Martin van Buren was a man for the people, and especially for the downtrodden. Women loved him. If women would have had the right to vote in the mid-nineteenth century Martin Van Buren might have become a five-term president, and might have avoided the Civil War. But as it turned out he only served as the U.S. president for four years from 1837 to 1841. What prevented him from being re-nominated was out of his control. As was known then, and certainly now, a bad economy will make any president a one-term president. Just ask Herbert Hoover, Jimmy Carter, George H. W. Bush and James Buchanan.
But even so, Martin van Buren today is still ranked higher than Hoover, Carter, Bush and Buchanan by most knowledgeable rankers of the U.S. presidents. Van Buren is about in the middle, 21st out of 43, including the current George W. Bush. The reason he is ranked so high is probably because of his many other accomplishments prior to his presidency. Among these accomplishments are:
1. Founder of the two-party system in U.S. politics
2. Founder of the party caucus
3. Founder of the nominating convention
4. Founder of the patronage system
5. Founder of a process to successfully market a candidate for a political position
6. Founder of many other political practices now considered common. He was also the founder of the Democratic Party of today, the first U.S. president from New York State, the first ethnic U.S. president, the first president born in the republic [the seven presidents who preceded him were all born under British rule], and the first president elected without the benefit of a university degree or a military commission [the only one like him in presidential history is Grover Cleveland].
Van Buren also was able to ascend to the highest position in the land at a time when there were many other brilliant politicians competing with him for the same position. In his age cohort were such historic figures as Daniel Webster, John C. Calhoun and Thomas Hart Benton. Only Van Buren succeeded in his quest to become a U.S. president. He succeeded because he discovered through experience, analysis and observation that politics involves both being decisive and compromising. He knew hard ball politics such as deal making, vote counting, promotion, publicity, incentives and cutting losses. He was pragmatic and not all of his decisions were based on what he felt was best for the country at that time. But he knew what was best for his own progress up the political ladder.
Van Buren, upon becoming president, had a wealth of political experience behind him both in New York State and in Washington, D.C. Although he was only 52 years old when he became president, he had already been a judge, a New York State Senator, a New York State Attorney General, a New York State Governor, and had served for four years as the U.S. Vice President under the then U.S. President Andrew Jackson. So Van Buren knew what he was getting into in 1836 when he won the U.S. presidential election.
So what was Van Buren's background and what shaped him? Martin van Buren was born on December 5, 1782 in Kinderhook, New York. Kinderhook is currently a small town of about 1300 people and is located about 20 miles south of Albany, New York in Columbia County. His father, Abram van Buren, was a tavern keeper, and Martin was born in a house that was attached to the tavern. He was the middle child in terms of age of nine children. Martin's mother was Maria Hoes van Alen, with a name as Dutch as her husband's. In fact, although they were fifth generation Dutch, all of their forebears were of Dutch extraction. The original Van Buren had come over in the 1640's during the Van Rensselaer era when all of Columbia County was part of the Rensselaer Estate. And the original immigrant forbear probably came over sponsored by Killian Van Rensselaer, among many other immigrants, to occupy the Rensselaer estate. As a result Martin Van Buren was pure Dutch, and still spoke Dutch, the language that prevailed for many generations in that part of New York State along the Hudson River.
Martin attended the village elementary school in Kinderhook, and at about age 12 he became an apprentice in the local Sylvester law firm. Martin must have shown some potential because most children at that age were usually put to work on more mundane tasks. From being just an office boy, he eventually became a law clerk, first in Kinderhook and later in New York City, where he completed his law apprenticeship and passed the New York State Bar Exam in 1803, at age 21.
After becoming a lawyer, he returned to Kinderhook and began his law practice in 1803. In 1806, he moved to Hudson, New York. He apparently was a very successful lawyer, and in one year reputedly earned $ 10,000, a princely sum for that time period. Three years later, in 1809, he became a Surrogate Judge in Columbia County, New York, and served in that position until 1813. Even then he was already actively involved in politics, and in 1813 he ran for the New York State Senate and won, serving until 1820. During his time in the New York State Senate he also served as Attorney General of New York State from 1816 until 1819. In 1819 he served as a delegate to the New York State Constitutional Convention, was elected to the U.S. Senate, and reelected in 1827. In 1828 he resigned from the U.S. Senate because he had been elected Governor of New York State.
The following year, in 1829, President Andrew Jackson appointed Van Buren to a Cabinet position, Secretary of State. He served as Secretary of State until 1831 when he became Minister [Ambassador] to Great Britain. However, in 1832, the U.S. Senate rejected his nomination for the ambassadorship and he returned to the U.S. Before he returned from Great Britain, he visited The Netherlands, the country of his forbears, and was received by the Queen. That same year, President Andrew Jackson asked him to serve on his presidential ticket as Vice President. Jackson won the election and Van Buren served as Vice President from 1833 to 1837. In 1837 Van Buren won the unanimous support of the Democratic Party Convention and became the presidential candidate. He won easily and served as the eighth U.S. President from March 1837 until March 1841.
Only two months after Van Buren's inauguration for the U.S. presidency, in May 1837, the American economy collapsed. During the Jackson presidency an order was issued that paper money could not be used to buy government lands. As a result of this order eastern banks were transferring massive amounts of specie [hard currency] to western banks because of demand for money fuelled by the western expansion. As a result the eastern banks became short of capital and were unable to supply the demand for loans. As the economy started to collapse because of the shortage of capital, depositors started to withdraw their deposits causing a nationwide string of bank bankruptcies.
The above situation caused the country to quickly sink into a deep economic depression, the worst ever. During this time period, of the country's 788 banks, 618 collapsed. Economics as a discipline was virtually non-existent, and the government had no idea of how to deal with the depression. As a result, unemployment was rampant, many businesses, including farms ended up in bankruptcy, and the people suffered.
The new president, Van Buren, of course received most of the blame, although the previous administration was responsible for the depression because of its ill-advised directives. And the Van Buren administration was helpless to solve the problem. Fortunately, over time the economy corrected itself, but the damage to the Van Buren administration had been done.
At the 1840 Democratic Party Convention to nominate the Party's candidate for the next four year presidential period, Van Buren received a simple majority for re-nomination. But the Democratic political machine could ignore the convention vote because Van Buren needed a two thirds majority and the political bosses refused to nominate Van Buren for the presidency.
During Van Buren's presidency there were a few decisions he made that were troubling. Two of the decisions related to the American Indian problem. Against their will he completed the transfer of 20,000 Cherokees to Oklahoma in 1838. And in Florida he had 3500 of the 4000 Seminole Indians removed from the State of Florida as part of the Second Seminole War, a war which had caused 1500 casualties to U.S. forces.
On the slavery issue, Van Buren had taken a negative stand on the abolition of slavery in the slave states, in order to keep the South and the North united. He was castigated on this decision by many northern abolitionists, particularly many from New York State. However, in 1848, unable to get the Democratic Party nomination for the presidency, he ran as a third party candidate for the Free Soils Party. The party's main platform was the abolition of slavery. Van Buren was able to win 20 percent of the vote, a reasonable vote for a third party nominee. However, the time had arrived to exit and he ended his involvement in national politics. He was then 66 years old.
Positive actions during Van Buren's presidency involved international actions. He was able to defuse two crises with Great Britain over border issues with Canada. He was also able to convince southerners to go slow in admitting Texas to the Union, so that a war with Mexico could be avoided. As a result of his actions as a president and his involvement in politics prior to his presidency, he is viewed as having been a successful president. The economic collapse was largely out of his control. Proper reaction to the depression required the application of specific economic principles which then were not yet known. John Maynard Keynes's principles on how governments should deal with economic collapse still had to be written.
There is not much known about Van Buren's personal life. He married Hannah Hoes [1783-1819] in Catskill, New York. She was the daughter of one of his first cousins. In this way he followed the example of his father who also was married to a family relation, a practice which apparently was quite common during those times. The Van Buren's had four children, all sons. The oldest son, who later became his personal assistant, was born in 1807. Van Buren's wife, Hannah, died at the young age of 36 in 1819 from tuberculosis when the oldest child was only twelve years old. This must have been a severely traumatic event for Van Buren and his four young children. But little is known about him during that time period. The stoic Dutch are loathe to share their innermost personal experiences, and not a thing is mentioned about his family or personal experiences in his biographies.
We do know that Van Buren was revered by the common man, especially in New York State and especially in New York City. Following the end of his presidency, he was welcomed back to New York State by a huge crowd in New York City. The welcome included a parade, speeches and other celebratory events. The welcome was the most extensive event ever recorded in the city up until that time.
Van Buren retired to his estate called Lindenwald in Kinderhook, New York. He remained active in politics until the end of his presidential campaign for the Free Soils Party in 1848. He then did some foreign traveling and also worked on his memoirs. He passed away on July 24, 1862 in Kinderhook and was interred in Kinderhook Cemetery.
Van Buren's estate, Lindenwald, is the official Van Buren Presidential Site in Kinderhook, New York. It is open during the summer months for tourists to visit.
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“PROMINENT DUTCH AMERICANS IN U.S. GOVERNMENT LEADERSHIP POSITIONS”, forthcoming in 2015.
Widmer, Ted, "Martin van Buren", Times Books, Henry Holt and Company, N.Y. 2005
National Archives (UK)
Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress.