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Van Buren, Martinfree

(05 December 1782–24 July 1862)
  • Donald B. Cole

Martin Van Buren.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-13008 DLC).

Van Buren, Martin (05 December 1782–24 July 1862), eighth president of the United States, was born in Kinderhook, near Albany, New York, the son of Abraham Van Buren and Maria Hoes Van Alen, farmers. Van Buren grew up in a Dutch environment. Both of his parents were of Dutch descent, they belonged to the Dutch Reformed church, and Kinderhook was an old Dutch town. The Van Burens were small freeholders of modest means who owned slaves and added to their income by using their home as a tavern. Martin was a short, neatly dressed boy with reddish blonde hair. He had no formal education beyond a few years at the village academy, but his childhood in a tavern helped prepare him for a career in politics by teaching him how to get along with people of all sorts.

Van Buren was introduced to politics in 1796, when he was apprenticed to the lawyer Francis Silvester. Although Silvester and other prominent Federalists in Kinderhook pressured him to join their party, Van Buren followed the example of his father and became a Republican. With his cheerful disposition and his abilities to debate and make friends, he rose rapidly both as a lawyer and a politician. He campaigned for Thomas Jefferson in 1800, and the next spring the local Republicans sent him to the district caucus in Troy. Later in the year he went to work in the law office of William P. Van Ness in New York City. For the next two years Van Buren was active in the Aaron Burr faction of the Republican party, but when he returned to Kinderhook in 1803 to start a law practice, he shifted over to the Clinton-Livingston Faction.

Van Buren’s law practice was so successful that he soon felt ready to take on more responsibilities. In 1807 he married his cousin Hannah Hoes (Hannah Hoes Van Buren); they had four children. In 1808 the young couple moved to nearby Hudson, where Van Buren became a prominent member of the famed Columbia County bar. His career as an officeholder began in 1808, when he was appointed county surrogate. In 1812 he was elected to the state senate. Shrewd, calm, and cautious, he was already well known for his sound political judgment.

In some quarters Van Buren was also winning a reputation for being unscrupulous. This opinion was strengthened as he helped Mayor De Witt Clinton of New York City win New York’s electoral votes in the 1812 presidential election. Not only did Van Buren resort to several cunning political maneuvers in the senate, but he also deserted the regular Republicans by supporting a candidate who opposed the War of 1812 and had Federalist backing. The criticism increased when he abandoned Clinton after the New Yorker lost the national election. From then on Van Buren and Clinton were bitter rivals for political power. Van Buren quickly reestablished himself as a regular Republican by working hard to push war measures through the legislature. In 1815 he was named state attorney general, and the following year he was reelected senator. He held the two positions concurrently. When he moved to Albany in 1816 to start a law partnership with Benjamin F. Butler, his future seemed bright.

Over the next three years, however, Van Buren suffered a series of severe personal losses. First his mother and then his father died, and on 5 February 1819 his wife succumbed to tuberculosis. Forever loyal to Hannah’s memory, Van Buren never remarried, even though he enjoyed exchanging letters and gossip with a number of female friends. He also went to great lengths to preserve his wife’s privacy by never referring to her in his future correspondence or in his autobiography. He spent as much time as he could rearing his children and even as an old man was still deeply involved in their affairs.

Van Buren also suffered public setbacks. In the spring of 1817 his rival Clinton was elected governor and began construction of the Erie Canal. Van Buren had steadily opposed the canal, but public opinion forced him to make an embarrassing, last-minute switch. In 1819, not long after Hannah died, the Clintonians removed him as attorney general. The combination of personal and political losses left him, as he told Butler, in a “delicate” state, uncharacteristically bitter and filled with “anxiety.”

As he recovered from his depression, Van Buren began to challenge the Clintonians by building a Republican organization called the Bucktails. Although Clinton was reelected governor in 1820, the Bucktails gained control of the legislature and elected Van Buren to the U.S. Senate. At the state constitutional convention in 1821 he helped bring about changes that more than doubled the number of persons eligible to vote for governor and shifted the power of appointment from a state council to the governor, local officials, and the people. The changes gave a great advantage to a party like the Bucktails with a strong statewide organization. The Bucktails completed their rise to power by winning the governor’s seat in 1822 while retaining control of the legislature. Van Buren had worked his way to the top so efficiently that his friends referred to him as the “Little Magician” while his enemies called him the “Sly Fox.”

Van Buren’s critics were unfair. He often masked his intentions and worked behind the scenes, but he was invariably honest and ethical. He was also an innovator. In creating his political party, he built a new kind of organization that became the prototype for state political machines. At its head was the Albany Regency, led by Van Buren, William L. Marcy, and later Butler and Silas Wright. It controlled the state through a network of party newspapers and hundreds of loyal local officials. Van Buren and his allies revolutionized American politics by introducing the concept that political parties were beneficial rather than dangerous to society. In his later years he defended this ideal in a history of American political parties, entitled Inquiry into the Origin and Course of Political Parties in the United States (1867).

Van Buren went to Washington in 1821 determined to set up a national as well as a state party. Recalling the party battles of the 1790s, he said that he planned to “revive the old contest” between Republicans and Federalists. He continued to be a firm supporter of the states’ rights, republican beliefs of Jefferson. In the 1824 presidential election he backed William H. Crawford of Georgia, who held similar views, only to suffer a setback when Crawford was badly beaten. Andrew Jackson won a popular plurality in the election but lost to John Quincy Adams in the House of Representatives. Outraged at the result, the Jacksonians immediately began campaigning for the next election.

Recognizing that the only way his party could win the presidency was by backing Jackson, Van Buren went on a tour of the South to rally Crawford men behind “Old Hickory.” He sought to rebuild the Republican party by combining “the planters of the South and the plain Republicans of the north.” In the Senate he formed a party that opposed the Adams administration and passed a tariff on raw materials that gained support for Jackson in the West. By 1828 Van Buren had helped draw together a coalition of diverse party groups that elected Jackson president. Van Buren himself was elected governor of New York, but he resigned the position in March 1829 when Jackson appointed him secretary of state.

As soon as Van Buren joined the new administration, he started the process of transforming the loose coalition into a tightly knit organization, soon to be called the Democratic party. Although Van Buren was not the ruthless spoilsman that his opponents called him, he joined partisans such as Amos Kendall of Kentucky and Isaac Hill of New Hampshire in setting up a system of political patronage that became the established practice in American politics. In New York, for example, he arranged for the removal of 131 postmasters—more than in any other state.

Rivalry quickly developed between the supporters of Van Buren and Vice President John C. Calhoun over which of these ambitious men would succeed Jackson as president. When Calhoun’s wife and the wives of several cabinet members refused to entertain Secretary of War John Eaton and his notorious bride Peggy Eaton, whose virtue they questioned, the widower Van Buren earned Jackson’s gratitude by inviting the Eatons to several parties. He also helped Jackson prepare a toast for the Jefferson Day dinner in April 1830. The toast, in which the president defended the “Federal Union,” was a direct rebuke to Calhoun and his extreme states’ rights doctrine of nullification. A month later Van Buren wrote Jackson’s veto of the Maysville Road Bill, using the Jeffersonian argument that internal improvements were largely the province of the states rather than of the federal government. As secretary of state he won the president’s favor by sending a chargé to Mexico to try to purchase Texas and by reopening trade with the British West Indies. Before long Jackson was siding with Van Buren against Calhoun.

By the spring of 1831 the infighting had become so bad that the president was forced to break up his cabinet. He reluctantly replaced Van Buren as secretary of state and sent him abroad to be minister to England. Van Buren’s tour of duty was brief, however, because in January 1832 Calhoun Democrats and former Adams men, now known as National Republicans, combined in the Senate to reject his appointment. Calhoun, who cast the deciding vote, thought that he had destroyed Van Buren’s career, but he succeeded only in goading Jackson into making Van Buren his running mate in the coming election.

On his return to the United States in July, Van Buren found that, despite his nomination, he had lost ground to Kendall as Jackson’s adviser. In Van Buren’s absence, Kendall had assumed leadership of Jackson’s informal group of advisers, the Kitchen Cabinet, and had written Jackson’s veto of the recharter of the Second Bank of the United States. In November Van Buren was elected vice president, but his position in the party was weakened still more when South Carolina nullified the tariffs of 1828 and 1832. In the ensuing crisis Jackson and Democratic nationalists, such as Secretary of State Edward Livingston, adopted a view of the Constitution that Van Buren thought went too far in opposing states’ rights. They also considered uniting with northern National Republicans, such as Daniel Webster, to form a Union party against the South. The Jacksonians fought off the threat of nullification, but their new concept of the Democratic party was directly at odds with Van Buren’s vision of a North-South alliance.

In September 1833 Jackson followed Kendall’s advice rather than Van Buren’s in removing federal deposits from the Bank of the United States without waiting for Congress to convene. Ironically, however, Jackson’s action helped preserve Van Buren’s concept of the Democratic party. By removing the deposits from the bank, the president ended any possibility of uniting with Webster, who was always a strong bank man. Van Buren was soon able to convince Jackson that the Democratic party should not abandon its alliance with southerners.

During the 1833–1834 session of Congress Van Buren quickly regained his preeminence in the party. The session was an especially stormy one because of the financial crisis brought on by the bank’s reaction to the removal of the deposits. Presiding over the Senate, Van Buren had to withstand the attacks of the opposition, now called the Whigs, who were led by the triumvirate of Webster, Calhoun, and Henry Clay. The gracious, imperturbable Van Buren weathered every storm. Before the session was over, Jackson was clearly determined to have Van Buren as his successor. At the Democratic convention in May 1835, the delegates unanimously nominated Van Buren for president.

In the election of 1836 the Democrats made a strong effort to maintain the old North-South alliance by reassuring southern planters that the party was not antislavery. Van Buren stated that slavery should not be abolished in the District of Columbia, while Democrats staged antiabolitionist riots in New Hampshire and New York and imposed a gag rule on abolitionist petitions to Congress. Despite the proslavery efforts, Van Buren ran badly in the South and barely won the election.

During his administration Van Buren tried to carry on Jackson’s policies. He made only one change in the cabinet, and his inaugural address bore many resemblances to Jackson’s Farewell Address. Later in his term he dutifully continued Jackson’s policy of removing eastern American Indian tribes beyond the Mississippi River. The removal of the Cherokees in the winter of 1838–1839 was carried out so harshly that 4,000 died along the way. The effort to remove the Seminoles in Florida led to a bloody war that dragged on throughout Van Buren’s administration.

The panic of 1837, which started soon after Van Buren took office, forced him to break new ground. Merchants in New York and other cities were quick to blame the panic on a contraction of the currency caused by Jackson’s antibank initiatives, especially his Specie Circular of 1836 requiring gold or silver as payment for government lands. Trying to remain loyal to Jackson, Van Buren resisted pressure to repeal the circular, but he did agree to call a special session of Congress to deal with the panic. In his message to Congress in September he attributed the panic to European banking policies and overexpansion of credit in the United States. He asked Congress to pass an independent treasury bill, which would restrict credit by requiring the government to deposit its funds in federal vaults instead of in state banks. The bill split Van Buren’s party between agrarian-minded, hard-money Democrats ill at ease with the market revolution, who backed the bill, and business-minded, paper-money Democrats comfortable with the expansion of commerce, who opposed it. Many of these latter Democrats later became Whigs. The split was particularly wide in New York, where Governor Marcy led a revolt against the bill. Congress repealed Jackson’s Specie Circular in 1838 and finally in 1840 passed the independent treasury bill.

In foreign affairs Van Buren was less expansionist than Jackson. When a rebellion broke out in Canada, he kept the United States neutral. He resisted demands that the United States annex the newly independent Texas, where slavery was an established institution. After years of trying to preserve the Union through an alliance of northern Republicans and southern slaveowners, Van Buren was now seeking to preserve it by opposing territorial expansion, which threatened to split the Union over slavery.

Neither the independent treasury nor peace on the borders carried much weight in the election of 1840. The depression that followed the panic of 1837 cost Van Buren the election. Copying the tactics of the Democrats, the Whigs ran a war hero, William Henry Harrison, and claimed for him a simple farming background by using the log cabin as their symbol. They ridiculed Van Buren’s stylish clothes, calling him a dandy, and revived the charges that he was an unscrupulous politician. In the election Harrison won all but seven states.

Van Buren retired to Kinderhook in the Van Ness mansion, which he had purchased and renamed “Lindenwald.” He was content there for over a year, farming and spending time with his family. But in 1842 he used the excuse of visiting Jackson to take a political tour of the South and West and was soon a favorite to win the Democratic nomination. In April 1844, however, just before the party convention, the question of annexing Texas again came to the fore. By this time the business-minded Marcy Democrats in New York favored annexation and the spread of slavery, while the agrarian-minded Democrats, called Barnburners, took the opposite position. When Van Buren came out against annexation, his announcement aroused opposition in the South and West and led to a fierce battle at the Democratic convention. After leading on the first four ballots, he was forced to withdraw on the ninth in favor of a dark horse, James K. Polk of Tennessee. Running on a platform calling for territorial expansion, Polk won a close election over Clay.

When Polk ignored Van Buren’s suggestions for the cabinet and appointed Marcy secretary of war, the New York Barnburners split with his administration. They threatened to leave the Democratic party if it continued to support the spread of slavery. Dissatisfied by the Democratic platform in 1848, they carried out their threat and asked Van Buren to be their presidential candidate on a platform opposing the extension of slavery. Van Buren hesitated but finally accepted, partly out of conviction and partly because many of his political allies and his son John Van Buren were leading Barnburners. When the Barnburners united with antislavery Whigs and members of the Liberty party to form the Free Soil party in August, the elder Van Buren consented to be the Free Soil candidate for president. He received only 10 percent of the vote in the election, which was won by Zachary Taylor and the Whigs.

In the 1850s Van Buren returned to the Democratic party as the party most likely to save the Union. Parting company with many antislavery men, he endorsed the Compromise of 1850 and supported prosouthern Democrat Franklin Pierce in 1852. Although disturbed by the Kansas-Nebraska Act two years later, he continued to back the Democratic party. He was distressed by the split of the Democratic party in 1860 and by the outbreak of the Civil War, which marked the final failure of his own party efforts to unite North and South. He died at Lindenwald with the future of the Union in doubt.

For almost a century after his death Van Buren was ill treated by historians, many of whom depicted him primarily as a scheming spoilsman. After World War II, however, his reputation greatly improved. He is recognized as a consistent Jeffersonian and a shrewd but principled political leader. One of the first professional party politicians, he played a major role in creating a new concept of political parties and in forming the Democratic party.

Bibliography

A large collection of Van Buren papers at the Library of Congress is available on microfilm, Elizabeth H. West, Calendar of the Papers of Martin Van Buren (1910). Another microfilm edition, Lucy Fisher West, The Papers of Martin Van Buren (1989), is twice as large and combines the first collection with materials copied from other papers at the Library of Congress and from repositories throughout the United States. It includes many letters from the New-York Historical Society, the New York Public Library, and the New York State Library. Published works of Van Buren include Martin Van Buren, Inquiry into the Origin and Course of Political Parties in the United States (1867), and John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., “The Autobiography of Martin Van Buren,” Annual Report of the American Historical Association for the Year 1918, vol. 2 (1920). Two biographies of Van Buren are John Niven, Martin Van Buren: The Romantic Age of American Politics (1983), and Donald B. Cole, Martin Van Buren and the American Political System (1984). Other works on Van Buren are Marvin Meyers, “Old Hero and Sly Fox: Variations on a Theme,” in The Jacksonian Persuasion: Politics and Belief (1957); Robert V. Remini, Martin Van Buren and the Making of the Democratic Party (1959); James C. Curtis, The Fox at Bay: Martin Van Buren and the Presidency, 1837–1841 (1970); and Major L. Wilson, The Presidency of Martin Van Buren (1984). See also Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Age of Jackson (1945); Richard Hofstadter, The Idea of a Party System: The Rise of Legitimate Opposition in the United States, 1780–1840 (1969); and John Belohlavek, “Let the Eagle Soar!”: The Foreign Policy of Andrew Jackson (1985). For genealogy see Frank J. Conkling, “Martin Van Buren, with a Sketch of the Van Buren Family in America,” New York Genealogical and Biographical Record 28 (1897): 121–25, 207–11. Obituaries are in the New York Times and the New York Tribune, 25 July 1862.