One of the things that happens when you read biographies of all the presidents is that you read about vaguely boring Presidents like Martin Van Buren. (For a less boring taken on Van Buren, here’s Seinfeld and “the Van Buren Boys.”)
But he did some interesting things, usually not while President though, as his administration was crippled by the Panic of 1837, the worst economic crisis until the Great Depression, at a time when no one had invented the tools for a government to address them.
He was very much the founder of the modern political party system. He was governor of New York (very briefly) and a Senator as well. And he helped popularize the word OK during the 1840 presidential campaign.
He was the first in a line of presidents between Jackson and Lincoln who were all basically fighting about slavery. Jackson had the nullification crisis, so he didn’t get out unscathed, but from Van Buren to Lincoln, it was pretty much the only thing people were fighting about, and it threatened the Union at every turn.
The author clearly likes Van Buren, but is realistic in his historical assessment and argues that Van Buren deserves “a second thought,” and based on this book, I’d agree with that.
I’ll quote from the final chapter of Ted Widmer’s biography:
He does not need fame, or pity, but Martin Van Buren is worthy of a sober second thought. Quite simply, it’s antidemocratic to expect all of our leaders to be great, or to pretend that they are once they are in office and using the trappings of the presidency for theatrical effect. It goes without saying that we need our Lincolns and Washingtons–the United States would not exist without them. But we need our Van Burens, too–the schemes and sharps working to defend people from all backgrounds against their natural predators. For democracy to stay realistic, we need to remain realistic about our leaders and what they can and cannot do. In other words, we need books about the not-quite-heroic.
I think that sums it up pretty well.