Martin Van Buren: The Little Magician pops up in Rochester

Destruction of the Caroline

Destruction of the steamer Caroline during the so-called Patriot War of 1837.

In keeping with our Presidential visits to Rochester (BELOW), on Sept 5, 1839, Van Buren, the first sitting president to visit the city, was greeted by thousands of cheering well wishers, booming cannon, blaring martial music, and a flood of  journalistic purple prose.

Martin Van Buren: The Little Magician pops up in Rochester

Michael J. Nighan

Martin Van Buren, the first New Yorker to reach the White House (and the first president born in the United States, AND the only president to speak English as a second language), was a true political insider, professional politician, and wheeler dealer, having entered politics as a state judge at the age of 25 and then serving successively as state senator, state attorney general, US Senator, governor, US Secretary of State and vice president, before finally achieving the presidency in 1837 as the Democratic successor to Andrew Jackson.

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Election of 1836. Democrat Van Buren won New York, but lost Monroe County to the Whig William Henry Harrsion. In 1840, Harrison would defeat Van Buren in his reelection attempt.

Known as the “Little Magician” for his height (at 5 ½ ft., our second-shortest president behind James Madison) and for his wizardry in getting others to support his programs and policies, Van Buren’s magic deserted him when, two months after taking office, the bottom fell out of the economy resulting in The Panic of 1837.

To make matters worse, dissatisfied British subjects in Canada chose this time to launch a rebellion, with the goal of making that country an independent republic. Seeking assistance in the US, the rebels obtained a Niagara River side wheel steamer, the Caroline, to smuggle in men and supplies. In a counter move, British forces crossed the river and “invaded” the United States where they seized the Caroline, killed and wounded several America crewmen, set the ship ablaze, and sent it over Niagara Falls, a move that brought the two countries perilously close to war. When the rebellion failed, the plotters sought sanctuary in the United States, further exacerbating the friction between the US and Great Britain (*).

Whig cartoon showing the effects of unemployment on a family that has portraits of Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren on the wall

Whig cartoon showing the effects of unemployment on a family that has portraits of Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren on the wall. From The Panic of 1837

After two years of bad economic and diplomatic news and disappointing mid-term election results, and with an eye on his 1840 re-election bid, Van Buren decided to take a vacation in the summer of 1839 and do a little politicking on his home turf.

Leaving DC in early July, “there were salutes of artillery, pealing of bells, mounted escorts, assemblings of ‘youth and beauty,’ and thronging of citizens,” when Van Buren arrived in New York City. Stops in Albany and lengthy stays at his home in Kinderhook and at Saratoga Springs took up most of July and August (during which the incident of slaves seizing the Armistad, and it’s subsequent capture by the US Navy, was making headlines).

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Martin Van Buren

Now we have a bit of a mystery. Assuming newspaper accounts to be accurate, Van Buren gave a speech at Whitehall, NY near Lake George on Aug. 21. And by September 2 he was in Buffalo. So how did he get there? Surely his passage through upstate New York, either by canal boat or horseback, would have been reported in the press. But there’s not a word. Possibly he sailed down Lake Ontario? I’m going to have to keep looking.

In any event, early September found Van Buren in Buffalo, followed by the obligatory excursion to see Niagara Falls, after which he boarded the newly-constructed Niagara Falls & Lockport Strap Railroad for the trip to Lockport. This train was later described by a less-than-impressed observer as:

A remarkable battle between gravity and a hot water tank mounted on four spoked wheels…behind this smoking mechanical horse rode two cars that resembled stagecoaches. The cars lurched and jerked and passengers desperately clung to the sides of the cars and wondered why they had not walked or taken a regular carriage.

En route, Van Buren’s railway coach derailed. However repairs were quickly made and the crew and passengers, including the president, were able to simply pick up the coach, set it back on the rails, and continued their journey.

Reaching Lockport, Van Buren switched to a carriage for trip to Batavia where he was escorted aboard the two year old Tonawanda Railroad for the 32 mile run to Rochester, that city’s first railroad line. Described as “panting like an impatient race horse,” the engine pulled the train along at a blazing 15 mph.

So new was the Tonawanda RR (spelled “Tonnewanta” by some) that it hadn’t yet established a permanent depot. As a result, given that the rail line simply stopped after crossing the Erie Canal near Main Street, the nearby United States Hotel became the gathering place for passengers awaiting their train. (Coincidently, in 1850 the hotel would again be repurposed when it became the birthplace and first “campus” for the newly-chartered University of Rochester.)

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Arriving in town on the afternoon of Sept 5, 1839, Van Buren, the first sitting president to visit Rochester, was greeted by thousands of cheering well wishers, booming cannon, blaring martial music, and a flood of such journalistic purple prose as:

There is something morally sublime in contemplating the history and character of the present incumbent. Unaided by fortune or princely connections, and with naught save his own integrity, perseverance, and self-cultivated talents, he has risen from an humble farmer’s boy to a station more exalted , more commanding, and more enviable than any other in the political world. With a private reputation spotless beyond reproach, and as a warm, energetic and uncompromising protector of his country’s honor and her sacred institutions – no wonder that a NATION OF FREEMEN should delight to do him honor.

Following a lengthy and convoluted parade taking in many of the city’s major streets, Van Buren, riding a “noble and spirited horse,” arrived at the stately Rochester House on Exchange Street (the spot now occupied by the Times Square Building) where his reception had been scheduled. In keeping with the more chivalrous aspects of 19th. Century society, the papers had announced:

We are requested to state that upper piazza of the Rochester House, and so much of the lower one as is not occupied by the Committee of Arrangements, will be reserved exclusively for the Ladies – on the President’s arrival this afternoon

From half past seven to ten o’clock in the evening, the Ladies will have an opportunity of paying their respects to the President at the house of Gen. Gould, corner of Spring and Fitzhugh streets.

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After acknowledging the cheers of the crowd, Van Buren had to sit through the inevitable official welcoming speech. Interestingly enough, Mayor Thomas Rochester (son of founder Col. Nathaniel Rochester) was a Whig who apparently had business elsewhere that day, the result being that the main speaker was ex-Congressman (and Van Buren’s fellow Democrat) Graham H. Chapin.

Laying it on thick as the occasion demanded (British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli once said, “Everyone likes flattery; and when you come to Royalty you should lay it on with a trowel.”), and in sharp contrast to the present day occupant of the White House, Chapin praised Van Buren for:

The manifestation of kindness and courtesy toward political opponents which removes the sting of controversy, refines social intercourse, and elevates individual character…. It is with heartfelt satisfaction that your personal friends are able to refer to your conduct for an exemplification of those domestic virtues which sweeten the relations of social and private life, while in those sharp conflicts of principles and opinion which have deeply agitated, and still agitate, the country, actuated by the generous sentiment that political differences ought not to beget personal animosity.

Van Buren, accompanied by Secretary of War Joel Roberts Poinsett (who years earlier, while serving as a special envoy to Mexico, brought back to the United States a brilliant red flower known as the “Flor de Nochebuena,” or Christmas Eve flower, but which became know here simply as the “poinsettia”), sat down to an early supper and doubtless a glass or two of whiskey (in his younger days his capacity for alcohol had earned Van Buren the nickname, “Blue Whiskey Van”) and hopefully a couple of hours rest before the impending hours of receptions and mandatory hand-shaking.

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Rochester Daily Advertiser, September 6th, 1839. [Courtesy of the Local History Division of the Rochester Public Library.]

The next morning, Van Buren and his entourage rode off in a caravan of carriages and cavalry for Canandaigua, Geneva, Waterloo, Auburn and points east. In Geneva the opposition newspaper wasn’t quite as fulsome in their praise of the president as the Rochester papers had been. Wrote one editor:

The parade marshal requested the audience cheer three times three, with which a small part of the company complied and raised a feeble cry, which died away at number seven, and the last two remaining cheers were dispensed with.

The echoes of the “feeble cry” had barely faded away when the grandstand upon which Van Buren and the other dignitaries were standing partially collapsed. Luckily no one was hurt. Sticking in one final knife, another paper opined that:

We will not say that the affair of the reception here was an entire failure…. (but) Ontario and the adjacent counties which were drawn on for help in making up the show – contain together about two hundred thousand people, from amongst whom were drawn together some three or four hundred, a lesser number than has been many times collected here to see a caravan of traveling monkeys.

Returning to Washington, Van Buren’s luck failed him for the final time in 1840 when his re-election campaign ran afoul of that first great American political slogan, “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too,” which helped put William Henry Harrison in the White House….where he died after one month in office.

SEE Brian Schantz’s The Presidential Election of 1840 in Rochester, New York (Syracuse University Honors Program Capstone Project, 2012)

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Election of 1840. Unlike in 1836, the Whig William Henry Harrison won Monroe County and defeated Van Buren in his home state of New York.

Van Buren is one of twelve incumbent one-term Presidents denied re-election: J. Adams, J. Q. Adams, Van Buren, Polk, Pierce, Buchanan, Hayes, Harrison, Taft, Hoover, Carter, and G.H.W. Bush.  Van Buren’s electoral career is closest to the elder Bush.  Van Buren was Vice-President for one term under Andrew Jackson, then President, then defeated.  G.H.W. Bush was Vice President for two terms under Ronald Reagan, then President, then defeated. Bush was also the first incumbent VP to be elected president since Van Buren.

In 1844, Van Buren again sought the Democratic nomination.  However,  due to opposition from former President Andrew Jackson and most Southern delegations, Van Buren was unable to win the necessary two-thirds vote at the National Convention that ultimately chose James Polk after nine ballots.

In 1848, Van Buren again sought a second term, but the Democratic National Convention rejected his bid. Buren broke from the party to lead the ticket of the Free Soil Party, which opposed to the extension of slavery into the territories.  Van Buren received 10 percent of the popular vote but no electoral votes.

In a final indignity, C-SPAN’s 2017 Presidential Historians Survey ranked Van Buren at a meager No. 34 out of 44 ex-presidents.

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From Historical rankings of presidents (Wikipedia) From 1948 – 2017. 2017 C-SPAN survey in red.  Aggregate = 24.

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From The Life and Times of Martin Van Buren in which McKenzie accuses Van Buren of inconsistency and hypocrisy on the question of slavery.

* Chief among the plotters was William Lyon Mackenzie. After the rebellion failed, Mackenzie moved to Rochester where he started a newspaper devoted to encouraging a second Canadian insurrection. In 1839, charged with having, “within the territory and jurisdiction of the United States began, set on foot, provided and prepared for, the means for a military expedition and enterprise, carried on from the United States against the territory and dominions of the Sovereign Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland,” Mackenzie was tried by a federal court in Canandaigua. Convicted, he was sentenced to 18 months in the Monroe County jail and ordered to pay a fine of $10. The unhealthy conditions of the jail, which was a damp, drafty stone structure located on an island formed by the construction of a mill race on the west bank of the Genesee River, soon led to a deterioration of Mackenzie’s health, causing his supporters to petition Van Buren for a pardon. Although reluctant to offend the British, Van Buren nevertheless eventually acquiesced and Mackenzie was pardoned having served less than a year of his sentence. Five years later, apparently still disgruntled by Van Buren’s foot-dragging, Mackenzie wrote and published, The Life and Times of Martin Van Buren, described at the time as “unflattering” and “scurrilous’.   Nevertheless, Mackenzie has been viewed by later generations as one of the fathers of modern Canada, and his statue stands guard in front of the Provincial Parliament buildings in Toronto.

Michael J. Nighan

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In On Abraham Lincoln in Rochester from Michael Nighan, a plaque and a train station.

In When President Andrew Johnson and Ulysses S. Grant visited Rochester in the Swing Around the Circle, it was two Presidents for the price of one.

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In When Carter stumped Rochester in ’76. And Howard the Duck. it was Howard for Prez.

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In November 1st, 1984: Ronald Reagan five days before his 49 state landslide. And Jesse Jackson at MCC. And a liberal enclave. it was two rallies.

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