No, I’m not talking about that cool rockin’ daddy Bruce Springsteen. I’m talking about former President and New York Governor Martin Van Buren. Big deal, right? Of course he was; that’s a requirement for the position, after all. MVB, as I am prone to call him (it makes me sound hip), was born on this day in 1782. Now, does that first sentence make a bit more sense? Van Buren was the first Commander-in-Chief born into the then-fledgling United States of America. The previous seven had all come into this world under British rule, but MVB was the first born after the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776. As Van Buren put it best in his 1837 Inauguration address, 'Unlike all who have preceded me, the revolution that gave us existence as one people was achieved at the period of my birth; and whilst I contemplate with grateful reverence that memorable event, I feel I belong to a later age and I may not expect my countrymen to weigh my actions with the same kind and partial hand.'
That well-crafted line from his inauguration proved to be prophetic. Weeks later the Panic of 1837 hit and a depression engulfed America. Van Buren ran for re-election three years later, but the damage was already done. And thus began the longest run of forgettable Presidents in US history, until a little-known senator from Illinois made some history of his own a few decades later.
While Americans have more or less forgotten Mr. Van Buren, one place in upstate New York has kept his memory alive. The Rockwellian town of Kinderhook is about a 25 minute drive southeast from Albany. It’s where the former President was born, in a tavern of all places. Just off of Route 9H you can find Lindenwald, the magnificent estate Van Buren moved to post-Presidency. It’s run by the National Park Service and is open to the public.
But Van Buren’s legacy lives on in some other strange ways. Back in 1840 when he ran for re-election the battle cry for his supporters was his nickname, 'Old Kinderhook.' They would approvingly shout, 'Ok! OK!' But it turns out what Americans might have actually been saying back then is, 'We’ve had enough, OK!?!' Either way, it helped popularize a phrase you and I say or write multiple times a day.
And MVB even got a boost from the legendary sitcom, Seinfeld. Who can forget Cosmo Kramer getting cornered by the 'Van Buren Boys,' only to escape their wrath when he unwittingly held up their gang sign in defense, eight fingers (for the 8th President)?
So, as we celebrate his 229th birthday, we remember ole Martin Van Buren. We might not remember him for his deft diplomatic skills or his views on foreign policy, but in an odd sort-of-way, we remember him. And how would America’s first American-born President feel about that? I’m guessing he would be OK with it.
(You can watch the story of Martin Van Buren in the WMHT documentary 'Presidents In Our Backyard.')