President Abraham Lincoln, who had met Van Buren 20 years earlier in Illinois, gave orders for a period of mourning which exceeded the basic formalities. Ceremonial cannons were fired in Washington and at military forts, and for six months all officers in the U.S. Army and Navy wore black crepe mourning bands on the left arms of their uniforms in tribute to Van Buren.
Lincoln, a shrewd political operator himself, recognized that Van Buren's contribution to American life reached far beyond his one difficult term as president in the late 1830s. For it was the wily Van Buren who, in the 1820s, created the great coalition of northerners and southerners that brought Andrew Jackson to power.
In many ways, the political party system in America was the creation of Martin Van Buren. He grew up listening to political chatter in his father's tavern in a Dutch enclave in New York State, and while still in his teens became associated with Aaron Burr's political faction in New York City.
Skills honed in the "Albany Regency," the prototypical political machine that ran New York State in the early 19th century, were brought to national politics by the man known as "The Little Magician." Van Buren organized the Democratic Party in the mid-1820s, and the basic template of American politics could be traced back to his influence.
Always something of an oddity for instance, the only president who did not speak English as his first language Van Buren was a professional politician ahead of his time. He had loyal supporters and bitter enemies, and rumors always swirled about him.
And though generally overlooked as a president, as a political figure Martin Van Buren was endlessly fascinating.
More: Martin Van Buren: Significant Facts and Brief Biography
Illustration: Martin Van Buren/Library of Congress
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