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The rise and fall of President Martin Van Buren

The rise and fall of Martin Van Buren
The rise and fall of Martin Van Buren 06:23

In New York's Hudson Valley, in the village of Kinderhook, sits a lovely estate called Lindenwald, once home to Martin Van Buren. And if you don't know who that is, you're in good company!

Van Buren was our eighth president, and the first to be born an American citizen, which is more than guide Zach Anderson knew when he applied for a job here: "I had to kind of admit to my boss over the phone that I was only 85% certain that he was even a president. So, it was not my proudest shining moment!"

Ranger Zach has since become an expert on the man nicknamed "Old Kinderhook." "He is the only president who spoke Dutch as his first language," said Anderson. "One of only two presidents to never serve in the military or attend college; the other would be Grover Cleveland."

And he's tied for being the second-shortest American president. "He stands at 5'6" with Monroe, and then Madison takes the crown for being shortest, at 5'4"," Anderson said.

Martin Van Buren, the 8th president of the United States.  CBS News

But in the facial hair department, Van Buren is second to no one, with some of the wildest facial hair to ever grace the White House. At Lindenwald, they call them not "mutton chops" but "Martin chops" – sideburns that truly defied gravity.

"They are remarkable," said historian Ted Widmer. "They stretch out. If he couldn't claim vertical space, he's claiming some horizontal space."

Times Books

Widmer wrote a biography of Martin Van Buren: "I was attracted to the idea of trying to make an obscure president a little bit less obscure. I think I succeeded in that very small goal. I don't think I made him famous. In fact, it's fifteen years since I wrote the book, and you were the first people to have found me."

(That's what "Sunday Morning" is here for!)

Van Buren did enjoy a brief moment in the pop culture spotlight, on "Seinfeld," when Kramer took on a street gang named the Van Buren Boys, who even had a secret sign [eight fingers for the eighth president].

But, Widmer said, in office, Van Buren was more than a punchline. "Van Buren deserves credit for inventing our two-party system, which is nowhere in the founding documents," he said. "In fact, the founders, most of them, said it would be a terrible thing if we had parties. And Van Buren comes along and says, no, these are a positive good. When one party gets too powerful, it's good to have the other party start to rise up again."

Although he may have seemed to the manor born, Van Buren was actually the son of a tavern keeper. A striver, he rose quickly through the ranks: senator, secretary of state, and then vice president to the original populist president, Andrew Jackson.

But their personalities, and their images, could not be more different. Widmer said, "Van Buren is short and sort of stout; Jackson is tall and emaciated, kind of a Clint Eastwood sort of tough guy. Van Buren is much more of a politician, and he knows everybody in Washington in a way that Andrew Jackson does not. So, Van Buren was better at going out and talking over politics and getting the Jacksonian program through Congress, which is a part of being a successful president."

So, why is Van Buren considered such a mediocre president? Well, you might say it was the economy, stupid. Just weeks after taking the oath of office, the Panic of 1837 set in – a financial crisis that triggered a six-year depression. "It's incredible how fast he fell, given how high he had climbed up," Widmer said.

It was during his administration that Van Buren purchased his lavish (for the time) home, with one of the very first, and certainly most attractive, presidential flush toilets. "To have indoor plumbing was almost kind of unheard of," said Anderson.

A hand-painted toilet bowl, at that. 

A presidential water closet. CBS News

"It's a little over the top," said Anderson. "It did not sit well with the American public. And that probably was the nail in the coffin for his failed reelection attempt come 1840."

After which, Martin Van Buren returned home to entertain and hold court in his capacious dining room, which still has the original wallpaper on the walls.

Ranger Zach Anderson with correspondent Mo Rocca at Lindenwald, where this wallpaper has hung for more than 180 years. CBS News

[FYI, if you want your home to look like Martin Van Buren's, this wallpaper, "Paysage à Chasses," is still available from Zuber, the manufacturer.]

Van Buren would run for the White House two more times, both times unsuccessfully. He'd travel extensively in Europe, write his autobiography, and enjoy farming, fishing, and his family. In 1862, at age 79, Van Buren died, by most accounts content.

Widmer said, "I thought he made a good point, which is that you can have a dismal presidency and a successful life."

For more info:

Story produced by Mary Lou Teel. Editor: Ed Givnish.

More presidential history from Mo Rocca:

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