« Presidential Impoundment | Main | I'm old »

Monday, November 18, 2019

Martin Van Buren's Memoir

One of the most interesting sources that I'm working with in the Bushrod Washington biography is Martin Van Buren's autobiography. Here is a wonderful passage in which he shares his thoughts about Madison, Bushrod, and Chancellor Kent.

In my experience of men I have never known three men who received so nearly the same stamp from the hand of Nature as James Madison, Bushrod Washington and James Kent. In the simplicity, sincerity and inoffensiveness of their dispositions they were identical; each owned a delightful cheerfulness of temperament and anunvarying desire to develop that heaven-born quality in others. With a buoyancy of spirits and manners sometimes bordering on levity, they never for a moment hazarded the respect of their friends or of those about them. Mr. Madison's life having been devoted to politics he was more reserved in regard to public affairs, but upon all other subjects they spoke their sentiments with the simplicity and directness of children. Kent possessed more genius and learning than his brother Judge, but Washington's mind was of a highly respectable order.

Mr. Emmet, in speaking to me of Kent, said that he was a learned and able Judge—but a poor Jury-man. The justice of this distinction frequently occurred to me. Elevated to the Bench at an early age, and ardently devoted to domestic life, he had mixed but little with the world and was proportionally disqualified to sift and weigh testimony. This was strikingly exhibited at the commencement of his official duties as Chancellor. Being obliged in most cases to decide both law and fact, and too liable to be led into extremes, by his detestation of fraud, several of his first decrees failed to stand the test of review in the Court for the Correction of Errors. At the first or second Term of that Court, not fewer than six of his Decrees (speaking from memory) were reversed with the concurrence of his former brethren of the Supreme Court.

Having occasion to call at his office the next morning on professional business, he displayed, in my presence, what, in almost any other man, would have been regarded as undignified violence of temper and manner, but would not, to one who knew him well, bear any such construction. The reversals of the preceding day having been referred to, he broke out into a mock tirade against the Judges, to the following effect;—"They are unfit for their places, Mr. Van Buren; You know that they are! Spencer and Van Ness are able enough, but instead of studying their cases they devote their time to politics! You know that, as well as I do! As to Judge Yates"—raising his hands—" I need say nothing! You should roll him back to Schenectady!" . . . "And as to my cousin Platt! He is only fit to be Head Deacon to a Presbyterian Church, and for nothing e1se!"

Posted by Gerard Magliocca on November 18, 2019 at 08:38 PM | Permalink


I think that's almost certainly a (bad) sarcastic joke.

Posted by: Asher Steinberg | Nov 19, 2019 12:36:51 PM

thegreatdisappointment's comment is as ridiculous as it is common these days, and in the best times would be reserved for exaggerative irony.

I appreciated the post for its variety from the usual daily commentary and to be honest would like more of it. Thanks.

Posted by: whataschmuck | Nov 19, 2019 8:28:48 AM

Van Buren was a close adviser to the irredeemably racist Andrew Jackson. How you could find the thoughts of such a man "interesting" and--worse--give those outdated thoughts a platform is beyond me.

Posted by: thegreatdisappointment | Nov 18, 2019 9:11:06 PM

The comments to this entry are closed.