A Middle Tennessee University Works To Elevate A Forgotten President — One Page At A Time

Jun 15, 2017

In a library at Cumberland University, history professor Mark Cheathem flips the switch on an electronic scanner.

The image of a letter addressed to Martin Van Buren, the nation's eighth president, pops up on screen. 

At least, that's what it appears to be.

The handwriting is a loopy scrawl. The language is outdated. Words written on one side of the page have bled through to the other, making the document even harder to read.

The dateline appears to be Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. January 19, 1844.

"That's correct. We may hire you — for free," Cheathem quips.

It's a letter from the speaker of Pennsylvania's House of Representatives. He's beseeching Van Buren — four years out of the White House but still a leading political figure — to consider once again running for the nation's highest office.

Stored here on 55 spools of microfilm is the world's largest repository of Van Buren's papers. For two years, Professor Cheathem has been working with Cumberland students to move this archive — some 13,000 letters and other documents related to Van Buren — from film to the internet.

Mark Cheathem, professor of history and director of the Papers of Martin Van Buren project, shows the rolls of microfilm containing documents related to the former president.
Credit Chas Sisk / WPLN

By making it easily searchable, Cheathem hopes to raise awareness about a man seen in his time as a political genius, but now discussed so rarely that even Cheathem's history students start off unfamiliar.

"Usually I point out that he was the president with the muttonchops," says Cheathem. "He's the one who most obviously looks like Wolverine, the comic book character.

"But really what I talk about is I talk about him being the architect of the Democratic Party and him being really the founder of the two-party system that we have today."

It might seem a little strange that Cumberland University, a liberal arts school in Lebanon, is so dedicated to Van Buren. Tennessee students learn all about Andrew Jackson. They probably don't hear much about the New Yorker who many scholars believe made Jackson's presidency possible.

But Van Buren and Jackson were powerful allies in the 1820s and '30s. Many historians, including Cheathem, say Van Buren helped create modern politics.

"He is someone who behind the scenes is a very masterful politician."

Van Buren was among the first to recognize the power of mass media. Long before cable and the internet, Van Buren understood how to control the news cycle by planting stories friendly to Jackson and hostile to his political enemies.

And Van Buren was a prolific grassroots organizer. Rowdy barbecues and raucous campaign events were hallmarks of Jacksonian democracy. The son of a tavern keeper, Van Buren saw how alcohol and good cheer could be used to get out the vote.

"Taverns were really the centers of politics at the local level," says Cheathem. "So you'd go in and you'd drink and eat, but you'd also talk politics."

The story of Jackson and Van Buren begins in 1824. That year, Jackson won the popular vote and led in the electoral college. But the U.S. House of Representatives awarded the presidency to John Quincy Adams.

Jackson felt he had the presidency stolen from him. Van Buren also opposed Adams and helped build support for Jackson in the Northeast. Four years later, the Tennessean won in a landslide.

The new president rewarded Van Buren by making him secretary of state. Later, he became Jackson's vice president. And when Jackson stepped aside after two terms, Van Buren won the White House as his successor.

But he would struggle on his own. One reason Van Buren has been forgotten is he lasted only one term.

"When he comes to the forefront — when he's the one in front of people, when he's the one leading the charge — he is not as good," Cheathem says. "And I think you see that probably with lots of politicians."

A legacy to unlock

Some of the microfilm reels Cumberland University received from Penn State University.
Credit Chas Sisk / WPLN

Van Buren's papers tell the story of his political career, but they're not easy to access.

The originals are scattered across the country. Penn State University spent nearly two decades moving them to microfilm, but by the time the school finished in 1987, that technology was already fading.

The reels were turned over to Cumberland, which is now working to scan and digitize each page. But making the archive searchable requires reading every document line by line and typing the text in by hand.

The writing is inscrutable enough that students usually work in pairs. David Gregory, a graduate student at Cumberland and aspiring lawyer, and Zach Morgan, an undergraduate who plans to teach history, decipher another letter to Van Buren. This one is from Gansevoort Melville, a brother of "Moby Dick" author Herman Melville and a leading figure in New York's Tammany Hall.

Melville offers his condolences to Van Buren shortly after the 1844 Democratic Convention. Van Buren has failed to secure the Democratic nomination for president, which instead went to another Tennessean, James K. Polk.

Gregory says he's developed an appreciation for Van Buren, though he admits to knowing very little about the man before starting on the project.

"Which I think it's kind of the theme here," says Gregory. "Not a lot of people give him credit for the things he's done, but he's right up with Jackson there in terms of importance in my opinion."

The project may take a decade or longer. Cumberland is looking for funding and volunteers to help complete the work.

They see a figure with broad appeal. Cheathem notes Martin Van Buren lived 80 years — long enough to have corresponded with founding fathers like James Madison and Civil War figures like Jefferson Davis.

"His life is really, in capsule, the entirety of the United States' birth, its youth, its adolescence and then its early adulthood when it splits."

In time, Cheathem hopes Van Buren's papers can become a resource — for university scholars, for classroom teachers and for any history enthusiast.

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