Martin Van Buren
Martin Van Buren was born in the village of Kinderhook, New York, on December 5, 1782, about 25 miles (40 km) south of Albany, New York. His father, Abraham Van Buren (1737–1817), was a farmer working with slaves, was the owner of six slaves, and was a tavern-keeper in Kinderhook. Abraham Van Buren supported the American Revolution and later the Jeffersonian Republicans. Martin Van Buren’s mother was Maria Hoes Van Alen Van Buren (1747–1818).
Van Buren was the first president born a citizen of the United States, as all previous presidents were born before the American Revolution. His great-great-great-grandfather Cornelis Maessen van Buren had come to the Americas in 1631 from the small city of Buren, Dutch Republic, in present day Netherlands. Van Buren grew up in a Dutch-speaking community. His native language was Dutch, and to date, he has been the only U.S. President who has spoken English as a second language.
Van Buren received a basic education at a poorly lit schoolhouse in his native village and later studied Latin briefly at the Kinderhook Academy and at Washington Seminary in Claverack. He excelled in composition and speaking. His formal education ended before he reached 14, when he began studying Law at the office of Francis Sylvester, a prominent Federalist attorney in Kinderhook. After six years under Sylvester, he spent a final year of apprenticeship in the New York City office of William P. Van Ness, a political lieutenant of Aaron Burr. Van Buren was admitted to the bar in 1803.
Van Buren married Hannah Hoes, his childhood sweetheart and first cousin once removed, on February 21, 1807, in Catskill, New York. Like Van Buren, she was raised in a Dutch home and never lost her distinct Dutch accent. The couple had five sons and one daughter: Abraham (1807–1873) a graduate of West Point and career military officer; John (1810–1866), graduate of Yale and Attorney General of New York; Martin, Jr. (1812–1855), secretary to his father and editor of his father’s papers until a premature death from tuberculosis; Winfield Scott (born and died in 1814); and Smith Thompson (1817–1876), an editor and special assistant to his father while president. Their daughter was stillborn. After 12 years of marriage, Hannah Van Buren contracted tuberculosis and died on February 5, 1819, at the age of 35. Martin Van Buren never remarried.
Van Buren had been active in politics from at least the age of 17 when he attended a party convention in Troy, New York where he worked to secure the Congressional nomination forJohn Van Ness. However, once established in his practice, he became wealthy enough to increase his focus on politics. He was an early supporter of Aaron Burr. He allied himself with the Clintonian faction of the Democratic-Republican Party, and was surrogate of Columbia County, New York from 1808 until 1813, when he was removed.
Van Buren joined the opposition party in 1813, and was a member of the New York State Senate from 1812 to 1820, and New York Attorney General from 1815 to 1819. He was a presidential elector in 1820, voting for James Monroe and Daniel D. Tompkins.
At first he opposed Clinton’s plan for the Erie Canal, but later supported it when the Bucktails were able to gain a majority in the Erie Canal Commission, and supported a bill that raised money for the canal through state bonds.
In 1817, Van Buren’s connection with so-called “machine politics” started. He created the first political machine encompassing all of New York, the Bucktails, whose leaders later became known as the Albany Regency. The Bucktails became a successful movement that emphasized party loyalty; they captured and controlled many patronage posts throughout New York. Van Buren did not originate the system, but gained the nickname of “Little Magician” for the skill with which he exploited it. He also served as a member of the state constitutional convention, where he opposed the grant of universal suffrage and tried to maintain property requirements for voting.
He was the leading figure in the Albany Regency, a group of politicians who for more than a generation dominated much of the politics of New York and powerfully influenced the politics of the nation. The group, together with the political clubs such as Tammany Hall that were developing at the same time, played a major role in the development of the “spoils system”, a recognized procedure in national, state and local affairs. He was the prime architect of the first nationwide political party: the Jacksonian Democrats. In Van Buren’s own words, “Without strong national political organizations, there would be nothing to moderate the prejudices between free and slaveholding states.” Like Madison in the 1790s, Van Buren was struggling to find an institutional solution to the original Constitution’s failure to resist the centralizing ambitions of those like Hamilton who hoped to transform a regime of checks and balances into an administrative republic.
In February 1821, Martin Van Buren was elected a U.S. Senator from New York, defeating the incumbent Nathan Sanford who ran as the Clintonian candidate. Van Buren at first favored internal improvements, such as road repairs and canal creation, therefore proposing a constitutional amendment in 1824 to authorize such undertakings. The next year, however, he took ground against them. He voted for the tariff of 1824 then gradually abandoned the protectionist position, coming out for “tariffs for revenue only.”
In the presidential election of 1824, Van Buren supported William H. Crawford and received the electoral vote of Georgia for vice-president, but he shrewdly kept out of the acrimonious controversy which followed the choice of John Quincy Adams as President. Van Buren had originally hoped to block Adams’ victory by denying him the state of New York (the state was divided between Van Buren supporters who would vote for Crawford and Adams men). However, Representative Stephen Van Rensselaer swung New York to Adams and thereby the 1824 Presidency. After the lost election, Van Buren dropped Crawford, and instead supported Andrew Jackson to be the next presidential candidate.
Always notably courteous in his treatment of opponents, he showed no bitterness toward either Adams or Henry Clay, and he voted for Clay’s confirmation as Secretary of State, notwithstanding Jackson’s “corrupt bargain” charge. At the same time, he opposed the Adams-Clay plans for internal infrastructure improvements (roads, canals, bridges etc.) and declined to support the proposal for a Panama Congress. As chair of the Judiciary Committee, he brought forward a number of measures for the improvement of judicial procedure and, in May 1826, joined with Senator Thomas Hart Benton in reporting on executive patronage. In the debate on the “tariff of abominations” in 1828, he took no part but voted for the measure in obedience to instructions from the New York legislature, an action which was cited against him as late as during the presidential campaign of 1844.
Van Buren was not an orator, but his more important speeches show careful preparation and his opinions carried weight; the oft-repeated charge that he refrained from declaring himself on crucial questions is hardly borne out by an examination of his senatorial career. In February 1827, he was re-elected to the Senate by a large majority. He became one of the recognized managers of the Jackson campaign, and his tour of Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia in the spring of 1827 won support for Jackson from Crawford. Martin Van Buren sought to reorganize and unify “the old Republican party” behind Jackson. At the state level, Jackson’s committee chairs would split up the responsibilities around the state and organize volunteers at the local level. “Hurra Boys” would plant hickory trees (in honor of Jackson’s nickname, “Old Hickory”) or hand out hickory sticks at rallies. Van Buren even had a New York journalist write a campaign piece portraying Jackson as a humble, pious man. “Organization is the secret of victory,” an editor in the Adams camp wrote. He once said to a group of lobbyists the famous quote and “By the want of it we have been overthrown.” In November 1828, Van Buren was elected Governor of New York for the term beginning on January 1, 1829, and resigned his seat in the Senate.
Martin Van Buren’s tenure as New York governor is the second shortest on record. While his term was short, he did manage to pass the Bank Safety Fund Law (an early form of deposit insurance) through the Legislature.
In the election of 1832, the Jackson-Van Buren ticket won by a landslide. When the election of 1836 came up, Jackson was determined to make Van Buren, his personal choice, President to continue his legacy. Martin Van Buren’s only competitors in the 1836 election were the Whigs, who ran several regional candidates in hopes of sending the election to the House of Representatives, where each state delegation would have one vote. William Henry Harrison hoped to receive the support of the Western voters, Daniel Webster had strength in New England, and Hugh Lawson White had support in the South. Van Buren was unanimously nominated by the 1835 Democratic National Convention at Baltimore, Maryland. He expressed himself plainly on the questions of slavery and the bank at the same time voting, perhaps with a touch of bravado, for a bill offered in 1836 to subject abolition literature in the mails to the laws of the several states. Van Buren’s presidential victory represented a broader victory for Jackson and the party. Van Buren entered the White House as a fifty-four-year-old widower with four sons. Martin Van Buren was the first candidate to use grassroots campaigning in his presidential campaign. He wanted to make a political party that united the plain republicans of the north and the planters of the south.
Twentieth Century etymologist Allen Walker Read published research asserting the wide usage of the phrase “O.K.” (okay) — “Old Kinderhook”—started during the presidential campaign and subsequent presidency of Martin Van Buren.
Martin Van Buren announced his intention “to follow in the footsteps of his illustrious predecessor”, and retained all but one of Jackson’s cabinet. Van Buren had few economic tools to deal with the Panic of 1837. The Panic was followed by a five-year depression, with the failure of banks and then-record-high unemployment levels. Some modern economists have argued that the Panic was caused by the bank policies of the Jackson administration, with the power to create money being distributed into decentralized banks, most of which would then continue to cause a massive inflationary bubble.
Van Buren advocated lower tariffs and free trade, and by doing so maintained support of the South for the Democratic Party. He succeeded in setting up a system of bonds for the national debt. His party was so split that his 1837 proposal for an “Independent Treasury” system did not pass until 1840. It gave the Treasury control of all federal funds and had a legal tender clause that required (by 1843) all payments to be made in specie, but it further inflamed public opinion on both sides.
In a bold step, Van Buren reversed Andrew Jackson’s policies and sought peace at home, as well as abroad. Instead of settling a financial dispute between American citizens and the Mexican government by force, Van Buren wanted to seek a diplomatic solution. In August 1837, Van Buren denied Texas’ formal request to join the United States, again prioritizing sectional harmony over territorial expansion.
In the case of the ship Amistad, Van Buren sided with the Spanish Government to return the kidnapped slaves. Van Buren oversaw the movement of Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw and Seminole tribes from Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, and South Carolina to the Oklahoma territory, executing the orders passed under Jackson. To help secure Florida, Van Buren also continued the Second Seminole War, which had begun while Jackson was in office. Fighting was not resolved until 1842, after Van Buren had left office.
In 1839, Joseph Smith, Jr., the founder of the Latter Day Saint movement visited Van Buren to plead for the U.S. to help roughly 20,000 Mormon settlers of Independence, Missouri, who were forced from the state during the 1838 Mormon War there. The Governor of Missouri, Lilburn Boggs, had issued an executive order on October 27, 1838, known as the “Extermination Order”. It authorized troops to use force against Mormons to “exterminate or drive [them] from the state”. In 1839, after moving to Illinois, Smith and his party appealed to members of Congress and to President Van Buren to intercede for the Mormons. According to Smith’s grandnephew, Van Buren said to Smith, “Your cause is just, but I can do nothing for you; if I take up for you I shall lose the vote of Missouri”.
Van Buren took the blame for hard times, as Whigs ridiculed him as Martin Van Ruin. Van Buren’s rather elegant personal style was also an easy target for Whig attacks, such as the Gold Spoon Oration. State elections of 1837 and 1838 were disastrous for the Democrats, and the partial economic recovery in 1838 was offset by a second commercial crisis in that year. Nevertheless, Van Buren controlled his party and was unanimously renominated by the Democrats in 1840. The revolt against Democratic rule led to the election of William Henry Harrison, the Whig candidate. He once mentioned his relief of leaving office saying, “As to the presidency, the two happiest days of my life were those of my entrance upon the office and my surrender of it”.
Though he did vote against the admission of Missouri as a slave state, and though he would be the nominated presidential candidate of the Free Soil Party, an anti-slavery political party, in 1848, there was no ambiguity in his position on the abolition of slavery during his term of office. Van Buren considered slavery morally wrong but sanctioned by the Constitution. When it came to the issue of slavery in D.C. and slavery in the United States, he was against its abolition, and said so in his Inaugural Address in 1837: “I believed it a solemn duty fully to make known my sentiments in regard to it [slavery], and now, when every motive for misrepresentation has passed away, I trust that they will be candidly weighed and understood.
“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.” Slavery would be abolished in the District of Columbia on April 18, 1862.
On the expiration of his term, Van Buren returned to his estate, Lindenwald in Kinderhook, where he planned out his return to the White House. He seemed to have the advantage for the nomination in 1844; his famous letter of April 27, 1844, in which he frankly opposed the immediate annexation of Texas, though doubtlessly contributing greatly to his defeat, was not made public until he felt practically sure of the nomination. In the Democratic convention, though he had a majority of the votes, he did not have the two-thirds which the convention required, and after eight ballots his name was withdrawn. James K. Polk received the nomination instead.
In 1848, he was nominated by two minor parties, first by the “Barnburner” faction of the Democrats, then by the Free Soilers, with whom the “Barnburners” coalesced. He won no electoral votes, but took enough votes in New York to give the state—and perhaps the election—to Zachary Taylor. In the election of 1860, he voted for the fusion ticket in New York which was opposed to Abraham Lincoln, but he could not approve of President Buchanan’s course in dealing with secession and eventually supported Lincoln.
Martin Van Buren then retired to his home in Kinderhook. After being bedridden with a case of pneumonia during the fall of 1861, Martin Van Buren died of bronchial asthma and heart failure at his Lindenwald estate in Kinderhook at 2:00 a.m. on July 24, 1862. He was 79 years old. He is buried in the Kinderhook Cemetery along with his wife Hannah, his parents, and his son Martin Van Buren, Jr. A cenotaph to him is located near the parking lot of the Kinderhook Reformed Dutch Church. Van Buren outlived his four immediate successors as President (William Henry Harrison, John Tyler,James K. Polk and Zachary Taylor).
- December, 05, 1782
- Kinderhook, New York
- July, 24, 1862
- Kinderhook, New York
- Kinderhook Reformed Church Cemetery
- Kinderhook, New York