A Reference Resource
Martin Van Buren
Martin Van Buren said that the two happiest days of his life were his entrance into the office of President and his surrender of the office. While his political opponents were glad to see him go - they nicknamed him "Martin Van Ruin" - many Americans were not. Even though he lost the 1840 presidential election, Van Buren received 40,000 more votes than he had in his 1836 victory. In subsequent years, historians have come to regard Van Buren as integral to the development of the American political system.
Van Buren was the first President not born a British subject, or even of British ancestry. The Van Burens were a large, struggling family of Dutch descent. Martin's father, Abraham Van Buren—a supporter of Thomas Jefferson in a region populated by supporters of Jefferson's opponents, the Federalists—ran a tavern where politicians often gathered as they traveled between New York City and Albany. This environment gave young Martin a taste for politics. Though the Van Burens could not afford to send Martin to college, he managed to get a job as a clerk in a law office where he began studying law independently. After he became a lawyer, Van Buren joined the Democratic-Republicans and began his political career, as a minor county official.
Political Savvy and Party Building
Immediately, Van Buren began showing the qualities that would eventually take him to the pinnacle of American politics—and earn him a bevy of admirers as well as critics. Unfailingly polite and thoroughly shrewd, Van Buren proved an adept politician, negotiating the fractious political environment of New York state's Democratic-Republican party. As a New York politician, he set about building a political organization of his fellow Democratic-Republicans that stressed unity, loyalty, and fealty to Jeffersonian political principles. Gradually, Van Buren moved from the New York State Senate, to the New York attorney general's office, and then to the U.S. Senate. Unhappy with the politics and policies of President John Quincy Adams, Van Buren aligned himself instead with Andrew Jackson, the immensely popular war hero who wanted a return to the Jeffersonian policies of minimalist government. In Washington, he continued his political party-building efforts, but on a national scale.
When Jackson became President, he named Van Buren secretary of state, in recognition of the New Yorker's political acumen and his service during the 1828 election. From this position, Van Buren oversaw the nation's foreign affairs. But his time in Washington was also spent cultivating political relationships and allies. Van Buren continued to build the political organization that would become the Democratic Party. Just as important, Van Buren quickly became one of Jackson's trusted advisers and friends, even though the two men's political views were not always perfectly in synch. Van Buren also skillfully navigated the tempestuous in-fighting that marked Jackson's cabinet, where Vice President John Calhoun proved more an adversary than ally of the President. Toward the end of his first term, Jackson dismissed much of his cabinet, cut his relations with Vice President Calhoun, and dispatched Van Buren to the political calm of London as U.S. minister to England. During Jackson's second term, Van Buren served as vice president.
Managing a Troubled Nation
Van Buren won the presidential election of 1836 by promising to carry on the policies of Andrew Jackson. Unfortunately, Van Buren took office as the booming U.S. economy of the early and mid-1830s began to slow down. The so-called "Panic of 1837" was followed by the worst depression yet faced by the young nation. These economic troubles quickly became President Van Buren's main concern.
Van Buren's response to the crisis revealed his belief in the principles of a limited federal government, defense of states rights, and protection of the "people" from the "powerful." Thus, Van Buren rejected his Whig opposition's suggestion that he support a National Bank, which the Whigs believed could oversee and stabilize the nation's economy. Instead, the President blamed the depression on powerful monied interests at home and abroad, and proposed that the federal government deposit its funds in an independent treasury, rather than in state banks, While Van Buren and Congress argued about the merits of the independent treasury—which Congress finally authorized in the summer of 1840—the nation's economic troubles continued.
Van Buren confronted several other potentially divisive issues while President. He managed to quiet talk of annexing Texas by steadfastly announcing his opposition to such a move. His main foreign policy concerns were the growing tensions between the United States and Great Britain over the border between the United States and Canada. Van Buren ignored calls from some Americans to respond to Canadian and British provocations with force, working instead successfully through diplomatic channels to calm tensions in the region. Van Buren's measured approach to the northern border problems, however, only earned him the enmity of those who urged a more aggressive response.
Martin Van Buren's wife, Hannah, died twelve years after their marriage, leaving him a widower with four sons to raise by himself. Though Van Buren never remarried, his eldest son's wife, Angelica Singleton Van Buren, served as official White House hostess during the last two years of his presidency. His sons, moreover, emerged as some of his father's most important aides and advisers; Abraham and Martin Jr. served as personal secretaries to their father when he was President.
Facing criticism at home for both the economic depression and his handling of foreign affairs, Van Buren's re-election chances suffered even more in the face of an inspired campaign offered by the Whigs and their candidate, William Henry Harrison. In only four years, the Whig party had matched the savvy and organization of the Democrats—if not their shear numbers and ideological unity. The Whigs portrayed Harrison as the rough and tumble "Log Cabin and Hard Cider" candidate and ridiculed Van Buren as fussy, aristocratic, and unmanly. There was little truth in these images—in reality, it was Van Buren who came from a modest background, while Harrison was from a ruling-class Virginia family—but the charges, coupled with dissatisfaction over Van Buren's governance, proved too much for the sitting President to overcome. Van Buren lost the election, failing even to carry his home state of New York.
Martin Van Buren served only one term as President, and those four years were marked as much by failure and criticism as by success and popular acclaim. Van Buren's troubled presidency, though, should not overshadow his significant contributions to American political development. Van Buren played key roles in the creation of both the Democratic Party and the so-called "second party system" in which Democrats competed with their opponents, the Whigs. In these ways, Van Buren left an indelible mark on American politics.
Martin Van Buren, born on December 5, 1782, was the first American President not born a British subject. Van Buren's non-British ancestry (his parents were Dutch) would break one presidential mold, and his modest upbringing was preceded only by that of Andrew Jackson.
Both of Van Buren's parents, Abraham and Maria, were of pure Dutch extraction. They lived in Kinderhook, New York, a town near Albany that was populated largely by others of similar descent. The Van Burens were a struggling family with six children in the household, Martin being the fourth oldest. His mother had been widowed with three children before marrying his father. Not rich by any means, the Van Burens did own six slaves, which was not unusual for a family in Kinderhook. Politics, though, made the family a living. Abraham owned a tavern and inn frequented by government workers traveling between Albany and New York City. He held the post of town clerk for extra money, and the tavern hosted political meetings or elections. Guests at the tavern, such as Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, offered young Martin his first glimpses of American politics.
Martin attended Kinderhook's one-room schoolhouse until age fourteen—an unusually advanced education for a child whose family needed his labor. Van Buren did not attend college - which was unsurprising for young men in the early nineteenth century - but his father called in a political favor and managed to place his son with a lawyer's office as a law clerk. Martin clerked for seven years, sweeping floors or running errands by day and studying law at night. He moved to New York City—at that time inhabited by 60,000—for about a year, and gained admission to the state bar in 1803 at the age of twenty-one.
Returning to Kinderhook, Van Buren opened his own law practice with his half-brother James Van Allen and achieved considerable success, both financially and in reputation. His clients included the tenants and renters who contested landlords' colonial-era claims to property in New York's Hudson Valley. By siding with the common people instead of the landed elite in these cases, Van Buren participated in - and indeed helped perpetuate - the ferment that helped redefine social and economic relations in the early years of the American Republic.
Savvy Political Choices
In addition to being a lawyer, Van Buren quickly made a name for himself in New York politics. The Federalist Party enjoyed dominance in the Hudson Valley region but Van Buren joined the Democratic-Republicans (who were led by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison), largely, it seems, because his father and his family's friends were Jeffersonians. Van Buren's political party affiliation alienated many friends and colleagues, and he often had to tangle with Federalist judges and lawyers. But he more than held his own, and his party's leaders quickly tagged him as one to watch. Most important, his decision to join the Jeffersonians marked the beginning of a commitment to Jeffersonian principles of limited federal government, defense of individual liberties, and the protection of local and state prerogatives in American politics.
New York state politics in the early years of the nineteenth century were anything but placid, and Van Buren had to navigate among the competing factions that ruled the state's political scene. Two of the nation's most prominent and skilled politicians—DeWitt Clinton and Vice President Aaron Burr—battled during these years for leadership of the Democratic-Republican Party in New York. Van Buren recognized that Burr was a falling star and deflected the Vice President's allies' political entreaties, even while maintaining their friendship. Instead, Van Buren threw his support to Clinton's faction of Democratic-Republicans.. The Clintonians awarded Van Buren with a county official's post in 1808. It was during these years, as Van Buren shifted alliances and kept his political intentions and loyalties secret, that his critics labeled him devious and unprincipled.
Love and Leader of the "Bucktails"
In early 1807, while involved in local politics, Van Buren married a young woman he had known all his life named Hanna Hoes. The young couple settled in Hudson, a small town about ten miles from Kinderhook, where Van Buren practiced law; their first of four sons followed about a year later. 1812, Van Buren's courtroom successes enabled him to run for New York's state senate, and he managed a narrow half-percent victory over the Federalist opponent to win the seat.
It was a turbulent time for Van Buren to further his political career. The resurgent Federalist party, which capitalized on the unpopularity of the War of 1812, threatened to overwhelm the Democratic-Republican majority crafted by President Jefferson and his allies. When American fortunes in the war revived in 1814, Federalist power receded, although the party still maintained significant support in New York. Just as distressing to Van Buren were the problems brewing within New York's Democratic-Republican Party. The factional competition that marked the first decade of the nineteenth century only intensified during the 1810s. Van Buren understood that conflict was inevitable, but he feared that incessant, uncontrolled, and destructive in-fighting only weakened New York's Democratic-Republicans and provided a political opening upon which the Federalists might capitalize. He wanted Democratic-Republicans to forgo their personal rivalries and loyalties in favor of unity to party and principles.
Van Buren did not divorce himself from the partisan disputes that marred the Democrat-Republicans. He himself commanded his own faction, the "Bucktails," so named because they wore bucktails (the tails of a deer) on their hats. A collection of allies from Van Buren's region and from the New York state senate, the Bucktails coalesced around a few principles and positions. First, they were committed to the defeat of the Federalists, who the Bucktails feared, sought to establish a strong federal government. Second, they valued, above all else, Jeffersonian ideals and principles. Third, they saw the Democratic-Republican party as indispensable to the defense of Jeffersonian principles and to the defeat of the Federalists. Finally, the Bucktails were unanimous in their dislike of New York's most powerful politician, the Democrat-Republican Dewitt Clinton, whom they found wanting on each of these positions.
Van Buren's battles with Clinton during the 1810s were at the heart of New York state's politics—and sustained Van Buren's reputation for being an unscrupulous political opportunist. After Van Buren won reelection to the state senate in 1816 at the age of thirty-two, he was named New York's attorney general. From this position, Van Buren and the Bucktails struggled unsuccessfully to topple DeWitt Clinton. When the hard-edged party chief won New York's governorship in 1817, he began to dismiss all Bucktail appointees in the state's government. Van Buren held onto his attorney general post for another two years until 1819, then lost it to the Clinton forces.
By this time, Van Buren's wife, Hannah, was suffering from tuberculosis. She died in early 1819, leaving Van Buren a widower with four sons to raise. In the midst of this personal tragedy, he forged ahead with his political agenda of unifying the Democratic-Republican party, defending Jeffersonian principles, and defeating Clinton. Rallying his allies, Van Buren forced the removal of key Clinton political appointees and played a key role at the New York constitutional convention in 1821. These efforts strengthened Van Buren's position among New York's Democratic-Republicans, and by 1820 he headed a party machine known—by its enemies—as the "Albany Regency."
Politically powerful and at the head of a potent organization, Van Buren won election to the United States Senate in 1821. Despite moving to Washington, D.C., to serve in the Senate, he maintained control of the Albany Regency. The power of this party organization, combined with Van Buren's political acuity, made him an influential senator in short order. Just as important, Van Buren brought to Washington an appreciation—earned during his political apprenticeship in New York—of the advantages that a well-organized and ideologically unified party held in the political arena.
A Washington Politico
In the Senate, Van Buren served on the finance committee and chaired the judiciary committee. He brought his pro-states' rights, Jeffersonian commitment to limited government to the major issues of the day, the tariff and internal improvements. He consistently opposed federally financed internal improvements, While suspicious of the tariff, Van Buren refused to oppose it outright, recognizing that even some Jeffersonians supported a protectionist trade policy in certain cases.
On these issues and a host of others, Van Buren, much to his consternation, found the Democratic-Republican party split into different factions. He sought to bridge these divides and build a cohesive party consonant with Jeffersonian and anti-Federalist political ideals. Van Buren recognized the difficulty of unifying this fractious collection of Democratic-Republicans—each member had his own political views and, more important, his own constituencies and alliances to maintain—but he nonetheless reached out to potential allies, even the prickly Senator John Calhoun of South Carolina.
In 1824, Van Buren supported Secretary of the Treasury William Crawford of Georgia for the presidency largely because Crawford shared his Jeffersonian political beliefs. Crawford fared poorly in the election, finishing a distant third in the electoral college. Neither of the two leading candidates, Andrew Jackson or John Quincy Adams, though, had enough electoral votes to claim the presidency. The election went to the House of Representatives where the fourth place finisher, Senator Henry Clay, threw his votes to Adams, who won the presidency. Jackson's supporters were outraged - they believed that a "corrupt bargain" between Adams and Clay had cost their man the White House - and vowed to win the 1828 election.
Van Buren was just as distressed as Jackson's supporters, believing that Adams was a Federalist in all but name and deploring the new President's intention to strengthen the federal government's hand in economic development. In the Senate, Van Buren led the opposition to the Adams administration. He also threw his support to Jackson and began working for his election in 1828, bringing together the anti-Adams factions of the Democratic-Republicans under Jackson's standard. The Jackson-Van Buren coalition, seeking a return to the Jeffersonian policies of minimalist federal government and the protection of local and state concerns, marked the very beginnings of the Democratic Party.
In the 1828 presidential election, Van Buren's work in support of Jackson among Democratic-Republicans, paid off when Jackson defeated Adams. The contest was notable both for its vitriol and its massive turn-out—800,000 more voters went to the polls in 1828 than in 1824. This surge in participation had several sources, especially Jackson's popularity and charisma (he was a war hero with the memorable nickname of "Old Hickory") and the passage of laws in a few key states that enfranchised more Americans. Just as important, though, were the concerted efforts of Democratic-Republican leaders—like Van Buren—to turn out the vote. A new era in American politics, one dominated by political parties—was dawning.
That same year, Van Buren also won the New York gubernatorial election. It was a position he would hold only for a few weeks because the newly elected President asked Van Buren to join his cabinet as secretary of state. Van Buren resigned his governorship and returned to Washington, accepting an appointment that would further catapult him into the national political scene.
Battles to Succeed President Jackson
Jackson's two terms as President were some of the most contentious and eventful years in the history of American politics. During the first term, the coalition that lined up in support of Jackson became the Democratic Party. While unified in name, they hardly were in practice. Vicious in-fighting broke out among Jackson's supporters, with Secretary of State Van Buren heading up one bloc and Vice President John Calhoun the other. The disagreements ranged from the political to the personal. In the latter, the Peggy Eaton affair took center stage. The scandal pitted Washington's elite against Peggy O'Neill, a woman from humble beginnings who had married Jackson's Secretary of War John Eaton. Her social status and the possibility that she may have begun her relationship with Eaton while still married to her first husband spread rapidly through the capital's gossip network. Virtually all of Washington's elite snubbed Peggy O'Neill Eaton, especially Vice President Calhoun's wife.
Van Buren, however, did not follow suit and instead invited the Eatons to social engagements. Jackson, whose own late wife Rachel had suffered personal attacks at the hands of her husband's opponents and enemies in the 1824 and 1828 campaigns—in fact, he blamed her death in 1828 on these attacks—sided with Eaton and his new bride. He appreciated Van Buren's kindness towards the couple.
At the same time, however, the conflict between Van Buren and Calhoun arouse from more weighty, political matters. Calhoun and his supporters took an extreme states' rights position that outpaced even Van Buren's own fear of a centralized, powerful national government. It was Van Buren, after all, who helped Jackson prepare his simple rejoinder ("The Union: it must be preserved") to Calhoun's states' rights position at the annual Jefferson Day dinner in 1830. The dinner confrontation was only the beginning of an almost three year controversy over South Carolina's claim that it could nullify federal tariffs and, in effect, defy the federal government. The case quickly turned into a debate on states' rights. Calhoun led the South Carolina nullifiers, while Van Buren helped shape the Jackson administration's position declaring South Carolina's defiance unconstitutional.
The tensions within the cabinet were so debilitating that Jackson began to rely on an informal "Kitchen Cabinet" of advisers, a group who played a key role in articulating what became known as Jacksonian ideology. Not surprisingly, Van Buren was a member of the Kitchen Cabinet. He drafted the most important, early statement of this ideology—the Maysville Road Bill veto—which outlined objections to federally financed internal improvements. But the discord in the Jackson administration soon proved too much. In the spring of 1831, Van Buren designed a plan in which he (and Eaton) would resign from the Cabinet, allowing Jackson to ask for resignations from the rest of the Cabinet. Jackson would then be able to appoint a cabinet comprised of his allies.
Jackson agreed, with some reluctance, to Van Buren's plan and reorganized his cabinet. He then appointed Van Buren the American minister to England in the late summer of 1831. Van Buren spent only six months in England as the Senate, in January 1832, refused to confirm his appointment by one vote - a ballot cast by Vice President John Calhoun. Van Buren returned to the United States later that spring. But his rejection at the hands of the Senate only secured the alliance between Van Buren and the President. Jackson selected him as his running-mate for the 1832 election, which the President won quite handily.
Much of Van Buren's energies during his vice presidency were focused on Jackson's epic battle with the Second Bank of the United States. This institution had sole right to regulate the issuance of paper currency and credit rates, and Jackson thought its immense powers benefited the privileged few to the disadvantage of many Americans. When the Bank's president, Nicholas Biddle, successfully petitioned Congress for the Bank's recharter, Jackson vetoed the bill in July 1832. The veto ignited "the Bank War," pitting President Jackson against pro-Bank Senator Henry Clay, his allies in Congress, and Biddle, that marked much of Jackson's second term. The president successfully resisted the pro-Bank forces' efforts to have him sign the recharter bill. Moreover, Jackson weakened the Bank by withdrawing federal funds it held and placing them in a network of smaller state banks (called "pet banks"). While Van Buren had grave reservations about the soundness of this decision, fearing it would ignite a political firestorm (which it did), he went along with the President. The popular Jackson eventually prevailed in the crisis, largely because of the clumsy political maneuvering of Clay and Biddle.
The Bank War helped crystallize the emerging party structure that would dominate American politics for the next two decades. Jackson's antagonists—known as "the Opposition"—organized in 1833. This coalition of national Republicans included anti-Masons, ex-Jacksonians, supporters of Senator John Calhoun, and figures such as ex-President Adams and Senator Henry Clay, and began to call themselves the Whigs in 1834. The Whig Party drew its energy and coherence, at least initially, from its opposition to "King Andrew," as they derisively labeled Jackson, who they warned would do nothing less than overturn the chief victory of the American Revolution: republican, self-government.
At the same time, the Democratic Party during Jackson's second term became a more ideologically coherent and unified organization. Since his arrival in Washington in 1822, Van Buren had sought the creation of such an organization—even if he could not have predicted the development of the Democratic Party—and he had played a signal role in its accomplishment. He then went into the 1836 election as Jackson's chosen heir and with the support of a powerful Democratic party. But Van Buren also confronted a Whig party—which he, Jackson, and the Democrats unwittingly had helped create—eager to defeat him.
The Campaign and Election of 1836
Martin Van Buren worked hard to build his friendship and political alliance with President Jackson and these efforts came to fruition in 1836 when Van Buren ran as Jackson's chosen successor. In fact, it appears that Jackson and key members of the Democratic Party had rallied behind Van Buren as their candidate for 1836 as much as two years before that contest. Van Buren had little trouble securing the nomination, winning it on a unanimous, first ballot vote at the convention. Van Buren's running mate was Congressman Richard Johnson of Kentucky.
Martin Van Buren presented his candidacy as a continuation of Jackson's policies, which it was. Many voters, particularly in Democratic strongholds like Pennsylvania, Virginia, and his native New York, loved "Old Hickory" and were pleased to vote for his supposed heir. Van Buren also benefited from the Democratic party organization he had helped build over the preceding decade. The Democratic party in 1836 was disciplined and well-organized, which helped bring more Democratic voters to the polls. Indeed, Van Buren garnered almost 85,000 more votes than Jackson had in 1832.
The Whig party, though still in its infancy and not as mature organizationally or ideologically as the Democrats, did offer stiff competition. In large part, it ran against Andrew Jackson, railing against his personality—which it deemed too monarchial—and his politics—which it criticized on a variety of accounts. Van Buren, too, came in for criticism. Whigs regarded the presidential candidate as little more than a party hack and warned that Van Buren's election would only allow the Democrats to carry on their flawed policies and politics. Lacking the unity to settle on a candidate or even hold a national convention, the Whigs ran three regional candidates: Tennessee senator Hugh White in the South, Daniel Webster of Massachusetts in the East, and Ohio's William Henry Harrison in the West. (Harrison would be elected President in 1840.)
Van Buren, though, would not be denied victory in 1836; he received more votes than all three Whig candidates combined. His victory resulted from a combination of his own attractive political and personal qualities, Jackson's popularity and endorsement, the organizational power of the Democratic party, and the inability of the Whig Party—at this point—to muster an effective candidate and campaign. Nevertheless, there were signs of trouble ahead for the Democrats. They had won a smaller percentage of electoral votes in 1836 than four years prior, carrying fewer southern states and losing Georgia and Tennessee to the Whigs. Where they did win, it was by significantly smaller margins than in 1832. In other words, the political and electoral strength of the Whigs was growing. This did not portend an easy term for the new President.
The Campaign and Election of 1840
Van Buren easily won the Democratic nomination for a second term, but he and his party faced a difficult election in 1840. Van Buren's presidency had been a difficult affair, with the U.S. economy mired in a severe downturn, and other divisive issues, such as slavery, western expansion, and tensions with Great Britain, providing opportunities for Van Buren's political opponents—and even some of his fellow Democrats—to criticize his actions. Also damaging to Van Buren's re-election chances in 1840 was the growth in political strength of the Whig party and its maturation as a professional organization. Van Buren, in short, faced a difficult political battle in 1840.
The Whigs selected William Henry Harrison of Ohio as their candidate for the presidency. Hailing from a wealthy Virginia family, Harrison attended Hampden-Sydney College and then made a name for himself fighting Native Americans in the Northwest territories (what would become Ohio and Indiana.) Western, colorful, and a tall and tough warrior, the Whigs presented Harrison as the antithesis of Van Buren, whom they derided as ineffective, corrupt, and effete.
The Whigs ran a masterful campaign. They flooded the public with promotional odds and ends—sewing boxes, cigar tins, whiskey bottles, and pennants with the Whig slogan, "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too." One Whig rally drew 60,000 people to the rural site of one of Harrison's military victories, an amazing turnout at a time when travel was difficult. When a Democratic newspaper sneeringly wrote of Harrison "Give him a barrel of hard cider and settle a pension of two thousand a year on him…and take my word for it, he will sit the remainder of his days in his log cabin," the Whigs promptly anointed Harrison the "Log Cabin and Hard Cider" candidate, cementing his homespun image. It mattered little that Harrison's background, wealth, and education belied his new moniker The Whigs, for their part, attacked Van Buren mercilessly. Whig glee clubs sang "Van, Van, is a used-up man," Whig representative Charles Ogle (PA) unleashed a vicious and lurid attack from the floor of the House in April 1840 that gained national attention, and the party gave Van Buren a new nick-name: "Martin Van Ruin." Things grew even uglier when Whigs publicized the allegations which were true—that Vice President Richard Johnson had had several affairs with African American women.
Van Buren, following the political traditions of the day, did not personally campaign for the presidency. But he did monitor carefully the efforts of the Democratic Party on his behalf and he kept in close contact with his operatives in the field. Queries from citizens asking about his views on the events of the day offered Van Buren the opportunity to defend his record and embrace the Jacksonian ideals that he and the Democratic Party claimed to represent: strict adherence to the Constitution, the protection of states' rights, and a federal government of limited powers that would not usurp the power of the people. His remarks, which took the form of letters to his questioners, were often reprinted in Democratic newspapers.
Van Buren remained optimistic about his chances for re-election until October 1840, by which time it became unlikely that he would defeat Harrison. An astonishing eighty percent of eligible voters went to the polls on election day. Van Buren remained close in the popular vote but Harrison crushed him in the electoral college. The president failed to carry even his home state of New York.
The inauguration of 1837 proved less a celebration of the incoming president than a tribute to the outgoing one, Andrew Jackson. Martin Van Buren's inaugural address took wistful note of it: "In receiving from the people the sacred trust twice confided to my illustrious predecessor, and which he has discharged so faithfully and so well, I know that I can not expect to perform the arduous task with equal ability and success. But . . . I may hope that somewhat of the same cheering approbation will be found to attend upon my path." With a single exception, the new administration retained Jackson's entire cabinet, and Van Buren pledged to "tread generally in the footsteps of President Jackson."
Economic Panic of 1837
The severe downturn in the American economy that began in 1836 became Van Buren's primary concern during his presidency. Historians have identified three causes of the depression that wracked the American economy during the late 1830s. First, English banks—responding to financial troubles at home—stopped pumping money into the American economy, an important reversal since those funds had financed much of the nation's economic growth over the preceding two decades. Second, U.S. banks, which had overextended credit to their clients, began to call in loans after British banks cut their money supply. Third, President Andrew Jackson's "hard" money policies, especially the 1836 Specie Circular that aimed to stabilize what Jacksonians saw as an out-of-control economy by requiring that all purchases of federal land be made with precious metal (i.e. "hard" money) rather than paper ("soft") money, only exacerbated the credit crunch.
When Van Buren entered office, it was clear that the nation's economic health had taken a turn for the worse and that the prosperity of the early 1830s was over. Two months into his presidency, the roof fell in. On May 10, 1837, some important state banks in New York, running out of hard currency reserves, suddenly refused to convert paper money into gold or silver. Other financial institutions throughout the nation quickly followed suit. This financial crisis, the worse yet faced by the young nation, would become known as the Panic of 1837. Loans dried up, and so did new purchases; businesses and civic projects collapsed. Many Americans went unemployed and others began to go hungry. Creditors refused to accept paper currency that seemed to be losing its value by the hour. The American economy's downward spiral accelerated.
Van Buren blamed the current problems not on the Jackson administration's policies, but instead on what he viewed as greedy American and foreign business and financial institutions, as well as on the overextension of credit by U.S. banks. His political opponents, especially the Whigs, took little comfort in this analysis and were quick to blame the Democrats', and especially Jackson's, financial and monetary policies.
The question for the new president was how—and whether—to respond. Van Buren followed a course of action consistent with his Jacksonian belief in the limited powers of the federal government and a suspicion of paper money and easy credit. He called for a special session of Congress, which finally convened in September 1837, to deal with the crisis. The President announced a controversial proposal to establish an independent treasury system, in which the federal government would deposit its funds in a series of subtreasuries. Van Buren and his advisers hoped that an independent treasury would stabilize the American financial system by refusing poorly managed state banks access to government funds, which they might use recklessly. The independent treasury proposal actually reversed President Jackson's decision to deposit federal funds in state banks.
Unsurprisingly, Van Buren's critics howled. Some of these voices even came from his own party. Two groups of dissident Democrats—one supporting the state banks and the other suspicious of all banks—attacked the President's solution. The Whigs, on the other hand, traced the economic downturn to President Jackson's economic and fiscal policies, and especially his decision not to recharter the National Bank. They argued that the nation's economy required a powerful institution like a national bank to manage the economy and cultivate economic stability.
Congressional resistance to the independent treasury proposal proved difficult to overcome. Even some of the President's closest allies from New York questioned his thinking. Not until the summer of 1840 did Congress pass an independent treasury bill. By then, despite a recovery in 1839, the nation's economy had been mired in a depression for nearly four years; the problems would continue into the early 1840s. More important for Van Buren's immediate future, the depression would be a major issue in the 1840 presidential election.
Slavery, New Territories, and Native Americans
In addition to the devastating economic collapse, two other domestic flash points proved troublesome for President Van Buren. During his last months in office, President Jackson made it clear that he favored the annexation of Texas, a Mexican territory into which increasingly large numbers of Americans were moving. Americans who favored annexation were heartened by Jackson's position, while others, especially from the North, opposed annexation because it would bring into the Union another state that permitted slavery. Some opponents of annexation hinted ominously at a "slave-owner conspiracy."
Van Buren inherited this contentious political issue and tried to prevent a sectional split that would harm the Democratic Party. He announced in August 1837 that he did not support the annexation of Texas. It was enough to calm the sectional tensions over territorial expansion and slavery, which were, in truth, still relatively minor issues during Van Buren's tenure. It was not the last time, however, that Van Buren would confront these matters.
The Van Buren administration also proved a particularly hostile to Native Americans. Federal policy under Jackson had sought, through the Indian Removal Act of 1830, to move all Indian peoples to lands west of the Mississippi River. Continuing this policy, Van Buren supported further removals after his election in 1836. The federal government supervised the removal of the Cherokee people in 1838, a forced stagger west to the Mississippi in which a full quarter of the Cherokee nation died.
Some Native Americans resisted the removal policy violently, however. In Florida, the Seminole people fought upwards of 5,000 American troops, and even the death of the charismatic Seminole leader Chief Osceola in 1838 failed to quell the resistance. Fighting continued into the 1840s and brought death to thousands of Native Americans. The protracted nature of the conflict had deleterious political consequences too. The Whigs, as well as a small number of Americans who believed the removal campaign inhumane, criticized the Van Buren administration's conduct of the war.
Soon after taking office, President Martin Van Buren faced a diplomatic crisis with Great Britain. It grew out of tensions between Americans, Canadians, and British soldiers along the borders between New York and Canada and Maine and Canada.
Problems began when a small separatist movement in Canada sought to gain independence from Britain in late 1837. After an unsuccessful uprising, these dissidents retreated to the United States, recruited a number of American citizens to their cause, and took refuge on an island in the Niagara River, which divides the United States—and specifically New York—from Canada. Some Americans began selling guns and supplies to the Canadian separatists. In response, the British ordered loyalist Canadian forces to attack the ship being used to supply the rebels. The loyalist Canadians boarded the Caroline, set it ablaze, and pushed it over Niagara Falls, killing one American. Considerable sentiment arose within the United States to declare war on England, and a British ship was burned in revenge.
Van Buren looked to avoid a major diplomatic row with Great Britain and he rejected the possibility of an aggressive response. Instead, he sent General Winfield Scott to the region to impress upon American citizens the need for a peaceful resolution to the crisis, and to make it clear that the U.S. government would not countenance adventuresome Americans attacking the British. Also, in early January 1838, Van Buren proclaimed U.S. neutrality with regard to the Canadian independence issue, a declaration which Congress endorsed by passing a neutrality law designed to discourage the participation of American citizens in foreign conflicts. Each of these actions had the effect of calming the situation.
A new crisis surfaced in late 1838,however, along the border between Maine and Canada, where Americans began settling on lands claimed by both the United States and Great Britain. When British troops forcibly removed some of the settlers and imprisoned others, tensions between British officials and the governor of Maine, John Fairfield, rose to a fever pitch. Fairfield even called on Van Buren to send troops to the area.
To settle the Maine crisis, Van Buren met with the British minister to the United States. They agreed to resolve the border issue diplomatically. Van Buren also sent General Scott to Maine with orders to rein in Governor Fairfield and others who were exacerbating the tensions. Again, Van Buren's tactics worked. The diplomatic negotiations begun by Van Buren resulted, in 1842, with the signing of the Webster-Ashburton Treaty between Great Britain and the United States that resolved these border issues.
Van Buren's patient diplomacy, which defused tensions between the United States and Great Britain, kept America out of war. But his pursuit of negotiations and accommodation in the face of the loss of American property and lives only angered those in Maine and New York who wanted him to take a tougher stance. The criticism Van Buren took in both cases was quite considerable, and added to the substantial indictment his opponents filed against his presidency.
When Martin Van Buren lost his 1840 bid for reelection, he never considered it the end of his political career. In fact, over the next four years he emerged as the favorite for the Democratic nomination in 1844. Van Buren, however, stumbled on his way to the nomination. Having lost the presidential election in 1840, many in his party saw him as a weak candidate.
In addition, many Democrats supported the annexation of Texas during the early 1840s, much to the chagrin of numerous fellow party members who opposed the admittance of another slave state to the Union. Looking to secure his status as the favorite for the Democratic nomination, Van Buren tried to bridge the divide in his party by stating in the spring of 1844 that while he did not support the immediate annexation of Texas, he certainly welcomed it at some future date. This was a political miscalculation. The pro-annexation strength in his party—some Democrats threatened to bolt the party if Van Buren won the nomination—was much stronger than he realized. Even some of his long-time allies, like Thomas Ritchie, head of Virginia's Democrats, left Van Buren's side after he revealed his position on Texas. The final blow came when Andrew Jackson proclaimed himself in favor of immediate annexation and suggested that Van Buren step aside.
At the 1844 Democratic national convention in Baltimore, support for Van Buren's candidacy disintegrated. Democrats instead turned to the pro-annexation James K. Polk of Tennessee, who had the blessing of former President Jackson to boot. Although disappointed at his failure to win the nomination, Van Buren vigorously supported Polk's candidacy, which helped the Democrat to victory over Whig candidate Henry Clay in 1844. This closing of party ranks, however, did not signal easy relations between Polk and Van Buren. The former President and his allies believed that Polk owed his election largely to the Van Buren's efforts—and therefore expected to receive an important post in the Polk administration. This did not occur—although Polk offered Van Buren the ministership to London, an appointment Van Buren refused—and relations between Van Buren and Polk (and their allies) soured.
Four years later, the question of new states and slavery had become even more divisive. Van Buren headed a splinter group—the Free-Soil Party—comprised of dissatisfied Democrats, Whigs who opposed their party's nominee, General Zachary Taylor, and members of the anti-slavery Liberty Party. The Free Soil Party's main issue was opposition to the extension of slavery to the new Western territories. Van Buren had little hope of victory. Taylor won the election convincingly, although the Free Soilers ran well in a number of northern states, including New York, Massachusetts, Ohio, and Illinois.
The 1848 election effectively marked the end of Van Buren's active political career. He wrote his memoirs in the early 1850s, as well as a milestone study of the organization of American political parties. He traveled extensively, including a trip to Europe, and spent time with his surviving children and grandchildren, delighting in their company. Van Buren lived to see the coming of the Civil War and he supported President Lincoln's decision to resist secession with force. Martin Van Buren died in 1862, at age seventy-nine.
Not much is known about Van Buren's relationship with his wife Hannah, largely because he rarely mentioned her in his private correspondence (and not at all in his memoirs.) Historian Donald Cole, a leading Van Buren scholar, has concluded, though, that the marriage was likely a happy one. Hannah passed away in 1819, leaving Van Buren to raise his four sons. They spent much of their childhood with close relatives and Van Buren frequently expressed regret at not being more involved in their upbringing. It should be noted, however, that he did provide for their education and well-being.
As the children grew older, they spent increasing time with their father, in both Washington and Albany. Indeed, as adults, they became his trusted aides and advisers. When their father became President, Abraham and Martin Jr. served as his private secretaries, while John and Smith stayed in Albany and kept their father informed of the political goings-on in his home state; John Van Buren actively promoted his father's candidacy in 1848. In the 1850s, after Van Buren receded from the political scene, the ex-President spent more and more time with his sons and their families. Van Buren's son Martin passed away in 1855 after a long illness.
In the history of the evolving American franchise, the 1830s was a period filled with significant change that greatly impacted the nation's political party system and electoral processes. Most notably, the four-fold expansion in the electorate during the 1828 and 1832 presidential campaigns was equaled in the two elections in which Martin Van Buren was the presidential candidate. The election results from 1836 and 1840 showed a continued increase in both the number of voters and in the percentage of the eligible voters who actually voted, even though suffrage was still limited to white males.
Democratization of Politics
One of the major factors in this growth was the development of the new Whig Party. In 1836, the Whigs mobilized voters along regional lines. Although they did not defeat Van Buren, this anti-Democratic opposition increased its voting strength by 200,000 from the 1832 election. In 1840, the Whigs almost doubled their total in defeating Van Buren. Meanwhile, the Democrats continued to increase their power at the ballot box. Even in Van Buren's 1840 defeat, he received almost twice the number of votes that Jackson received in winning reelection in 1832!
The huge increase in the electorate can be attributed to three developments. First, the institutional reforms of the Jacksonian period continued to take hold at the state and county levels. These changes made it easy for white males over the age of 21 (even if not citizens, residents, or property owners) to be eligible to cast ballots on election day. Second, the development of party organizations at the county level, controlled by local political bosses, meant that eligible men would be mobilized ("pulled" in party terminology) to the polls on election day by precinct workers. Third, the institutionalization of two-party competition between Whigs and Democrats gave workers in each party an incentive to get the maximum number of voters to the polls on election day. Indeed, these important developments marked America's entrance into a period of intense two-party competition for political office in most parts of the country. The electorate responded accordingly, with voting rates moving into the 60 to 75 percent range, where they would remain throughout most of the 19th century.
Status of African Americans and Slavery
This democratization of politics, in which "the common man" became increasingly involved in the American political system did not extend equally to all inhabitants of the country. For example, African-American freemen in the North continued to find their civil and political rights eroded or eliminated by state legislatures. Consequently, almost none of them were able to vote. In the South, of course, slaves remained without any legal rights, and had only the limited and ineffective protections of the "Slave Codes" designed to prevent their inhumane treatment. Indeed, during the 1830s, the "peculiar institution" became more entrenched in the deep South as labor-intensive cotton production became the foundation of the economy in states like Alabama and Mississippi.
Abolitionism continued to grow during the second half of the 1830s, with the American Antislavery Society claiming over 250,000 members by 1840. Abolitionists, however, still remained outside the American political and social mainstream. In 1837,, Reverend Elijah Parish Lovejoy, editor of the Alton Observer, began printing anti-slavery editorials in his newspaper in Illinois. A drunken "posse" of proslavery whites cornered him in his newspaper office, pumped five bullets into him, dumped his press into the Mississippi River, and set fire to the building. Abolitionists had their martyr to freedom of the press, and the movement gathered steam. But their continued marginalization—and the violent response they provoked among whites, as evidenced by the murder of Lovejoy—revealed the bleak prospects that abolitionists faced.
Immigration and Politics
The slumping economy did not discourage immigrants from coming to America. By the end of the Van Buren administration, 80,000 immigrants a year were entering the United States, the beginnings of a rush of newcomers that brought over four million people to U.S. shores between 1840 and 1860. (To put this figure in perspective, the 1840 census revealed that the country's total population was just over 17 million persons.) Many of these immigrants were Irish Catholics (about 44 percent) and Germans (30 percent). They settled largely in the northeast and the midwest, often in major cities like New York or Boston, where the majority worked in low-paying, manual-labor jobs. A good number of the recent immigrants moved into skilled or semi-skilled jobs.
The recent arrivals were not always greeted with open arms. In New York City, for instance, immigrants clashed with Protestant workers of English, Scottish, or Dutch origin, who saw the newcomers as competitors for jobs, as adherents to an alien religious faith (Catholicism), and as inferior socially and culturally. Unsurprisingly, American nativism emerged as a potent force in politics in the late 1830s, becoming intertwined with the developing two-party system. Most of the immigrants joined the Democratic Party. Mobs of Democratic Irish (wielding "Irish confetti" or brickbats) fought mobs of Whigs for control of the streets and the polls in city elections.
The new immigrants also clashed with free blacks in the North. Both immigrants and free blacks competed for increasingly scarce jobs—and smaller wages—as the economic depression worsened. The racism espoused by immigrants was both virulent and instrumental; new immigrants were desperate to climb the American social, economic, and political ladder and they took great pains to demonstrate that they were superior to the free blacks who often lived in their neighborhoods and worked in similar jobs. It was little wonder, then, that immigrants proved some of the most determined opponents of abolitionism.
Americans became increasingly active in other social movements besides abolitionism during Van Buren's time in office. Reform-minded citizens, a number of whom had been swept up in the religious fervor surrounding the Second Great Awakening, began to take stands on issues such as temperance, free public education, penitentiaries, and women's rights. The reform impulse sprung largely from a desire to improve American society in the wake of the explosive and often disruptive growth of a market economy, of political democracy, of American cities, and of the numbers of immigrant newcomers.
A notable facet of mid-nineteenth century social movements was the prominent role played by women. Despite being denied access to traditional forms political participation—the vote—female activists formed organizations and became very public advocates of reform efforts. These social movements, however, met with mixed success. The movement for women's rights floundered even as women played a more prominent role in public discussions. Temperance advocates, likewise, ran into stiff opposition from newly arrived immigrants—for whom the consumption of alcohol served an important social and cultural function—as well as from their supporters in the Democratic Party. On the other hand, free public education became more common in the 1830s, especially in the North, because of the work of advocates like Horace Mann. The American penal system was altered to emphasize the possibility of reforming prisoners.
Native American Relocation
Van Buren's administration completed the removal of American Indian tribes. The Shawnee, Delaware, Wyandot, and others in the old Northwest were moved west of the Mississippi; the Creeks were moved out of Alabama. Van Buren also ordered General Winfield Scott in 1838 to round up the Cherokee of Georgia—a tribe more "westernized" and "civilized" than their poor white neighbors—and force them to migrate along the Trail of Tears to the Indian Territories west of the Mississippi. Along the way, one-quarter of the tribe died of disease and deprivation. Similarly, the Seminoles in Florida were forced to relocate in the West; hostilities between the tribe and the federal government ended by 1842. By the close of Van Buren's term, all Eastern tribes had ended their resistance to white land grabbing, and had been resettled in ethnic enclaves (reservations) in the Wisconsin and Iowa territories, then west of the Mississippi and Arkansas, and west of the Red River on the Texas border. In time, they would be ousted from these lands, too.
When assessing the impact and legacy of Martin Van Buren, scholars have generally drawn a distinction between Van Buren's presidency, which they often judge lacking and troubled, and his contributions to the development of the American political system, which they find singular and significant.
Martin Van Buren was surely one of the most important politicians in American history. He entered politics in the early 1800s and joined the party of Thomas Jefferson, the Democratic-Republicans. Van Buren rose to prominence—first in New York state and then nationally—at a time when his party was beset by factionalism, by vicious in-fighting, and by a lack of organizational and ideological unity. Van Buren recognized these weaknesses and set about to rectify them by constructing a cohesive and unified political organization, first in New York and then nationally. Van Buren believed that political conflict, both among allies and between opponents, was unavoidable. The trick, though, was to manage this conflict. Thus, the importance of his crowning achievement—the Democratic Party—which Van Buren hoped could control this intra-party conflict in order to defeat its opponents.
Van Buren's critics focused on his role in party-building and charged that his efforts were the work of a cynical, manipulative, and power-hungry politician. To be sure, there was some truth to these accusations: all politicians want to build their power base, and often do so by engaging in practices that are both deceptive and manipulative. This critique of Van Buren, however, is overly harsh and misleading.
Van Buren wanted to build an effective and efficient political organization principally because he thought it the best mechanism for defending and extending the Jeffersonian and Jacksonian political ideals. These principles—the preeminence of state and local concerns, the wisdom of limiting the power of the federal government, and the importance of protecting Americans from government or public institutions that supposedly threatened their liberty—he held dearly and believed vital to the nation's political and economic future. Van Buren's adherence to this political ideology deserves discussion and criticism, of course. But one must acknowledge that unflagging belief in this ideology fueled his political activities.
While Van Buren has earned the accolades of scholars for his contributions to the development of the American political system, he has not been judged a great, nor even good, President. The main challenge President Van Buren faced was the nation's economic depression. His chief response—a proposal for an independent treasury system—reflected his Jeffersonian and Jacksonian political beliefs. Ironically, Van Buren, the great party builder and advocate of Democratic unity, lacked the political strength to win quick congressional endorsement of the independent treasury; Congress approved it only in late 1840, after the depression had been raging, largely uninterrupted, for three years. Would earlier passage of the independent treasury bill have lifted the nation out of its economic woes? It is impossible to know. It is clear, though, that Van Buren could not win its passage.
Should Van Buren have embraced more drastic and activist measures than the independent treasury to try to end the depression? Historians disagree about whether this approach would have worked. The most perceptive scholars, though, point out that such a course would have required Van Buren to jettison his political beliefs, something he was loathe to do. Thus, we are left with a final irony. As a man of the Democratic party, he could not muster its strength. As a man of strong Jeffersonian and Jacksonian principles, he would not choose (and saw no need to choose) another path. Van Buren perhaps paid the final price for these limitations in 1840 when voters chose not to send him back to the White House for another four years.