Monday, March 17, 2008

I'm OK, you're OK, Martin's OK

It seems like nearly everybody I know watched the opener to the John Adams miniseries last night. I did not, but it is on my DVR and I'll post thoughts as soon as I get caught up.

One thing that strikes me - with all this attention paid to the miniseries, and the way the public has recently devoured various history books by McCullough, Ellis, and the like, geeking out about American history is cool again. This makes me happy - and it inclines me to put some more elbow grease into this blog, in hopes that I can sustain the history love just that much longer.

So if you have story ideas, suggestions, or if you'd like to guest blog, drop me a line or even just comment here.

For now, let's talk about Martin Van Buren.

You know, Martin Van Buren. Eighth president. Crazy-ass whiskers. First president born in the actual United States.

Okay, you probably don't know that much about him. I didn't myself until recently. Thanks to Cecil Adams, and a number of sources at work, I now know more than I ever thought I would about this man. In the process, I discovered what's probably Van Buren's greatest contribution to American life - namely, he likely originated a very important piece of American slang.

Van Buren was of Dutch extraction and was born and raised in the Dutch-American enclave of Kinderhook, New York, earning him the nickname "Old Kinderhook" when he began campaigning for President in 1836. Eventually, his Democratic supporters in New York State took that name for their political club, and abbreviated it "OK." "OK" had previously been used as a jokey editorial abbreviation meaning "oll korrect," but it was its double meaning in politics that caused the expression to really take root.

Although his attempts to build an independent treasury are often underemphasized when talking about his political contribution, Old Kinderhook was generally regarded as less than OK by his contemporaries, and historians have been no kinder. He was unseated fairly handily by Whig candidate William Henry Harrison in 1840, though he remained politically active for the rest of his life, primarily devoting himself to the abolitionist cause. He attempted to run again for president in 1844 but the Democrats declined to back him, so he formed his own party, the Free-Soil party, and tried again in 1848. You have to admire the guy's tenacity.

The Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia has an excellent gateway page to all the Van Buren trivia you could ever want.

Should you ever feel like visiting Kinderhook, stop by the Martin Van Buren National Historical Site. If the Metro-North ran that far up, you can bet I'd be doing exactly that ASAP. As it is, I think it'll have to wait until I can join forces with fellow geeks who are also car owners.

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