Between 1825 and 1829, Martin Van Buren enjoyed a rapid growth in his political career. Although he had chosen to back the wrong man in the 1824 election, he quickly recovered and formed a remarkable alliance with Andrew Jackson. As Van Buren wheeled and dealed his way to the top of the government, the majority of his correspondence centered on the political chatter buzzing around Washington, but what is surprising is that Van Buren also made an effort to keep up with the affairs of the ladies in town.
During this period, Van Buren corresponded with a select number of women. His most frequent female pen pal was Judith Walker Rives, wife of Virginia congressman William Cabell Rives, but he also wrote to two other women: Harriet Allen Butler, wife of New York attorney Benjamin Franklin Butler, and Catherine Milligan McLane, wife of Delaware congressman Louis McLane. These friendly exchanges were not out of turn. Male/female friendships of the type were common at the time, and Van Buren also kept up steady communication with each woman’s husband. This correspondence offers a glimpse into Van Buren’s motives behind his correspondence and his interest in gossip.
Van Buren’s letters make it clear that he genuinely enjoyed hearing from his female friends. In a letter to Harriet Butler, he admitted, “Nothing serves so well to season the perpetual gossip & perpetual dissipations of this Sodom as an occasional letter from a kind hearted & sensible female friend,” and later to Judith Rives, he wrote, “Your letter has been to me a green spot in the midst of a desert of political cares.” Often, he closed his letters asking for the pleasure of receiving a response. Clearly, he did not view these letters as an obligation or an unfortunate part of the Washington social world; rather, he relished every opportunity to hear from his friends and wished to keep in frequent contact.
He also made sure they felt comfortable telling him about the goings-on in the nation’s capital. In a January 1829 letter to Judith Rives, he wrote, “I like to hear the gossip of the female world of Washington, & I should be ashamed if I did not, for those smaller concerns are among the real comforts of life.” He went on to implore her for yet more information, asking her to give him an occasional update and assuring her that she would “do no harm to any body or thing.” It appears as though he was sincerely invested in the lives of his female friends and that he offered a friendly ear.
Van Buren did not just ask his female friends to keep him updated; he also solicited gossip from his male friends. In one instance, he wrote a letter to New York congressman Churchill Caldom Cambreleng, who had gotten him into a sticky situation by spreading rumors of a false engagement. Van Buren remarked to his friend, “If you speedily give me a detailed account of all the sayings & doings of Washington as well in the female as political departments I may forgive you.” Only a week later, Van Buren wrote Cambreleng again, and immediately asked for information: “Dont trouble yourself about the intrigues at Washington but do me the favour to let me have as much of the gossip as your leisure will admit.” He claimed “the small talks of Washington” relieved him while “plodding on the Message [to the New York General legislature],” but the urgency with which he pursued it is intriguing.
But was there more to Van Buren’s motives than an honest affinity for gossip?
In fact, gossip played an integral role in politicking in Washington. Ted Widmer, author of Martin Van Buren, explains that the wives of powerful politicians in Van Buren’s era felt a “growing power over the destinies of the young republic,” and they advanced that power “through what passed for weapons of mass destruction at the time: gossip, innuendo, and outright slander.” Since Van Buren was not married during the time he spent in Washington—his wife Hannah passed away in 1819—he would not have had direct access to that sphere of influence. His correspondence with female friends offered him a potential way in.
John Quincy Adams certainly believed this was the case. Adams and Van Buren had a difficult relationship during the 1820s. Van Buren campaigned against Adams in the 1824 election, then spent the next four years as a constant thorn in the president’s side. This experience with Van Buren colored Adams’ perception of him. But as a victim of Van Buren’s politicking, Adams also knew firsthand how skilled the Little Magician was at it. In his memoirs, Adams wrote extensively about the Jackson administration. In particular, he offered his opinions on the Eaton Affair, a scandal during Jackson’s first term that left Secretary of War John Eaton’s wife shunned by all the other politicians’ wives in Washington. When Van Buren, then serving as secretary of state, defended Eaton, Adams noted that the cabinet was split, with Calhoun heading “the moral party,” and “Van Buren that of the frail sisterhood.” Later, Adams recorded that Duff Green, editor of the United States’ Telegraph, believed that Van Buren’s support for Eaton was out of sympathy since he lost his own wife, but he also insisted that Van Buren took the opportunity to “ingratiate himself with Eaton and his wife, and with Jackson.” Perhaps he was sincere in his support for Eaton, but he also knew how to maneuver the situation to come out on top as Jackson’s supportive ally and confidant.
So, was Martin Van Buren sincere in his letters to his female friends, or was the Little Magician up to his old tricks by seeking out gossip to advance his political career? It is hard to know for sure. One thing that is certain, however, is that Van Buren knew what he was doing, and it is hard to imagine he would pass up the opportunity to capitalize on the gossip he gained in his letters.
Jordan Russ, Middle Tennessee State University
John Quincy Adams, Memoirs of John Quincy Adams, Comprising Portions of His Diary from 1795 to 1848, ed. Charles Francis Adams, vol. 8 (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1874), 185, 356-57.
Ted Widmer, Martin Van Buren (New York: Times Books, 2005), 77.