National Convention, they now play a game to get their quarrel adopted by hypocritically catering to the support of the anti-slavery feeling of the North.

10:48 Speaker 2: But unless we are much mistaken, unless we greatly overrate the intelligence and the true spirit of the Whigs, they will get but little aid and comfort from them. They may catch now and then, they slayed, and in Everett, some few old and worn out party hacks, but the Whigs will stand firm and unwavering. Could Judge McLean have been drawn into this new light party and receive the nomination at Buffalo, or even Mr. Hale? Consistency, at least, would have been preserved and such a nomination would have commanded at the hands of the Whigs, the decencies of that respect, which apparent or real honesty, though mistaken, always deserves. But as the matter stands, gentleman, you will pardon us if we entertain some lingering doubt, whether the maxim “fit body to fit hand” does not apply in this case.

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11:49 Anthony Comegna: The Barnburners behind Van Buren dominated the new coalition as state Democratic parties divided on the territorial issue. Van Buren himself hoped to use the Free Soil Party, like the Equal Rights or Loco-Foco New Yorkers used their own organization a decade earlier in the war on Tammany Hall. Van Buren wanted to spoil the race, make Taylor president and force the Democratic party to reform into a primarily northern-oriented organization by 1852. Above all else, this would ensure that his own factions gain back control of the National Party from the Polkites. Whig’s scoffed and threw out Van Buren’s life-long record of tolerating slavery, compromising northern and slave interest to garner southern supporters and even joining in with the racist majority to fight against the equal rights of people like the Cherokee or the Amistad rebels. He was no friend to the slave, the Abolitionist or the self-respecting northerner. And Whig editors wanted to be sure their readers understood that this candidacy was no principled revolution. It was more foxy magician-ship.

13:01 Speaker 2: You asked us to support Mr. Van Buren because he has been galvanized into the candidate of a northern party, a Free Soil Party, as you say. We ask you what Mr. Van Buren has done to entitle him to our support as this anti-slavery candidate. We ask you, what have been his views in reference to the extension of freedom by Congress where it can be constitutionally done? And you reply again, in his own words, “I must go into the presidential chair, the inflexible and uncompromising opponent of any attempt on the part of Congress to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia against the wishes of the slave-holding states.” We inquire for information, of course, what his present views are in this matter, and you tell us in his letter to the Utica Convention on the 20th day of last July, he uses the following language in reference to the exercise of the power of Congress for the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia. “I was for reasons, which were then and still are satisfactory to my mind, decidedly opposed to its exercise there.”

14:19 Speaker 2: Now, gentlemen, we tell you plainly, we as true Free Soil Whigs cannot trust your Mr. Van Buren. Such an old political sinner as he is on his own testimony. Unless he has given good evidence of repentance, and we demand the proof of his sorrow for the sins of his past life, if there be any. And you give us again his language to the Utica Convention in relation to the policy he has heretofore pursued in reference to slavery, “And it is now a source of consolation to me that I pursued the course I then adopted.” But gentleman, one more question. What does Mr. Giddings think of your Mr. Van Buren? You reply, “He goes in for him with all his might, mind, soul and strength.” Though, not many years ago he said, “Sir, I may be led to confide in the honor of a slave-holder. But a servile dough-face is too destitute of that article to obtain credit with me.” Mr. Van Buren has placed the evidence of his servility conspicuously upon the records of our country. There it will remain and will be regarded as an enduring memento of the degeneracy of the age and of the men who filled our public stations. Truly, vice is a monster of so fright mien as to be hated means but to be seen, but seen too oft, familiar with its face. We first endure, then pity, then embrace.

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16:09 Anthony Comegna: Whig after Whig joined in these suspicions. This new Free Soil Party was clearly a Loco-Foco creature packed with the same sorts of policies Van Buren men had been agitating for over a decade with anti-slavery added to fool Liberty men and Conscience Whigs. John G. Palfrey, a Whig candidate for congress from Massachusetts, initially wanted a joint nomination with the Free Soilers for his 1848 campaign. But he determined the alliance not worth aiding the parties Loco-Foco dough-face leaders. A dough-face, by the way, was a northerner who would let southerners punch their faces into shape like a mound of dough rather than risk upsetting politics as usual. By using the Free Soil Party to reform the democracy, Van Buren men were promising to abandon Free Soil when it became politically expedient, again. Ohio Free Soiler, Norton Townshend, accused Liberty man, Salmon Chase of selling out to the Loco-Focos in the legislature. While another ex-Whig complained, “When I mounted the Free Soil platform, I did not thereby intend to transfer myself to Loco-Focoism, boots and all.” One Whig, the Congressman Abraham Lincoln, gave a speech at Boston Explaining exactly why Van Buren remained unacceptable and good Whigs should stay faithful to their party. Here’s the only existing mention of that speech.

17:36 Speaker 2: Speech at Boston, Massachusetts by Abraham Lincoln, September 15th, 1848. Reported in the Boston Atlas, September 16th. Boston Whig Club, a full and enthusiastic meeting of this club was held last evening at Washingtonian Hall Bromfield Street. They were addressed by the Honorable Abraham Lincoln of Illinois, in a speech of an hour-and-a-half, which for sound reasoning, cognate argument and keen satire, we have seldom heard equaled. He defended General Taylor from the charge that he had no principles, by showing conclusively that his avowed and well-known principles were, that the people’s will should be obeyed, and not frustrated by executive usurpation and the interposition of the veto power. He pointed out the absurdity of men who professed Whig principles supporting Van Buren, with all his Loco-Focoism. While the Whigs were as much opposed to the extension of slavery as were the Van Buren party. His remarks were frequently interrupted by rounds of applause. As soon as he had concluded, the audience gave three cheers for Taylor and Fillmore and three more for Mr. Lincoln, the Lone Star of Illinois, and then adjourned. It was a glorious meeting.

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18:50 Anthony Comegna: Democrats certainly had the most to fear from Free Soil in the short term, but Whigs well understood that Van Buren was still one of the democracy, and he would eventually find his way back to that fold. After the election, the Whig Party, would be left on the business end of the Free Soil game. The Washington Reporter asked its audience, “How can any man claiming the name of Whig or professing to hold Whig principles support Mr. Van Buren for the Presidency?” We can easily see how the Loco-Focos can support him. He is one of their party, thoroughly identified with them by his past life, his feelings, sentiments, and associations. Van Buren was always one of the leading spirits of their party, one whom they always loved to follow and delighted to honor, and twice the candidate of both regular and radical Democrats. But then in 1844, and by the treachery of his friends, Van Buren was thrust aside, and James K. Polk became the standard bearer of the so-called democracy. Van Buren himself gave Polk his hearty support, and only Polk’s favoring of Hunkers over Barnburners in the New York appointments, soured their relations.

20:05 Anthony Comegna: Under Polk, elected by falsehood and fraud, and chiefly by the agency of those who now support Mr. Van Buren, Texas was annexed, Whig measures were repealed and Loco-Foco policy, the old Van Buren policy, was restored. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. This theory about Van Buren’s movements were widespread among Whigs, who were convinced that the magician was out to trick those impressionable voters who were inclined to follow an ignis fatuus, that is a sort of swamp ghost. So they’re inclined to follow a swamp ghost, conjured from the brains of ingenious politicians, to lead Whigs into the mire of Loco Focoism. Well how about that? And throughout the campaign season, both parties lashed out at defectors and almost guaranteed that reunion after the election would be difficult to say the least.

21:01 Anthony Comegna: In Massachusetts, Benjamin Butler and Marcus Morton were both driven from office for supporting an anti-slavery plank in the Massachusetts party’s platform. Despite the persecutions, Free Soil continued to gain ground in Pennsylvania, New York, Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, Iowa, Vermont, and Ohio. In all of these states, it appeared to Whigs that most Free Soilers were Loco-Focos defecting to the New Party, ultimately aiding Taylor. The Trenton State Gazette reported that, “In Illinois an electoral ticket has been formed and six out of the nine gentleman who compose it, are known to have been decided and influential Loco-Focos. In Wisconsin, four out of every five who’ve joined the Free Soil movement are conceded to be Loco-Focos. In Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, almost all of Van Buren’s stump speakers had recently bolted the Democratic Party, after it nominated Cass.”

21:58 Anthony Comegna: The Brattleboro Vermont Semi-weekly Eagle foresaw that, “The ruin of the Liberty Party by absorption of the Whig party by Coalition, and the election of Cass in Congress were the real objects of the Loco-Foco Coalitionists. They mean to make the abolitionist their dupes, the Whigs, their victims. Even if it didn’t work, this election year, the radical sword would fall sooner or later on the Whig Party, itself.” “Whigs beware.” The semi-weekly Eagle urged its readers. “Free soil, free men, free labor, are the catch words for decoying you into the clutches of the coalition with Martin Van Buren, a willing slave to the slavocrats and a better of Polk’s war for imperial conquest.”

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22:47 Anthony Comegna: In world historical terms, 1848 is remembered as the springtime of peoples, the amazing year when over a dozen separate and uncoordinated rebellions and revolutions consumed continental Europe. First, there was a rebellion in Sicily in January, followed by the Great February Revolution in France, the March Revolution in the German states and the Danish Protest at Christiansburg, both of which were liberal movements with liberal outcomes. There were nationalist movements in Schleswig, Hungary, Austria, Polish Galicia, Moldavia and Ireland. And there were violent internal reform struggles in Sweden, Switzerland, Poland and Belgium. All the while, Americans were eagerly consuming election news from home, alongside word of revolution abroad. Here, 1848 was the year of Free Soil. It was a dramatic and exciting mix and everything served to reinforce the romantic Loco-Foco nationalists, slightly sputtering inner flame. The world once again, appeared ripe for the great Republican Revolution. After all, those hopeful early Libertarians thought they saw a bright future ahead of them. Spoiler Alert. They were wrong, yet again.

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24:19 Anthony Comegna: Liberty Chronicles is a project of libertarianism.org. It is produced by Tess Terrible. If you’ve enjoyed this episode of Liberty Chronicles, please rate, review and subscribe to us on iTunes. For more information on Liberty Chronicles, visit libertarianism.org.