Martin Van Buren Biography: Eighth President of the United States
Nicknamed “The Little Magician,” Martin Van Buren was a master politician. On observer commented about Van Buren: “He glides along as smoothly as oil and silently as a cat, managing so adroitly that nobody perceives it.” Master of his craft, he became a prominent American statesman who played a fundamental role in shaping the Democratic Party into a modern entity. Van Buren practiced law before launching his political career. His rise to prominence was quick and he served in several key positions, such as Governor of New York, Secretary of State, and Vice President. During Andrew Jackson’s presidency, Van Buren acted as the president’s main advisor. After he won the presidential election of 1836, Van Buren continued many of Jackson’s policies. In 1844, Van Buren lost the support of the Democrats and the nomination for the presidential election of 1844, after expressing his disapproval for the annexation of Texas. In his post-presidency years, Van Buren spoke against slavery.
Although accused of having lived in Andrew Jackson’s shadow, Martin Van Buren remains in the history of the United States as an influential politician. Besides his substantial role in the growth of the Democratic Party, he was also responsible for forging the tools that would later establish modern campaigning strategies.
Early Life and Education
Born on December 5, 1782, in Kinderhook, New York, Martin Van Buren had Dutch ancestry and grew up with Dutch as his first language. His parents, Abraham Van Buren and Maria Hoes Van Allen Van Buren were descendants of Dutch immigrants who arrived in America in the early 17th century. Martin’s father was the owner of a tavern in the small town of Kinderhook.
For his first years of formal education, Martin Van Buren attended local schools. In 1796, he began a law apprenticeship in the firm of Peter and Francis Silvester. Despite the strong Federalist influence in his immediate surroundings, Van Buren adopted very early the political views of his father, who sided with the Democrat-Republicans.
At age 20, Martin Van Buren started a new life in New York, where he completed his studies and got immersed in the political life of the city. A year later, he was admitted to the bar and returned to his hometown, Kinderhook, where he began his law practice in partnership with James Van Allen.
In 1807, Martin Van Buren married a distant cousin, Hannah Hoes. They were distant cousins and just like her husband, Hannah grew up in a Dutch family and spoke Dutch as her first language. The couple had five children, one of whom died in infancy. In 1819, Hannah Van Buren died of tuberculosis. Devastated by the loss, Martin Van Buren never again married.
Early Political Career
Once his legal practice expanded, Van Buren started to focus on a potential political career. In 1812, he won a seat in the New York State Senate. His political status improved significantly due to his fervent support for the War of 1812 and when the war ended, he was appointed New York Attorney General, serving from 1816 to 1819. With a rapidly-growing political influence, Van Buren soon established the Albany Regency, an influential political machine that ended up dominating New York’s political scene by setting party policies and managing campaigns. The Regency imposed Van Buren as the most powerful politician in New York.
In 1821, Martin Van Buren was elected to represent his state in the U.S. Senate, a victory which made his popularity grow at a national level. He quickly befriended other influential statesmen, including William H. Crawford. In the presidential election of 1824, Van Buren took the responsibility of managing Crawford’s campaign for the office. Because of their common political principles, he supported Crawford over Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay, and John Quincy Adams, and he used all his influence and energy to engineer Crawford’s victory in the election. At the end of the race, however, John Quincy Adams won the presidency of the United States.
Amid the animosities that ensued after the presidential election, Van Buren remained on friendly terms with Adams, even though he strongly disagreed with his public policies. Because of his opposition to Adams’s political agenda, Van Buren decided to support Andrew Jackson in the 1828 presidential election, convinced that Jackson’s allure as military hero gave him a serious advantage over other candidates. Loyal to Jeffersonian principles, the Democrats advocated for limited government, which was the complete opposite of what Adams was trying to do with his nationalistic agenda that promoted complex federal-funded projects. Van Buren’s support for Andrew Jackson was thus mostly determined by the hope that Jackson would remove any trace of the Federalist principles from the government.
Van Buren was also convinced that only by strengthening the cohesion of his political party, he could stop John Quincy Adams from winning a second term. By that moment, the Federalists had already entered a process of dissolution, and Adams was left to preside over the weak National Republicans, which made Van Buren sense an opportunity for establishing influence. In an effort to gain genuine popularity among political circles both for him and for Andrew Jackson, Van Buren used his previous political experience to form a coalition for the upcoming 1828 presidential election. He wanted to establish a common ground for several factions and bring them within the Democratic Party. Deservingly, historians have acknowledged Martin Van Buren as the most important figure that stood behind the foundation and growth of the Democratic Party, since he managed to draw closer politicians and factions that have long opposed each other.
Secretary of State
Before the 1828 presidential election, the Democrats launched an elaborate campaign to gain support from the mass of voters. They organized rallies and parades and repeatedly attacked John Quincy Adams’s agenda. Adams’s supporters struck back, describing Andrew Jackson as an illiterate adulterer. Meanwhile, to gain support for Jackson in his home state, Van Buren resigned his seat in the Senate, entering the election for Governor of New York. The prolonged efforts of Van Buren were not in vain, and Andrew Jackson was elected president. On January 1, 1829, Martin Van Buren started his term as Governor of New York but only served for two months before Andrew Jackson named him Secretary of State in his administration.
As Secretary of State, Martin Van Buren distinguished himself as a successful negotiator of foreign policies. He reached new favorable agreements with France, Great Britain, and the Ottoman Empire. Additionally, he became one of Jackson’s closest advisors and many important domestic policies carried his name.
As an insurmountable conflict emerged between President Andrew Jackson and Vice President John C. Calhoun, Van Buren was soon regarded as Jackson’s successor. Jackson decided to limit Calhoun’s power and under the pretense of reorganizing his Cabinet, he asked for the resignation of all those who had supported Calhoun in the past. To not raise suspicions, Jackson asked also for Martin Van Buren’s resignation. Van Buren accepted to give up his position and this put an end to the conflict in the administration. Van Buren took the responsibility of forming the new cabinet.
Video Biography of Martin Van Buren
In August 1831, the Senate, pushed by John C. Calhoun, rejected Andrew Jackson’s proposal to appoint Van Buren as the ambassador to Britain. Calhoun was seeking revenge on Van Buren because he had previously sided with Jackson against him. Instead of harming Van Buren’s career, Calhoun’s ploy brought to Van Buren new supporters who saw him as a victim of vindictive behavior. Ultimately, this pushed Van Buren towards vice presidency. In May 1832, at the Democratic National Convention, Van Buren was nominated as the party’s vice presidential nominee, and in March 1833, he took office as vice president in the second Andrew Jackson administration. Van Buren was a short, plump, balding man, know as exquisite dresser and connoisseur of fine food and wine.
As vice president, Martin Van Buren continued to be one of Jackson’s most important advisors and confidants. He convinced Jackson to seek reconciliation with South Carolina leaders during the nullification crisis. Also, he supported Jackson’s policy of removing federal funds from the Second Bank of the United States.
By 1836, Andrew Jackson had decided to not seek another term as president, but he was determined to help Van Buren win the election so that he could continue to work on Jackson’s policies. Having Jackson’s support, Van Buren easily won the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party. Meanwhile, Jackson’s opponents coalesced in the Whig Party and accused Van Buren of being the president’s puppet. However, they were unable to advance a strong candidate, and Martin Van Buren won the election.
As president, Martin Van Buren decided to keep most of Jackson’s cabinet, showing his intention of continuing the policies of his predecessor. He also had close relationships with most of Jackson’s advisers, since he had helped Jackson form his cabinet.
Just months after Van Buren took office, the American economy entered a severe crisis. During the next five years, the unemployment skyrocketed and the banks entered bankruptcy, leading to a devastating economic collapse. Political factions began accusing each other of causing the disaster while many blamed Jackson and his policies. Although indeed set in motion by the Jackson administration, the crisis loomed over Van Buren’s administration. The economic disaster affected the 1837 and 1838 state elections, and also the unity of the Democratic Party. As the Democrats began fighting among themselves, the Whigs’ influence grew significantly, to Van Buren’s dismay.
To manage the crisis, President Van Buren proposed the establishment of an Independent Treasury, which he saw as an efficient way to separate the government funds from political machinations. His proposal was to store the nation’s money supplies in government vaults and not in private banks as before. The Whigs opposed the measure since they wanted Van Buren to revive the national bank, which had been dismantled by Jackson. Van Buren’s proposal for an Independent Treasury was rejected in the House of Representatives. The Congress eventually adopted the measure but it failed to provide the much-needed relief.
One of President Jackson’s most controversial federal policy had been the Indian Removal Act of 1830, through which he sought to relocate all the indigenous communities to territories west of the Mississippi River. The federal government continued the policy under Van Buren’s administration and signed several new treaties with the Indian tribes. In 1835, the Cherokee signed a treaty with the United States, agreeing to cede their territory in the southeast and move west. Three years later, since not all Cherokee had relocated, Van Buren ordered General Winfield Scott to forcibly move all the Cherokee who failed to respect the terms of the treaty. The Cherokee removal ended with the violent displacement of around 20,000 people.
During his term, Van Buren also faced difficulties in managing the relations with the Seminoles. After prolonged confrontations, which culminated with the Second Seminole War, the American government accepted that forcing the Seminoles out of Florida was impossible. Directed by Van Buren, General Alexander Macomb negotiated a peace treaty, allowing them to remain in southwest Florida. However, in July 1839, the peace crumbled and the conflict found final resolution after Van Buren’s term in the office.
Despite his notorious compliance with Andrew Jackson’s policies, President Van Buren did not hesitate to stand against Jackson when he felt it necessary. Right before the end of his term as president, Andrew Jackson offered recognition to the Republic of Texas, which had gained independence from Mexico. Jackson’s subtle goal was the annexation of Texas, even though this raised the danger of triggering a war with Mexico. Unlike Jackson who prioritized expansion over peace, Van Buren preferred order and harmony. He rejected Jackson’s proposal to settle the long-standing issues between the U.S. and Mexico by force. In August 1837, the Texas minister at Washington D.C. made a proposal of annexation to Van Buren’s administration. However, Van Buren declined the offer. He feared that the proposal went beyond constitutional lines and that Mexico will respond aggressively. Moreover, he tried to avoid national discord, which would have emerged undoubtedly.
In January 1838, after a series of violent clashes between Canadian territories and the British rule, many Americans who wanted Canada to become part of the United States helped the Canadian rebels. Afraid of a new conflict with the British, Van Buren officially proclaimed U.S. neutrality with regard to Canadian independence. Congress supported Van Buren’s position, passing a neutrality law aimed at discouraging American citizens from participating in conflicts outside the borders of the United States. On the long-term, the neutrality law led to healthy relations with both Canada and Great Britain.
In 1840, near the end of his term, Martin Van Buren won once again the Democratic Party’s nomination for the presidential election, but the race to a second term proved much more difficult than the Democrats expected. Van Buren’s presidency had been marked by several divisive issues, among which the financial crisis, slavery, western expansion, and tense relations with the Indian tribes. This provided Van Buren’s opponents with the necessary tools to criticize his administration. At the 1839 Whig National Convention, the party nominated William Henry Harrison, a former military leader from the War of 1812. During the race, Van Buren’s opponents led an intensive campaign of denigration against him, calling him “Martin Van Ruin” and thus suggesting his role in the economic depression that plagued his presidency. By the end of the campaign, it seemed impossible for Van Buren to win a second term. Indeed, Harrison easily won the election.
At the end of his term, Martin Van Buren returned to his estate in Kinderhook. When the discussions about the annexation of Texas became the main focus of American public life, Van Buren felt compelled to express his views. While he realized that showing support for the annexation would increase his chances of winning the 1844 Democratic nomination for the presidential race, Van Buren personally believed that the annexation was an unjust attack on Mexico. By making his views public, he lost the support of many Democrats. After a tumultuous election, James K. Polk won the Democratic nomination and later the presidential election.
Retirement and Death
After losing his chances in the 1844 presidential election, Martin Van Buren retired but maintained an interest in politics. In his later years, he spoke repeatedly against slavery. As the Mexican-American War became a reality, Van Buren published an anti-slavery manifesto, arguing that Congress did not have the right to regulate slavery in any newly-acquired territory. The document put Van Buren once again at the center of American political life, and many urged him to seek another term as president in the 1848 presidential election. Van Buren accepted the nomination of the emerging Free Soil Party, but he received no electoral votes in the election and the Whigs won the race.
After this failure, Martin Van Buren decided not to run for any office again. He spent most of his time at his estate in New York, but he also traveled extensively to Europe. When the American Civil War began, Van Buren was adamant in his support for the Union.
In the winter of 1861-1862, Martin Van Buren contracted pneumonia and his health began to decline. He died of bronchial asthma and heart failure on July 24, 1862.
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Martin Van Buren, 1782–1862. Historical Society of the New York Courts. Accessed May 16, 2018.
Martin Van Buren, 8th Vice President (1833–1837). United States Senate. Office of the Historian. Accessed May 15, 2018.
Whitney, David C. and Robin V. Whitney. The American Presidents: Biographies of the Chief Executives, from George Washington through Barack Obama. 11th Edition. The Reader’s Digest Association, Inc. 2012.
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