“Little Martin Van Buren”

In this dignified and enlightening campaign season, we’ve seen Republican candidate Donald Trump hurl many names at his opponents. Lately he’s called Marco Rubio “Little Marco.” Most of Trump’s insults are childish and silly (we needn’t go in details), but by mocking Rubio’s height, he’s at least keeping with some semblance of political tradition.

Politicians have been quarreling about their height for some time. Admirers of George Washington used to boast that the general was as tall as 6-3; Ron Chernow now says he was actually 6-1. James Madison, our shortest president, also grew and lost inches depending on who did the measuring. Rubio’s people say he’s 5-10. His opponents charge he’s more like 5-8, once you remove those cowboy boots.

Which brings us to Martin Van Buren. He was 5-6. (Robert Remini thinks he was shorter.) From the moment people took notice of him, they were commenting on his height—or lack of it. In his first campaign as a manager, in 1806, one Federalist referred to him as “the little imp of jacobinism.” A Hamiltonian newspaper, The Northern Whig, later called him “out little lawyerman.” Then there was Chancellor James Kent, the state’s top jurist, who once sneeringly identified him in a letter as “little Martin Van Buren.” When he went to Washington, the jokes about his height continued. In campaign literature from 1836 to 1840, we see the word “little” used to attack him time and time again. His most famous nickname—one he detested—was “the Little Magician.”

I find this quite curious. Van Buren was short, but not abnormally so. He often compensated for diminutive frame with perfect posture and by dressing well. Americans were generally a shorter people then; the average male was 5-8. Aaron Burr was 5-6, Hamilton was 5-7, John Adams and John Quincy Adams were both 5-7. Some of these politicians were ridiculed for being short, but none of them were received abuse to Van Buren’s degree. For decades he was taunted for being “little.”

What’s behind all this? Mostly jealousy, I say. Martin Van Buren’s success in politics bothered many people. He was the son of a tavern keeper with limited education and no military experience, a “pettifogger” attorney from upstate New York. He had no business being in serious politics. And yet he scaled the heights of political power unlike anyone before him. What do you do with someone like this? You mock him for his appearance. And since no one could question his attire, they went after his height. As Trump might say in one of his tweets: “Very bad!”