Martin Van Buren ; born Maarten Van Buren; December 5, 1782 – July 24, 1862) was an American statesman who served as the eighth president of the United States from 1837 to 1841. He was the first president born speaking a language other than English (Dutch) and the first born after the United States had declared its independence from Great Britain. A founder of the Democratic Party, he had previously served as the ninth governor of New York, the tenth United States secretary of state, and the eighth vice president of the United States. He won the 1836 presidential election with the endorsement of popular outgoing President Andrew Jackson and the organizational strength of the Democratic Party. He lost his 1840 reelection bid to Whig Party nominee William Henry Harrison, thanks in part to the poor economic conditions surrounding the Panic of 1837. Later in his life, Van Buren emerged as an elder statesman and an important anti-slavery leader (abolitionist) who led the Free Soil Party ticket in the 1848 presidential election.
Van Buren was born in Kinderhook, New York, to a family of patroon Dutch Americans; his father was a Patriot during the American Revolution. He was raised speaking Dutch and learned English at school, making him the first and still only U.S. president to speak English as his second language. He trained as a lawyer and quickly became involved in politics as a member of the Democratic-Republican Party. He won election to the New York State Senate and became the leader of the Bucktails, the faction of Democratic-Republicans opposed to New York Governor DeWitt Clinton. Van Buren established a political machine known as the Albany Regency and in the 1820s emerged as the most influential politician in the Empire State. He was elected to the United States Senate in 1821 and supported William H. Crawford in the 1824 presidential election. John Quincy Adams won the 1824 election and Van Buren opposed his proposals for federally funded internal improvements and other measures. Van Buren’s major political goal was to re-establish a two-party system with partisan differences based on ideology rather than personalities or sectional differences, and he supported Jackson’s candidacy against Adams in the 1828 presidential election with this goal in mind. To support Jackson’s candidacy, Van Buren ran for Governor of New York; he won, but resigned a few months after assuming the position to accept appointment as U.S. Secretary of State after Jackson took office in March 1829.
Van Buren was a key advisor during Jackson’s eight years as President of the United States and he built the organizational structure for the coalescing Democratic Party, particularly in New York. He resigned from his position to help resolve the Petticoat affair, then briefly served as the U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom. At Jackson’s behest, the 1832 Democratic National Convention nominated Van Buren for Vice President of the United States, and he took office after the Democratic ticket won the 1832 presidential election. With Jackson’s strong support, Van Buren faced little opposition for the presidential nomination at the 1835 Democratic National Convention, and he defeated several Whig opponents in the 1836 presidential election. Van Buren’s response to the Panic of 1837 centered on his Independent Treasury system, a plan under which the Federal government of the United States would store its funds in vaults rather than in banks. He also continued Jackson’s policy of Indian removal; he maintained peaceful relations with Britain but denied the application to admit Texas to the Union, seeking to avoid heightened sectional tensions. In the 1840 election, the Whigs rallied around Harrison’s military record and ridiculed Van Buren as “Martin Van Ruin”, and a surge of new voters helped turn him out of office.
At the opening of the Democratic convention in 1844, Van Buren was the leading candidate for the party’s nomination for the presidency. Southern Democrats, however, were angered by his continued opposition to the annexation of Texas, and the party nominated James K. Polk. Van Buren grew increasingly opposed to slavery after he left office, and he agreed to lead a third party ticket in the 1848 presidential election, motivated additionally by intra-party differences at the state and national level. He finished in a distant third nationally, but his presence in the race most likely helped Whig nominee Zachary Taylor defeat Democrat Lewis Cass. Van Buren returned to the Democratic fold after the 1848 election, but he supported Abraham Lincoln’s policies during the American Civil War. His health began to fail in 1861, and he died in July 1862, at age 79. He has been generally ranked as an average or below-average U.S. president by historians and political scientists.
Early Life and Education
Van Buren was born as Maarten Van Buren on December 5, 1782, in the village of Kinderhook, New York, about 20 miles (32 km) south of Albany on the Hudson River. By American law, he was the first U.S. president not born a British subject, nor of British ancestry. However, because he was born during the American Revolution and before the Peace of Paris, he was for the purposes of British law a British subject at birth.
His father, Abraham Van Buren, was a descendant of Cornelis Maessen of the village of Buurmalsen in Netherlands, who had come to North America in 1631, and purchased a plot of land on Manhattan Island. Abraham Van Buren had been a Patriot during the American Revolution, and he later joined the Democratic-Republican Party. He owned an inn and tavern in Kinderhook and served as Kinderhook’s town clerk for several years. In 1776, he married Maria Hoes Van Alen (sometimes spelled “Goes”), also of Dutch extraction and the widow of Johannes Van Alen. She had three children from her first marriage, including future U.S. Representative James I. Van Alen. Her second marriage produced five children, including Martin. Van Buren spoke English as a second language, unlike any other president; his primary language in his youth was Dutch.
Van Buren received a basic education at the village schoolhouse and briefly studied Latin at the Kinderhook Academy and at Washington Seminary in Claverack. His formal education ended in 1796, when he began reading law at the office of Peter Silvester and his son Francis, prominent Federalist Party attorneys in Kinderhook. At his father’s inn, Van Buren learned early to interact with people from varied ethnic, income, and societal groups, which he used to his advantage as a political organizer.
Van Buren was small in stature at 5 feet 6 inches (1.68 m) tall and affectionately nicknamed “Little Van”. When he first began his legal studies, he wore rough, homespun clothing, causing the Silvesters to admonish him to pay greater heed to his clothing and personal appearance as an aspiring lawyer. He accepted their advice and subsequently emulated the Silvesters’ clothing, appearance, bearing, and conduct.
Van Buren adopted the Democratic-Republican political leanings of his father, despite his association with the Silvesters and Kinderhook’s strong affiliation with the Federalist Party. The Silvesters and Democratic-Republican political figure John Peter Van Ness suggested that Van Buren’s political leanings constrained him to complete his education with a Democratic-Republican attorney, so he spent a final year of apprenticeship in the New York City office of John Van Ness’s brother William P. Van Ness, a political lieutenant of Aaron Burr. Van Ness introduced Van Buren to the intricacies of New York state politics, and Van Buren observed Burr’s battles for control of the state Democratic-Republican party against George Clinton and Robert R. Livingston. He returned to Kinderhook in 1803, after being admitted to the New York bar.
Van Buren married Hannah Hoes in Catskill, New York, on February 21, 1807, his childhood sweetheart and a daughter of his first cousin. Like Van Buren, she was raised in a Dutch home; she spoke primarily Dutch, and spoke English with a distinct accent. The couple had five children, four of whom lived to adulthood: Abraham (1807-1873), John (1810-1866), Martin Jr. (1812-1855), Winfield Scott (born and died in 1814), and Smith Thompson (1817-1876). Hannah contracted tuberculosis and died on February 5, 1819, at age 35, and Van Buren never remarried.
Early Political Career
Upon returning to Kinderhook in 1803, Van Buren formed a law partnership with his half-brother, James Van Alen, and became financially secure enough to increase his focus on politics. Van Buren had been active in politics from age 18, if not before. In 1801, he attended a Democratic-Republican Party convention in Troy, New York where he worked successfully to secure for John Peter Van Ness the party nomination in a special election for the 6th Congressional District seat. Upon returning to Kinderhook, Van Buren broke with the Burr faction, becoming an ally of both DeWitt Clinton and Daniel D. Tompkins. After the faction led by Clinton and Tompkins dominated the 1807 elections, Van Buren was appointed Surrogate of Columbia County, New York. Seeking to find a better base for his political and legal career, Van Buren and his family moved to the town of Hudson, the seat of Columbia County, in 1808. Van Buren’s legal practice continued to flourish, and he traveled all over the state to represent various clients.
In 1812, Van Buren won his party’s nomination for a seat in the New York State Senate. Though several Democratic-Republicans, including John Peter Van Ness, joined with the Federalists to oppose his candidacy, Van Buren won election to the state senate in mid-1812. Later in the year, the United States entered the War of 1812 against Great Britain, while Clinton launched an unsuccessful bid to defeat President James Madison in the 1812 presidential election. After the election, Van Buren became suspicious that Clinton was working with the Federalist Party, and he broke from his former political ally.
During the War of 1812, Van Buren worked with Clinton, Governor Tompkins, and Ambrose Spencer to support the Madison administration’s prosecution of the war. In addition, he was a special judge advocate appointed to serve as a prosecutor of William Hull during Hull’s court-martial following the surrender of Detroit. In the winter of 1814-1815, he collaborated with Winfield Scott on ways to reorganize the New York Militia in anticipation of another military campaign, but their work was halted by the end of the war in early 1815. Van Buren was so favorably impressed by Scott that he named his fourth son after him. Van Buren’s strong support for the war boosted his standing, and in 1815, he was elected to the position of New York Attorney General. Van Buren moved from Hudson to the state capital of Albany, where he established a legal partnership with Benjamin Butler, and shared a house with political ally Roger Skinner. In 1816, Van Buren won re-election to the state senate, and he would continue to simultaneously serve as both state senator and as the state’s attorney general. In 1819, he played an active part in prosecuting the accused murderers of Richard Jennings, the first murder-for-hire case in the state of New York.
After Tompkins was elected as vice president in the 1816 presidential election, Clinton defeated Van Buren’s preferred candidate, Peter Buell Porter, in the 1817 New York gubernatorial election. Clinton threw his influence behind the construction of the Erie Canal, an ambitious project designed to connect Lake Erie to the Atlantic Ocean. Though many of Van Buren’s allies urged him to block Clinton’s Erie Canal bill, Van Buren believed that the canal would benefit the state. His support for the bill helped it win approval from the New York legislature. Despite his support for the Erie Canal, Van Buren became the leader of an anti-Clintonian faction in New York known as the “Bucktails”.
The Bucktails succeeded in emphasizing party loyalty and used it to capture and control many patronage posts throughout New York. Through his use of patronage, loyal newspapers, and connections with local party officials and leaders, Van Buren established what became known as the “Albany Regency”, a political machine that emerged as an important factor in New York politics. The Regency relied on a coalition of small farmers, but also enjoyed support from the Tammany Hall machine in New York City. Van Buren largely determined Tammany Hall’s political policy for the Democratic-Republicans in this era.
A New York state referendum that expanded state voting rights to all white men in 1821, and which further increased the power of Tammany Hall, was guided by Van Buren. Although Governor Clinton remained in office until late 1822, Van Buren emerged as the leader of the state’s Democratic-Republicans after the 1820 elections. Van Buren was a member of the 1820 state constitutional convention, where he favored expanded voting rights, but opposed universal suffrage and tried to maintain property requirements for voting.
Entry into national politics
In February 1821, the state legislature elected Van Buren to represent New York in the United States Senate. Van Buren arrived in Washington during the “Era of Good Feelings”, a period in which partisan distinctions at the national level had faded. Van Buren quickly became a prominent figure in Washington, D.C., befriending Secretary of the Treasury William H. Crawford, among others. Though not an exceptional orator, Van Buren frequently engaged in debate on the Senate floor, usually after extensively researching the subject at hand. Despite his commitments as a father and state party leader, Van Buren remained closely engaged in his legislative duties, and during his time in the Senate he served as the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and the Senate Judiciary Committee. As he gained renown, Van Buren earned monikers like “Little Magician” and “Sly Fox”.
Van Buren chose to back Crawford over John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, and Henry Clay in the presidential election of 1824. Crawford shared Van Buren’s affinity for Jeffersonian principles of states’ rights and limited government, and Van Buren believed that Crawford was the ideal figure to lead a coalition of New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia’s “Richmond Junto”. Van Buren’s support for Crawford aroused strong opposition in New York in the form of the People’s party, which drew support from Clintonians, Federalists, and others opposed to Van Buren. Nonetheless, Van Buren helped Crawford win the Democratic-Republican party’s presidential nomination at the February 1824 congressional nominating caucus. The other Democratic-Republican candidates in the race refused to accept the poorly-attended caucus’s decision, and as the Federalist Party had virtually ceased to function as a national party, the 1824 campaign became a competition among four candidates of the same party. Though Crawford suffered a severe stroke that left him in poor health, Van Buren continued to support his chosen candidate. Van Buren met with Thomas Jefferson in May 1824 an attempt to bolster Crawford’s candidacy, and though he was unsuccessful in gaining a public endorsement for Crawford, he nonetheless cherished the chance to meet with his political hero.
The 1824 elections dealt a severe blow to the Albany Regency, as Clinton returned to the governorship with the support of the People’s party. By the time the state legislature convened to choose the state’s presidential electors, results from other states had made it clear that no individual would win a majority of the electoral vote, necessitating a contingent election in the United States House of Representatives. While Adams and Jackson were assured of finishing in the top three, and thus being eligible for selection in the contingent election, New York’s electors would help determine whether Clay or Crawford would finish third. Though most of the state’s electoral votes went to Adams, Crawford won one more electoral vote than Clay in the state, and Clay’s defeat in Louisiana left Crawford in third place. With Crawford still in the running, Van Buren lobbied members of the House to support him. He hoped to engineer a Crawford victory on the second ballot of the contingent election, but Adams won on the first ballot with the help of Clay and Stephen Van Rensselaer, a Congressman from New York. Despite his close ties with Van Buren, Van Rensselaer cast his vote for Adams, thus giving Adams a narrow majority of New York’s delegation and a victory in the contingent election.
After the House contest, Van Buren shrewdly kept out of the controversy which followed, and began looking forward to 1828. Jackson was angered to see the presidency go to Adams despite having won more popular votes than he had, and he eagerly looked forward to a rematch. Jackson’s supporters accused Adams and Clay of having engaged in a “corrupt bargain” in which Clay helped Adams win the contingent election in return for Clay’s appointment as Secretary of State. Always notably courteous in his treatment of opponents, Van Buren showed no bitterness toward either Adams or Clay, and he voted to confirm Clay’s nomination to the cabinet. At the same time, Van Buren opposed the Adams-Clay plans for internal improvements like roads and canals and declined to support U.S. participation in the Congress of Panama. Van Buren considered Adams’s proposals to represent a return to the Hamiltonian economic model favored by Federalists, which he strongly opposed. Despite his opposition to Adams’s public policies, Van Buren was able to easily secure re-election in his own divided home state in 1827.
Van Buren’s overarching goal at the national level was to restore a two-party system with party cleavages based on philosophical differences, and he viewed the old divide between Federalists and Democratic-Republicans as the best state of affairs for the nation. Van Buren believed that these national parties helped ensure that elections were decided on national, rather than sectional or local, issues; as he put it, “party attachment in former times furnished a complete antidote for sectional prejudices”. After the 1824 election, Van Buren was initially somewhat skeptical of Jackson, who had not taken strong positions on most policy issues. Nonetheless, he settled on Jackson as the one candidate who could beat Adams in the 1828 presidential election, and he worked to bring Crawford’s former backers into line behind Jackson.
He also forged alliances with other members of Congress opposed to Adams, including Vice President John C. Calhoun, Senator Thomas Hart Benton, and Senator John Randolph. Seeking to solidify his own standing in New York and bolster Jackson’s campaign, Van Buren helped arrange the passage of the Tariff of 1828, which opponents labeled as the “Tariff of Abominations”. The tariff satisfied many who sought protection from foreign competition, but angered Southern cotton interests and New Englanders. Because Van Buren believed that the South would never support Adams, and New England would never support Jackson, he was willing to alienate both regions through passage of the tariff.
Meanwhile, Clinton’s death from a heart attack in 1828 dramatically shook up the politics of Van Buren’s home state, while the Anti-Masonic Party emerged as an increasingly important factor. After some initial reluctance, Van Buren chose to run for Governor of New York in the 1828 election. Hoping that a Jackson victory would lead to his own elevation to Secretary of State or Secretary of the Treasury, Van Buren chose Enos T. Throop as his running mate and preferred successor. Van Buren’s candidacy was aided by the split between supporters of Adams, who had adopted the label of National Republicans, and the Anti-Masonic Party.
Reflecting his public association with Jackson, Van Buren accepted the gubernatorial nomination on a ticket that called itself “Jacksonian-Democrat”. He campaigned on local as well as national issues, emphasizing his opposition to the policies of the Adams administration. Van Buren ran ahead of Jackson, winning the state by 30,000 votes compared to a margin of 5,000 for Jackson. Nationally, Jackson defeated Adams by a wide margin, winning nearly every state outside of New England. After the election, Van Buren resigned from the Senate to start his term as governor, which began on January 1, 1829. While his term as governor was short, he did manage to pass the Bank Safety Fund Law, an early form of deposit insurance, through the legislature. He also appointed several key supporters, including William L. Marcy and Silas Wright, to important state positions.
Secretary of State
In February 1829, Jackson wrote to Van Buren to ask him to become Secretary of State. Van Buren quickly agreed, and he resigned as governor the following month; his tenure of forty-three days is the shortest amount of time served by any Governor of New York. No serious diplomatic crises arose during Van Buren’s tenure as Secretary of State, but he achieved several notable successes, such as settling long-standing claims against France and winning reparations for property that had been seized during the Napoleonic Wars. He reached an agreement with the British to open trade with the British West Indies colonies and concluded a treaty with the Ottoman Empire that gained American merchants access to the Black Sea. Items on which he did not achieve success included settling the Maine-New Brunswick boundary dispute with Great Britain, gaining settlement of the U.S. claim to the Oregon Country, concluding a commercial treaty with Russia, and persuading Mexico to sell Texas.
In addition to his foreign policy duties, Van Buren quickly emerged as an important adviser to Jackson on major domestic issues like the tariff and internal improvements. The Secretary of State was instrumental in convincing Jackson to issue the Maysville Road veto, which both reaffirmed limited government principles and also helped prevent the construction of infrastructure projects that could potentially compete with New York’s Erie Canal. He also became involved in a power struggle with Calhoun over appointments and other issues, including the Petticoat Affair. The Petticoat Affair arose because Peggy Eaton, wife of Secretary of War John H. Eaton, was ostracized by the other cabinet wives due to circumstances surrounding her marriage.
Led by Floride Calhoun, wife of Vice President Calhoun, the other cabinet wives refused to pay courtesy calls to the Eatons, receive them as visitors, or invite them to social events. As a widower, Van Buren was unaffected by the position of the cabinet wives. Van Buren at first sought to conciliate the divide in the cabinet, but most of the leading citizens in Washington continued to snub the Eatons. Jackson was personally close to Eaton, and he came to the conclusion that the allegations against Eaton arose from a plot against his administration led by Henry Clay. The Petticoat Affair, combined with a contentious debate over the tariff and Calhoun’s decade-old criticisms of Jackson’s actions in the First Seminole War, contributed to a split between Jackson and Calhoun. As the debate over the tariff and the proposed ability of South Carolina to nullify federal law consumed Washington, Van Buren increasingly emerged as Jackson’s likely successor.
The Petticoat affair was finally resolved when Van Buren offered to resign; in April 1831, Jackson accepted, and took the opportunity to reorganize his cabinet by asking for the resignations of the anti-Eaton cabinet members. Postmaster General William T. Barry, who had sided with the Eatons in the Petticoat Affair, was the lone cabinet member to remain in office. The cabinet reorganization removed Calhoun’s allies from the Jackson administration, and Van Buren had a major role in shaping the new cabinet. After leaving office, Van Buren continued to play a part in the Kitchen Cabinet, Jackson’s informal circle of advisers.
In August 1831, Jackson gave Van Buren a recess appointment as the ambassador to Britain, and Van Buren arrived in London in September. He was cordially received, but in February 1832, he learned his nomination had been rejected by the Senate. The rejection of Van Buren was essentially the work of Calhoun. When the vote on Van Buren’s nomination was taken, enough pro-Calhoun Jacksonians refrained from voting to produce a tie, thus giving Calhoun, in his role as presiding officer, the ability to cast the deciding vote against Van Buren.
Calhoun was elated, convinced that he had ended Van Buren’s career. “It will kill him dead, sir, kill him dead. He will never kick, sir, never kick”, Calhoun exclaimed to a friend. Calhoun’s move backfired; by making Van Buren appear the victim of petty politics, Calhoun raised Van Buren in both Jackson’s regard and the esteem of others in the Democratic Party. Far from ending Van Buren’s career, Calhoun’s action gave greater impetus to Van Buren’s candidacy for vice president.
Seeking to ensure that Van Buren would replace Calhoun as his running mate, Jackson had arranged for a national convention of his supporters. The May 1832 Democratic National Convention subsequently nominated Van Buren to serve as the party’s vice presidential nominee. Van Buren won the nomination over Philip Pendleton Barbour (Calhoun’s favored candidate) and Richard Mentor Johnson due to the support of Jackson and the strength of the Albany Regency. Upon Van Buren’s return from Europe in July 1832, he became involved in the Bank War, a struggle over the re-charter of the Second Bank of the United States.
Van Buren had long been distrustful of banks, and he viewed the Bank as an extension of the Hamiltonian economic program, so he supported Jackson’s veto of the Bank’s re-charter. Henry Clay, the presidential nominee of the National Republicans, made the struggle over the Bank the key issue of the presidential election of 1832. The Jackson-Van Buren ticket won the 1832 election by a landslide, and Van Buren took office as vice president in March 1833. During the Nullification Crisis, Van Buren counseled Jackson to pursue a policy of conciliation with South Carolina leaders. He played little direct role in the passage of the Tariff of 1833, but he quietly hoped that the tariff would help bring an end to the Nullification Crisis, which it did.
During his time in office, Van Buren continued to be one of Jackson’s primary advisors and confidants, and accompanied Jackson on his tour of the northeastern United States in 1833. Jackson’s struggle with the Second Bank of the United States continued, as the president sought to remove federal funds from the Bank. Though at first apprehensive of the removal due to congressional support for the Bank, Van Buren eventually came to support Jackson’s policy. He also helped undermine a fledgling alliance between Jackson and Daniel Webster, a senator from Massachusetts who could have potentially threatened Van Buren’s project to create two parties separated by policy differences rather than personalities. During Jackson’s second term, the president’s supporters began to refer to themselves as members of the Democratic Party. Meanwhile, those opposed to Jackson, including Clay’s National Republicans, followers of Calhoun, and many members of the Anti-Masonic Party, coalesced into the Whig Party.
Presidential election of 1836
President Andrew Jackson declined to seek another term in the 1836 presidential election, but he remained influential within the Democratic Party as his second term came to an end. Jackson was determined to help elect Van Buren in 1836 so that the latter could continue the Jackson administration’s policies. the two men–the charismatic “Old Hickory” and the super-efficient “Sly Fox”–had entirely different personalities but had become an effective team in eight years in office together. With Jackson’s support, Van Buren won the presidential nomination of the 1835 Democratic National Convention without opposition. Two names were put forward for the vice-presidential nomination: Representative Richard M. Johnson of Kentucky, and former Senator William Cabell Rives of Virginia. Southern Democrats, and Van Buren himself, strongly preferred Rives. Jackson, on the other hand, strongly preferred Johnson. Again, Jackson’s considerable influence prevailed, and Johnson received the required two-thirds vote after New York Senator Silas Wright prevailed upon non-delegate Edward Rucker to cast the 15 votes of the absent Tennessee delegation in Johnson’s favor.
Van Buren’s competitors in the election of 1836 were three members of the Whig Party, which remained a loose coalition bound by mutual opposition to Jackson’s anti-bank policies. Lacking the party unity or organizational strength to field a single ticket or define a single platform, the Whigs ran several regional candidates in hopes of sending the election to the House of Representatives. The three candidates were: Hugh Lawson White of Tennessee, Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, and William Henry Harrison of Indiana. Besides endorsing internal improvements and a national bank, the Whigs tried to tie Democrats to abolitionism and sectional tension, and attacked Jackson for “acts of aggression and usurpation of power”.
Southern voters represented the biggest potential impediment in Van Buren’s quest for the presidency, as many were suspicious of a Northern president. Van Buren moved to obtain the support of southerners by assuring them that he opposed abolitionism and supported the maintaining of slavery in states where it had already existed. To demonstrate consistency regarding his opinions on slavery, Van Buren cast the tie-breaking Senate vote in favor of a bill to subject abolitionist mail to state laws, thus ensuring that its circulation would be prohibited in the South. Van Buren personally considered slavery to be immoral, but sanctioned by the Constitution.
Van Buren won the election with 764,198 popular votes, 50.9% of the total, and 170 electoral votes. Harrison led the Whigs with 73 electoral votes, White receiving 26, and Webster 14.Willie Person Mangum received South Carolina’s 11 electoral votes, which were awarded by the state legislature. Van Buren’s 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 to muster an effective candidate and campaign. Virginia’s presidential electors voted for Van Buren for president, but voted for William Smith for vice president, leaving Johnson one electoral vote short of election. In accordance with the Twelfth Amendment, the Senate elected Johnson vice president in a contingent vote.
The election of 1836 marked an important turning point in American political history because it saw the establishment of the Second Party System. In the early 1830s, the political party structure was still changing, rapidly, and factional and personal leaders continued to play a major role in politics. By the end of the campaign of 1836, the new party system was almost complete, as nearly every faction had been absorbed by either the Democrats or the Whigs.
The Van Buren CabinetOfficeNameTermPresidentMartin Van Buren1837–1841Vice PresidentRichard Mentor Johnson1837–1841Secretary of StateJohn Forsyth1837–1841Secretary of TreasuryLevi Woodbury1837–1841Secretary of WarJoel R. Poinsett1837–1841Attorney GeneralBenjamin Butler1837–1838Felix Grundy1838–1840Henry D. Gilpin1840–1841Postmaster GeneralAmos Kendall1837–1840John M. Niles1840–1841Secretary of the NavyMahlon Dickerson1837–1838James K. Paulding1838–1841
Van Buren retained much of Jackson’s cabinet and lower-level appointees, as he hoped that the retention of Jackson’s appointees would stop Whig momentum in the South and restore confidence in the Democrats as a party of sectional unity. The cabinet holdovers represented the different regions of the country: Secretary of the Treasury Levi Woodbury came from New England, Attorney General Benjamin F. Butler and Secretary of the Navy Mahlon Dickerson hailed from mid-Atlantic states, Secretary of State John Forsyth represented the South, and Postmaster General Amos Kendall of Kentucky represented the West.
For the lone open position of Secretary of War, Van Buren first approached William Cabell Rives, who had sought the vice presidency in 1836. After Rives declined to join the cabinet, Van Buren appointed Joel Roberts Poinsett, a South Carolinian who had opposed secession during the Nullification Crisis. Van Buren’s cabinet choices were criticized by Pennsylvanians such as James Buchanan, who argued that their state deserved a cabinet position as well as some Democrats who argued that Van Buren should have used his patronage powers to augment his own power. However, Van Buren saw value in avoiding contentious patronage battles, and his decision to retain Jackson’s cabinet made it clear that he intended to continue the policies of his predecessor. Additionally, Van Buren had helped select Jackson’s cabinet appointees and enjoyed strong working relationships with them.
Van Buren held regular formal cabinet meetings and discontinued the informal gatherings of advisers that had attracted so much attention during Jackson’s presidency. He solicited advice from department heads, tolerated open and even frank exchanges between cabinet members, perceiving himself as “a mediator, and to some extent an umpire between the conflicting opinions” of his counselors. Such detachment allowed the president to reserve judgment and protect his own prerogative for making final decisions. These open discussions gave cabinet members a sense of participation and made them feel part of a functioning entity, rather than isolated executive agents. Van Buren was closely involved in foreign affairs and matters pertaining to the Treasury Department, but the Post Office, War Department, and Navy Department all had possessed high levels of autonomy under their respective cabinet secretaries.
Panic of 1837
The modern balaam and his ass, an 1837 caricature placing the blame for the Panic of 1837 and the perilous state of the banking system on outgoing President Andrew Jackson, shown riding a donkey, while President Martin Van Buren comments approvingly
When Van Buren entered office, the nation’s economic health had taken a turn for the worse and the prosperity of the early 1830s was over. Two months into his presidency, on May 10, 1837, some important state banks in New York, running out of hard currency reserves, refused to convert paper money into gold or silver, and other financial institutions throughout the nation quickly followed suit. This financial crisis would become known as the Panic of 1837. The Panic was followed by a five-year depression in which banks failed and unemployment reached record highs.
Van Buren blamed the economic collapse on greedy American and foreign business and financial institutions, as well as the over-extension of credit by U.S. banks. Whig leaders in Congress blamed the Democrats, along with Andrew Jackson’s economic policies, specifically his 1836 Specie Circular. Cries of “rescind the circular!” went up and former president Jackson sent word to Van Buren asking him not to rescind the order, believing that it had to be given enough time to work. Others, like Nicholas Biddle, believed that Jackson’s dismantling of the Bank of the United States was directly responsible for the irresponsible creation of paper money by the state banks which had precipitated this panic. The Panic of 1837 loomed large over the 1838 election cycle, as the carryover effects of the economic downturn led to Whig gains in both the U.S. House and Senate. The state elections in 1837 and 1838 were also disastrous for the Democrats, and the partial economic recovery in 1838 was offset by a second commercial crisis later that year.
To deal with the crisis, the Whigs proposed rechartering the national bank. The president countered by proposing the establishment of an independent U.S. treasury, which he contended would take the politics out of the nation’s money supply. Under the plan, the government would hold all of its money balances in the form of gold or silver, and would be restricted from printing paper money at will; both measures were designed to prevent inflation. The plan would permanently separate the government from private banks by storing government funds in government vaults rather than in private banks. Van Buren announced his proposal in September 1837, but an alliance of conservative Democrats and Whigs prevented it from becoming law until 1840. As the debate continued, conservative Democrats like Rives defected to the Whig Party, which itself grew more unified in its opposition to Van Buren. The Whigs would abolish the Independent Treasury system in 1841, but it was revived in 1846, and remained in place until the passage of the Federal Reserve Act in 1913. More important for Van Buren’s immediate future, the depression would be a major issue in his upcoming re-election campaign.
Federal policy under Jackson had sought to move Indian tribes to lands west of the Mississippi River through the Indian Removal Act of 1830, and the federal government negotiated 19 treaties with Indian tribes in the course of Van Buren’s presidency. The 1835 Treaty of New Echota signed by government officials and representatives of the Cherokee tribe had established terms under which the Cherokees ceded their territory in the southeast and agreed to move west to Oklahoma. In 1838, Van Buren directed General Winfield Scott to forcibly move all those who had not yet complied with the treaty.
The Cherokees were herded violently into internment camps where they were kept for the summer of 1838. The actual transportation west was delayed by intense heat and drought, but they were forcibly marched west in the fall. Under the treaty, the government was supposed to provide wagons, rations, and even medical doctors, but it did not. Some 20,000 people were relocated against their will during the Cherokee removal, part of the Trail of Tears. Notably, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who would go on to become America’s foremost man of letters, wrote Van Buren a letter protesting his treatment of the Cherokee.
The administration also contended with the Seminole Indians, who engaged the army in a prolonged conflict known as the Second Seminole War. Prior to leaving office, Jackson put General Thomas Jesup in command of all military troops in Florida to force Seminole emigration to the West. Forts were established throughout the Indian territory, and mobile columns of soldiers scoured the countryside, and many Seminoles offered to surrender, including Chief Micanopy. The Seminoles slowly gathered for emigration near Tampa, but in June they fled the detention camps, driven off by disease and the presence of slave catchers who were hoping to capture Black Seminoles.
In December 1837, Jesup began a massive offensive, culminating in the Battle of Lake Okeechobee, and the war entered a new phase of attrition. During this time, the government realized that it would be almost impossible to drive the remaining Seminoles from Florida, so Van Buren sent General Alexander Macomb to negotiate peace with them. It was the only time that an Indian tribe had forced the government to sue for peace. An agreement was reached allowing the Seminoles to remain in southwest Florida, but the peace was shattered in July 1839 and was not restored until 1842, after Van Buren had left office.
Just before leaving office in March 1837, Andrew Jackson extended diplomatic recognition to the Republic of Texas, which had gained de facto independence from Mexico in the Texas Revolution. By suggesting the prospect of quick annexation, Jackson raised the danger of war with Mexico and heightened sectional tensions at home. New England abolitionists charged that there was a “slaveholding conspiracy to acquire Texas”, and Daniel Webster eloquently denounced annexation. Many Southern leaders, meanwhile, strongly desired the expansion of slave-holding territory in the United States.
Boldly reversing Jackson’s policies, Van Buren sought peace abroad and harmony at home. He proposed a diplomatic solution to a long-standing financial dispute between American citizens and the Mexican government, rejecting Jackson’s threat to settle it by force. Likewise, when the Texas minister at Washington, D.C., proposed annexation to the administration in August 1837, he was told that the proposition could not be entertained. Constitutional scruples and fear of war with Mexico were the reasons given for the rejection, but concern that it would precipitate a clash over the extension of slavery undoubtedly influenced Van Buren and continued to be the chief obstacle to annexation. Northern and Southern Democrats followed an unspoken rule in which Northerners helped quash anti-slavery proposals and Southerners refrained from agitating for the annexation of Texas. Texas withdrew the annexation offer in 1838.
British subjects in Lower Canada (now Quebec) and Upper Canada (now Ontario) rose in rebellion in 1837 and 1838, protesting their lack of responsible government. While the initial insurrection in Upper Canada ended quickly (following the December 1837 Battle of Montgomery’s Tavern), many of the rebels fled across the Niagara River into New York, and Canadian leader William Lyon Mackenzie began recruiting volunteers in Buffalo. Mackenzie declared the establishment of the Republic of Canada and put into motion a plan whereby volunteers would invade Upper Canada from Navy Island on the Canadian side of the Niagara River. Several hundred volunteers traveled to Navy Island in the weeks that followed. They procured the steamboat Caroline to deliver supplies to Navy Island from Fort Schlosser. Seeking to deter an imminent invasion, British forces crossed to the American bank of the river in late December 1837, and they burned and sank the Caroline. In the melee, one American was killed and others were wounded.
Considerable sentiment arose within the United States to declare war, and a British ship was burned in revenge. Van Buren, looking to avoid a war with Great Britain, sent General Winfield Scott to the Canada-United States border with large discretionary powers for its protection and its peace. Scott impressed upon American citizens the need for a peaceful resolution to the crisis, and made it clear that the U.S. government would not support adventuresome Americans attacking the British. Also, in early January 1838, the president 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.
During the Canadian rebellions, Charles Duncombe and Robert Nelson helped foment a largely American militia, the Hunters’ Lodge/Frres chasseurs. This militia carried out several attacks in Upper Canada between December 1837 and December 1838, collectively known as the Patriot War. The administration followed through on its enforcement of the Neutrality Act, encouraged the prosecution of filibusters, and actively deterred U.S. citizens from subversive activities abroad. In the long term, Van Buren’s opposition to the Patriot War contributed to the construction of healthy Anglo-American and Canada-United States relations in the 20th century; it also led, more immediately, to a backlash among citizens regarding the seeming overreach of federal authority, which hurt congressional Democrats in the 1838 midterm elections.
A new crisis surfaced in late 1838, in the disputed territory on the Maine-New Brunswick frontier, where Americans were settling on long-disputed land claimed by the United States and Great Britain. Jackson had been willing to drop American claims to the region in return for other concessions, but Maine was unwilling to drop its claims to the disputed territory. For their part, the British considered possession of the area vital to the defense of Canada. Both American and New Brunswick lumberjacks cut timber in the disputed territory during the winter of 1838-1839. On December 29, New Brunswick lumbermen were spotted cutting down trees on an American estate near the Aroostook River.
After American woodcutters rushed to stand guard, a shouting match, known as the Battle of Caribou, ensued. Tensions quickly boiled over into a near war with both Maine and New Brunswick arresting each other’s citizens. The crisis seemed ready to turn into an armed conflict. British troops began to gather along the Saint John River. Governor John Fairfield mobilized the state militia to confront the British in the disputed territory and several forts were constructed. The American press clamored for war; “Maine and her soil, or BLOOD!” screamed one editorial. “Let the sword be drawn and the scabbard thrown away!” In June, Congress authorized 50,000 troops and a $10 million budget in the event foreign military troops crossed into United States territory.
Van Buren was unwilling to go to war over the disputed territory, though he assured Maine that he would respond to any attacks by the British. To settle the crisis, Van Buren met with the British minister to the United States, and Van Buren and the minister agreed to resolve the border issue diplomatically. Van Buren also sent General Scott to the northern border area, both to show military resolve, and more importantly, to lower the tensions. Scott successfully convinced all sides to submit the border issue to arbitration. The border dispute was put to rest a few years later, with the signing of the 1842 Webster-Ashburton Treaty.
The Amistad case was a freedom suit that involved international issues and parties, as well as United States law, resulting from the rebellion of Africans on board the Spanish schooner La Amistad in 1839. Van Buren viewed abolitionism as the greatest threat to the nation’s unity, and he resisted the slightest interference with slavery in the states where it existed. His administration supported the Spanish government’s demand that the ship and its cargo (including the Africans) be turned over to them. A federal district court judge ruled that the Africans were legally free and should be transported home, but Van Buren’s administration appealed the case to the Supreme Court.
In February 1840, former president John Quincy Adams argued passionately for the Africans’ right to freedom, and Attorney General Henry D. Gilpin presented the government’s case. In March 1841, the Supreme Court issued its final verdict: the Amistad Africans were free people and should be allowed to return home. The unique nature of the case heightened public interest in the saga, including the participation of former president Adams, Africans testifying in federal court, and their being represented by prominent lawyers. The Amistad case drew attention to the personal tragedies of slavery and attracted new support for the growing abolition movement in the North. It also transformed the courts into the principal forum for a national debate on the legal foundations of slavery.
Van Buren appointed two Associate Justices to the Supreme Court:John McKinley, confirmed September 25, 1837, and Peter Vivian Daniel, confirmed March 2, 1841. He also appointed eight other federal judges, all to United States district courts.
White House hostess
For the first half of his presidency, Van Buren, who had been a widower for many years, did not have a specific person fill the role of White House hostess at administration social events, but tried to assume such duties himself. When his eldest son Abraham Van Buren married Angelica Singleton in 1838, he quickly acted to install his daughter-in-law as his hostess. She solicited the advice of her distant relative, Dolley Madison, who had moved back to Washington after her husband’s death, and soon the president’s parties livened up. After the 1839 New Year’s Eve reception, the Boston Post raved: ” lady of rare accomplishments, very modest yet perfectly easy and graceful in her manners and free and vivacious in her conversation … universally admired.”
As the nation endured a deep economic depression, Angelica Van Buren’s receiving style at receptions was influenced by her heavy reading on European court life (and her naive delight in being received as the Queen of the United States when she visited the royal courts of England and France after her marriage). Newspaper coverage of this, in addition to the claim that she intended to re-landscape the White House grounds to resemble the royal gardens of Europe, was used in a political attack on her father-in-law by a Pennsylvania Whig Congressman Charles Ogle. He referred obliquely to her as part of the presidential “household” in his famous Gold Spoon Oration. The attack was delivered in Congress and the depiction of the president as living a royal lifestyle was a primary factor in his defeat for re-election.
Presidential election of 1840
Van Buren easily won renomination for a second term at the 1840 Democratic National Convention, 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 opponentsincluding some of his fellow Democratsto criticize his actions. Although Van Buren’s renomination was never in doubt, Democratic strategists began to question the wisdom of keeping Johnson on the ticket. Even former president Jackson conceded that Johnson was a liability and insisted on former House Speaker James K. Polk of Tennessee as Van Buren’s new running mate. Van Buren was reluctant to drop Johnson, who was popular with workers and radicals in the North and added military experience to the ticket, which might prove important against likely Whig nominee William Henry Harrison. Rather than re-nominating Johnson, the Democratic convention decided to allow state Democratic Party leaders to select the vice-presidential candidates for their states.
Van Buren hoped that the Whigs would nominate Clay for president, which would allow Van Buren to cast the 1840 campaign as a clash between Van Buren’s Independent Treasury system and Clay’s support for a national bank. However, rather than nominating longtime party spokesmen like Clay and Daniel Webster, the 1839 Whig National Convention nominated Harrison, who had served in various governmental positions during his career and had earned notoriety for his military leadership in the Battle of Tippecanoe and the War of 1812. Whig leaders like William Seward and Thaddeus Stevens believed that Harrison’s war record would effectively counter the popular appeals of the Democratic Party. For vice president, the Whigs nominated former Senator John Tyler of Virginia. Clay was deeply disappointed by his defeat at the convention, but he nonetheless threw his support behind Harrison.
Whigs presented Harrison as the antithesis of the president, whom they derided as ineffective, corrupt, and effete. Whigs also depicted Van Buren as an aristocrat living in high style in the White House, while they used images of Harrison in a log cabin sipping cider to convince voters that he was a man of the people. They threw such jabs as “Van, Van, is a used-up man” and “Martin Van Ruin” and ridiculed him in newspapers and cartoons. Issues of policy were not absent from the campaign; the Whigs derided the alleged executive overreaches of Jackson and Van Buren, while also calling for a national bank and higher tariffs. Democrats attempted to campaign on the Independent Treasury system, but the onset of deflation undercut these arguments. The enthusiasm for “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too”, coupled with the country’s severe economic crisis, made it impossible for Van Buren to win a second term. Harrison won by a popular vote of 1,275,612 to 1,130,033, and an electoral vote margin of 234 to 60. An astonishing 80% of eligible voters went to the polls on election day. Van Buren actually won more votes than he had in 1836, but the Whig success in attracting new voters more than canceled out Democratic gains. Additionally, Whigs won majorities for the first time in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.