Martin Van Buren: Life in Brief
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.