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Cover page of Campbell, The Lives of the Lord Chancellors

"As to the presidency, the two happiest days of my life were those of my entrance upon the office and my surrender of it."

"As to the presidency, the two happiest days of my life were those of my entrance upon the office and my surrender of it."

This quote is often attributed to Martin Van Buren as a reflection of how miserable he was as president. It would have been an understandable response given the challenges he faced, chief among them an economic depression that gripped the nation throughout his administration. One can imagine Van Buren, beaten by retired general and Whig William Henry Harrison in his 1840 reelection bid, saying this as he sullenly skulked away from Washington on a dreary March 1841 day.

Van Buren may have felt this way, but he didn’t make the statement attributed to him—at least not about himself.

Van Buren’s autobiography, which he began working on in the 1850s, contains a passage in which he discussed the challenges of the presidency. He observed that the chief executive position was “the most exalted as it is the most responsible public trust that can be conferred on man,” but he also acknowledged that “the extent to which personal happiness and enjoyment will be promoted by its possession is a question to be solved by the taste and temperament of the incumbent.” He continued by noting the “great disappointments” presidents faced, one of the greatest of which was “the distribution of patronage.” “Whatever hopes they may indulge that their cases will prove an exception to the general rule,” Van Buren wrote, “they will find, in the end, their own experience truly described by Mr. Jefferson when he said that the two happiest days of his life were those of his entrance upon his office and of his surrender of it.” (447-448).

The actual quote that has circulated for decades is inaccurate. But if Van Buren didn’t say those words about his own time in the White House, was he right in ascribing them to Jefferson? Van Buren’s comment in his autobiography suggests that Jefferson’s sentiments were common knowledge.

So, I contacted the experts. After conducting a search and consulting with colleagues, Lisa A. Francavilla, senior managing editor of the Papers of Thomas Jefferson: Retirement Series concluded that Jefferson’s papers do not contain this saying. According to Dr. Francavilla, the closest sentiment appears in Washington writer Margaret Bayard Smith’s account of Madison’s Inauguration Ball:

In the course of the evening, some one remarked to him [Jefferson], “you look so happy & satisfied Mr Jefferson, & Mr Madison looks so serious not to say, sad, that a spectator might imagine that you were the one coming in, & he the one going out of office.” “There’s good reason for my happy & his serious looks,” replied Mr Jefferson, “I have got the burthen off my shoulders, while he has now got it on his.”

Dr. Francavilla speculated that Jefferson may have said something similar during one of Van Buren’s visits to Monticello but, of course, there is no way to verify if such a conversation took place.

Even if Jefferson felt this way, and even if he shared his sentiments with Van Buren, that still leaves the question of why Van Buren used this specific language. A search of contemporary newspapers turned up an interesting example that was briefly part of American culture. The 25 December 1822 issue of the Poughkeepsie (NY) Observer included a section entitled, “The Opinions of Ancient Philosophers on the Marriage State” (p. 4). One of the opinions, attributed to the Greek poet Hipponax, read, “The two happiest days you pass with a wife are, the day on which you marry, and the day on which death walks off with her.” This piece was republished in newspapers in the eastern U.S. over the next few months. Perhaps Van Buren read this piece and repurposed it later in life.

This is an intriguing proposition, but it’s hard to see how Van Buren would connect this saying to Jefferson and the presidency. The answer, it seems, lies in a book that Van Buren read later in life: John Campbell’s The Lives of the Lord Chancellors and Keepers of the Great Seal of England, vol. 1 (1845). In discussing Sir Thomas More, Campbell, a writer and well-known member of Britain’s Liberal party, wrote, “It is said that the two happiest days of a man’s life are the day when he accepts a high office, and the day when he resigns it” (554). Van Buren referenced Campbell’s work in his notes on the Livingston grant, a document prepared in part as background for Van Buren’s autobiography.

The most plausible answer to the origins of this quote, then, is not an unrecorded private conversation with the Sage of Monticello or a piece of marital advice in a newspaper, one or both stored away for decades either in Old Kinderhook's mind or in his private notes. Instead, it seems reasonable to conclude that Van Buren read Campbell’s work in the years immediately prior to preparing his autobiography and adapted it. Maybe Jefferson expressed relief at leaving the presidency to Van Buren, so he put Campbell’s words in the Virginian’s mouth. Or maybe Van Buren wanted to make the saying more familiar to his American audience, so he substituted Jefferson for More.

Whatever his motivation, and whether Van Buren actually agreed with the sentiments expressed, the quote attributed to him is inaccurate.

—Mark R. Cheathem

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