Martin Van Buren

Martin Van Buren
8th President of the United States
In office
March 4, 1837  March 4, 1841
Vice President Richard Mentor Johnson
Preceded by Andrew Jackson
Succeeded by William Henry Harrison
8th Vice President of the United States
In office
March 4, 1833  March 4, 1837
President Andrew Jackson
Preceded by John C. Calhoun
Succeeded by Richard Mentor Johnson
United States Minister to the United Kingdom
In office
August 8, 1831  April 4, 1832
Nominated by Andrew Jackson
Preceded by Louis McLane
Succeeded by Aaron Vail (Acting)
10th United States Secretary of State
In office
March 28, 1829  May 23, 1831
President Andrew Jackson
Preceded by Henry Clay
Succeeded by Edward Livingston
9th Governor of New York
In office
January 1, 1829  March 12, 1829
Lieutenant Enos T. Throop
Preceded by Nathaniel Pitcher
Succeeded by Enos T. Throop
United States Senator
from New York
In office
March 4, 1821  December 20, 1828
Preceded by Nathan Sanford
Succeeded by Charles E. Dudley
Attorney General of New York
In office
February 17, 1815  July 8, 1819
Preceded by Abraham Van Vechten
Succeeded by Thomas J. Oakley
Member of the New York State Senate
In office
Preceded by Edward Philip Livingston
Succeeded by John I. Miller
Surrogate of Columbia County, New York
In office
Preceded by James I. Van Alen
Succeeded by James Vanderpoel
Personal details
Born Maarten van Buren
(1782-12-05)December 5, 1782
Kinderhook, New York, U.S.
Died July 24, 1862(1862-07-24) (aged 79)
Kinderhook, New York, U.S.
Resting place Kinderhook Cemetery
Political party Democratic-Republican (1799–1828)
Democratic (1828–48; 1852–62)
Free Soil (1848–52)
Spouse(s) Hannah Hoes (m. 1807; d. 1819)
Children 5, including Abraham and John
Profession Lawyer, politician
Signature Cursive signature in ink

Martin Van Buren (Dutch: Maarten van Buren[1]  pronunciation ; December 5, 1782 – July 24, 1862) was an American politician who served a single term as the eighth President of the United States (1837–41). A member of the Democratic Party, he served in a number of senior roles, including eighth Vice President (1833–37) and tenth Secretary of State (1829–31), both under Andrew Jackson. Van Buren's inability as president to deal with the deep economic depression following the Panic of 1837 and with the surging Whig Party led to his defeat in the 1840 election.[2][3]

Of Dutch ancestry, Van Buren learned early to interact with people from multiple ethnic, income, and societal groups, which he used to his advantage as a political organizer. A meticulous dresser, he could mingle in upper class society as well as in saloon environments like the tavern his father ran.[4] A delegate to a political convention at age 18, he quickly moved from local to state politics, gaining fame both as a political organizer and an accomplished lawyer. Elected to the Senate by the New York State Legislature in 1821, Van Buren supported William H. Crawford for president in the 1824 election, but by 1828 had come to support General Andrew Jackson. Van Buren was a major supporter and organizer for Jackson in the 1828 election, and ran for Governor of New York in the hope of using his personal popularity to boost Jackson's campaign. Jackson and Van Buren were elected, and after serving as governor for two months, Van Buren resigned to become Jackson's Secretary of State.

During Jackson's eight years as president, Van Buren was a key advisor, and built the organizational structure for the coalescing Democratic Party, particularly in New York. In 1831, following his resignation as Secretary of State, which aided Jackson is resolving the Petticoat affair, Jackson gave Van Buren a recess appointment as American minister to Britain, but Van Buren's nomination was rejected by the Senate, cutting short his service in London. He was successful in the jockeying to become Jackson's picked successor, and was elected vice president in 1832. Van Buren defeated several Whig opponents in 1836, and was elected president.

As president, Van Buren was blamed for the depression of 1837; hostile newspapers called him "Martin Van Ruin". He attempted to cure the economic problems by keeping control of federal funds in an independent treasury—rather than in state banks—but Congress would not approve of this until 1840. In foreign affairs, he denied the application of Texas for admission to the Union, unwilling to upset the balance of free and slave states in the Missouri Compromise, and hoping to avoid war with Mexico over Texas annexation by purchasing the territory from Mexico's government. Additionally, relations with Britain and its colonies in Canada proved to be strained from the bloodless Aroostook War and the Caroline Affair.

In 1840, Van Buren was voted out of office, losing to Whig candidate William Henry Harrison. Van Buren was the leading candidate for the Democratic nomination in 1844, but lost to James K. Polk, who went on to win the election. In the 1848 election Van Buren ran unsuccessfully as the candidate of the anti-slavery Free Soil Party. He returned to the Democratic fold to support Franklin Pierce (1852), James Buchanan (1856), and Stephen A. Douglas (1860) for the presidency, but his increasingly abolitionist views and support for the Union led him to support Abraham Lincoln's policies after the start of the American Civil War.

Van Buren's health began to fail in 1861, and he died in July 1862 at the age of seventy-nine. Although he served in many high offices, his most lasting achievement was as a political organizer who built the modern Democratic Party and guided it to dominance in the new Second Party System.[5]

Early life and education

A bronze marker with a map of the State of New York at the top, under which is the word Birth site and other text
Historical marker located at the birthplace of Martin Van Buren
Baptismal record from Kinderhook Dutch Reformed Church. Van Buren's name was spelled "Maarten" in Dutch, and he was baptized on December 15, 1782
Hannah Van Buren

Martin Van Buren was born on December 5, 1782, in the village of Kinderhook, New York about 20 miles (32 km) south of Albany on the Hudson River. He was the first president to be born after the United States declared independence. He was baptized on December 15 of that year as "Maarten van Buren", the original Dutch spelling of his name. In the era before the steamboat, Kinderhook was an isolated village, and most of the townsfolk, including the Van Burens, spoke Dutch at home. Martin Van Buren is the only president who spoke English as a second language. Van Buren descended from Cornelis Maessen of the village of Buurmalsen, near the town of Buren in the Netherlands, who had come to America in 1631 and purchased a plot of land on Manhattan Island; his son Martin Cornelisen took the surname Van Buren.[6][7]

The future president's father, Abraham Van Buren (1737–1817), was a farmer who owned a Kinderhook inn as well as six slaves.[8] Abraham Van Buren supported the Patriot cause during the American Revolution as a captain in the Albany County Militia's 7th Regiment,[9][10] and later joined the Jeffersonian Republicans.[11] He was active in local politics and government, and served as Kinderhook's town clerk from 1787 to 1797.[12] Martin Van Buren's mother was Maria Hoes (or Goes) Van Alen Van Buren (1747–1818). She had been married to Johannes Van Alen. After Johannes' death, she married Abraham Van Buren in 1776. By his mother's first marriage, Van Buren had one half-sister and two half-brothers, including: Marytje (or Maria) Van Alen (1768-1829), the wife of John L. Hoes;[13][14] John I. Van Alen (1770–1805);[15][16] and James I. Van Alen, who practiced law with Van Buren for a time and served as a member of Congress (1807–1809). Van Buren had four full siblings:[17][18]

Van Buren received a basic education at the village schoolhouse and briefly studied Latin at the Kinderhook Academy and at Washington Seminary in Claverack.[26][27] His formal education ended before he reached 14, when he began reading law in 1796 at the office of Peter Silvester and his son Francis, prominent Federalist attorneys in Kinderhook.[28]

Van Buren was small in stature; as an adult he was 5 feet 6 inches tall, and often referred to as "Little Van."[29] When he first began his legal studies, he often presented an unkempt appearance in rough, homespun clothing.[30] It was the Silvesters who suggested that Van Buren could improve his professional prospects by dressing fashionably and taking care in how he appeared in public; he heeded the advice and patterned his clothing, appearance, bearing and conduct after theirs.[31][32] After six years under the Silvesters, the elder Silvester and Democratic-Republican political figure John Peter Van Ness suggested that Van Buren's political leanings made it a good idea for him to complete his education with a Democratic-Republican attorney. Accepting this advice, he spent a final year of apprenticeship in the New York City office of John Van Ness's brother William P. Van Ness, a political lieutenant of Aaron Burr.[33] Van Buren was admitted to the bar in 1803.[34][35]

Van Buren married Hannah Hoes, his childhood sweetheart and first cousin once removed, on February 21, 1807, in Catskill, New York.[36] Like Van Buren, she was raised in a Dutch home; she spoke primarily Dutch, and spoke English with a distinct accent.[37] 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.[38] Their daughter was stillborn.[39] After 12 years of marriage, Hannah Van Buren contracted tuberculosis and died on February 5, 1819, at the age of 35.[40] Martin Van Buren never remarried.[41]

Early political career

Van Buren had been active in politics from at least the age of 18, when he attended a Democratic-Republican Party convention in Troy, New York, where he worked successfully to secure for John Peter Van Ness the party nomination in a special election for the 6th Congressional District seat.[42] He formed a law partnership with his half-brother James I. Van Alen, and once established in his practice, he became financially secure enough to increase his focus on politics.[43] He was a supporter of Aaron Burr, and allied himself with the George Clinton faction of the Democratic-Republican Party. Van Buren supported Daniel D. Tompkins for Governor over incumbent Morgan Lewis in 1807. Tompkins won, and his allies were a majority in the state legislature. As a result, Van Buren was appointed Surrogate of Columbia County, New York, replacing Van Alen, who had supported Lewis. Van Buren served as Surrogate from 1808 until 1813, when the Federalist Party obtained a majority in the state legislature and replaced him.[44][45]

Van Buren was a member of the New York State Senate from 1813 to 1820, and joined the opposition party in 1813. (The opposition party were Democratic-Republicans who fought DeWitt Clinton for control of the Democratic-Republican Party in New York.) Van Buren served as New York Attorney General from 1815 to 1819. He replaced William Floyd as a presidential elector in 1820, and voted for James Monroe and Daniel D. Tompkins.[46]

Though he never served in the military, during the War of 1812 Van Buren worked in the State Senate to pass war measures, including bills to expand the New York Militia and increase soldier pay. In addition, he was a special judge advocate appointed to serve as one of the prosecutors of William Hull during Hull's court-martial following the surrender of Detroit.[47][48] In the winter of 1814–15 he exchanged ideas with Winfield Scott on ways to reorganize the New York Militia in anticipation of another military campaign in 1815. The reorganization would have included a position for Van Buren at a rank to be determined, but the conclusion of the war in February 1815 ended Scott and Van Buren's work on the project.[49]

At first he opposed DeWitt Clinton's plan for the Erie Canal, but he supported it when the Bucktails (the name given to the anti-DeWitt Clinton Democratic-Republicans) were able to gain a majority on the Erie Canal Commission, and he supported a bill that raised money for the canal through the sale of state bonds.[50]

From 1816 to 1829, Van Buren served as a member of the University of the State of New York Board of Regents.[51] In 1817, Van Buren's connection with so-called "machine politics" started when he created the first political organization encompassing all of New York, the Bucktails.[52] The Bucktails became a successful movement that emphasized party loyalty and used it to capture and control many patronage posts throughout New York. Van Buren gained the nickname of "Little Magician" for the skill with which he exploited what came to be called the "spoils system". Van Buren served as a member of the 1820 state constitutional convention, where he favored expanded voting rights, but opposed universal suffrage and tried to maintain property requirements for voting.[53]

He was the leading figure in the Albany Regency, a group of Bucktail leaders who for more than a generation dominated the politics of New York and influenced national politics. The Regency, together with other political organizations such as Tammany Hall, played a major role in expanding the spoils system and making it a recognized and accepted procedure. He was the prime architect of the first nationwide political party: the Jacksonian Democrats or Democratic Party, which evolved from the Democratic-Republicans and relied on party loyalty and patronage to prevent contentious sectional issues, including tariffs and slavery, from becoming national crises. In Van Buren's words, "Without strong national political organizations, there would be nothing to moderate the prejudices between free and slaveholding states."[54] As had James Madison and other Democratic Party organizers who favored states' rights and local control, Van Buren was struggling to find an institutional solution to the Constitution's seeming inability to prevent concentration of power in an administrative republic.[55]

Early in his life Van Buren owned a slave, a man named Tom who served as his personal valet. Tom ran away in 1814 and eventually settled in Canada, with Van Buren making no effort to locate him. In 1824 Tom was found to be living in Worcester, Massachusetts. Since he still legally owned Tom (under New York's gradual emancipation law, slavery was scheduled to be completely abolished in the state in 1827), Van Buren privately agreed to sell Tom to the finder for $50, provided the finder, a resident of Rensselaer County, could guarantee that Tom would be captured without violence. He could not make such a guarantee, and his willingness to pay was lessened by the knowledge that Tom would be emancipated in fewer than three years even if he was re-enslaved, so Tom remained free, as Van Buren probably intended. (Allowing Tom to remain in Massachusetts unmolested without notice enabled Van Buren to avoid offending southern slave owners, as he would do if he publicly allowed a former slave to remain free. At the same time, he avoided offending northern abolitionists, which he would do if he captured and re-enslaved a former slave.)[56][57]

U.S. Senate and national politics

Gubernatorial portrait of Martin Van Buren

In February 1821, Martin Van Buren was elected a U.S. Senator from New York, defeating incumbent Nathan Sanford, who ran as the Clintonian candidate.[58] Van Buren at first favored internal improvements, such as road repairs and canal construction; he proposed a constitutional amendment in 1824 to authorize such undertakings, but changed his position the following year. He voted for the tariffs of 1824 and 1828, and then gradually abandoned this protectionist position, later coming out for tariffs "for revenue only."[59]

In the presidential election of 1824, Van Buren supported the nominee of a Congressional caucus, Treasury Secretary William H. Crawford, and received the electoral votes of Georgia for Vice President. None of the presidential candidates—Crawford, John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, or Henry Clay—had received a majority of the electoral college votes, so the choice fell to the United States House of Representatives. The House had to choose from among the top three candidates, so Clay was eliminated. Van Buren had originally hoped to block John Quincy Adams by denying him the state of New York, which was divided between supporters of Crawford and Adams. However, Representative Stephen Van Rensselaer swung New York to Adams. Adams won, and appointed Clay as Secretary of State. Because Clay had supported Adams in the House election, Jackson and Crawford supporters alleged corruption.[60] After the House contest, Van Buren shrewdly kept out of the controversy which followed, and began looking forward to 1828. He switched his support early from Crawford, whose ill health after a stroke had made him a less than viable candidate, to Andrew Jackson, who had won the popular vote in 1824. Jackson was angered to see the presidency go to Adams after he received fewer popular votes, and eagerly looked forward to a rematch.[61]

Always notably courteous in his treatment of opponents, Van Buren 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.[62][63] At the same time, he opposed the Adams-Clay plans for internal infrastructure improvements (roads, canals, bridges etc.) and declined to support U.S. participation in the Congress of Panama.[64] As chair of the Judiciary Committee, he brought forward a number of measures for the improvement of judicial procedure, including one (not adopted), which would have required a super-majority vote by the United States Supreme Court to declare a law unconstitutional.[65] in May 1826, Van Buren joined with Senator Thomas Hart Benton in reporting on patronage in the executive branch, going against his own use of the spoils system to propose unsuccessfully that Presidents not be able to remove officeholders at will, and that Presidents report to Congress on the reasons why dismissed holders of federal positions had been removed.[66] The 1828 "Tariff of Abominations" was recognized as his work. Since Democrats, especially Southerners, were generally opposed to tariffs that increased the price of manufactured goods from the North but did not benefit the raw materials produced in the South, Van Buren could normally have been expected to oppose tariffs. Political observers of the time viewed Van Buren's efforts to pass the 1828 tariff as part of the campaign to elect Jackson as President. Anticipating that most Southerners would vote for Andrew Jackson no matter who else was running, Van Buren intended the tariff proposed by Jackson's Northern Democratic supporters in Congress to attract to Jackson's candidacy Northern voters, who generally favored high tariffs to protect the manufactured goods they produced. Van Buren voted in favor, later adopting the cover story that he had done so only in response to instructions from the New York State Legislature. Most Democrats, especially Southerners, continued to oppose tariffs after 1828. Van Buren's political opponents in the Democratic Party used his 1828 vote against him for years afterwards to prevent him from obtaining Southern support for his candidacies.[67][68][69]

Van Buren was not considered to be an exceptional orator like Henry Clay or Daniel Webster, 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 as Van Buren sought to reorganize and unify "the old Republican party" behind Jackson.[70] 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. In 1828 Van Buren ran for Governor of New York in an effort to use his personal popularity to bolster Jackson's chances of carrying New York in the presidential election. Jackson defeated Adams handily, leading the pro-Adams New York American to editorialize "Organization is the secret of victory. By the want of it we have been overthrown."[71] Van Buren won his election, and resigned from the Senate to start the gubernatorial term, which began on January 1, 1829.[72]

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.[73]

Secretary of State

On March 5, 1829, President Jackson appointed Van Buren Secretary of State, an office which probably had been assured to him before the 1828 elections, and Van Buren resigned the governorship on March 12.[74] He was succeeded by his Lieutenant Governor, Enos T. Throop, a member of the Regency.

Secretary of State

As Secretary of State, Van Buren took care to keep on good terms with the Kitchen Cabinet, Jackson's informal advisers. He sometimes opposed Jackson in the matter of removing political appointees from office to replace them with Jackson loyalists, but also saw to the replacement of postmasters in New York with Van Buren loyalists.[75] In July 1829, Rutgers College awarded Van Buren the honorary degree of LL.D.[76][77]

No serious diplomatic crises arose during Van Buren's tenure, but he achieved several notable successes, including the settlement of long-standing claims against France, winning reparations for property that had been seized during the Napoleonic Wars. He reached an agreement with the British to open trade with the British West Indies colonies. In addition, Van Buren completed a treaty with the Ottoman Empire that gained American merchants access to the Black Sea. Items on which he did not achieve success included settling the Maine-New Brunswick boundary dispute with Great Britain, gaining settlement of the U.S. claim to the Oregon Country, concluding a commercial treaty with Russia, and persuading Mexico to sell Texas.[78][79]

Van Buren also advised Jackson informally on matters of domestic policy. In the controversy over the Bank of the United States, he sided with Jackson. He also sided with Jackson on the Indian Removal Act.[79][80] After the breach between Jackson and Calhoun, which culminated with the Nullification Crisis, Van Buren's position as one of Jackson's primary political supporters and policy advisors clearly marked him as the most prominent candidate for the vice presidency in 1832, and Jackson's most likely successor in 1836.[81]

Petticoat affair

Mrs Calhoun, a leader of the Petticoat Affair
Further information: Petticoat affair

Van Buren won Jackson's lasting regard by his courtesies to Peggy Eaton, wife of Secretary of War John H. Eaton, with whom the wives of the cabinet members had refused to associate.[82][83]

As a widower, Van Buren was unaffected by the position of the Cabinet wives, and he supported Jackson's position that criticism of the Eatons would not be tolerated. The anti-Eaton effort was led by Calhoun's wife, Floride, and Jackson's opponents, including Calhoun, hoped to use it to gain political leverage. By siding with Jackson, Van Buren helped create a counter-coalition that weakened Calhoun.[84]

The dispute was finally resolved when Van Buren offered to resign; Jackson eventually accepted, which gave him the opportunity to reorganize his cabinet by asking for the resignations of Cabinet members whose wives were part of the anti-Eaton coalition.[85] Postmaster General William T. Barry, who had sided with Jackson and Van Buren, was the lone cabinet member to stay,[86] and Eaton eventually received appointments that took him away from Washington, first as governor of Florida Territory, and then as minister to Spain.[87]


Cartoon image of an older man riding on the back of another older man and stumbling toward the steps of a building labeled "Capitol"
1832 Whig cartoon shows Jackson carrying Van Buren into office

In December 1829, Jackson had already made known his wish that Van Buren receive the 1832 vice presidential nomination.[88] After resigning as Secretary of State in April 1831 as part of resolving the Petticoat affair, Van Buren remained in office until June, and afterwards continued to play a part in Jackson's Kitchen Cabinet.[89] In August 1831 Jackson gave Van Buren a recess appointment as Minister to the Court of St. James (Britain) and he arrived in London in September.[90] He was cordially received, but in February, he learned that his nomination had been rejected by the Senate on January 25, 1832.[91] The rejection was attributed by the Senate to Van Buren's instructions while Secretary of State to Louis McLane, the American minister to Britain. Van Buren's instructions, which concerned the opening of the West Indies trade, supposedly repudiated the foreign policy of Jackson's predecessors, which the Senate claimed was a breach of decorum.[92] In fact, the rejection of Van Buren was the work of Calhoun, who had opposed Van Buren's confirmation, believing that Van Buren had attempted to keep him from becoming vice president by making overtures to Henry Clay to run on a ticket with William H. Crawford, Van Buren's preferred candidate for president in 1824.[93] Calhoun also opposed Van Buren for his role in the Petticoat Affair and his work on the 1828 tariff. When the vote on Van Buren's nomination was taken, enough pro-Calhoun Democrats refrained from voting to produce a tie, thus giving Calhoun, in his role as presiding officer, the ability to cast a vote. He voted against Van Buren, and so achieved "vengeance" on Van Buren.[94]

Calhoun was elated, convinced that he had ended Van Buren's career. "It will kill him dead, sir, kill him dead. He will never kick, sir, never kick," Calhoun exclaimed to a friend within earshot of Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton.[95]

A painting of Van Buren by Francis Alexander, c. 1830-1840

Benton recognized the significance of Calhoun's action, saying "You have broken a minister and made a vice president."[96] John Tyler, then serving as a Senator from Virginia, also recognized Calhoun's overreach, writing to a friend that "Van Buren is elevated by the silly thing of rejecting him."[97]

As Benton and Tyler foresaw, Calhoun's move backfired by making Van Buren seem the victim of petty politics, thus raising him in both Jackson's regard and the esteem of others in the Democratic Party. Far from ending Van Buren's career, Calhoun's action gave greater impetus to Van Buren's candidacy for vice president.[98]

After a brief tour of Europe, Van Buren reached New York on July 5, 1832. The May 1832 Democratic National Convention, the party's first, had nominated him for vice president on the Jackson ticket.[99] Van Buren's nomination was not as strongly supported as Jackson's, particularly among southerners who recalled his work on the tariff in 1828, but he somewhat placated southerners by denying the right of Congress to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia without the consent of the slave states.[100]

The Jackson-Van Buren ticket won the 1832 election, and Van Buren took office as Vice President in March 1833.[101] During his time in office Van Buren continued to be one of Jackson's primary advisors and confidants, and accompanied Jackson on his tour of the northeastern United States in 1833.[102] Jackson's confidence in Van Buren was further demonstrated after Jackson named Benjamin F. Butler, Van Buren's political ally and former law partner, to serve as Attorney General,[103] and John Forsyth, another Van Buren ally, to serve as Secretary of State.[104][105]

Van Buren's support of Jackson in the Nullification Crisis and the decision not to recharter the Second Bank of the United States made him a target of Jackson's most vocal opponents. Van Buren was threatened with violence, including explicit comments from Senator George Poindexter of Mississippi, which caused Van Buren to carry pistols for self-defense.[106] However he also demonstrated both the willingness and the ability to work with his opponents, cooperating with Clay and Calhoun (now a Senator) to pass the compromise Tariff of 1833, which helped end the Nullification Crisis.[107]

During one contentious debate on the bank issue, Van Buren presided over the Senate as Clay spoke passionately about the harm he believed Jackson's bank policy would cause. Directing his remarks to Van Buren, Clay asked rhetorically whether Van Buren would approach Jackson and persuade him to change his mind. After Clay concluded, observers wondered how Van Buren would react. Van Buren's response was to descend from the rostrum and ask Clay if he could borrow a pinch of snuff. Caught off guard, Clay reflexively handed over his snuff box. Van Buren took a pinch, bowed to Clay, and left the chamber, both deflating the effect of Clay's remarks and preventing tension from escalating, as would have happened if Van Buren had attempted to reply directly.[108]

Election of 1836

In the election of 1832, the Jackson-Van Buren ticket won by a landslide.[109] Jackson, not running in 1836, was determined to make Van Buren his successor in order to continue the Jackson administration's policies.[110]

Van Buren was unanimously nominated by the 1835 Democratic National Convention at Baltimore, Maryland. On the issue of slavery, Van Buren moved to obtain the support of southerners by assuring them that he opposed abolitionism and supported the maintaining of slavery in states where it had already existed.[111] Regarding the national bank, Van Buren made clear that he opposed rechartering a national bank.[112] To demonstrate consistency regarding his opinions on slavery, Van Buren cast the tie-breaking Senate vote in favor of engrossing a bill to subject abolitionist mail to state laws, thus ensuring that its circulation would be prohibited in the South.[113]

Martin Van Buren's competitors in the 1836 election were the Whigs; they ran several regional candidates in hopes of sending the election to the House of Representatives, where each state delegation would have one vote and the Whigs would stand a better chance of winning.[114] William Henry Harrison hoped to receive the support of the Western voters, Daniel Webster had strength in New England, and Hugh Lawson White and Willie Person Mangum had support in the South. Van Buren won the election easily, with 170 electoral votes to 73 for Harrison, 26 for White, 14 for Webster and 11 for Mangum.[115]

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.[116] This etymology is disputed, and other proposed origins have been suggested, including words from the Choctaw or Wolof languages.[117]

Presidency 1837–1841

White House Hostess

As a widower, Van Buren had no wife to serve as First Lady. The duty of White House Hostess fell to his daughter-in-law, Angelica Singleton Van Buren.[118]


BEP engraved portrait of Van Buren as President.

BEP engraved portrait of Van Buren as President.

Postage stamp with the image of a bust of a balding man in profile and facing right
Martin Van Buren
Issue of 1938

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 in which banks failed and unemployment reached record highs.[119] Some modern economists have argued that the Panic was caused by the Jackson administration's bank policies, with the power to create money being distributed into decentralized banks (most of which would then continue to cause a massive inflationary bubble).[120]

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 further inflamed public opinion on both sides.[121] In the field of labor conditions, an Executive Order issued by Van Buren in 1840 established the 10-hour day for laborers on all federal public works.[122]

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 an action that upset political leaders of the pro-slavery states, in August 1837, Van Buren denied Texas' formal request to join the United States, partly to prevent the upset of the slave state/free state balance in the Missouri Compromise, and partly because he hoped to avoid the possibility of war with Mexico over Texas annexation by purchasing the territory from the Mexican government.[123][124]

In the case of the ship Amistad, Van Buren sided with the Spanish government to return the kidnapped slaves.[125] Regarding Indian removal, 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.[126] To help secure Florida, Van Buren also continued the Second Seminole War, which had begun during Jackson's presidency. Fighting was not resolved until 1842, after Van Buren had left office.[127]

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".[128][129] 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".[130][131]


While in the state Senate Van Buren voted for a resolution instructing New York's members of Congress to vote against the admission of Missouri as a slave state. In 1848 he would be the nominated for president by the Free Soil Party (an anti-slavery political party).[132] Despite these antislavery views, during his term of office there was no ambiguity about his position on the abolition of slavery.[133] Van Buren actually considered slavery immoral, but sanctioned by the Constitution.[134] He was against its abolition both in D.C. and in the United States altogether, 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."[135]

"I must go into the Presidential chair with 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."[136] Slavery would be abolished in the District of Columbia on April 18, 1862.[137]

Administration and Cabinet

Engraved full-length portrait of a balding man standing next to a table with his left arm resting on a book and in the background a stone balustrade beyond which are trees and a building with columned portico
Portrait of Martin Van Buren
The Van Buren Cabinet
Office Name Term
President Martin Van Buren18371841
Vice President Richard Mentor Johnson18371841
Secretary of State John Forsyth18371841
Secretary of Treasury Levi Woodbury18371841
Secretary of War Joel R. Poinsett18371841
Attorney General Benjamin Butler18371838
Felix Grundy18381840
Henry D. Gilpin18401841
Postmaster General Amos Kendall18371840
John M. Niles18401841
Secretary of the Navy Mahlon Dickerson18371838
James K. Paulding18381841

Judicial appointments

Supreme Court

Van Buren appointed two Justices to the Supreme Court of the United States:[138]

Van Buren appointed eight other federal judges, all to United States district courts.[139]

Some sources incorrectly state that Van Buren appointed John Catron to the Supreme Court.[140] Catron was appointed by Jackson on Jackson's last day in office, and confirmed a few days later, after Van Buren's term had begun.[141]

Election of 1840

1840 election returns
Electoral vote map of the 1840 presidential election

Van Buren was blamed for the hard economic times, as Whigs ridiculed him as Martin Van Ruin.[142] Van Buren's rather elegant personal style was also an easy target for Whig attacks, such as the Gold Spoon Oration.[143] State elections of 1837 and 1838 were disastrous for the Democrats,[144] and the partial economic recovery in 1838 was offset by a second commercial crisis in that year.[145] Nevertheless, Van Buren controlled his party and was unanimously renominated by the Democrats in 1840.[146] The unhappiness with the Democrats led to the landslide election of William Henry Harrison, the Whig candidate.[147] Van Buren once mentioned his relief upon leaving office: "As to the presidency, the two happiest days of my life were those of my entrance upon the office and my surrender of it."[148]

Later life

A three-quarters length painted portrait of a balding man with gray hair, standing with his right hand grasping a bundle of papers lying on a table
1858 portrait by GPA Healy, on display at the White House

On the expiration of his term, Van Buren returned to his estate, Lindenwald in Kinderhook, where he planned his return to the White House. He seemed likely to be nominated by the Democrats in 1844, but in April of that year a Van Buren letter to William H. Hammett was made public.[149] In it, Van Buren opposed the immediate annexation of Texas, but said that he would support annexation once the state of war between Texas and Mexico was resolved.[150] Van Buren's opposition to immediate annexation cost him the support of pro-slavery Democrats; he began the Democratic National Convention with a majority of the delegates, but with no southern support he could not reach the two-thirds threshold required for nomination.[151] His name was withdrawn after eight ballots, and a dark horse, James K. Polk, received the nomination and went on to win the presidency.[152] After taking office, Polk used George Bancroft as an intermediary to offer Van Buren the ambassadorship to London.[153] Van Buren declined, partly because he was upset with Polk over the treatment the Van Buren delegates had received at the 1844 convention, and partly because he was content in his retirement.[154]

Half-length photographic portrait of an elderly, balding man dressed in a dark coat, vest and cravat
Daguerreotype of Martin Van Buren, circa 1855.

Van Buren was increasingly opposed to slavery, and his original attempts to accommodate pro-slavery southerners gave way over time to acceptance of anti-slavery positions including opposing slavery's expansion into newly organized western states.[155] In 1848, he was nominated for President by two minor parties, first by the "Barnburner" faction of the Democratic Party in New York, then by the Free Soil Party, with whom the "Barnburners" coalesced. The Barnburners and Free Soilers opposed Democratic nominee Lewis Cass, who opposed the Wilmot Proviso and was otherwise seen as friendly to slavery.[156] In addition, Van Buren, who had been denied the 1844 nomination by Cass supporters despite having begun the convention with a majority of delegates, may have run in order to exact a measure of revenge by denying Cass the presidency.[157] Van Buren won no electoral votes, but finished second to Whig nominee Zachary Taylor in New York, taking enough votes from Cass to give the state—and perhaps the election—to Taylor.[158]

Unlike many anti-slavery Democrats of the 1840s and 1850s, who later joined the Republican Party, Van Buren and most of his followers remained in the Democratic fold, including his son John Van Buren and Samuel J. Tilden, who later served as Governor of New York and was the Democratic nominee for President in 1876.[159][160] Van Buren supported Franklin Pierce for President in 1852, and James Buchanan in 1856, though he later opposed the Buchanan administration's efforts to accommodate the southern states when they threatened secession.[161][162]

In the election of 1860, he supported Stephen A. Douglas, the candidate of northern Democrats, and helped create a fusion ticket in New York of Democratic electors pledged to both Douglas and John C. Breckinridge, but Abraham Lincoln carried New York and every northern state except New Jersey.[163] Once the American Civil War began, Van Buren made public his support for the Union, and supported Abraham Lincoln's efforts to prevent the southern states from seceding.[164] In April, 1861 former President Pierce wrote to the other living former Presidents and asked them to consider meeting in order to use their stature and influence to propose a negotiated end to the war. Pierce asked Van Buren to use his role as the senior living ex-President to issue a formal call. Van Buren's reply suggested that Buchanan should be the one to call the meeting, since he was the former President who had served most recently, or that Pierce should issue the call himself if he strongly believed in the merit of his proposal. Neither Buchanan or Pierce was willing to make Pierce's proposal public, and nothing more resulted from it.[165]

Van Buren's health began to fail later in 1861, and he was bedridden with pneumonia during the fall and winter of 1861–62.[166] He did not recover, and died of bronchial asthma and heart failure at his Lindenwald estate in Kinderhook at 2:00 a.m. on July 24, 1862, at the age of 79.[167] He is buried in the Kinderhook Reformed Dutch Church Cemetery, as are his wife Hannah, his parents, and his son Martin Van Buren, Jr.[168][169]



Counties are named for Martin Van Buren in Michigan, Iowa, Arkansas, and Tennessee.[170] Cass County, Missouri was originally named for Van Buren, and was renamed in 1849 to honor Lewis Cass because Missouri allowed slavery, and Van Buren had opposed slavery as the presidential candidate of the Free Soil Party in 1848.[171]

Cities and towns

Cities and towns named for Van Buren include:

Arkansas: Van Buren, Arkansas.[172]

Van Buren, Indiana
Van Buren Township, Clay County, Indiana
Van Buren Township, Brown County, Indiana
Van Buren Township, Monroe County, Indiana
Van Buren Township, Grant County, Indiana
Van Buren Township, Pulaski County, Indiana
Van Buren Township, Fountain County, Indiana
Van Buren Township, LaGrange County, Indiana
Van Buren Township, Madison County, Indiana
Van Buren Township, Kosciusko County, Indiana
Van Buren Township, Daviess County, Indiana
Van Buren Township, Shelby County, Indiana.

In addition, Van Buren Township in LaPorte County, Indiana was later merged with Noble Township.[174]

Iowa: Van Buren Township, Jackson County, Iowa; Van Buren Township, Lee County, Iowa.[175]

Kentucky: Van Buren, Anderson County. The small community was abandoned due to the construction and flooding of Taylorsville Lake from 1974 to 1983.[176][177]

Louisiana: Van Buren, Livingston Parish. The original parish seat, it is now abandoned.[178]

Maine: Van Buren, Maine.[179]

Michigan: Van Buren Charter Township, Michigan and Martin, Michigan. In addition, the now-defunct village of Martinsville in Sumpter Township was named for him.[180]

Missouri: Van Buren, Missouri.[181]

Minnesota: Van Buren Township, St. Louis County, Minnesota.[182]

Mississippi: Van Buren, Mississippi (defunct).[183]

New York: Van Buren, New York.[184]

Van Buren (a village in Hancock County)[185]
Van Buren Township, Shelby County, Ohio. This township started to be populated by white settlers in the early 1830s. It was incorporated in 1835, and its government organized in 1841.[186]
Van Buren Township, Putnam County, Ohio. Originally part of Blanchard Township, it was surveyed in 1821, became home to its first white settlers in 1835, and was organized in 1843.[187]
Van Buren Township, Darke County, Ohio[188]
Van Buren Township, Hancock County, Ohio.[189]

Tennessee: Van Buren, Hardeman County (unincorporated). Established in 1831, this unincorporated populated area is located at the intersection of Van Buren and Lake Hardeman Roads, and shares a ZIP code with Hickory Valley.[190][191]

Wisconsin: Van Buren, Grant County. In 1841 this unincorporated area was combined with unincorporated areas named for Lafayette and Osceola to form the incorporated town of Potosi.[192]

State parks

Van Buren State Park[193] and Van Buren Trail State Park[194] in Michigan, and Ohio's Van Buren State Park and its Van Buren Lake are named for him.[195]


Mount Van Buren on the Palmer Land portion of Antarctica was named for Martin Van Buren.[196]


Van Buren Island in the St. Lawrence River, part of the Thousand Islands, sits at latitude 44.404339N, 75.892119W. Though named for the US President, this island has always been in Canadian waters.[197]



The USS Van Buren, a United States Navy schooner in service from 1839 to 1847 was also named for Martin Van Buren.[200]


Books by Van Buren

These were published posthumously:

In popular culture

During the 1988 campaign for President, George H. W. Bush, a Yale University graduate and member of the Skull and Bones secret society, was attempting to become the first sitting Vice President to win election to the Presidency since Van Buren. In the comic strip Doonesbury artist Garry Trudeau depicted members of Skull and Bones as attempting to rob Van Buren's grave, apparently intending to use the relics in a ritual that would aid Bush in the election.[203][204]

On the television show Seinfeld, the episode "The Van Buren Boys" is about a fictional street gang that admires Van Buren and bases its rituals and symbols on him, including the hand sign of eight fingers pointing up. Eight fingers signifies Van Buren, the eighth President.[205]

Martin Van Buren was portrayed by Nigel Hawthorne in the 1997 film Amistad. The film depicts the controversy and legal battle surrounding the status of slaves who in 1839 rebelled against their transporters on La Amistad slave ship.[206]

In Episode 1 Season 2 of Veep ('Midterms'), Vice President Selina Meyer is told that a colleague's office is opposite the picture of 'Fat Wolverine'.[207] In the next scene the picture is revealed to be of Martin Van Buren.[208]

In an early scene of the film Two Faces of January, the main characters – American expatriates in Athens – encounter an American tourist and discover that she is a Van Buren descendant. They then argue over whether Martin Van Buren was the seventh or eighth President.[209][210]

The USS Van Buren is a fictional Navy aircraft carrier named for President Van Buren which has appeared in the television show NCIS: Los Angeles.[211]

During the 2016 presidential campaign, a #FeeltheBuren hashtag was created on Twitter as a parody of Bernie Sanders' #FeeltheBern campaign slogan.[212]

See also


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  • Brooke, John L. (2010). Columbia Rising: Civil Life on the Upper Hudson from the Revolution to the Age of Jackson. University of North Carolina Press. ISBN 9780807833230. 
  • Cole, Donald B. (1984). Martin Van Buren and the American Political System. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-04715-4. 
  • Remini, Robert V. (1959). Martin Van Buren and the Making of the Democratic Party. New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN 0231022883. 
  • Silbey, Joel H. (2002). Martin Van Buren and the Emergence of American Popular Politics. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. ISBN 0-7425-2243-1. 
  • Shepard, Edward M. (1899) [1888]. Martin Van Buren (Kindle ed.). Boston, MA: Houghton, Mifflin and Co. ISBN 0-7425-2243-1. OCLC 396967. 
  • Widner, Edward L. (2005). Martin Van Buren. The American Presidents (Kindle ed.). New York: Times Books. ISBN 978-0-8050-6922-8. 
  • Wilson, Major L. (1984). The Presidency of Martin Van Buren. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas. ISBN 978-0-7006-0238-4. 

Further reading

External links

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