Martin Van Buren: The American Presidents Series by Ted Widmer:
All this innuendo was even more unlikely given the relative poverty of Van Buren’s upbringing—an indigence exceeded only by Jackson and Lincoln among the early presidents, and not matched by too many since. He is one of only two men elected president without the benefit of military service or a college education (Grover Cleveland is the other). But his humble background was one of the reasons his enemies disdained him, while also attacking the urbane tastes he had cultivated to mask his modest origin. With some enemies, you just can’t win. Like almost every Democratic president since then, his enjoyment of life was twisted by his critics into hypocrisy and selfishness, and proof that his form or democracy was insincere—the bulk of the criticism coming, of course, from the most abject defenders of the status quo.
Not all his shortcomings were exaggerated. Some were even underappreciated. Like every politician in the antebellum, he failed to confront the ticking time bomb of slavery. Or to be more specific, he neglected it when he could have done something, ahead of the pack, and turned to it only late in his career, with mixed results. Slavery was not just a moral crisis; it was a political problem of the highest magnitude, and as a clairvoyant party boss he should have seen it coming. But the fact that Southerners though him pro-northern and Northerners thought him pro-southern conveys something of the delicacy of his predicament. It is true, as Dante wrote, that the hottest circles of hell are reserved for those who, in a time of crisis, preserve their neutrality. But to have been braver and wiser in 1837 would almost certainly have doomed him to political irrelevance. The nation was not yet ready—not even close (part of Lincoln’s genius is that he arrived at a moment when it was possible to become Lincoln). Like most Jacksonians, Van Buren tilted at windmills and lunged at chimeras, consumed by the “monster” of the Bank while ignoring the genuine monster nursing at America’s bosom.