Wednesday, December 5, 2012

On Martin Van Buren.

This is my new favorite commercial. Watch it, now.

If for some reason you can't watch it, I'll sum it up: a family is rushing to get out of the house in the morning, when a little girl, still in her pajamas, annouces to her stressed mother that today is Dress Like A President Day, and she has to be dressed like Martin Van Buren. Her mother uses Google to learn about Van Buren (and maybe some crafting tips on how to create faux sideburns for little girls?). Boom. Its a great commercial. Google knows everything about the Presidents. Who knew? The first time I saw it, I screamed out loud. Van Buren and I have a history.

True Presidential Scholars call them the "side-Burens."
For the summer of 2011, I received a Venture Grant from Beloit to study lesser-known presidents of the 19th Century. I visited the birth places, homes, graves and statues of six presidents: (in alphabetical order): Chester A. Arthur, James Buchanan, Grover Cleveland, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, and, of course, Martin Van Buren.
Summer vay-cay.
Some background on Van Buren: he was born on December 5, 1782. That's 230 years ago, today. He wouldn't "be 230 years old today!" because medical science hasn't advanced to the point of people being able to live until they're 230 years old. But, with this Google commercial going viral, maybe he deserves a little bit more attention from this blog. You wouldn't know it from the commercial, but as a younger man, Van Buren was a redhead; his nickname was "The Red Fox of Kinderhook." Anyways, he is the only president for whom English was not a first language (his was Dutch), and he's also the first president to be born after the Revolution, making him technically the first American president. If you're going to learn anything about Van Buren, you have to know about his predecessor in the presidency: Andrew Jackson. Van Buren was Jackson's Vice President, and after Jackson's two terms were over, he hand picked Van Buren to be the next president, and, essentially, remain his Vice President. Obviously, being on Jackson's good side afforded him great political opportunities (not that he rose to meet those opportunities, seeing as the only thing we know about him today is that he has big sideburns), but it also had its consequences. For example, the Trail of Tears technically took place under Van Buren's presidency, despite the fact that Jackson was the stronger proponent of Indian Removal.

Jackson carrying Van Buren into office.
My younger brother, Evan, and I went on the trip to Van Buren's house, in Kinderhook, New York. My father can be very protective, so the fact that he let me drive two hours to outside of Albany with his only son in the car is kind of a miracle. The tour of Van Buren's home was state-run by park rangers and was also the biggest tour group I was a part of on my summer travels. The rest of my president trips that summer were usually just me and whoever I brought along, and we were allowed to walk into every room and get to know the house. In Van Buren's home, which is expansive, glass is up in the door frames so you can't get in. The artifacts are probably in better shape when you put up glass doors, but as a museum/historical site guest, you feel disconnected. 

Our tour guide did not mention the fact that Van Buren owned one slave, but she did mention the fact that he owned the first flushable toilet north of New York City.

In one of the last rooms of the tour, I noticed a bust of Van Buren in the corner that was especially ugly, and in which his sideburns were especially big. I pointed it out to my brother, and when the tour guide told us it was Van Buren’s favorite depiction of himself, we burst out laughing. For the rest of my life I'll associate my brother with Martin Van Buren. I love the presidents so much, and being able to share it with my brother is special to me, even if, in the end, our enjoyment came out of laughing at just how absurd his facial hair really was. It always comes back to the side-Burens. 

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