An ode to a long lost blog, recently rediscovered.
My favorite blog no longer exists.
One thing I love is learning about presidential history. It’s a habit I picked up young, and I tend to spend a lot of free time still reading or listening to material about the Presidents.
Websites and YouTube have helped me tremendously in my learning, as have numerous books and trips to historic sites. Yet I distinctly remember being fascinated by this one blog in particular. Called “American Talleyrand,” it featured short stories and excerpts taken from studies of the life of Martin Van Buren, eighth president of the United States and an opponent of Zachary Taylor’s from the Free Soil Party in 1848. The title was a not-so-flattering nickname of Van Buren, featured in the 1935 biography “The American Talleyrand: The Career and Contemporaries of Martin Van Buren, Eighth President” by Holmes Alexander.
There was something unique to American Talleyrand that I didn’t feel with other spaces online. With every post I read, I learned something off the beaten path. In essence, there was never a regurgitation of a Wikipedia page, or a carbon copy of biographical text written on countless websites. Rather, it was made up of those little mundane bits and pieces of daily life that intrigued me. No longer was he simply the dude with the funny whiskers; he was a human being with human stories.
One story is titled “Van Buren and the Smoking Turtle,” posted August 20, 2013. John Ward Cooney’s father ran Lindenwald, Martin Van Buren’s retirement home in his beloved hometown of Kinderhook, New York. As a boy, the ex-president and "Johnny" would go fishing together. One time, the two stumbled upon a turtle. Van Buren had just dropped $10 on a new fishing pole, which adjusted for inflation would be worth about $379 in today’s money . But Van Buren was curious; he poked its shell. Well, the turtle didn’t like that, and snatched the new pole from Van Buren’s control. Van Buren and Cooney walked after the turtle, which was refusing to let go. John was convinced that they would have to kill the turtle to get their expensive rod back, but Van Buren had another idea. “‘No, Johnny, we can’t kill the poor thing,’ he said. ‘Cut off the rod as close as you can.’” So that’s what Johnny did, and the turtle walked away, looking like a “drunken sailor smoking a cigar” .
See! Now, if your friend asks you "What president was robbed by a turtle?" you have the answer. Thanks, American Talleyrand!
Needless to say, my interest in Martin Van Buren skyrocketed. My grandpa and I took a trip up to Kinderhook to see Van Buren’s National Historic Site in 2014, a trip my family replicated last August. I built Van Buren’s Lindenwald estate in Minecraft, restoring the home and grounds to how it looked in 1850 (but with sandstone for the walls, and red wool for the roof of course). I also bought a couple books about Van Buren and took it upon myself to read a little more about his life and legacy. But it was the blog that always held a place in my heart when thinking of MVB.
It must have been years ago when I first Google Searched “american talleyrand” and the blog didn’t show up. I kept refreshing the page and plugging in the web address, which took me to a site that ranked the Top 10 Historic Cities to Visit in the US accompanied by a French directory . I checked from time to time to see if anything changed, but nothing did, except that now there is no website at all. The author, who I didn’t take note of at the time, had expressed that he was in the midst of writing a biography about Van Buren, and I imagined that the time it took to write along with the cost of operating a website must have led to the American Talleyrand’s demise. Just like it came into my life, it was now gone. And gone for good.
Until this spring. I took a class called “Information Revolutions,” a first-year seminar that was my first designated history course in college. Professor Printy took our group to a Digital Restoration Lab, which was a 25-minute walk from my dorm. Our class trip took place in a restoration room, where we huddled around old MacIntoshes listening to how scientists are currently working to store data with DNA. Our guest lecturer and expert in digital restoration was fascinating.
During the discussion, our lecturer talked about this website called the Wayback Machine. As a part of the Internet Archive, the Wayback Machine functions by providing snapshots of websites over time. You can search, say, amazon.com in the browser, and from there you will be able to surf the web and see Amazon’s website as it was in 1999 onward. The Wayback Machine can transport you back in time, and it is the coolest thing to explore (check it out now: https://archive.org/web/)!
All of a sudden, American Talleyrand came rushing back to me. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Immediately after our Q & A session finished, I ignored the decades-old computers and hi-tech machines around us and created a new tab on Safari. I searched www.americantalleyrand.com on the Wayback Machine, and sure enough I found what I was looking for. There was the familiar heading, with a litany of blogposts and stories that I hadn’t seen in years. I was reliving my childhood again!
One thing I didn’t remember was how organized American Talleyrand was. Every article was earmarked with a timestamp and a category, giving each post a distinct relation to the others. The blog itself was easy to navigate, and with my discovery I was able to explore more of it than I ever did before. Thanks to the Wayback Machine, the more I continue to read, the greater my appreciation becomes for the body of work written about this forgotten president.
A great blog is a great weapon of effective storytelling. It doesn’t give away the whole puzzle, but each post lets you in on the details of one piece, with the reader left determined to fit the scattered pieces together. With a blog, history isn’t confined to the small text of a 500-page volume. History blogs highlight the humanity of history, bringing attention to our past in a very vivid way that other mediums often lack.
After looking at the contact and Twitter information, I learned that the author that brought Van Buren to life for me is named James M. Bradley. His bio says that he is a co-editor of the Van Buren Papers and that he is, in fact, on the precipice of releasing his biography of Van Buren. Working with Oxford University Press, I look forward to seeing it on book shelves soon. To learn more, give @KinderhookFox a follow on Twitter.
The only thing I ask you, Mr. Bradley: please bring back American Talleyrand, even if it’s a few years after your biography hits the market. I miss it.
Check out American Talleyrand with the Wayback Machine: https://web.archive.org/web/2020*/americantalleyrand.com
Follow James M. Bradley on Twitter: https://twitter.com/kinderhookfox?lang=en