Martin Van Ruin Visits West Point
Our first President not born a British subject was Martin Van Buren, a New Yorker from Kinderhook south of Albany. Swept in on the popularity of Andrew Jackson, for whom he served as Vice President, he soon was known as “Martin Van Ruin” when the economy crashed in 1837 and stayed in the gutter for the rest of his Presidency. He was trounced by Harrison in the 1840 election. In any case, Van Buren was the consummate politician in all the best and worst ways and was also known as the “Little Magician” for his political abilities (and short stature at 5’6”). In New York politics he was a giant and traveled the state regularly. In the summer of 1839, he visited West Point with Gen. Winfield Scott and Secretary of War Joel Roberts Poinsett. Van Buren’s son Abraham was an 1827 USMA graduate.
Also at West Point during the Presidential visit was James Gordon Bennett, Sr., the famed publisher of the New York Herald. He had started the paper in 1835 and it skyrocketed in popularity (or infamy) in 1836 when the Herald covered the murder of Helen Jewett, a prostitute, in graphic detail. Bennett was also a pioneer in the use of graphics in his papers and is considered the first to conduct a Presidential interview for the media (with Van Buren). The Herald and its editor were popular and known to cadets. They could get newspapers and magazines delivered to the West Point post office.
As would be expected for a Presidential visit, there was pomp and circumstance. Three boats arrived at the West Point dock with the President and guests. Superintendent Richard Delafield met the guest of honor along with 30 cadets and the West Point Band. The party then walked up the hill to the Plain. The rest of the Corps was gathered in front of the Superintendent’s House for the National Salute. At the time, the Salute included one gunshot for each state which was 26 in 1839. The New York Herald reported the following account:
As soon as the President reached their front, a national salute was fired; and such a salute, God help us, was never fired before or since. It was bang—fiz—bang—pop—fiz—pop—bang—fiz—and so on along the line. The very devil seemed in the guns. The officers swore—the cadets sweated, and at last they fired the twenty-sixth gun—bang—and then another; the twenty-seventh gun went off with a loud report. “Stop that firing,” said Major Delafield, “and enquire what that twenty-seventh gun was fired for?” The officer went and returned, and reported that the twenty-seventh gun had been fired for Bennett’s Herald. At this there was a great laugh and commotion, and we were told that the cadet was put under arrest. (as reprinted in the Mississippi Free Trader)
Cadets always find a way to get themselves in trouble. Bennett did not support Van Buren in the 1840 election, so whether this story is accurate or a way of poking fun at the “Little Magician” will never be known. The National Salute was fixed at 21 shots in 1841.
Bonus Van Buren Trivia: In addition to "Martin Van Ruin" and the "Little Magician," Van Buren was known as "Old Kinderhook" because of his birthplace. During the 1840 election, Van Buren's supporters carried signs saying "OK" and it is believed this help popularize the term "okay" in the American vocabulary. More here.
Cohen, Patricia Cline. The Murder of Helen Jewett. New York: Vintage Books, 1998.
The Mississippi Free Trader. August 3, 1839, p. 2.