James Van Alen Goes to Congress

It’s been a well-kept secret that Martin Van Buren had a half brother, James I. Van Alen, who was a U.S. congressman. Van Buren himself never revealed much about his oldest sibling, who died in 1823 at age 49. I’ve written before (in blog posts now deleted, alas) about how little we know about Van Alen, the degree of misinformation about him (Wikipedia has finally been corrected, though) and how central he was to Van Buren’s early career, in politics and (especially) the law. I can only conclude from his silence that Van Buren wanted to maintain the image that he was a self-made man whose political rise stemmed from hard work, intelligence and guile, not from “the aid of powerful family connexions,” as he put it in his memoirs. This is nonsense: Van Buren benefited enormously from his family’s political connections. However, in one instance at least, Van Buren was the one came to the aid of another family member.

Let’s correct one thing about James Van Alen: He was not a Federalist. This falsehood has been repeated by many historians (including the most recent Van Buren biography), yet another example of a myth passing from book to book to book, a topic explored last week. The myth can be traced to the Autobiography, where Van Buren recounted the time Kinderhook Federalists won a congressional race in 1800 and how the local party leader, Peter Van Schaack, had won over “a half brother of mine.” With these few words posterity has cemented the image of James Van Alen as a member of Hamilton’s party. If Van Alen was a Federalist, it was a brief love affair. By 1803, he was writing letters about politics with all of the enthusiasm of a doctrinaire Jeffersonian. In the first decade and a half of the 19th century he was a frequent candidate for office and he was always listed in the newspapers as a Democratic-Republican. When Van Buren returned to Kinderhook in 1803 to start his law career, he partnered with Van Alen, who had just been elected to the state assembly. In 1806, he eyed a new vacant seat in the U.S. congress, one that had been held by a Federalist. At the annual county meeting in 1806, Van Buren led the campaign to get Van Alen the Republicans’ backing. The Federalists put forward the undistinguished Robert Le Roy Livingston, known as “Crazy Bob” for his violent temper. “If throwing Decanters and Glasses were to be the weapons used,” a military man later said of him, “he would make a most excellent Liet. Colonel.”

But Livingston had money and the famous surname, which was all anyone usually needed in Columbia County. This election season, however, things were different. The Livingston-Clinton coalition that had toppled Burr in 1804 had largely disintegrated. From the Clintonians’ perspective, the new governor, Morgan Lewis—whom the Livingstons had assured was a safe and pliable pick who would carry the party’s banner in Albany—was a disaster. He continued to hobnob with Federalists and had even supported the chartering of the controversial Merchants’ Bank, which New York City Mayor DeWitt Clinton militantly opposed. Clinton saw the new bank as a threat to the Republican-dominated Bank of the Manhattan Company, which Aaron Burr had slipped through the legislature in 1799 by claiming its purpose was to bring clean water to the city. The Livingstons, who were gradually losing interest in politics by this time, loyally stood by their kinsman. The head of the family dynasty, Chancellor Robert R. Livingston, had just retired, and a good number were rejoining the Federalists’ ranks. All of these developments were good omens for James Van Alen’s Washington designs.

Van Buren went to work. How he waged his brother’s campaign is unknown, but the grumblings of the young Federalist attorney Charles A. Foote suggest that Van Buren was using many of Burr’s tactics from his New York City campaigns. Foote described Van Buren’s campaign operations as “indefatigable,” adding, “I fear the whole democratic ticket will succeed, at least their congressman.” Foote dreaded what he saw unfolding: “The exertions of the whole party and particularly that little imp of jacobinism M. Van Buren, are incredible.” Foote could see that already Van Buren was one of Columbia County’s leading Republicans. He wrote, “What makes the probable success of Van Alen more mortifying is the accession it will bring to the already intolerable impudence of that fellow, who will then have this county completely under his thumb, for strange as it may seem he is the life of democracy here and its acknowledged head.”

James I. Van Alen won the congressional race by ten votes. Such a razor-thin margin seems remarkable now, but it was common in the early 19th century, when populations were small and voter rolls even smaller. Still, ten votes isn’t much. By concentrating on a few areas, he flipped the seat to the Republican column. The biggest shifts were in Kinderhook, Chathan and Hudson. All three places voted Federalist in the 1804 congressional race; in 1806, they went to Van Alen, an overall turnaround of 345 votes. Of the eleven Columbia County towns comprising the sixth congressional district, Van Alen took seven of them. Not surprisingly, Van Alen’s biggest majority came in Kinderhook. Two years earlier, 62 percent of Kinderhook’s voters went for the Federalist; in 1806, the same percentage voted for Van Alen. Still 23 years old, the “little imp of jacobinism” was sending his brother to Washington City to serve in the Tenth Congress.