Martin Van Buren was the eighth President of the United States, serving from 1837-1841. He was the first American President born as a United States citizen in an independent America. Only about 5 feet, 6 inches tall, but trim and erect, Martin Van Buren dressed fastidiously. His impeccable appearance belied his amiability--and his humble background. He created the first American political machine and in many ways the founder of the modern democratic party. He was pragmatic and became known as the great compromiser-- working to keep America together at a time when sectional feeling was fueling a widening division. It was his effort at compromise that cost him the nomination to run again for president in 1844.
Martin Van Buren was the son Abraham Van Buren and Maria Hoes, another in a long line of Van Burens who came from Holland in 1631. His large family was the fifth generation of descendants of Dutch immigrants who settled in New Netherland in the early 1600s. Almost everyone in Kinderhook was related. Most spoke Dutch with their fellow townspeople and English with outsiders.
Martin's father owned a inn-tavern, and with the help of slaves, he also farmed. He was very generous and the family had a hard time making ends meet.
Van Biren he was born in 1782 at Kinderhook New York, a small village 20 miles south of Albany New York. His family still spoke Dutch and he grew up speaking Dutch rather than English. He was the only president not to speak English as his primary language. He was also the only President of Dutch Ancestry and even as an adult, he and his wife spoke Dutch at home.
Abraham and Maria Hoes Van Buren owned a tavern and farm. The tavern was a favorite meeting place in the town. The Van Burens never became wealthy, but neither were they poor. Young "Matty" did his share of work in the tavern and spent much time listening to well-dressed, important men discuss business and politics over their drinks. Martin was an avid listener to customers discussing politics, mostly in Dutch.
Martin went to the local village school and then on to Kinderhook Academy and after
school he delivered farm produce or helped at his father's tavern. He attended Kinderhook Academy,
where all students of the community went. Most students of Van Buren's social and economic status dropped out after a couple of years to help their parents, but he stayed on as long as he could, even though he knew he could never afford to go to college as his wealthier classmates would. By age 14, having excelled in English and Latin, Van Buren left school to study law under a local attorney.Martin only was educated through age 14 at which time he was aprectenced out to Francis Sylvester. Martin swept out the office, lit the log fire, ran errands, patiently read law books, and eagerly read every journal he could find on Jeffersonian politics. By the time he was 18 years old his precise legal thinking brought him local renown. He still took time to campaign so successfully for Jefferson that he
was sent as delegate to a regional caucus. In 1801 he entered a New York City law office, barely
earning a living.
Van Buren was accused of being a "dandy" by political opponents. There was considerable accuracy in this description. Van Buren grew up in modest, but not poor circumstances. He was embarassed as a youth by unfashionable clothes. So when he had the means he dressed well. He loved beautiful things and wanted fine furnishes in his house. At a time when few people had toilets, Van Buren had a Wedgewood toilet! One flap as president was over finger bowls which were a newly imported European fashion. The story is told that Senator Benton finding a finger bowl at dinner was unsure what to do with it. He watch the President daintally dip his fingers. Benton proceeded to roll up his sleeves and have a "... good republican wash." (Republican in the sence of non-aristcratic, not referring to the political party.) Van Buren was reported to have a fine sence of humor. As an older man he was thrown from his horse and knocked unconcious with a broken arm. As his head wasn't cracked, he quipped that it spoke highly of his head. Van Buren was one of the leading political figures of the Jacksonian era. His congenial dispoition in part was responsible for his reputation as an effective politican. Many of the other luminaries of the day like (JQ) Adams, Benton, Calhoun, Clay, Jackson, and Webster were what might be called today as more highly strung. They were men if ofended might issue a dueling challenge or take their walking can to an opponent.
Van Buren as a young lawyer became interested in New York politics and soon demostrated considerable skill, especially in backroom politics. He assumed the leadership of the "Albany Regency," an important New York political organization. He became skillful in using patronage to acquire votes and political influence. He was also a hard working public servant. He saw the potential of a canal to the Great Lakes as a route west. He was the prime mover of the Erie Canal which played a key role in the westward movement and the making of New York as the most important port and city in the United States. Van Buren's role in the building of the Erie Canal more than his presidency was his greatest contribution to American development. Van Buren was elected United States Senate (1823). In the Senate he became a string supoorter of Andrew Jackson. Jackson was a southerener from Tennesse. Van Buren was Jackson's most important northern supporter. Van Buren like Jackson was sympathetic to the the West and distrustful of the eastern establishment. [Widmer] Van Buren returned to New York and ran for governor and was elected. Some historians believe that Van Buren played an important role in party building. One historian maintain that he was a major force in building the modern Democratic Party [Widmer] This seems rather exagerated. Democratic accendancy in the early 19th century was based on a New York/Virgininia political connection. These were the two most populous states and a candidate who carried these states was difficult to defeat. Thus Van Buren played a key role in Jackson's victory. After the Van Buren presudency, this connection was broken as American politics became more sectional as a result of the slavery issue.
Andrew Jackson was elected president (1828). Van Buren in New York played an important role in the election. Van Buren's political skills earned him the name of the "Little Magician". Van Buren actually only served as governor a few months. President Jackson nominated Van Buren as Secretary of State as aeward for the role he had played in the elkection. This was the most prestigious position in the administration and in the early years of the country was seen as a stepping stone to the presidency--much more so than the vice-presidency. Jackson experienced considerable difficulties with his cabinent, beginning with the Peggy Eaton affair. Here Van Buren was aided by the fact that he was a widower. The cabient wives snubbed Mrs. Eaton, but unencumbered with a wife, Van Buren could be civil toward her. [Widmer] This was of considerable importance to Jackson because of the vicious attacks in his wife. Thus Van Buren and Jackson became increasingly close. Cabinet members in many cases influenced by Vice President John C. Calhoun demonstrated a lack of loyalty to Jackson. Van Buren on the other hand was completely loyal to Jackson. Jackson called him "a true man with no guile." Calhoun proved to be a problem in part because he had his own presidential aspirations. Van Buren provided Jackson a sollutiion to his cabinent problems. He and Secretary of War Eaton, another Jackson loyalist, resigned. This compeled the Calhoun loyalists to also resign. This allowed Jackson to appoint an entirely new Cabinet. This time Van Buren was again rewarded by the prestigious appointment as Minister to Great Britain. Here Vice President Calhoun in his role as President of the Senate, cast the deciding vote against Van Buren's appointment. Jackson responded by replacing Calhoun on the ticket with Van Buren when he ran for relection (1832). Van Buren strongly supported Jackson in his conflict with the Second Bank of the United States. He saw the Bank as unconstitutiinal and its director Nicholas Biddle as promting a venal link between Eastern finance and the Federal Government. [Widmer]
Van Buren with Jacksons strong endorsement was able to gain the Democratic nomination and won the election.
Van Buren owed his election to support of his mentor, President Jackson. Jackson was enormously popular and despite the fact thatvhe continued Jackson's policies, Van Buren had a very different exopeuebce as president. Despite his reputation as a consumate politican and title as "The Little magician", Van Buremn presided over a failed presidency. Van Buren delivered a high-minded Inaugural Address in which he extolled the American experiment as beacon to the rest of the world still governed by monarchies. America was prosperous when he took office. Van Buren had plans to persue a range of new policies and internal improvements as president. He was unable to achieve any of his policies. The country's economic prosperity changed only 3 months after he assumed the presidency. The Panic of 1837 became the most seriou depression that America had faced up to that time. There had been periodic almost cyclical experiences with "boom and bust". The Panic of 1837 was much more severe. Here Van Buren was himself to blame. Jackson's financial policies, especially his attack on the Second Bank of the United States had a major role in intensifying the economic down turn. Van Buren had been the strongest supporter of Jackson's policies, especially Hackson's obsesive cionflict with the Second Bank of the United States. Without a national bank there were no limitations on inflationary and speculative practices of unregulated state and regional banks. Exuberant speculation on western lands was fueld by irresponsible bank credit. Jackson had tried to control the speculation by issuing a Specie Circular (1836). This requiring that lands be paid for with hard currency (gold and silver) rather than credit or even paper money. The problem was that there was a shortage of hard money in America. Problems slowly escalated during 1836. After Van Buren's inaguratiion, however, panic set in. Banks began failing. There was no government insurance program and thus bank failures and reperscussions that reverbreated throughout the economy. Businesses began failing. Many whoi had invested in lands not only lost their land but in many cases were bankrupted. The Panic was actually a serious depression and it lasted for about 5 years and there were no Government actions to assist those affected. Van Buren's basic policy was to follow Jackson's deflationary policies. This was in large measure what had brought on the Panic and continued persuit of the policy only deepened the economic depression. Van Buren focused on maintaining the solvency of the Federal Government. He opposed the creation of a new Bank of the United States. He even opposed using state babks for depositing Federal Government revenue. Van Buren moved to create an independent treasury system for Federal overnment financial transactions. Falling Federal revenue because of the depression forced Van Buren to abandon the internal improvements that he had planned. No longer depedent on Jackson, Van Buren's approach to slavery hardened. He decided to oppose the expansion of slavery. At the time most of the west was either Soanish territory or areas of the Louisana Territory west of the northern states and as a result of the Missouri Compromise of 1820 off limits to Texas. The key exception was Texas. Texas had fouught a war for independence with Mexico (1836) and was an independent country. Southerners were clamoring for Texas to be accepted into the Union as a new slave state. Van Buren equivocated on annexing Texas because it would enter as alave state. Van Buren also probably accurately concluded that it would result in war with with Mexico.
Van Buren was defeated by the Whigs in 1840 for reelection, running against the miliary hero William Henry Harrison. Ironically the Whigs chose a candidate as close to Jackson as possible. Thus the Jacksonian Van Buren was defeated by a kind of Whig Jackson. Realistically Van Buren had little chance in the election. The Panic of 1837 and the resulting economic downturn had made Van Buren very unpopular. The campaihn refrain went, "Van, Van is a used up man."
Unlike most defeated presidents, Van Buren did not disappear from the national political scene. In fact he nearky won the 1844 democratic nomination. He led in the early ballots. It was his his resistence to annexing Texas that cost him support in the South. The nomination went to Jackson loyalist James K. Polk, the first "dark horse" candidate. Polk insisted that Texas annexation had nothing to do with slavery. [Widmer] Of course it did and the admission of Texas (1845) ultimately destabilized the Missouri Compromise.
Van Buren took an increasingly firm stand on slavery. He supported the Wilmot Proviso which would have banned slavery in the territory acquired in the Mexican War (1845-46). Van Buren ran for president again on the Free Soil ticket in 1848.
Hannah Hoes Van Buren and her future husband were cousins in a close-knit Dutch community. They grew up
together in Kinderhook, New York.
Evidently he wanted to establish his law practice before marrying his sweetheart--they were not wed until 1807, when he was 24 and his bride just 3 months younger. Apparently their marriage was a happy one, though little is known of Hannah as a
Van Buren omitted even her name from his autobiography; a gentleman of that day would not shame a lady by public references. A niece who
remembered "her loving, gentle disposition" emphasized
"her modest, even timid manner." Church records preserve some details of her life; she seems to have considered formal church affiliation a matter of importance.
She bore a son in Kinderhook, three others in Hudson, where Martin served as county surrogate; but the fourth son died in infancy. In 1816 the family moved to the state capital in Albany. Soon the household included Martin's law partner and three apprentices; relatives came and went constantly, and Hannah could return their visits. Contemporary letters indicate that she was busy, sociable, and happy. She gave birth to a fifth boy in January 1817.
But the following winter her health was obviously failing, apparently from tuberculosis. Not yet 36, she died on February 5, 1819. The Albany Argus called her "an ornament of the Christian faith."
Her husband never remarried; he moved into the White House in 1837 as a widower with four bachelor sons. Now accustomed to living in elegant style, he immediately began to refurbish a mansion shabby from public use under Jackson. Across Lafayette Square, Dolley Madison reigned as matriarch of Washington society; when her young relative-by-marriage Angelica Singleton came up from South Carolina for a visit, Dolley took her to the White House to pay a call.
Angelica's aristocratic manners, excellent education, and handsome face won the heart of the President's eldest son, Abraham. They were married in November 1838; next spring a honeymoon abroad polished
her social experience. Thereafter, while Abraham served as the President's private secretary, Angelica presided as the lady of the White House. The only flaw in her pleasure in this role was the loss of a baby
girl. Born at the White House, she lived only a few hours. In later years, though spending much time in South Carolina and in Europe, Angelica and her husband made their home in New York City; she died there in 1878.
Van Buren and his wife Hannah had five children, all boys. One of the boys died in infancy.
Abraham went to the American military academy, West Point. He served on the frontier for 2 years as a juniior officer. After his father was elected president in 1836, he resigned his commission and worked as the President's secretary. He married Angelica Singleton, the heiress to a wealthy South Carolina family. After his father's presidencym Abrham returned to the military and saw active servive in the Mexican War. He retired from the Army in 1854. He spent the rest of his life editing his father's papers and defending his historical record.
John had a brilliant mind. He graduate from Yale while still a teenager and began practicing laws. John accompanied his father to London when he was appointed ambasador. He was attracted to the social life, especially drinking, gambling, and women. He fit in so well that he began to be called Prince John. He returned to America and began practicing law and was elected to Congress. He married Elizabeth Van der Poel. He was a strong opponent of slavery. His personal life detracted from his public career. There was scandal and his drinking ruined his health.
Mat was born in 1812. Unlike his brother never married. His life was devoted to his father. He worked as the President's secretary and after to work on his father's papers. Mat contracted tunerculosis. His father took him to Paris for treatment and Mat died there.
One child reportedly died in infancy.
Smith was the youngest Van Buren son and reportedly a clever boy. Smith married twice and fathered seven known children. His life was devoted to defending the historical reputation of his father. He also had to deal with his brother's ribald behavior.
I have no information yet on how the children were dressed.
After Hanah's death, Van Buren lived the rest of his life as a bachelor. Not a great deal is known about his private life. His authobiography does not expalin why he never remarried. His home Lindewald, however, was always full of people including children. Not only the children but in turn grandchildren. Van Buren was devoted to his children and adored playing with them. He was by all accounts a wonderful father. The Children called him Popi.
Van Buren died in 1862 during the Civil War, but before Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.
Widmer, Ted. Martin Van Buren (Time Books, 2004), 189p.
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