Van Buren, Martin

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Martin Van Buren

James C. Curtis

THE inauguration of Martin Van Buren on 4 March 1837 would long live in the memory of his contemporaries. The thousands who jammed Washington's avenues had come not so much to greet their new leader as to catch a final glimpse of the departing president, Andrew Jackson. They stood respectfully while the new president read his inaugural address and took the oath of office. As the inaugural party began its descent from the platform, the crowd unleashed a thunderous ovation "such as power never commanded, nor man in power received." "For once," recalled Senator Thomas Hart Benton, "the rising was eclipsed by the setting sun."

No one was more keenly aware of the significance of this transition than Martin Van Buren himself. He regarded Jackson as the last of the great revolutionary heroes. "I feel that I belong to a later age," Van Buren told the inaugural crowd, "and that I may not expect my countrymen to weigh my actions with the same kind and partial hand." Within weeks an unprecedented economic depression would cause Van Buren's countrymen to judge him harshly. Historians have been equally severe in their assessment. Depression victim though he would become, Martin Van Buren was superbly qualified for the White House.

More than any other statesman of the age, Van Buren devoted himself to the perfection of party politics grounded on principle and maintained by discipline. His career in both state and national government exemplified a professionalism that would shape the modern two-party system. If Andrew Jackson was the symbol of a political renaissance in the United States, Martin Van Buren was its chief architect and prime beneficiary. Lacking prestigious family connections, martial fame, or substantial wealth, he worked within the party to gain advancement. He was the first professional politician to become president.

Early Career

Born on 5 December 1782 in the small Hudson River community of Kinderhook, New York, Martin Van Buren grew up in an era of political confusion and intense party rivalry. He rose through the ranks of New York Republican (Democratic-Republican) politics in direct opposition to the policies and paternal-istic tactics of the state's popular Republican governor, De Witt Clinton. Van Buren and his fellow "Bucktails" (anti-Clintonian Republicans) rebelled against Clinton's favoritism and arbitrary use of appointment powers. They created an efficient organization, known as the Albany Regency. This prototype of the modern political machine based its power on a widespread correspondence network that included local committees, state officeholders, and an aggressive newspaper, the Albany Argus.

By the early 1820s, the Albany Regency was a powerful state organization with national ambitions. Van Buren went to Washington in 1821 as New York's junior senator, hoping to create an effective alliance between the states based on a shared commitment to the principles of limited government. To Van Buren, traditional Jeffersonian concepts of states' rights promised an ideal framework for a modern party that would encourage state activism by restraining the power of the federal government. Thus, he favored expansion of the economy through internal improvements like the Erie Canal but insisted that the states should build and finance such projects. Similarly, Van Buren wanted regulation of the nation's currency and improved conditions for the workingman under state, not federal, regulation.

This Jeffersonian outlook endeared him to such prominent southern politicians as Virginia editor Thomas Ritchie, leader of the Richmond Junto, an organization as powerful as the Regency. Ritchie looked to states' rights to protect against federal interference with slavery. These two astute and ambitious politicians failed in 1824 to forge an alliance grounded on states' rights; three years later they endorsed Andrew Jackson, a southerner by birth and a candidate of proven popularity.

Van Buren committed the Regency to the Jacksonian cause with enthusiasm and misgivings. He applauded Jackson's willingness to rely on professional politicians to conduct his campaign. Still, Van Buren worried that "Old Hickory" would win election in 1828 not as champion of states' rights but as a retired military hero. Jackson's triumphant election in 1828 magnified Van Buren's fears. "I hope the General will not find it necessary," Van Buren said, referring to the inaugural message, "to avow any opinion upon Constitutional questions at war with the doctrines of the Jefferson School." Throughout Jackson's two terms as president, Van Buren struggled to balance his own ambitions with his commitment to political orthodoxy.

The standard interpretation of Van Buren as loyal lieutenant and architect of Jacksonian reform has little basis in fact. Awed by Old Hickory's commanding presence, Van Buren never became a close personal friend. Jackson rewarded Van Buren's loyalty by appointing him secretary of state but turned to trusted western colleagues for advice on such matters as the Indian Removal Act, passed by Congress in 1830. This was the only piece of important legislation to emerge from Jackson's first term of office. His strongest acts were those of defiance. At Van Buren's urging, he used the veto power to restrain congressional appropriations for internal improvements.

By defending limited government, Van Buren retained his southern support during the opening years of Jackson's first term when the Eaton affair destroyed party harmony. Angered at the ostracism of Peggy Eaton, the wife of his secretary of war, Jackson embarked on a lengthy campaign to uphold her virtue, in the process reorganizing his cabinet to oust supporters of John C. Calhoun, whose wife was one of Peggy's detractors. Van Buren stepped down as secretary of state to go abroad as minister to England; he departed in the certain knowledge that Calhoun was no longer a threat to his further advancement in the party.

Van Buren did not play such a commanding role during the bank war. Andrew Jackson attacked the Second Bank of the United States and its president, Nicholas Biddle, for personal and political reasons. Habitually suspicious of paper money, Jackson became convinced that the bank was speculating with government deposits, abusing its congressional charter, and working to defeat his bid for reelection. Key western advisers, such as Amos Kendall, supported Jackson's beliefs and in July 1832 convinced him to veto a bill to renew the bank's charter. Replacing Calhoun as Jackson's running mate, Van Buren dutifully supported the veto message without endorsing its antibank animus or hard-money leanings. Van Buren favored state controls to encourage sound banking practices, establish a reliable paper-money system, and curtail excessive note issues.

Van Buren maintained a similar detachment during the three months of the nullification crisis. Despite his long-standing rivalry with Calhoun, the main theorist of nullification, Van Buren urged a moderate presidential response to avoid offending key southern Democrats. Jackson ignored this advice and abandoned states' rights principles in his proclamation denouncing nullification. The president's failure to work for a legislative compromise weakened Democratic control in Congress and strengthened opponents like Henry Clay, whose compromise tariff bill ended the constitutional crisis. Jackson further undermined Democratic unity by contemplating a new political alliance that would bypass Van Buren to include former opponents like Daniel Webster. This realignment never materialized; Van Buren rescued his credentials as heir apparent by agreeing to a removal of deposits from Biddle's bank, an action that drove a permanent wedge between the president and such bank supporters as Webster.

By selecting Van Buren as his running mate in 1832, Jackson in effect anointed his successor. A man given to anger and strong emotions, Jackson could never have tolerated a successor with a similar temperament or independent spirit. Herein lay the source of his difficulties with prospective allies John C. Calhoun and Daniel Webster. Van Buren was much their opposite, so much so that even friends expressed the fear that the portly New Yorker "lacked the moral courage to meet those exigencies which might require bold and decisive action."

In accepting the Democratic nomination in 1835, Van Buren did not delude himself. He realized full well that he lacked the kind of popular appeal Jackson had brought to American politics. Indeed, his running mate, Richard M. Johnson of Kentucky, was chosen to give the ticket another military hero from the War of 1812. While Van Buren appreciated the need to leaven politics with popularity, he had seen Democratic leadership stray too far from principle during the nullification crisis. As the campaign began, he tried to bring the alliance back to its philosophical base.

Van Buren first sought to reassure his southern supporters. In accepting the nomination, he restated his commitment to states' rights and stood by these principles when abolitionists flooded southern mails with literature denouncing slavery. Van Buren arranged for the Regency to denounce abolitionist extremism first in the columns of the Albany Argus and then in the governor's annual message. In the spring of 1836, the Democratic nominee declared that while he recognized the right of Congress to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia, he would "go into the White House the inflexible and uncompromising opponent" of such legislation. Van Buren would not carry his prosouthern sentiments to extremes. He refused to support the Texas Revolution despite appeals from key southern leaders like Thomas Ritchie. Van Buren feared that the Texas question would create sectional discord, and he convinced Jackson to delay any official action until after the election.

Financial fluctuations added to sectional unrest. By removing government deposits and placing them in state banks, Jackson weakened Biddle's political power but destroyed the control the Bank of the United States once exercised over the nation's monetary exchanges. By 1836, the economy was in an inflationary spiral, fueled by an increase in specie and excessive note issues by state banks. Jackson's Treasury Department could not regulate this expansion without assuming powers and functions just stripped from Biddle. In the face of mounting fiscal instability, Jackson issued the Specie Circular in July 1836, requiring that all public lands be paid for in gold and silver. This was a first step in the direction of the hard-money policy that radical Democrats had long been urging. Although uncertain how to supervise state banks without violating precepts of limited government, Van Buren did not believe that his party could survive as antibank champions of a metallic currency. States were too dependent on their financial institutions and the Democrats too committed to states' rights. Van Buren was fortunate that his political opponents lacked the solidarity to capitalize on the unstable economy and the disagreement in Democratic ranks.

Emerging during the early stages of the bank war, the Whig party was still in an embryonic state during the election of 1836. Jackson's bank veto and his defense of executive privilege provided the only substantive issues for Whig candidates. Whig power lay more in Congress than in the countryside. Unable to unite on principle or to find a leader who could appeal to all sections of the country, Whig strategists decided to run several sectional candidates. This strategy allowed Hugh Lawson White, William Henry Harrison, and Daniel Webster to appeal to local constituencies and helped establish strong Whig organizations in Tennessee, New York, Virginia, and Georgia. These state machines were to exert a strong influence on political developments over the next four years.

Van Buren built winning margins in such crucial Democratic strongholds as Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Virginia, and New York. In the final balloting, Van Buren received 170 electoral votes to his opponents' 124. While comfortable, the margin was not cause for self-congratulation. Whig triumphs in Georgia and Tennessee and the close contest in Pennsylvania loomed as large clouds on the political horizon.

Administration and Cabinet

Van Buren hoped that his cabinet appointments would stop Whig momentum in the South and restore confidence in the Democrats as a party of sectional unity, but a legacy of administrative turbulence limited Van Buren's freedom of choice. Indeed, Andrew Jackson had never managed to create a workable relationship with his formal cabinet. During Jackson's first year in office, cabinet factionalism had proved so disruptive that the president ceased formal meetings. He turned instead to a coterie of western advisers, prompting opponents to brand this group a "kitchen cabinet" and charge the president with violating constitutional customs. The president continued to rely on informal advice but resumed regular cabinet meetings in 1831, if only to silence his critics. While Van Buren intended to restore the cabinet to its rightful place in the executive branch, he could not appoint men of his own choosing without removing Jackson's appointees, thereby deepening suspicions of Democratic instability.

As a former secretary of state, Van Buren realized the importance of this premier cabinet post. Georgia's John Forsyth was the last of Jackson's four secretaries of state. A staunch presidential supporter during the nullification crisis, Forsyth had served in both the House and the Senate. Although he decided to retain Forsyth, Van Buren was suspicious of the Georgian's political orthodoxy. The president-elect received numerous letters urging appointment of another southerner to the cabinet to redress Jackson's long neglect. Van Buren tried to satisfy this demand by asking Virginia's senator William C. Rives, disappointed aspirant for the Democratic vice presidential nomination in 1835, to head the vacant War Department. Maintaining that only the State Department interested him, Rives declined and thus made an open break with Van Buren that would have a significant impact on relations with Congress.

Rather than offend Rives further by turning to another Virginian, Van Buren convinced South Carolina's Joel Poinsett to become secretary of war. Whatever gain Van Buren made by adding a second southerner was offset by Poinsett's political views. Like Forsyth, the native of Charleston had been a strong supporter of Jackson's nullification policies.

The retention of Jackson's secretary of the treasury, Levi Woodbury, and postmaster general, Amos Kendall, preserved a sense of continuity and sectional balance, which Van Buren considered essential for party cohesion. New Hampshire's Woodbury had been a cabinet member since 1831, initially as secretary of the navy. Although friendly to Van Buren, he leaned toward the hard-money policies that had become dominant in the last year of Jackson's' presidency. Kentucky's Kendall represented the West and had been the most powerful of Jackson's cabinet members. A skilled political journalist, he had been a key member of the Kitchen Cabinet and instrumental in directing the attack on the bank. Appointed postmaster general in 1834, Kendall had remained fiercely loyal to Jackson and openly suspicious of Van Buren. Like Woodbury, Kendall expected to maintain his status as a member of the inner circle and architect of both fiscal and political strategy.

Van Buren exerted more personal control over the two remaining cabinet posts. He convinced his friend and former law partner, Benjamin F. Butler, to continue as attorney general, a post Butler had accepted at Van Buren's urging in 1833. Van Buren was well aware that Butler felt uncomfortable in Washington and longed to return to Albany. The resignation of a former member of the Albany Regency at the outset of his administration would have embarrassed Van Buren and fed rumors of serious Democratic dissension. While succeeding in his entreaties with Butler, Van Buren failed in his efforts to convince Secretary of the Navy Mahlon Dickerson to retire to

a diplomatic post in Belgium. Van Buren would have preferred to replace the sixty-six-year-old New Jerseyite with a younger man.

Despite the political pressures created by the Panic of 1837, Van Buren managed to restore the cabinet's traditional role. He continued weekly meetings and discontinued the informal gatherings of advisers that had attracted so much attention during Jackson's presidency. Van Buren solicited advice from department heads, especially during times of domestic and foreign turmoil. In such emergencies, the cabinet met daily. Van Buren 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. Always an astute politician, Van Buren realized that the cabinet could communicate official decisions to the states and work to ensure party cohesion.

In his efforts to restore party harmony, Van Buren worked closely with key Democrats in Congress, where divisiveness had reached alarming proportions during the nullification crisis. New York's Churchill Cambreleng, chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee and long an intimate friend, took an active role in fashioning legislation to respond to the Panic of 1837. Van Buren's protégé Silas Wright performed similar duties in the Senate, where he chaired the Finance Committee and was floor manager for Democratic legislation. Cambreleng and Wright were extremely effective leaders. A study of congressional voting behavior in the first two sessions of Congress during Van Buren's administration shows a partisan coherence in both houses of better than 85 percent. Van Buren rarely quarreled with the Senate over appointments, unlike his predecessor. Having assembled a compatible cabinet and a group of advisers with control in Congress, Van Buren looked forward to a cessation of the open political warfare of the past decade.

Panic of 1837

The worst depression the nation had suffered shattered these hopes within weeks of the inauguration. Neither the president nor the American people were prepared for the financial panic that swept across the country in May 1837. Warnings of a major crisis had been in the air since the beginning of the campaign. Storm signals came from the nation's banking institutions and took the form of extreme pressure on the money market. Discount rates approached 25 percent. Inflation soared, fed by a marked increase in cotton prices. On the eve of the inauguration, workers in New York City rioted to protest the price of food. Newspapers contained ominous reports of potential bank closings. Van Buren was inundated with urgent requests that he act to halt the inflationary spiral. Most correspondents urged the new president to reconsider the Specie Circular of 1836.

Van Buren responded with a thorough reconsideration of Jackson's hard-money order. As he had done so often in the past, he asked his closest confidants to solicit advice from state leaders. This style of decision making was thorough but time-consuming. More than a month elapsed before replies reached Washington. All the while, the financial crisis worsened, so much so that Silas Wright contended it was "nonsense to talk any longer" of the Specie Circular "or any action of the sectional or state governments as either having occasioned the mischief, or as being able to furnish the remedy." Similar sentiments came from Cambreleng, who blamed speculators and friends of a new national bank for manufacturing the crisis. Convinced by these letters that repeal would not alleviate the emergency but would only break with previous policy, Van Buren decided to retain the circular.

On 10 May 1837 the storm struck: New York banks, unable to meet continuing demands for specie, suspended payments, and financial houses across the country quickly did the same. Debtors struggled to meet obligations with depreciated currency. Urban workers, already hurt by rising food prices, now faced the prospect of unemployment. "It would be difficult to describe, or render intelligible in Europe," wrote the British minister, Henry Fox, "the stunning effect which this sudden overthrow of the commercial credit and honor of the nation has caused. The conquest of the land by a foreign power could hardly have produced a more general sense of humiliation and grief."

Van Buren was more disoriented than grief-stricken. On 15 May, with state banks in disarray and government deposits in jeopardy, the president finally issued the call for a special session of Congress to meet in September. Throughout the steamy summer months, Van Buren made preparations for this extraordinary meeting. Never before had his party been called upon to develop a legislative program; the chief executive was accustomed to cautious, deliberate action, not to crisis management. Furthermore, he had always been able to depend upon the support of the press to clarify and explain federal policy.

In the spring and summer of 1837, Democratic newspapers were themselves in a panic. Francis P. Blair, editor of the Washington Globe, the Democrats' national newspaper, lashed out at New York merchants; Thomas Ritchie's Richmond Enquirer rushed to the defense of state banks and refused to consider the president's problems. Even the editor of the Albany Argus refrained from printing editorials supporting Van Buren, fearing that such statements would constitute an attack on New York's beleaguered banks. By his failure to restrain Blair and his inability to rally state editors, Van Buren approached this special session deprived of the normal channels of political communication and persuasion.

The Independent Treasury

The president's primary concern was for the safety of government funds entrusted to state banks. When Congress convened, his opponents would demand new safeguards and, if none were forthcoming, would undoubtedly move to dismantle the entire deposit system, leaving the door open for recharter of a national bank. To foreclose this possibility, Van Buren advocated a separation of government funds from state banks and control of these monies by designated federal agents.

The advantages of a separation of bank and state were several. By removing its funds from state banks, the federal government would avoid association with institutions instrumental in bringing on the panic. The government would collect, store, and disburse public revenue through Treasury agents and postal employees and not be open to the charge that these funds were the basis for unchecked speculation. While economically feasible, this plan contained numerous political pitfalls. Even though requiring a minimum of enabling legislation, an independent treasury, or subtreasury, as it would soon be known, carried an implicit criticism of state banks. According to one proponent, these institutions would henceforth be "left to their fate." Furthermore, as Silas Wright warned, the divorce of bank and state would make the president vulnerable to charges that he wanted to "extend executive patronage and power." Although disappointed by the waverings of state leaders, Van Buren realized that he needed their support to succeed in the special session of Congress that convened on 4 September 1837.

In recommending the creation of an independent treasury, the president invoked Jeffersonian rhetoric in an attempt to disguise the radical aspects of his program. He cautiously explained the origins of the panic, being careful not to blame state banks for the collapse. "All communities are apt to look to government for too much," the president told the special session. "If, therefore, I refrain from suggesting to Congress any specific plan for regulating the exchanges of the country, relieving mercantile embarrassments, or interfering with the ordinary operations of foreign or domestic commerce, it is from a conviction that such measures are not within the constitutional province of the General Government." But the government was obliged to safeguard its own funds. It was in this context that Van Buren recommended an independent treasury. In so doing, he was careful to point out that such a program required no increase in government patronage.

Although cautious and couched in familiar terms, the president's proposals constituted a radical departure from the premise upon which the Democratic party was built. As a loose and often factious coalition of state interests, the Jacksonian alliance functioned smoothly so long as state leaders could interpret federal policy to suit their own interests. Van Buren's proposal for an independent treasury contained no encouragement for state initiative. Quite the contrary, the president placed the needs of the federal government ahead of those of the states. He reversed the delicate balance of political priorities that he had struggled so long to maintain. No matter how careful his wording, how respectful his tone, the president had created a dilemma from which there would be no easy escape.

The Congress that listened respectfully to Van Buren's message was fully under Democratic control. The president's supporters had majorities on all twenty-two standing committees in the Senate and on eighteen of thirty committees in the House, where they had only a sixteen-vote advantage. Democrats enjoyed a two-to-one majority on the crucial committees in both houses that would consider the president's financial proposals. In a normal congressional session, such organization would have given the Democrats firm control of the legislative process. But these were extraordinary circumstances. Conservative Democrats, deeply committed to state banks, threatened to rebel on the subtreasury issue.

This revolt fed on disagreements between the president and his state supporters. Governor William Marcy of New York, once a loyal member of the Regency, refused to endorse Van Buren's special session proposals, despite the pleadings of the attorney general, who made a special visit to Albany. In an angry exchange with Butler, Marcy came right to the heart of the party's dilemma. He asked "if the men at Washington expected that I was to proclaim a divorce between the government of the state and the banks." Butler said no. In that case, Marcy continued, "what sort of supporters of Mr. V. B. shall we be if we repudiate his doctrines as applicable to the states?" To this pointed question, there was no reply. In Virginia, Thomas Ritchie remained outspoken in his criticism of an independent treasury and his defense of the state-bank deposit system.

Despite the growing influence of the conservative cause, the president's legislative spokesmen pushed ahead with their relief proposals. Wright and Cambreleng were able to secure passage of bills postponing the final distribution of surplus revenue, establishing a schedule for recovery of government deposits, granting leniency in the collection of customhouse bonds, and authorizing an issue of Treasury notes to cover government expenses. In both houses, Democrats united to enact these measures after a minimum of debate.

Democratic unity evaporated during the debates on an independent treasury. Pennsylvania's James Buchanan claimed that the president's proposal was perfectly consonant with Jeffersonian principles of limited government. Silas Wright echoed these sentiments. The new voices were those of conservative Democrats who urged reform, not abandonment, of the state banks. Borrowing rhetoric from the Whigs, they charged the president with seeking to enlarge executive patronage and wield new power by the act of collecting and storing revenue. Despite these strong criticisms, Wright's leadership prevailed and the Democrats, on 3 October 1837, secured Senate approval for creation of an independent treasury by the narrow margin of twenty-five to twenty-three.

In the House, Cambreleng lost control of the debate, allowing South Carolina's Francis Pickens to speak on behalf of an independent treasury only to launch into a diatribe against northern capitalism and its war on slavery. Such emotionalism proved infectious. When Cambreleng made his long-awaited defense of the president's proposal, he lashed out against all banks, arguing that an independent treasury "would be a steady and salutary check, in preventing the excess and unwarrantable issues" of these institutions. Cambreleng concluded with a bold declaration: "We fear not the results of this experiment."

By opposing an independent treasury as a radical experiment, conservatives claimed to be the true champions of states' rights and limited government. Their obstructionist strategy proved successful. On 14 October 1837, by a vote of 120 to 107, the House postponed consideration of an independent treasury. The circumstances surrounding this critical vote added to the president's disappointment. John Clark, a congressman from Van Buren's home state, introduced the motion to postpone, reminding his colleagues that even the Albany Argus had failed to endorse an independent treasury.

As soon as the special session adjourned, Van Buren tried to allay fears created by the angry congressional debates. Secretary of the Treasury Woodbury wrote to friends in the New York financial community, asking how the administration could make clear that it did not intend to suppress banks or introduce a metallic currency. All the replies sounded the same disturbing theme. "The divorce of Bank and State is a Manifesto from the highest authority in the country," wrote one New York banker, "proclaiming that the State Banks are unsafe as depositories." Whatever gains Van Buren made by such private inquiries were immediately undercut by a series of devastating editorials in the Washington Globe denouncing the conservatives and striking at banks in general. This harangue occurred shortly before the fall elections in New York, where Whigs gained sixty-seven seats in the state assembly, thereby establishing a clear majority and destroying a pillar of Regency power.

Although alarmed by the defeat in New York, Van Buren continued to concentrate on what he perceived as a crisis for the federal government alone. In December 1837 he again proposed the subtreasury system, this time adding a special deposit feature to please the conservatives. The president's calm and deliberate message drew praise from all segments of the party but could not overcome the emotionalism generated by the panic.

No sooner had Democrats organized themselves in Congress than a heated sectional debate ensued, caused by John C. Calhoun's introduction of six pro-slavery resolutions. Van Buren appreciated Calhoun's support for the subtreasury bill at the special session but was not about to let the South Carolina senator disrupt Democratic unity. The president remained firm in his commitment to Jeffersonian principles as they applied to all state issues, including slavery. In accord with this philosophy, Van Buren's Senate supporters modified the resolutions so that the final wording enjoined the government against interfering with states' rights, whereas Calhoun wanted a pledge of federal protection for slavery. Not until early February 1838 did the Senate begin debate on the subtreasury system, only to be interrupted a second time by an oratorical fight between John C. Calhoun and his archrival, Henry Clay. Finally, on 26 March 1838, the Senate approved the independent-treasury bill by twenty-seven to twenty-five.

The narrow margin of victory did not augur well for deliberations in the House. Conservatives picked up support with each delay and took further encouragement from spring elections in Virginia. For the first time in more than a decade, the Richmond junto faced the prospect of an opposing party in control of the state legislature. In May 1838, Congress repealed the Specie Circular of 1836 and New York banks resumed specie payments, thereby increasing conservative momentum. Van Buren realized that the resumption damaged chances for House approval of an independent treasury, but he continued to press the measure as the only alternative to a national bank. Indeed, Nicholas Biddle wrote to a member of Van Buren's cabinet claiming that his bank was ready to resume its role as exclusive depository for government funds. "Its whole machinery can be re-mounted in twenty-four hours," Biddle claimed.

Cambreleng pushed for passage of the subtreasury bill in mid-June, and this time maintained tight control of debate. He prevented key Democrats from abstaining as they had at the special session and added strength from South Carolina without allowing any of Calhoun's followers to raise the question of slavery. Although highly disciplined, House Democrats could not overcome the results of electoral losses in New York and Virginia. Where once these two state machines had worked closely with members of their congressional delegations, the Whig triumphs made state Democrats reluctant to speak out against their banks and eager to avoid a definite stand on an independent treasury. Once again their wavering had a telling impact: on 25 June 1838, by a vote of 125 to 111, the House defeated the bill.

The resumption of specie payments and the failure of the president's program placed Democrats on the defensive in the fall elections. In New York, under the skillful leadership of Thurlow Weed, the Whigs developed a political organization as sophisticated and extensive as the Regency. Whig editors promised that their gubernatorial candidate, William H. Seward, would restore financial order. These well-orchestrated appeals prompted a huge voter turnout and a Whig victory that captured the legislature and placed Seward in the governor's mansion. Disconso-late, the Democrats blamed their loss on the panic and the federal government. In leaving office, Marcy concluded that "the election was conducted chiefly with reference to the policy of the federal government. If we had had nothing but our own policy to vindicate, I cannot bring myself to doubt that we should have had a different result."

The Whig triumph came as a bitter blow to Van Buren. The Albany-Richmond axis, once the backbone of the Jacksonian alliance, had been broken by the Whigs, who would remember the lesson well. In celebrating their stunning sweep of the Empire State, they were already looking ahead to the next presidential campaign. "Mr. Van Buren's chances for reelection may now be considered desperate," wrote one political observer.

Bowed but not broken, the president continued his efforts to refine his economic proposals. In his second annual message, on 3 December 1838, he argued that an independent treasury would eliminate the possibility of fraud such as the one that had recently occurred when Samuel Swartwout had absconded with over a million dollars in government revenue from the New York Customhouse. Van Buren's congressional opponents seized on this scandal to investigate the handling of Treasury funds. In a lengthy report in late February 1839, a special House committee concluded that Swartwout's defalcation had been aided by a Democratic fiscal policy that had discontinued "the use of banks as depositories."

Having consumed much of their energy on this investigation, Whigs moved for adjournment. Realizing that it would take months to clear the air, House Democrats agreed and abandoned efforts to pass the independent-treasury bill. This truncated session of Congress came to a close on 4 March 1839, the second anniversary of Van Buren's inauguration. The administration was hardly in a mood to celebrate. "We have at last got rid of Congress," wrote the secretary of the treasury, "and a most disreputable one in many respects it has been."

Before the fall elections could bring the president a more cooperative Congress, another financial crisis struck the country. The resumption of specie payments in 1838 triggered an expansion of credit and borrowing that in turn fed an inflationary economy. State governments again promoted internal improvements, often by borrowing from abroad to raise funds. Biddle's bank in Philadelphia, now under Pennsylvania charter, led this expansionist surge, only to be hard hit by sudden credit restrictions in England in 1839. In October 1839, the bank suspended specie payments; nearly half of the nation's 850 banks followed suit. The political consequences were immediate. The fall elections destroyed the conservative Democrats, especially in New York and Virginia, leaving Van Buren in control of a weakened but united party.

The president seized the advantage. In recommending an independent treasury to the new Congress, he abandoned the conciliatory language of the past. He blamed renewed financial failures on foreign investors and state banks, urging Congress to adopt measures to safeguard the country from further speculative crazes. For the first time, he urged that all government revenue be collected and disbursed in gold and silver. This provision, coupled with the proposed subtreasury system, would have "a salutary influence on the system of paper credit with which all banks are connected." Although careful to recognize that some banks were already "sound and well managed," Van Buren advocated the subtreasury system as a mechanism for reform and regulation of the nation's economy. He told supporters that he had taken "strong ground" that he hoped would break the congressional deadlock.

While the president was in a bold mood, his congressional managers were disorganized. Democrats retained control of the Senate, where they passed the subtreasury bill on 23 January by a vote of twenty-four to eighteen. Their margin in the House was so small that they had to await the outcome of six disputed elections before pressing Van Buren's program. In the meantime, the Whigs captured the powerful position of Speaker of the House and, with it, control of a majority of standing committees. Nearly three months elapsed before the House resolved the disputed elections, adding five seats to the Democratic total. Still, floor managers hesitated to close off debate, fearing that defeat of the subtreasury bill would destroy Van Buren's remaining chances for reelection.

The Whigs took advantage of delays to assail Democratic fiscal policy in speeches that were quickly converted into campaign circulars. Finally, on 30 June 1840, the Democrats closed debate and pushed for a vote. Van Buren won his long-awaited victory 124 to 107. At 3:00 p.m. on 3 July 1840, the president received the subtreasury bill. He decided to wait twenty-four hours before signing what the party would thereafter call a "second Declaration of Independence." The president was at last free from a measure that had become an obsession.

Foreign Affairs

The president demonstrated much more certain control over foreign relations than over financial affairs. Although preoccupied with the panic, Van Buren proved to be a shrewd diplomat, preventing the Texas Revolution from inflaming sectional tensions in the United States. Van Buren inherited a Texas policy not totally to his liking. Having avoided a stand on the Texas question during the election, he was disappointed when Jackson, a day before leaving office, recognized the new regime. In the summer of 1837, the Texans went a step further by pressing for annexation. Their formal request appealed to American nationalism, characterized Mexico as a society of "barbarians," and argued that the president should move quickly or Texas would sign treaties with foreign powers that might injure the United States.

At that time, Van Buren was trying to prepare his proposals for the special session and was in no mood to be rushed or pressured. After consulting the cabinet, he decided to reject the proposal. In his reasoned reply, Van Buren argued that there was no constitutional precedent for annexation of a sovereign state; annexation might be construed as an act of war against Mexico. The president concluded that the United States had no objection to commercial treaties between Texas and European powers. The Texans bristled at the reply, threatening to take their cause directly to Congress and venturing the opinion that had Jackson been president, the United States would have welcomed annexation. Van Buren ignored this tactless reply and kept the Texas question out of the special session. By the time Congress convened in regular session, in December 1837, annexation had become intertwined with a dispute between the United States and Mexico over injury claims by American citizens against the Mexican government.

A by-product of the Texas Revolution, the Mexican claims dispute could have propelled the two nations into war. Throughout the first year of his presidency, Van Buren tried to reach agreement on the claims dispute, to no avail. In his first annual message, the president reported the negative results of a special mission to Mexico City and then referred the entire controversy to Congress for it "to decide upon the time, the mode, and the measure of redress." This action alone was a sharp contrast to Jackson's earlier request for force, but Van Buren went further, expressing his confidence that congressional action would be marked by a "moderation and justice which will, I trust, under all circumstances govern the councils of our country."

The president's opponents took advantage of even this pacific passage to charge the Democrats with a secret conspiracy. "The annexation of Texas and the proposed war with Mexico are one and the same thing," claimed former president John Quincy Adams, now a congressman from Massachusetts. Adams privately speculated that annexation was designed to increase the extent of slavery and commit the North to a permanent defense of southern institutions. According to the National Intelligencer, the Whig newspaper in Washington, the president sought war with Mexico to divert national attention from the panic.

Although a war might have provided a diversion, the president had no intention of abandoning his quest for a peaceful solution to the claims dispute, one that would avoid sectional discord. By the spring of 1838, Texas realized that it could not outflank the president by going directly to Congress. The waning of annexationist ardor convinced the Mexican government that Van Buren was sincere in his expressed desire for peace. Mexico admitted the legitimacy of the claims and proposed third-party arbitration to reach a final solution. On 11 September 1838, the president signed a convention to this effect.

Van Buren refused to indulge expansionist Democrats, because he wanted to avoid further damage to the North-South axis of the party, which he considered the bulwark of the Union. Ironically, the Texans saw this most clearly. "Many of our friends as well as enemies in Congress dread the coming of the question at this time," wrote the Texan emissary, Memucan Hunt, in 1838, "on account of the desperate death-struggle, which they foresee, will inevitably ensue between the North and the South, a struggle involving the probability of a dissolution of this Union."

A rebellion on the nation's northern border coincided with the Mexican crisis and compounded the president's political problems. The revolt centered in southern Canada, where dissatisfaction with British rule reached a peak in the fall of 1837. William Lyon Mackenzie led an uprising that enlisted American citizens who joined the Canadian rebels in their stronghold on Navy Island, in the Niagara River. Since New York officials seemed unable to restrain their own people, British authorities decided to disarm the outpost. They sent a raiding party to attack the steamship Caroline, a forty-six-ton vessel used to supply Navy Island. The British found the Caroline at a pier in Schlosser, New York. Ignoring the international boundary, the party boarded the ship, set it aflame, and cast it adrift. The Caroline sank before reaching Niagara Falls. In the ensuing confusion, one American died and several were wounded.

Rumors of the raid spread quickly and exaggerated the outcome. "It is infamous," wrote one observer; "forty unarmed Americans butchered in cold blood, while sleeping, by a party of British assassins, and the living and dead sent together over Niagara." The president dispatched General Winfield Scott to Buffalo with strict instructions to call out the militia but employ it only as a last resort and then to avoid placing arms in the hands of border residents who might join the rebellion. The president then issued a neutrality proclamation calling for strict adherence to the law. Senate Democrats overcame Whig attempts to capitalize on the crisis and, in early March 1838, passed a new neutrality law. This measure was to run for two years and empowered civil authorities to prevent border excursions in the future. The president's proclamation, the Senate bill, and the Scott mission combined to defuse the border crisis.

Early in 1839, another conflict arose in a remote area of northern Maine known as the Aroostook Valley. The Peace Treaty of 1783 had left in doubt the exact location of the international boundary dividing Maine from New Brunswick. By the 1830s, American and British citizens alike wanted to develop the more than seven million acres of virgin timber that lay in this disputed territory. Clashes between Maine and New Brunswick developers were inevitable. In January 1839, Canadian authorities arrested a Maine land agent and took him to a New Brunswick jail. New Brunswick's lieutenant governor, Sir John Harvey, justified the arrest and issued a proclamation calling for withdrawal of all American forces from the disputed region. Maine's governor, John Fairfield, assembled nearly a thousand men and asked the state legislature for money and authority to call out another ten thousand. When the president heard of these measures, he appealed directly to the British minister, Henry Fox, and together they drew up a memorandum calling for all parties to withdraw from the Aroostook Valley.

The calm that prevailed in Washington had little impact in Maine. Fairfield denounced peace proposals. "Should you go against us on this occasion," he warned the president, "or not espouse our cause with warmth and earnestness and with true American feeling, God only knows what the result would be politically." Van Buren had dealt with too many professional politicians to be upset by the threats of an amateur. Again he turned to Winfield Scott, sending him to Augusta with instructions to calm the angry governor and prevent any warlike actions by the assembled Maine militia. While Scott journeyed north, Congress contributed to the war fever by granting the president more authority and funds than he requested. The legislature that refused to pass a subtreasury bill to safeguard government money gave Van Buren authority to spend $10 million and the power to mobilize fifty thousand militia for defense of the frontier. Once in Augusta, Scott worked swiftly and surely to disarm the crisis.

As president, Martin Van Buren established a solid record as a statesman, acting swiftly and surely in times of international tension. His handling of crises on the northern and southern borders of the country demonstrated a sincere and consistent commitment to neutrality and peaceful settlement of disputes. He displayed none of the aggressive behavior that marred the record of his predecessor. Van Buren passed up several opportunities to embrace expansionist ideology for political advantage. The nation's prolonged and severe financial crisis obscured this record of accomplishment. By the time Van Buren finally earned the respect of foreign governments, his term was nearly over and he was fighting for his political life.

Campaign of 1840

The campaign of 1840 had its origins in the Panic of 1837. Throughout four turbulent sessions of Congress, the Whigs sought every opportunity to strengthen their cause. Whig victories in the Democratic strongholds of New York and Virginia were more than reflexive reactions to the financial chaos. They stemmed from substantial political networks and a sophisticated style of electioneering. Whig managers like New York's Thurlow Weed and Pennsylvania's Thaddeus Stevens were ready to wage an extensive grassroots campaign to capitalize on public excitement aroused by the panic.

The president misread these political signs. He developed a stereotypical view of the Whigs as disorganized and amateurish. Van Buren had tolerated his own party's mass rallies in 1828 as manifestations of the public's fascination with Andrew Jackson. Van Buren intended to take higher ground in his own campaign.

Early in 1840, the president developed a detailed plan for the coming campaign, concentrating on restoring the Regency to power in New York as an example for Democrats nationwide. He drew up a seventy-five-page document, directing his New York supporters to renew their efforts at the grassroots level. He urged them to reestablish local committees of correspondence that could once again serve the vital function of circulating campaign documents. This part of the electoral blueprint showed the Van Buren of old, a man sensitive to the need for discipline, organization, and attention to fine detail. The remainder of this campaign manual revealed an anxious politician struggling to rally the faithful behind traditional principles, all the while fearful that his opponents would succeed by stealth and subversion. Van Buren exhorted his fellow Democrats to attend to the history of political parties, to recognize the Whigs as the Federalists of old. Armed with history, the voters could make informed choices, provided that the polls remained pure. At no point in his outline of campaign plans did the president refer to current economic conditions. Neither did he repeat arguments from his annual message on the use of the subtreasury to reform the banking structure. By charting a strategy that avoided all contemporary issues, especially those that had stimulated voter interest, the president severely limited his own campaign.

Divided between sectional candidates in 1836, the Whigs were united in 1840. To oppose Van Buren, they chose William Henry Harrison, whose southern birth and record of military heroism (especially his 1811 victory over Tecumseh at Tippecanoe) proved malleable elements in a campaign designed to first mobilize and then unleash popular frustrations pent up during the panic. The choice of Virginia's John Tyler as Harrison's running mate enabled the Whigs to continue their siege of the Old Dominion, thereby demonstrating that the Democratic alliance was crumbling at its strongest point.

Despite the lavish attention he paid to the coming campaign, Van Buren could not bring unity to a party badly divided by economic disagreement. The Democratic convention at Baltimore on 5 May 1840 selected Van Buren but failed to nominate a vice presidential candidate, deciding to leave this selection to the states. This decision was the product of a lengthy disagreement between Van Buren and Jackson. Never the closest of friends, the two men drifted even further apart during the panic. The "Old Hero" confined his criticisms to private correspondence, often lecturing Francis P. Blair on the decline of Democratic solidarity.

As a remedy Jackson proposed that Tennessee's James K. Polk be the vice presidential candidate. Jackson argued that Polk had more appeal in the West than incumbent Richard M. Johnson. While recognizing Polk's admirable record as Speaker of the House, Van Buren was reluctant to drop Johnson from the ticket because the Kentuckian had a martial reputation to rival that of Harrison and strong support in Pennsylvania and New York. With the subtreasury bill still in the House, the president did not want to anger congressional delegations from these key states. Polk eventually withdrew his name, as did several other hopefuls.

The economic wars of the present, not the military campaigns of the past, provided the real issues in the election. Early in 1840, the Whigs added a new dimension to their fiscal attacks by personally ridiculing the president as a dandy and a spendthrift. Congressman Charles Ogle of Pennsylvania spent three days during debate on routine appropriation bills describing the "Regal Splendor of the President's Palace." Ogle maintained that the portly Van Buren had gained weight at public expense by routinely eating off gold plate in the executive mansion.

The charge of executive excess was hardly new. Van Buren had fallen heir to the Whig attacks on "King Andrew," and repeatedly during debates on the subtreasury bill, critics had charged the president with seeking to enlarge his power by manipulation of the nation's currency. Ogle's assault was neatly designed to simplify and personalize the complex economic and constitutional issues generated by the panic.

By contrast, the Whigs portrayed their own candidate as a man of modest means, who was born in a log cabin and imbibed nothing more aristocratic than native cider. At rallies more extensive than those introduced by the Democrats in 1828, Whig managers fed their eager converts a steady diet of such partisan fare.

The president was not so much a victim of such rhetorical assaults as he was a prisoner of his own principles. Having spent a political life denying the power of the federal government to manage domestic affairs, he could hardly have made an abrupt about-face and claim to be a savior of the nation's finances. Such a strategy would have fed the popular fear of executive usurpation. While bound by tradition to eschew offensive tactics, the president might have been more sensitive to the strength of Whig organization and the new party's ability to take advantage of the slightest miscalculation. In 1840, Van Buren erred badly by allowing his secretary of war to propose a thorough reform of the nation's militia system. While designed to place the militia more firmly under state control, Poinsett's proposal generated a storm in the press, where Whig propagandists charged that Van Buren wanted to raise a standing army.

Even after passage of the subtreasury bill, the president failed to change his electioneering strategy. He remained committed to a reasoned defense of Democratic principles, circulated in newspaper editorials and through campaign documents. His followers did their best to match Whig efforts on the campaign trail. For each log cabin the Whigs erected at mass rallies to symbolize Harrison's humble origins, Democrats erected hickory poles at their own gatherings to recall the martial exploits of "Old Hickory." Van Buren viewed these electioneering efforts with a measure of detachment, believing that Whig rhetoric was unprincipled and the precursor of a massive conspiracy to steal the election. He wrote to Jackson of the potential of vote fraud, warning "the mischief will be done before you are apprised of the danger." Van Buren initiated an election-eve investigation of previous state contests, trying to document Whig chicanery.

While the president remained in Washington dutifully answering innumerable requests for policy statements, his opponent took to the stump. Old Tip was by no means a stunning orator, but his appearances created a new bond with the expanding electorate. Here was a man willing to go to the people, to converse with them in simple, understandable language, to recount his military exploits, and to speak out against executive excess in Washington. Harrison's campaigning combined with other Whig innovations paid handsome dividends in the fall election. The party received 234 electoral votes to Van Buren's 60. The popular outpouring, stimulated by the panic, broke all election records. Van Buren actually received 400,000 more popular votes than he had in 1836. But the Whigs proved more adept at recruiting new voters, winning nineteen of twenty-six states. The Democrats' strongest showing came in the South, where they recaptured Virginia and won contests in Alabama, Arkansas, and Missouri. "Never in my experience of twenty-seven years," the Regency's Azariah Flagg wrote Van Buren, "have I seen the rank and file show so much spirit and zeal."

Blinded to these realities, the president accepted defeat calmly but with obvious bitterness. He called the election a "catastrophe," resulting from Whig fraud rather than Democratic collapse. "Time will unravel the means by which these results have been produced," he wrote to Andrew Jackson, "and then the people will do justice to all."

Martin Van Buren looked forward to a vindication that never came. Perhaps the cruelest irony of his presidency was not that he fell victim to a partisan process he helped perfect but that in response to the Panic of 1837, he proposed legislation that violated the cherished concept of states' rights, which he had long insisted was the foundation of the Democratic alliance. Where Jackson had been the target of political charges that he was usurping power, Van Buren acted the part of a strong president. Neither his party nor his contemporaries were prepared for such executive initiative. "Van, Van's a used up man," the Whigs cried during the election of 1840. Stinging though the cry was, it contained elements of truth. Martin Van Buren used all his political prowess while president and still he could not hold together the party he had so carefully constructed. The inauguration in 1841 would usher in the new Whig alliance and herald the arrival of the modern two-party system. That day dawned bright and clear, but not for Martin Van Buren, who left Washington for retirement in his native New York.

Despite the bitter defeat, Van Buren remained active in politics, guarding the principles that had guided his career. In 1844, he once again opposed the annexation of Texas, costing him the Democratic nomination. In 1848, Van Buren deviated from his party by accepting nomination on a free-soil ticket, but only to assist long-time New York allies. The former president devoted his final years to his Autobiography, which remains one of the most valuable sources on the development of American political parties. Van Buren died quietly on 24 July 1862, having seen the sectional crisis he had worked so long to prevent become a bloody reality.


Elisabeth H. West, ed., The Calendar of the Papers of Martin Van Buren (Washington, D.C., 1910), provides an introduction to the rich collection of Van Buren's papers at the Library of Congress; the papers are the most important source on Van Buren's presidency. James D. Richardson, ed., A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents 17891897, 10 vols. (Washington, D.C., 18961899), includes Van Buren's addresses to Congress and many important state papers. Donald B. Cole, Martin Van Buren and the American Political System (Princeton, N.J., 1984), is an excellent biography.

Edward Pessen, Jacksonian America: Society, Personality, and Politics, rev. ed. (Homewood, Ill., 1978), provides a sophisticated overview of antebellum America. Richard P. McCormick, The Second American Party System: Party Formation in the Jacksonian Era (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1966), is a masterful account of party formation. Lee Benson, The Concept of Jacksonian Democracy: New York as a Test Case (Princeton, N.J., 1961), is a quantitative analysis of New York politics that suggests the crucial relationship between local and national party activity. James C. Curtis, Andrew Jackson and the Search for Vindication (Boston, 1976), provides critical insights into Jackson's presidency and the troubled political legacy that Van Buren inherited.

James C. Curtis, The Fox at Bay: Martin Van Buren and the Presidency, 18371841 (Lexington, Ky., 1970), and Major L. Wilson, The Presidency of Martin Van Buren (Lawrence, Kans., 1984), study Van Buren's single term in office. Reginald C. McGrane, The Panic of 1837: Some Financial Problems of the Jacksonian Era (Chicago, 1924), although dated, is still the best brief introduction to the financial collapse that dominated Van Buren's presidency. Peter Temin, The Jacksonian Economy (New York, 1969), challenges long-standing assumptions about Jacksonian finance and provides a thoroughly modern quantitative explanation for the Panic of 1837. John A. Garraty, Silas Wright (New York, 1949), neatly summarizes Wright's career but deemphasizes the senator's disillusionment with official economic policy during the Panic of 1837. Charles G. Sellers, James K. Polk, Jacksonian, 17951843 (Princeton, N.J., 1957), is an invaluable guide to congressional maneuvers during Van Buren's presidency.

Robert G. Gunderson, The Log-Cabin Campaign (Lexington, Ky., 1957), captures the flavor of the political rough-and-tumble but lacks analytical rigor. John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., "The Autobiography of Martin Van Buren," in Annual Report of the American Historical Association for the Year 1918, vol. 2 (Washington, D.C., 1920), was written during Van Buren's retirement; the former president makes perceptive comments on political development but does not carry the narrative beyond 1835.

Also see John Niven, Martin Van Buren: The Romantic Age of American Politics (New York, 1983).

Van Buren, Martin

views updated May 18 2018

Van Buren, Martin

8th president, 1837–1841

Born: December 5, 1782

Died: July 24, 1862

Vice President: Richard Mentor Johnson

First Lady: none

Children: Abraham, John, Martin, Smith

Martin Van Buren was the eighth president of the United States. Trained as a lawyer, Van Buren had a vast amount of political experience. He served as a senator, secretary of state, and vice president.

Van Buren's brief term was marked by the worst economic depression to date in the country's history. Banks closed and factories failed. Large interstate projects, such as canals, rail lines, and roads, were abandoned due to lack of funding. Much of the depression resulted from the monetary policies of Van Buren's predecessor, Andrew Jackson. Van Buren, however, was blamed by most Americans for the financial problems.

Martin Van Buren was born on December 5, 1782, in Kinderhook, New York, the first president born in the country officially called the United States. After becoming a lawyer, he was involved in New York politics and was elected to the U.S. Senate. He soon earned a reputation as a strong supporter of Andrew Jackson, who appointed Van Buren secretary of state. In 1832, Van Buren was elected vice president on the Jackson ticket, and later became president in 1836.

  • Van Buren did not mention his wife in his autobiography.
  • Due to an economic depression during his term, newspapers dubbed the president "Martin Van Ruin."
  • Van Buren's total presidential salary, $100,000, was paid to him at the end of his term.

President Van Buren's wife, Hannah Hoes Van Buren, died in 1819. The couple had four sons: Abraham, John, Martin, and Smith. During the Van Buren presidency, Abraham's wife, Angelica, hosted functions and social events at the White House.

When Van Buren Was in Office

Samuel F. B. Morse first demonstrated the telegraph.
England's Queen Victoria began a reign that would last for 63 years.
About 20,000 Cherokees, forced from their land in Georgia, began their move to Oklahoma in a march known today as the Trail of Tears.
Frederick Douglass, who later became a key leader in the abolitionist movement, escaped from slavery.
Abner Doubleday developed rules for the new game of baseball.
Immigration helped swell the U.S. population to 17 million.

On Martin Van Buren's Inauguration Day

When Martin Van Buren took the oath of office, few Americans expected that an economic depression was about to occur. For many, the main concern was the question of slavery. The abolitionist movement, led by fiery speakers such as William Lloyd Garrison, was creating division among lawmakers and among states. The first rumblings of the Civil War were heard in this speech.

Martin Van Buren's Inaugural Address

In Washington, D.C., Monday, March 4, 1837


THE practice of all my predecessors imposes on me an obligation I cheerfully fulfill—to accompany the first and solemn act of my public trust with an avowal of the principles that will guide me in performing it and an expression of my feelings on assuming a charge so responsible and vast. In imitating their example I tread in the footsteps of illustrious men, whose superiors it is our happiness to believe are not found on the executive calendar of any country. Among them we recognize the earliest and firmest pillars of the Republic—those by whom our national independence was first declared, him who above all others contributed to establish it on the field of battle, and those whose expanded intellect and patriotis m constructed, improved, and perfected the inestimable institutions under which we live. If such men in the position I now occupy felt themselves overwhelmed by a sense of gratitude for this the highest of all marks of their country's confidence, and by a consciousness of their inability adequately to discharge the duties of an office so difficult and exalted, how much more must these considerations affect one who can rely on no such claims for favor or forbearance! Unlike all who have preceded me, the Revolution that gave us existence as one people was achieved at the period of my birth; and whilst I contemplate with grateful reverence that memorable event, I feel that I belong to a later age and that I may not expect my countrymen to weigh my actions wi th the same kind and partial hand.

So sensibly, fellow-citizens, do these circumstances press themselves upon me that I should not dare to enter upon my path of duty did I not look for the generous aid of those who will be associated with me in the various and coordinate branches of the Government; did I not repose with unwavering reliance on the patriotism, the intelligence, and the kindness of a people who never yet deserted a public servant honestly laboring their cause; and, above all, did I not permit myself humbly to hope for the sustaining support of an ever-watchful and beneficent Providence.

To the confidence and consolation derived from these sources it would be ungrateful not to add those which spring from our present fortunate condition. Though not altogether exempt from embarrassments that disturb our tranquillity at home and threaten it abroad, yet in all the attributes of a great, happy, and flourishing people we stand without a parallel in the world. Abroad we enjoy the respect and, with scarcely an exception, the friendship of every nation; at home, while our Government quietly but efficiently performs the sole legitimate end of political institutions—in doing the greatest good to the greatest number—we present an aggregate of human prosperity surely not elsewhere to be found.

How imperious, then, is the obligation imposed upon every citizen, in his own sphere of action, whether limited or extended, to exert himself in perpetuating a condition of things so singularly happy! All the lessons of history and experience must be lost upon us if we are content to trust alone to the peculiar advantages we happen to possess. Position and climate and the bounteous resources that nature has scattered with so liberal a hand—even the diffused intelligence and elevated character of our people—will avail us nothing if we fail sacredly to uphold those political institutions that were wisely and deliberately formed with reference to every circumstance that could preserve or might endanger the blessings we enjoy. The thoughtful framers of our Constitution legislated for our country as they found it. Looking upon it with the eyes of statesmen and patriots, they saw all the sources of rapid and wonderful prosperity; but they saw also that various habits, opinions, and institutions peculiar to the various portions of so vast a region were deeply fixed. Distinct sovereignties were in actual existence, whose cordial union was essential to the welfare and happiness of all. Between many of them there was, at least to some extent, a real diversity of interests, liable to be exaggerated through sinister designs; they differed in size, in population, in wealth, and in actual and prospective resources and power; they varied in the character of their industry and staple product ions, and in some existed domestic institutions which, unwisely disturbed, might endanger the harmony of the whole. Most carefully were all these circumstances weighed, and the foundations of the new Government laid upon principles of reciprocal concession and equitable compromise. The jealousies which the smaller States might entertain of the power of the rest were allayed by a rule of representation confessedly unequal at the time, and designed forever to remain so. A natural fear that the broad scope of general legislation might bear upon and unwisely control particular interests was counteracted by limits strictly drawn around the action of the Federal authority, and to the people and the States was left unimpaired their sovereign power over the innumerable subjects embraced in the internal government of a just republic, excepting such only as necessarily appertain to the concerns of the whole confederacy or its intercourse as a united community with the other nations of the world.

This provident forecast has been verified by time. Half a century, teeming with extraordinary events, and elsewhere producing astonishing results, has passed along, but on our institutions it has left no injurious mark. From a small community we have risen to a people powerful in numbers and in strength; but with our increase has gone hand in hand the progress of just principles. The privileges, civil and religious, of the humblest individual are still sacredly protected at home, and while the valor and fortitude of our people have removed far from us the slightest apprehension of foreign power, they have not yet induced us in a single instance to forget what is right. Our commerce has been extended to the remotest nations; the value and even nature of our productions have been greatly changed; a wide difference has arisen in the relative wealth and resources of every portion of our country; yet the spirit of mutual regard and of faithful adherence to existing compacts has continued to prevail in our councils and never long been absent from our conduct. We have learned by experience a fruitful lesson—that an implicit and undeviating adherence to the principles on which we set out can carry us prosperously onward through all the conflicts of circumstances and vicissitudes inseparable from the lapse of years.

The success that has thus attended our great experiment is in itself a sufficient cause for gratitude, on account of the happiness it has actually conferred and the example it has unanswerably given. But to me, my fellow-citizens, looking forward to the far-distant future with ardent prayers and confiding hopes, this retrospect presents a ground for still deeper delight. It impresses on my mind a firm belief that the perpetuity of our institutions depends upon ourselves; that if we maintain the principles on which they were established they are destined to confer their benefits on countless generations yet to come, and that America will present to every friend of mankind the cheering proof that a popular government, wisely formed, is wanting in no element of endurance or strength. Fifty years ago its rapid failure was boldly predicted. Latent and uncontrollable causes of dissolution were supposed to exist even by the wise and good, and not only did unfriendly or speculative theorists anticipate for us the fate of past republics, but the fears of many an honest patriot overbalanced his sanguine hopes. Look back on these forebodings, not hastily but reluctantly made, and see how in every instance they have completely failed.

An imperfect experience during the struggles of the Revolution was supposed to warrant the belief that the people would not bear the taxation requisite to discharge an immense public debt already incurred and to pay the necessary expenses of the Government. The cost of two wars has been paid, not only without a murmur, but with unequaled alacrity. No one is now left to doubt that every burden will be cheerfully borne that may be necessary to sustain our civil institutions or guard our honor or welfare. Indeed, all experience has shown that the willingness of the people to contribute to these ends in cases of emergency has uniformly outrun the confidence of their representatives.

In the early stages of the new Government, when all felt the imposing influence as they recognized the unequaled services of the first President, it was a common sentiment that the great weight of his character could alone bind the discordant materials of our Government together and save us from the violence of contending factions. Since his death nearly forty years are gone. Party exasperation has been often carried to its highest point; the virtue and fortitude of the people have sometimes been greatly tried; yet our system, purified and enhanced in value by all it has encountered, still preserves its spirit of free and fearless discussion, blended with unimpaired fraternal feeling.

The capacity of the people for self-government, and their willingness, from a high sense of duty and without those exhibitions of coercive power so generally employed in other countries, to submit to all needful restraints and exactions of municipal law, have also been favorably exemplified in the history of the American States. Occasionally, it is true, the ardor of public sentiment, outrunning the regular progress of the judicial tribunals or seeking to reach cases not denounced as criminal by the existing law, has displayed itself in a manner calculated to give pain to the friends of free government and to encourage the hopes of those who wish for its overthrow. These occurrences, however, have been far less frequent in our country than in any other of equal population on the globe, and with the diffusion of intelligence it may well be hoped that they will constantly diminish in frequency and violence. The generous patriotism and sound common sense of the great mass of our fellow-citizens will assuredly in time produce this result; for as every assumption of illegal power not only wounds the majesty of the law, but furnishes a pretext for abridging the liberties of the people, the latter have the most direct and permanent interest in preserving the landmarks of social order and maintaining on all occasions the inviolability of those constitutional and legal provisions which they themselves have made.

In a supposed unfitness of our institutions for those hostile emergencies which no country can always avoid their friends found a fruitful source of apprehension, their enemies of hope. While they foresaw less promptness of action than in governments differently formed, they overlooked the far more important consideration that with us war could never be the result of individual or irresponsible will, but must be a measure of redress for injuries sustained, voluntarily resorted to by those who were to bear the necessary sacrifice, who would consequently feel an individual interest in the contest, and whose energy would be commensurate with the difficulties to be encountered. Actual events have proved their error; the last war, far from impairing, gave new confidence to our Government, and amid recent apprehensions of a similar conflict we saw that the energies of our country would not be wanting in ample season to vindicate its rights. We may not possess, as we should not desire to possess, the extended and ever-ready military organization of other nations; we may occasionally suffer in the outset for the want of it; but among ourselves all doubt upon this great point has ceased, while a salutary experience will prevent a contrary opinion from inviting aggression from abroad.

Certain danger was foretold from the extension of our territory, the multiplication of States, and the increase of population. Our system was supposed to be adapted only to boundaries comparatively narrow. These have been widened beyond conjecture; the members of our Confederacy are already doubled, and the numbers of our people are incredibly augmented. The alleged causes of danger have long surpassed anticipation, but none of the consequences have followed. The power and influence of the Republic have arisen to a height obvious to all mankind; respect for its authority was not more apparent at its ancient than it is at its present limits; new and inexhaustible sources of general prosperity have been opened; the effects of distance have been averted by the inventive genius of our people 1, developed and fostered by the spirit of our institutions; and the enlarged variety and amount of interests, productions, and pursuits have strengthened the chain of mutual dependence and formed a circle of mutual benefits too apparent ever to be overlooked.

In justly balancing the powers of the Federal and State authorities difficulties nearly insurmountable arose at the outset and subsequent collisions were deemed inevitable. Amid these it was scarcely believed possible that a scheme of government so complex in construction could remain uninjured. From time to time embarrassments have certainly occurred; but how just is the confidence of future safety imparted by the knowledge that each in succession has been happily removed! Overlooking partial and temporary evils as inseparable from the practical operation of all human institutions, and looking only to the general result, every patriot has reason to be satisfied. While the Federal Government has successfully performed its appropriate functions in relation to foreign affairs and concerns evidently national, that of every State has remarkably improved in protecting and developing local interests and individual welfare; and if the vibrations of authority have occasionally tended too much toward one or the other, it is unquestionably certain that the ultimate operation of the entire system has been to strengthen all the existing institutions and to elevate our whole country in prosperity and renown.

The last, perhaps the greatest, of the prominent sources of discord and disaster supposed to lurk in our political condition was the institution of domestic slavery. Our forefathers were deeply impressed with the delicacy of this subject, and they treated it with a forbearance so evidently wise that in spite of every sinister foreboding it never until the present period disturbed the tranquillity of our common country. Such a result is sufficient evidence of the justice and the patriotism of their course; it is evidence not to be mistaken that an adherence to it can prevent all embarrassment from this as well as from every other anticipated cause of difficulty or danger. Have not recent events made it obvious to the slightest reflection that the least deviation from this spirit of forbearance is injurious to every interest, that of humanity included? Amidst the violence of excited passions this generous and fraternal feeling has been sometimes disregarded; and standing as I now do before my countrymen, in this high place of honor and of trust, I can not refrain from anxiously invoking my fellow-citizens never to be deaf to its dictates. Perceiving before my election the deep interest this subject was beginning to excite, I believed it a solemn duty fully to make known my sentiments in regard to it, and now, when every motive for misrepresentation has passed away, I trust that they will be candidly weighed and understood. At least they will be my standard of conduct in the path before me. I then declared that if the desire of those of my countrymen who were favorable to my election was gratified "I must go into the Presidential chair the inflexible and uncompromising opponent of every attempt on the part of Congress to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia against the wishes of the slaveholding States, and also with a determination equally decided to resist the slightest interference with it in the States where it exists. 2" I submitted also to my fellow-citizens, with fullness and frankness, the reasons which led me to this determination. The result authorizes me to believe that they have been approved and are confided in by a majority of the people of the United States, including those whom they most immediately affect. It now only remains to add that no bill conflicting with these views can ever receive my constitutional sanction. These opinions have been adopted in the firm belief that they are in accordance with the spirit that actuated the venerated fathers of the Republic, and that succeeding experience has proved them to be humane, patriotic, expedient, honorable, and just. If the agitation of this subject was intended to reach the stability of our institutions, enough has occurred to show that it has signally failed, and that in this as in every other instance the apprehensions of the timid and the hopes of the wicked for the destruction of our Government are again destined to be disappointed. Here and there, indeed, scenes of dangerous excitement have occurred, terrifying instances of local violence have been witnessed, and a reckless disregard of the consequences of their conduct has exposed individuals to popular indignation; but neither masses of the people nor sections of the country have been swerved from their devotion to the bond of union and the principles it has made sacred. It will be ever thus. Such attempts at dangerous agitation may periodically return, but with each the object will be better understood. That predominating affection for our political system which prevails throughout our territorial limits, that calm and enlightened judgment which ultimately governs our people as one vast body, will always be at hand to resist and control every effort, foreign or domestic, which aims or would lead to overthrow our institutions.

What can be more gratifying than such a retrospect as this? We look back on obstacles avoided and dangers overcome, on expectations more than realized and prosperity perfectly secured. To the hopes of the hostile, the fears of the timid, and the doubts of the anxious actual experience has given the conclusive reply. We have seen time gradually dispel every unfavorable foreboding and our Constitution surmount every adverse circumstance dreaded at the outset as beyond control. Present excitement will at all times magnify present dangers, but true philosophy must teach us that none more threatening than the past can remain to be overcome; and we ought for we have just reason to entertain an abiding confidence in the stability of our institutions and an entire conviction that if administered in the true form, character, and spirit in which they were established they are abundantly adequate to preserve to us and our children the rich blessings already derived from them, to make our beloved land for a thousand generations that chosen spot where happiness springs from a perfect equality of political rights.

For myself, therefore, I desire to declare that the principle that will govern me in the high duty to which my country calls me is a strict adherence to the letter and spirit of the Constitution as it was designed by those who framed it. Looking back to it as a sacred instrument carefully and not easily framed; remembering that it was throughout a work of concession and compromise; viewing it as limited to national objects; regarding it as leaving to the people and the States all power not explicitly parted with 3, I shall endeavor to preserve, protect, and defend it by anxiously referring to its provision for direction in every action. To matters of domestic concernment which it has intrusted to the Federal Government and to such as relate to our intercourse with foreign nations I shall zealously devote myself; beyond those limits I shall never pass.

To enter on this occasion into a further or more minute exposition of my views on the various questions of domestic policy would be as obtrusive as it is probably unexpected. Before the suffrages of my countrymen were conferred upon me I submitted to them, with great precision, my opinions on all the most prominent of these subjects. Those opinions I shall endeavor to carry out with my utmost ability.

Our course of foreign policy has been so uniform and intelligible as to constitute a rule of Executive conduct which leaves little to my discretion, unless, indeed, I were willing to run counter to the lights of experience and the known opinions of my constituents. We sedulously cultivate the friendship of all nations as the conditions most compatible with our welfare and the principles of our Government. We decline alliances as adverse to our peace. We desire commercial relations on equal terms, being ever willing to give a fair equivalent for advantages received. We endeavor to conduct our intercourse with openness and sincerity, promptly avowing our objects and seeking to establish that mutual frankness which is as beneficial in the dealings of nations as of men. We have no disposition and we disclaim all right to meddle in disputes, whether internal or foreign, that may molest other countries, regarding them in their actual state as social communities, and preserving a strict neutrality in all their controversies. Well knowing the tried valor of our people and our exhaustless resources, we neither anticipate nor fear any designed aggression; and in the consciousness of our own just conduct we feel a security that we shall never be called upon to exert our determination never to permit an invasion of our rights without punishment or redress.

In approaching, then, in the presence of my assembled countrymen, to make the solemn promise that yet remains, and to pledge myself that I will faithfully execute the office I am about to fill, I bring with me a settled purpose to maintain the institutions of my country, which I trust will atone for the errors I commit.

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 united as I have been in his counsels, a daily witness of his exclusive and unsurpassed devotion to his country's welfare, agreeing with him in sentiments which his countrymen have warmly supported, and permitted to partake largely of his confidence, I may hope that somewhat of the same cheering approbation will be found to attend upon my path. For him I but express with my own the wishes of all, that he may yet long live to enjoy the brilliant evening of his well-spent life; and for myself, conscious of but one desire, faithfully to serve my country, I throw myself without fear on its justice and its kindness. Beyond that I only look to the gracious protection of the Divine Being whose strengthening support I humbly solicit, and whom I fervently pray to look down upon us all. May it be among the dispensations of His providence to bless our beloved country with honors and with length of days. May her ways be ways of pleasantness and all her paths be peace!

Quotes to Note

  1. "the effects of distance..." Van Buren is referring to the development of canals, interstate roads, railroad trains, and steamboats. These modes of travel made it possible to reach the most remote areas of the expanding country.
  2. "the inflexible and uncompromising opponent..." Van Buren was the first president to address the growing controversy over slavery in an inaugural speech. Ironically, Van Buren, a Northerner, expresses his opposition to federal interference with states' rights to allow slavery.
  3. "viewing it as limited..." Van Buren is stating the main principle of the 10th Amendment to the Constitution.

Buren, Martin Van (1782-1862)

views updated Jun 11 2018

Martin Van Buren (1782-1862)


Eighth president of the united states

Youth. Martin Van Buren was born at Kinderhook in upstate New York on 5 December 1782. His parents were farmers and had inherited a tavern, and apparently were modest slaveholders as well. Van Buren attended local village schools and became a law clerk at fourteen. By 1800 he had acquired a reputation as an advocate. He was licensed to practice law in 1803 and became a partner of his half brother. In 1807 he married Hannah Hoes, who gave birth to four sons before she died in 1819.

Little Magician. Standing five feet six inches, not really short for that era, Van Buren always dressed immaculately, and his cheerful disposition and wit won him many jurors and voters. In 1813 he was elected state senator, defeating Edward Livingston on an antibank platform. In 1815 he became a regent for the State University of New York, was reelected in 1816, and became state attorney general in the same year. He and Governor DeWitt Clinton parted over canal policy, and Clinton removed Van Buren from the attorney generalship. Angered by Clintons federalism, Van Buren led a movement for a new state constitution, especially seeking to lessen the arbitrary power of state judges. In an age when most Americans rejected political parties, or factions, as corrupt sources of influence, Van Buren believed that parties could actually serve the people by organizing them to resist infringements on their liberty. Called the Little Magician for his ability to organize and motivate, Van Buren challenged established politicians on a variety of issues and sought to expand democracy by creating a party that would protect the peoples interests. His faction, known as the Bucktails, or the Albany Regency, helped to elect him to the United States Senate in 1821. In Washington, Van Buren became a staunch supporter of William Crawford. In the Senate Van Buren voted for the tariffs of 1824 and 1828 and against internal improvements.

Loyal Jacksonian. Van Buren became New Yorks governor in 1828 but immediately resigned to become Andrew Jacksons secretary of state. He wisely avoided Vice President John C. Calhouns intrigue against Peggy Eaton, and as secretary of state he resolved issues involving West Indies trade with Britain and French compensation to Americans for Napoleonic-era commercial injuries. At Jacksons request he resigned so that Jackson could form a new cabinet without Calhouns influence. Nominated as minister to Great Britain, he was defeated by Calhouns tie-breaking vote. He avoided politics during the remainder of Jacksons first term and traveled with his son, john, in Europe, returning home as the Democrats considered their vice-presidential choice in 1832. Van Buren was elected and became Jacksons likely successor in 1836.

Van Ruin. In 1836 Van Buren faced a divided Whig opposition that ran sectional candidates Hugh Lawson White, Daniel Webster, and the Anti-Masonic nominee, William Henry Harrison. The split allowed Van Buren to win by a large margin. Almost immediately Van Buren faced a severe economic depression, the Panic of 1837. Opposed to banks and paper money, Van Buren had little to offer in the way of policies to alleviate the panic. Blaming banks for the depression, he sought an independent treasury that would allow the government to control monetary policy. Whigs and probank Democrats, however, blocked his efforts, and the public increasingly blamed Jackson and Van Ruin for the lasting crisis. In the 1840 election the Whig Party avoided the issues and promoted their candidate, Harrison, as a man of the people born in a log cabin and raised on hard cider, while calling Van Buren a used up man and an extravagant spender. Van Buren lost in a landslide.

Free-Soil. In 1844 the Democrats rallied again to Van Buren, but his opposition to the annexation of Texas (which he feared would lead to a war with Mexico) hurt his popularity. When the Democratic convention met in Baltimore, proannexation forces secured a two-thirds rule that made it possible for committed Van Buren delegates to vote for him on the first ballot, then desert him when it became obvious he could not win. James Polk was eventually nominated, and Van Buren, believing that southerners had sabotaged him, went on to lead the free-soil Democrats, or Barnburners, out of the party in 1846. It was ironic that in 1848 Van Buren became the presidential candidate of the sectional Free Soil Party, considering that in the 1820s he had helped re-create the old Jeffersonian alliance between New York and Virginia to quell sectionalism. Van Buren accepted the Compromise of 1850 and returned to the Democratic, fold by 1852, but he was disappointed by the Kansas-Nebraska Act and by James Buchanans prosouthern policies. He died on 24 July 1862, after suffering for months with severe asthma.


James C. Curtis, The Fox at Bay: Martin Van Buren and the Presidency, 1837-1841 (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1970);

John Niven, Martin Van Buren: The Romantic Age of American Politics (New York. Oxford University Press, 1983).

Martin Van Buren

views updated May 23 2018

Martin Van Buren

Martin Van Buren (1782-1862), eighth president of the United States, has been called the first national politician. He built an alliance between the "plain Republicans of the North" and the planters of the South and then launched the first truly national party.

Martin Van Buren executed with distinction the duties of many of the highest offices of the nation, including that of president, but he was always regarded more as a politician than a statesman. Considered a shrewd manipulator, he was consistent in advocating the principles of Jeffersonian Republicanism as defined in the Jacksonian democracy.

Born on Dec. 5, 1782, in the village of Kinderhook, N.Y., Van Buren was the son of a farmer and tavern keeper who was active in Antifederalist politics. Martin worked on the farm and attended local schools. At the age of 14 he became a clerk in a law office in Kinderhook and then in an office in New York City. Beginning in 1803, he prospered in law practice in Kinderhook with his half brother. In 1807 he married Hannah Hoes, and they had four sons. His wife died in 1819, and he never remarried.

Political Career

Van Buren was elected to the New York Senate in 1813 and 2 years later became attorney general. By the early 1820s he was leader of the organization that controlled government in New York for many years. He advocated moderate reforms in extending democracy. In 1821 he supported the virtual elimination of the property qualification for white manhood suffrage, but also the provision by which only black Americans who possessed freeholds of the clear value of $150 could vote.

In 1821 Van Buren was elected to the U.S. Senate and became a leader there. He supported Andrew Jackson in 1828 and resigned the governorship of New York to become Jackson's secretary of state. In that office Van Buren reached agreement with Great Britain, opening up its West Indian possessions to American trade, and secured payment from France for commercial injuries during the Napoleonic Wars.

In 1831 Van Buren resigned his office to allow the President to reconstitute the Cabinet. He was named minister to Great Britain, but this was not confirmed by the Senate. In 1832 he was elected vice president, and during the following 4 years he supported Jackson in all of his battles. In 1836 he received his party's nomination for president and was elected easily.

The President

In his inaugural address Van Buren observed that he was the first president who had not lived through the revolutionary struggle that created the nation and that he could not "expect his countrymen to weigh my actions with the same kind and partial hand." They did not. He condemned abolitionist propaganda and spoke against the "slightest interference" with slavery "in the states where it exists." In rhetoric common during those years, he said that Americans were without parallel throughout the world "in all the attributes of a great, happy, and flourishing people." Two months after his inauguration, however, a serious economic depression destroyed his popularity. He continued Jacksonian policies, trying to "mitigate the evils" which the banks produced and advocating an independent treasury for public funds, a measure enacted near the end of his term. In foreign affairs he had difficulty maintaining good relations with Great Britain because of the efforts of some Americans on the New York border to support the rebellion in Canada in 1837. He made no effort to annex Texas.

Van Buren was badly beaten in 1840 by the aging William Henry Harrison and retired to his farm at Kinderhook. Van Buren would undoubtedly have been the Democratic nominee in 1844 had not Texas become the dominant issue by that year. In the atmosphere of "manifest destiny" his views were not sufficiently expansionist, and although he had a majority of the votes at the party convention, he lacked the two-thirds required. The dark horse, James K. Polk, was nominated and elected, and he led the nation into aggressive war and territorial expansion.

Free Soil Party

Increasing Southern domination of the Democratic party drove Van Buren and his faction into opposition in 1848. In that year's election he was the candidate of the Free Soil party, opposing expansion of slavery. In New York, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire he received more votes than the Democratic candidate, but he carried no states and Zachary Taylor won the election for the Whigs.

Van Buren lost the support of the antislavery movement when he returned to the Democratic party in the 1850s. Without much enthusiasm he supported Franklin Pierce (1852), James Buchanan (1856), and Stephen A. Douglas (1860). But when the Civil War came, he supported Abraham Lincoln's government. Van Buren died on July 24, 1862.

Van Buren's remarkable political success was due to a combination of talents. He habitually thought in terms of political forces and was fertile in conceiving, and able in executing, plans to weaken the opposition and advance his own party. He wrote persuasively and was a good speaker. He was charming, cheerful, and always courteous and affable. Although an earnest advocate of his party's principles, he was essentially a moderate in government. On all the important issues of his time except the one which was most crucial, Van Buren played an important role; he vacillated on issues related to slavery and made no contribution toward resolving that problem.

Further Reading

Van Buren's Autobiography, edited by his sons, was republished in 1969. George Bancroft, historian and contemporary Democratic politician, wrote a laudatory life of Van Buren in the early 1840s that was published half a century later: Martin Van Buren to the End of His Public Career (1889). The best life is Edward M. Shepard, Martin Van Buren (1888; rev. ed. 1900), although written without some materials now available and occasionally dogmatic in its interpretations. There is no satisfactory modern biography.

An excellent scholarly monograph that critically assesses Van Buren's overall performance as president is James C. Curtis, The Fox at Bay: Martin Van Buren and the Presidency, 1837-1841 (1970). Robert V. Remini, who wrote a good study of Van Buren's career during the 1820s—Martin Van Buren and the Making of the Democratic Party (1959)—is at work on a comprehensive biography. Van Buren's election to the presidency is detailed in Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., ed., History of American Presidential Elections (4 vols., 1971). □

Van Buren, Martin

views updated Jun 08 2018

Martin Van Buren

Martin Van Buren made the most of his modest upbringing and poor education. Serving as a U.S. senator, secretary of state, and vice president before assuming the presidency, he carried on the strong tradition of democracy that had been established by his political patron, Andrew Jackson (1767–1845; served 1828–37).

Van Buren was born on December 5, 1782, and raised in Kinderhook, a small New York town, in a respected Dutch American family. As a child he was often called away from the crude village schoolhouse to work on the family's farm or in his father's tavern. At the age of fourteen he went to work as an apprentice to one of the town's lawyers. He was admitted to the bar in 1803, and began a highly successful law practice.

Van Buren's father's tavern had been a gathering place for Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans , people who, like President Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826; served 1801–09), believed in a farming society and feared a strong central government. From his early days, Van Buren opposed the forces of change that were transforming the agrarian (farming) society into an industrial one. He fought against the privileges of the elite, particularly politicians who came from rich and powerful families. His law practice often defended the interests of local farmers and merchants in land and contract disputes against the landed gentry, who were typically members of the Federalist Party .

Builds a political machine

In 1812 Van Buren was elected to the New York state senate. Around that time, the Democratic-Republican party had split into two factions.

Van Buren became the leader of one faction, popularly known as the Bucktails; with this group's support he won the post of state attorney general in 1815. In this position he helped build the Albany Regency, which is considered the first modern political machine, a network of high-ranking politicians who make appointments and grant favors in return for political support rather than merit and use their collective power to defeat the efforts of political rivals. Van Buren saw the party as a means of access to power that had once been reserved for the elite.

Jackson supporter

Van Buren won election to the U.S. Senate in 1821 and remained in that post for the next seven years. The election of 1824 brought John Quincy Adams (1767–1848; served 1825–29) into the White House even though military hero Andrew Jackson (1767–1845) had won the popular vote. Van Buren, a staunch supporter of Jackson, actively opposed the Adams administration. To attract Southern support, he spoke out for states' rights and against the idea of strong national government advocated by Adams. Working closely with others, he fashioned a North-South coalition behind Jackson in the election of 1828. Van Buren ran for governor of New York as Jackson campaigned for the presidency. Both won their elections. After three months as governor, Van Buren resigned and joined Jackson in Washington.

During Jackson's presidency (1829–37), Van Buren served in turn as secretary of state, minister to England, and vice president for the second term. He was one of Jackson's most trusted advisors.

Follows Jackson to the presidency

With Jackson's support, Van Buren received the party's nomination for president and won the election of 1836. During his one term in office, Van Buren worked to contain the growing tensions between the North and the South over slavery. He prevailed on Southern Democrats to give up their desire to bring slaveholding Texas into the Union .

Van Buren, like Jackson, distrusted national banks, thinking they favored the wealthy industrialists and gave the central government too much power. During the previous administration, Jackson had crushed the national bank and deposited government revenues in selected state banks. Van Buren had just taken office when the resulting economic collapse hit. He pushed through Congress a measure for an independent Treasury, which would separate Treasury operations from all private banks. His position was unpopular even within his own party and detested by the Whigs , a party that rose in opposition to Jackson. The Whigs nominated General William Henry Harrison (1773–1841; served 1841) for the presidential election of 1840, and he soundly defeated Van Buren.

Van Buren kept trying to regain the presidency. Because of his opposition to the issue of Texas annexation (admission to the Union) and the spread of slavery, the Southerners of the Democratic Party denied him the party nomination in 1844. In 1848, Van Buren agreed to stand as the candidate of the Free Soil Party on a platform of opposing the spread of slavery. Within two years, however, he returned to his old Democratic Party. Even though it remained strongly pro-Southern throughout the 1850s, he still believed strongly in the party's states' rights doctrine. He retired from the active political life and died on July 24, 1862, in Kinderhook.

Van Buren, Martin

views updated May 17 2018


Prominent political leader, U.S. senator, secretary of state, vice president, and eighth president of the United States, Martin Van Buren led the nation during its first major economic crisis. The New York native built a career based on machine politics—the control of local political power by a well-disciplined organization. Van Buren held top positions in his home state before entering national politics, where his instinct for party building helped create the democratic party in the 1820s. Elected vice president in 1832 and president in 1836, he sought to protect federal monetary reserves during the depression that began shortly after he took office.

Born in Kinderhook, New York, on December 5, 1782, Van Buren was the third of five children born to Dutch working-class parents. He began to study law at the early age of fourteen and gained admission to the New York bar four years later in 1803. He was elected to the New York legislature in 1812 and continued to be reelected until 1820. From 1816 until 1819, he also served as the state attorney general.

Van Buren's political views came directly from Jeffersonian Republicanism. Like thomas jefferson, he believed in states' rights and

opposed a strong federal government. During the early years of his career in New York, Van Buren controlled the so-called Albany Regency, a political machine that was very influential in state politics. Later, in the 1820s, he joined forces with andrew jackson and helped to forge the political alliances that would lead to the formation of the Democratic Party.

"Let them worry and fret and intrigue at Washington. Six weeks hence they will find themselves as wise as they were when they began."
Martin Van Buren

As in state politics, Van Buren enjoyed steady success at the national level. He won election to the U.S. Senate in 1821 and retained his senatorial seat until 1828 when he became governor of New York. He resigned the office a mere twelve weeks later, however, to become secretary of state under President Jackson. His support of Jackson through the president's turbulent first

administration paid off: in 1832 Jackson chose Van Buren as his vice presidential running mate over the incumbent john c. calhoun, and the two were elected.

Van Buren's own election as president in 1836 was precipitated by crisis. Under the Jackson administration, land speculation had run rampant nationwide. When Congress failed to intervene, banks issued great numbers of loans without backing them up with security. The speculation continued until Jackson ordered the government to accept only gold or silver as payment on land. The result was the so-called Panic of 1837, a devastating financial crash that led to the first large-scale economic depression in U.S. history. By 1840 Van Buren had convinced Congress to pass the Independent Treasury Bill. It provided for federally controlled vaults to store all federal monies; transactions were to be conducted in hard currency. The independent treasury protected federal deposits until 1841, when it was abolished. President james k. polk brought it back in 1846.

Van Buren sought reelection in 1840, running as the only presidential candidate without a vice presidential candidate in history. Defeated by william henry harrison, he attempted to gain the Democratic nomination again in 1844 but was unsuccessful. His popularity had deteriorated both because of the depression and because of his positions on other domestic issues. He opposed the annexation of Texas, which he feared would precipitate a war with Mexico, and an expensive war against Seminole Indians in Florida. He tried once more to win the Democratic presidential nomination in 1848 but was defeated again. He died on July 24, 1862, in Kinderhook, New York.

further readings

Leonard, Gerald. 2001. "Party as a 'Political Safeguard of Federalism': Martin Van Buren and the Constitutional Theory of Party Politics. Rutgers Law Review 54 (fall).

Mushkat, Jerome, and Joseph G. Rayback. 1997. Martin Van Buren: Law, Politics, and the Shaping of Republican Ideology. DeKalb: Northern Illinois Univ. Press.

Silbey, Joel H. 2002. Martin Van Buren and the Emergence of American Popular Politics. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield.

Van Buren, Martin

views updated May 29 2018

Van Buren, Martin (1782–1862) Eighth US President (1837–41). Van Buren served (1921–28) in the US Senate. As Andrew Jackson's secretary of state, his opposition to John C. Calhoun's idea of nullification earned him the vice-presidency (1832–36) and the Democratic nomination. An advocate of states' rights, his presidency plunged into crisis with the lack of federal intervention in the economic depression (1837). In foreign affairs, Van Buren sought conciliation with Great Britain over the Aroostook War. He was heavily defeated by William Henry Harrison in the 1840 presidential elections. Van Buren's rejection of the annexation of Texas and extension of slavery lost him the Democratic nomination in 1844.

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