Martin Van Buren

Martin Van Buren

8th President, 1837-1841

Early Life and Pre-presidency

Martin Van Buren Portrait by George Healy, 1858

Martin Van Buren Portrait by George Healy, 1858

  • Born on December 5, 1782 in Kinderhook, New York.
  • Parents: Abraham Van Buren and Maria Hoes. Half-siblings: one half-sister and half-brother; Full siblings: Derike, Jannetje, Lawrence, and Abraham.
  • Received his basic education at Kinderhook and Washington Seminary at Claverack, New York until the age of 14.
  • From the age of 14, he spent six years studying law in Kinderhook, and after a one year apprenticeship in New York City, he was admitted to the bar in 1803.
  • Married Hannah Hoes (1783–1819) on February 21, 1807. Children: Abraham (1807–1873), John (1810-1866), Winfield Scott (1814–1814), Smith Thompson (1817–1876), and a daughter (stillborn).
  • Member of the New York State Senate from 1812 to 1820.
  • Served as New York Attorney General from 1815 to 1819.
  • Elected to the U.S. Senate and served from March 1821 to December 1828.
  • Served as Governor of New York from January 1829 to March 1829. He has the second shortest tenure as Governor of New York.
  • Was appointed Secretary of State in 1829 by President Andrew Jackson. He served until 1831 then resigned. A rift in the Cabinet, principally between President Jackson and cabinet members who were loyal to Vice President John C. Calhoun, resulted in the resignation of all but one of Jackson’s Cabinet.
  • Appointed Minister to the United Kingdom in 1831 and had gone to London, but he returned in 1832 when his appointment was rejected by the U.S. Senate.
  • Sided with President Jackson in the latter’s ongoing dispute and disagreement with then Vice President John C. Calhoun.
  • Elected Vice President in 1832, serving under President Jackson from 1833 to 1837.
  • Built the first political organization in New York called the Bucktails. The leaders of his organization would later form the influential Albany Regency.
  • As the ally and trusted adviser of President Jackson, Van Buren was instrumental in forging political relationships and support for what would become the Democratic Party.

Presidency

Martin van Buren Portrait by Henry Inman, ca. 1837-1838

Martin van Buren Portrait by Henry Inman, ca. 1837-1838

  • Took his oath of office on March 4, 1837 at the East Portico, U.S. Capitol.
  • The first President who was not of British descent, his ancestors were Dutch. He was also the first President to be born an American citizen (the previous Presidents were born before the Declaration of independence in 1776).
  • Won the election largely because he vowed to continue President Jackson’s policies. Jackson enjoyed immense popularity among voters at that time. The opposing Whig Party was also less organized with three candidates running for the Presidency instead of one.
  • Retained the Cabinet that his predecessor Jackson had appointed except for the Secretary of War, which he replaced.
  • His entire term as President was marked by a five-year economic depression that resulted from the Panic of 1837.
  • In 1837, he denied Texas’ request to join the Union because of his anti-slavery stance. Texas, then a Mexican territory, permitted slavery.
  • A few months after entering office, the Panic of 1837 occurred. Although the cause of the Panic were the policies set by his predecessor, Andrew Jackson, Van Buren had to deal with the depression that followed.
  • Refused to intercede for the Mormons who had been forced to leave the state of Missouri by its governor. When their leader Jospeh Smith, Jr. appealed to the President in 1839, Van Buren refused for fear he would lose Missouri’s vote.
  • As part of his efforts to alleviate the economic depression, Van Buren proposed an independent treasury system that would handle federal transactions instead of the state banks. Congress resisted his proposal, but eventually passed an independent treasury bill in 1840.
  • Supported the continuing forced removal of Native Americans begun by his predecessor. Van Buren’s government oversaw the removal of the Cherokee people, resulting in the death of one-fourth of its population. The Seminole people in Florida fought U.S. troops in the Second Seminole War, and fighting continued until 1842 after Van Buren had left the Presidency.
  • When Canadian separatists sought help from American citizens (along the U.S.–Canadian border of the Niagara River) in their fight for independence from Great Britain, Van Buren declared U.S. neutrality and Congress passed a law in 1838 to dissuade American citizens from joining foreign conflicts.
  • In 1838, tensions arose between Great Britain and the U.S. when Americans began settling on lands claimed by both U.S. and Great Britain along the border of Maine and Canada. Van Buren met with the British minister to the U.S. and sent General Winfield Scott to Maine to calm the tension. This diplomatic move later resulted in the 1842 Webster–Ashburton Treaty that resolved the border issues between the two countries.
  • The Whig Party nicknamed him “Martin Van Ruin” because of the economic crisis and the President’s apparent inability to resolve it.
  • It was during Van Buren’s term when the Amistad case happened. He sided with the Spanish Government in its view that the slave mutinees be returned to Spain. John Quincy Adams argued for the slaves’ freedom before the U.S. Supreme Court and won.
  • Although he was unanimously nominated by the Democratic Party as its Presidential candidate, he lost the election to the Whig Pary candidate because his popularity had suffered from the economic crisis.

Post-presidency

Martin van Buren Photograph by Matthew Brady, ca. 1855-1858

Martin van Buren Photograph by Matthew Brady, ca. 1855-1858

  • Retired to his estate in Kinderhook, Lindenwald.
  • Failed to win the Democratic Party’s nomination as the candidate for President in 1844 because of his views against the annexation of Texas, which many in the Democratic Party were in favor of.
  • Although he lost the Democratic Party’s nomination in 1844, he campaigned vigorously for its nominee James K. Polk.
  • In 1848, he became the candidate of the Free Soil Party, which opposed the extension of slavery as settlers moved to the Western territories. The party was comprised of anti-slavery Democrats and Whigs, and members of the Liberal Party. He lost to the Whig Zachary Taylor.
  • He wrote his autobiography in the 1850s (first published in 1920). He also wrote “Inquiry into the Origin and Course of Political Parties in the United States,” published in 1867.
  • Traveled the country extensively in the 1850s and even traveled to Europe.
  • He initially supported Democrat James Buchanan’s candidacy in 1857, but because he did not agree with Buchanan’s ideas on secession, during the 1861 election he threw his support behind Republican Abraham Lincoln.
  • Lived to see the beginning of the Civil War in 1861 and sided with President Lincoln’s decision to fight secession with force.
  • Died on July 4, 1862 of bronchial asthma and heart failure.
  • His body is interred at the Kinderhook Cemetery next to his wife, parents, and son Martin, Jr.
  • At 79 years, old upon his death, he outlived the next four Presidents who succeeded him: William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, James K. Polk, and Zachary Taylor.
  • The Kinderhook Reformed Dutch Church has a cenotaph of Van Buren near its parking area.
  • His sons were active participants throughout Van Buren’s political career. After retiring from political life in the 1850s, Van Buren spent most of his time with them and their families.
  • His most famous quote is “As to the Presidency, the two happiest days of my life were those of my entrance upon the office and my surrender of it.”
  • His legacy is forming and organizing the Democratic Party and being the first Presidential candidate to use grassroots campaigning.