Considered by some historians as one of the first professional politicians, Martin Van Buren was a U.S. Senator, Secretary of State, Vice-President, and the eighth President of the United States.
Martin Van Buren was born on December 5, 1782, in Kinderhook, New York, a small Dutch community near Albany. He was the third of five children born to Abraham and Maria (Hoes) Van Buren. He also had one half-sister and two half-brothers from his mother’s previous marriage. Martin’s father served as an American captain during the Revolutionary War. Later, he was a farmer, tavern keeper, and local civil official who had numerous political connections in New York.
Young Martin Van Buren attended a local one-room school. He later studied at Kinderhook Academy and the Washington Seminary in Claverack until the age of fourteen. Unable to afford college, he secured a position as an apprentice to local attorney Francis Sylvester. Van Buren studied law in Kinderhook under Sylvester’s tutelage for six years. During that time, he also became active in politics. Adopting the political convictions of his father, Van Buren joined the Democratic-Republican Party, which promoted the views of Thomas Jefferson who championed states’ rights, and a limited federal government. Van Buren’s energetic support of Democratic-Republican candidates during the presidential election of 1800 captured the attention of party leaders. His budding political connections eventually earned him a clerkship with New York City attorney William P. Van Ness for a year. In 1803, at age twenty-one, Van Buren passed the requisite examinations and was admitted to the state bar.
After passing the bar, Van Buren returned to Kinderhook and established a law firm with his half-brother, James Van Allen. As their practice prospered, Van Buren’s attention turned to starting a family. On February 21, 1807, he married his twenty-four-year-old cousin, and childhood sweetheart, Hannah Hoes, in Catskill, New York. Their marriage, which lasted until Hannah’s death on February 5, 1819, produced four sons who survived to adulthood. Van Buren never remarried after Hannah’s death.
Following his marriage, Van Buren moved to the nearby county seat at Hudson, New York, where he was appointed to the Surrogate (probate court) of Columbia County. He served in that position from 1808 through 1813 when the Federalists replaced him after regaining control of the New York legislature.
Voters elected Van Buren to the New York State Senate in 1812, and he served from 1813 to 1820. As a state senator, he supported the War of 1812. Concurrent with his tenure in the state senate, Van Buren was also the New York State Attorney General from 1815 to 1819. In 1821, he was a delegate to the New York State Constitutional Convention.
During his time holding office in New York, Van Buren wielded his influence to build one of the first modern political machines, known as the Bucktails. Using state appointments and jobs to reward party loyalty, Van Buren earned the nickname “Little Magician” for his ability to manipulate and control New York’s government.
In 1821, Van Buren’s Bucktails gained control of the New York legislature and elected Van Buren to a seat in the United States Senate. Following his election, Van Buren further solidified his power and his political machine became known as the Albany Regency, because of its stranglehold on New York state politics. Elected to a second six-year senatorial term in 1827, Van Buren served in the 17th to 20th U.S. Congresses from March 4, 1821 to December 20, 1828, when he resigned after being elected Governor of New York. During his time in the Senate, Van Buren chaired the judiciary committee, and he served on the finance committee where he opposed federally financed internal improvement projects and other big-government initiatives.
After the controversial election of 1824 (which saw the House of Representatives award the U.S. presidency to John Quincy Adams even though Andrew Jackson received more popular votes and Electoral College votes), Van Buren aligned himself with the anti-Adams faction in the Senate. By 1828, Van Buren and the anti-Adams coalition of the Democratic-Republican Party orchestrated Jackson’s rise to the presidency as the leader of the newly-emerged Democratic Party. During the same election, New York voters elected Van Buren as the Governor of New York.
Van Buren’s tenure as governor was short. He served from January to March 12, 1829, when he resigned to accept an appointment as Secretary of State in President Jackson’s cabinet. About mid-way through Jackson’s first term as president, Van Buren became embroiled in a controversy with other members of the cabinet who were more loyal to Vice-President John C. Calhoun than they were to Jackson. Van Buren resolved the rift by tendering his resignation in May 1831, thus pressuring the other cabinet members to follow suit. The move enabled the president to name a new cabinet. Jackson rewarded Van Buren’s ingenuity and self-sacrifice by appointing him as Minister to Great Britain in August. Van Buren traveled to England, arriving in September, but he served only a few months before learning that the Senate had rejected his nomination. Vice-President Calhoun, acting as President of the Senate, exacted his revenge by casting the deciding vote against Van Buren on January 25, 1832, when his confirmation vote ended in a deadlock.
Calhoun believed that he had destroyed the Little Magician’s career, reportedly boasting, “It will kill him dead, sir, kill him dead.” Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton, one of Calhoun’s supporters, was not as sure. He retorted that “You have broken a minister, and elected a Vice President.” Benton’s prediction proved to be true. When Van Buren returned from Europe, many viewed him as a victim of petty politics. An agitated Jackson and his supporters secured the vice-presidential nomination for Van Buren at the Democratic Party’s convention in 1832. The Jackson-Van Buren ticket scored an overwhelming victory in the November election.
President of the United States
When Andrew Jackson completed his second term as president, he cast his support to Van Buren as his heir apparent. Most Democrats concurred. Delegates to the party’s national convention in Baltimore in May 1835, unanimously selected Van Buren as their presidential candidate. Running against four Whig candidates, (William Henry Harrison, Hugh L. White, Daniel Webster, and Willie Person Mangum), Van Buren emerged victorious in December, securing more popular votes than the combined total of his competitors. In the Electoral College election, Van Buren’s 170 votes were well over twice as many as Harrison, his closest challenger.
Van Buren took office on March 4, 1837. During his inaugural address, he vowed to “tread generally in the footsteps of President Jackson.” Little did Van Buren know that the policies of his “illustrious predecessor” would prove disastrous to his presidency.
Panic of 1837
Four years before Van Buren took office, Jackson had gone to war against the Second Bank of the United States, which Congress chartered in 1816 to stabilize the U.S. economy. In 1833, Jackson tried to ruin the bank by withdrawing all federal funds. Three years later, he vetoed legislation to renew the bank’s charter. Jackson’s actions led to an overextension of credit from unregulated state banks.
Also in 1836, Jackson issued an executive order, known as the Specie Circular, which required nearly all buyers of public land from the federal government to pay with gold or silver. Jackson’s order slowed the circulation of money in the U.S., forcing businesses and individuals to default on the unsound loans that Jackson’s war on the national bank had spawned.
By late 1836, the U.S. economy began to slow. Soon after Van Buren took office, Jackson’s financial policies generated a full-blown financial disaster known as the Panic of 1837. Banks collapsed, businesses failed, wages dropped, and thousands of people were unemployed. As the nation’s economy spiraled downward, critics blamed Van Buren. To some degree, the criticism was warranted. Consistent with his distrust of a strong central government, Van Buren was reluctant to use his powers as chief executive to minimize the damage. Beyond convening a special session of Congress to address the nation’s mounting financial problems, Van Buren did little to instill hope that his administration would implement policies to end the malaise. Instead, he argued that “All communities are apt to look to government for too much,” when what the economy really needed was a “system founded on private interest, enterprise, and competition, without the aid of legislative grants or regulations by law.” As a result, the recession lasted beyond the end of his presidency.
The nation’s poor economy was not the only Jacksonian legacy that tarnished Van Buren’s presidency. One of the blackest marks on Jackson’s presidency was the forced removal of Native American populations from their ancestral homelands. Nowhere was this more cataclysmic than in the South.
In 1829, white prospectors flooded northern Georgia after the discovery of gold on Cherokee lands. As the influx of miners increased and boomtowns popped up, whites began contriving ways to remove the Cherokees from their homeland. In December, Jackson proposed that Congress set aside land west of the Mississippi River for relocating American Indian tribes. On May 26, 1830, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, authorizing the President to negotiate treaties with tribes in the East to exchange their land for money and lands further west.
Meanwhile, the State of Georgia enacted repressive legislation that abolished the sovereign government of the Cherokee nation and established a process for confiscating Cherokee lands for distribution to whites. When the Cherokee nations challenged the constitutionality of Georgia’s laws, the United States Supreme Court affirmed the rights of the Cherokees in the case of Worcester v. Georgia in 1832. Speaking for the majority, Chief Justice John Marshall wrote that the Indian nations were “distinct, independent political communities retaining their original natural rights.” The Cherokee victory proved hollow, however, when Jackson refused to uphold the court’s decision, infamously expressing words to the effect that “John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it.”
Instead of supporting the Cherokee’s rights, Jackson used federal authority to pressure the natives to relinquish their lands and to move west. The government’s offer created a sharp division within the Cherokee Nation. Most of the Cherokees opposed removal, but one faction representing a minority of Cherokees in Georgia signed the Treaty of New Echota on December 29, 1835. Despite protests from the Cherokee National Council and Principal Chief John Ross, the United States Senate ratified the treaty by a single vote on May 18, 1836. Terms of the treaty required that the Cherokee Nation cede all of its lands east of the Mississippi River in return for $5 million and a tract of land in Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) equal in size to the land ceded. In addition, the treaty obligated nearly all Cherokee Indians living in the southeast “to remove west within two years” of ratification.
By the time Van Buren assumed the presidency, only about 2,000 of the 16,000 Cherokees impacted by the Treaty of New Echota had moved to Indian Territory as mandated. Van Buren ordered a force of 7,000 U.S. soldiers, commanded by General Winfield Scott, to round up the resisters and to force them to leave. Required to march over 1,000 miles without adequate food or clothing during the winter, many of the Indians contracted deadly diseases or starved to death along the journey that came to be known as the Trail of Tears. Historians estimate that somewhere between 1,600 and 4,000 Cherokees died before reaching their destination.
Besides troubles with the Cherokees, Van Buren also inherited a prolonged conflict with the Seminole Indians in Florida. President Jackson had been pressing the Seminoles to leave their homelands since the enactment of the Indian Removal Act in 1830. In May 1832, some Seminole leaders gave in and signed the Treaty of Payne’s Landing, requiring their followers to leave Florida and move west within three years. When Jackson sent troops to Florida in 1835 to enforce the treaty, the Second Seminole War (1835-1842) erupted. Although federal soldiers captured the Seminole leader Osceola in 1837, the war dragged on throughout Van Buren’s presidency. Before the costly conflict ended in 1842, the United States dispatched over 30,000 soldiers against 3,000 Seminole warriors, suffered over 1,500 casualties, and spent more than $20 million to uproot the Seminoles.
Van Buren’s peerless political skills seemed to abandon him when he attempted to straddle the fence dividing the nation over slavery. Although Van Buren grew up in New York, he came from a slaveholding family—his father owned six slaves. As an adult, Van Buren also owned a slave named Tom. When Tom escaped and was later caught, Van Buren sold him to the captor.
By the time Van Buren assumed the presidency, it is likely that he had developed a personal distaste for the peculiar institution. Still, during his inaugural address, Van Buren assuredly disappointed northern abolitionists when he stated,
I must go into the Presidential chair the inflexible and uncompromising opponent of every attempt on the part of Congress to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia against the wishes of the slaveholding States, and also with a determination equally decided to resist the slightest interference with it in the States where it exists.
Taken at face value, Van Buren’s remarks seem to reflect his duty to place the constitutionally mandated conditions of his office above his personal beliefs. However, being the product of a northern political machine, Van Buren likely knew that this proclamation would earn him support in the South and help maintain unity in the Democratic Party.
Whatever political points Van Buren’s inaugural remarks may have earned him in the South quickly dwindled when he opposed the annexation of the Texas Republic. His position rankled southerners because annexation would assuredly open new territory for slaveholders. Again, Van Buren’s motives are unclear. He may have opposed annexation because of his antipathy toward the expansion of the peculiar institution. Or, his resistance may have been the product of his reluctance to upset the relative harmony established by the Compromise of 1820.
Election of 1840
As Van Buren’s term as president neared its end in 1840, he parlayed his power within his party to secure a second nomination. The Democratic National Convention convened in Baltimore on May 5. After adopting a rather negative platform that emphasized their opposition to federally funded internal improvements, chartering another national bank, and Congressional interference with slavery, the delegates unanimously nominated Van Buren as their candidate for President of the United States. Apparently, neither the party’s platform nor their candidate resonated with the voters. Blaming Van Buren for the Panic of 1837, his detractors characterized him as Martin Van Ruin. In the autumn election, Whig candidate William Henry Harrison comfortably defeated the unpopular incumbent, receiving 52.9% of the vote, compared to Van Buren’s 46.8%. In the Electoral College, the Whig victory was even more pronounced; Harrison received 234 of the 294 votes cast.
Election of 1844
Following his defeat, Van Buren returned to private life in Kinderhook where he began preparing for a return to the White House. When the Democrats met in Baltimore in 1844, Van Buren was a leading candidate for the party’s presidential nomination. After he disclosed that he still opposed the annexation of Texas, however, Van Buren’s support amongst southerners evaporated. When the still-influential Andrew Jackson endorsed pro-expansionist candidate James K. Polk, the delegates selected the dark horse former Tennessee Governor as their presidential nominee. Ever the party man, Van Buren dutifully supported Polk’s successful campaign. After Polk’s victory, however, a rift between the two men developed when the new president refused to reward Van Buren with a prominent government appointment.
Election of 1848
A disappointed Van Buren once more returned to New York and immersed himself into trying to preserve the Albany Regency’s control over state politics. Challenged by Polk’s national political influence, Van Buren’s political machine gradually dissolved and shriveled into a splinter group known as Barnburners. The Barnburners eventually coalesced with several abolitionist groups, along with disaffected Whigs and Democrats to form the Free Soil Party. In 1848, the Free Soilers named Van Buren as their presidential nominee. Van Buren’s candidacy turned out to be an afterthought in the autumn election. Running against Whig candidate Zachary Taylor and Democratic hopeful Lewis Cass, Van Buren received only 10% of the popular vote and no Electoral College votes.
The election of 1848 was Van Buren’s final run at the presidency and the end of his active political career. He retired to a life of traveling, writing, and enjoying the company of his children and grandchildren at his country estate Lindenwald in Kinderhook.
Death and Burial
During the winter of 1861-61, Van Buren contracted a debilitating case of pneumonia that severely weakened him. Never fully recovering, he died of bronchial asthma and heart failure at home on July 24, 1862, at age seventy-nine. Van Buren is buried in the Kinderhook Reformed Dutch Church Cemetery, alongside his wife Hannah and other family members.