The eighth president of the United States is likely a mystery to most casual history lovers, however his impact and legacy can be felt today.
So just who was Martin Van Buren? How did he get into politics? And how did his work lead to the creation of party politics?
Tune in to learn all of this and more.
“Van Buren Biography.” The Papers of Martin Van Buren. (LINK)
Costello, Matthew. “The Enslaved Households of President Martin Van Buren” White House History. November 27, 2019. (LINK)
Silbey, Joel. Martin Van Buren - Multiple Articles Courtesy of the University of Virginia Miller Center. (LINK)
“Hannah Van Buren.” The White House. (LINK)
Widmer, Ted. Martin Van Buren: The American Presidents Series: The 8th President, 1837-1841. United States: Henry Holt and Company, 2005.
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. Martin Van Buren, March 4, 1837.
Welcome to Civics and Coffee. My name is Alycia and I am a self-professed history nerd. Each week, I am going to chat about a topic on U.S history and give you both the highlights and occasionally break down some of the complexities in history; and share stories you may not remember learning in high school. All in the time it takes to enjoy a cup of coffee.
Hey everyone, welcome back.
Following the coattails of one of the most popular presidents in a generation, Martin Van Buren had decidedly less enthusiasm for his administration. Limited to a single term, though he ran a number of times under various political parties, Martin Van Buren’s tenure as our eighth president is often relegated to his failure to curb the Panic of 1837.
But, who was Martin Van Buren? How did he get into politics? And what is his lasting legacy?
Grab your cup of coffee, peeps. Let’s do this.
As Van Buren is likely one of our more obscure presidents to the casual history lover, I will provide a little background to his story. Born in Kinderhook, New York in 1782, Martin Van Buren is the first president to be born a citizen of the United States. His father, Abraham, ran a tavern that catered to the traveling politicians who journeyed out to the seat of government in upstate New York, Albany, which was just twenty miles from their home. Having this access to the men of power proved highly influential to young Martin, who was also tuning in as the surrounding political men swapped ideas and compromises.
Van Buren grew up speaking Dutch, later learning English as a young boy in school making him the only president to date whose primary language was not English. His education was rudimentary, at best, and though he later became a lawyer, never attended college. Instead he entered into a legal apprenticeship to prepare for his sitting for the bar. This lack of formal education would bother Van Buren throughout his life and may have been one of the similarities that bonded him with Andrew Jackson.
He found love with Hannah Hoes, marrying her in 1807. As a young couple, they had several children, most of whom lived to adulthood, but tragedy would strike just twelve years into their marriage when Hannah passed away from tuberculosis at the age of 35. Much like his predecessor and confidant Andrew Jackson, Van Buren was bereft and never remarried.
Always interested in the political coming and goings, Van Buren was involved in politics from a young age, joining the Democratic-Republican party as a young man. This choice was not easy as Van Buren lived in a heavily Federalist friendly area. The idea of limited federal government and strict interpretation of the constitution would remain a constant throughout his political career, despite his membership in various parties.
Despite his own political disappointments, Van Buren was an astute observer and had a knack for picking winning candidates to hitch his wheel to. In New York, when Aaron Burr and DeWitt Clinton were vying for influence, Van Buren correctly saw that Burr’s impact and power was on the decline and put his efforts behind Clinton. This proved the smart choice as Van Buren was rewarded for his loyalty with his appointment to be the Surrogate for Columbia County at just twenty six years old.
While known as the main force behind the creation of the Democratic party, Van Buren gained experience earlier in his career when he and several colleagues collaborated to create the Albany Regency. As author Ted Widmer describes Van Buren and several like minded politicians quote, “developed a clear party ideology, they were loyal to one another, and they used the press brilliantly to explain themselves,” end quote. In short, it was a highly developed, focused and sophisticated political organization, the likes of which had not been seen before in New York. The members of the regency were believers in the Jeffersonian method of government, keeping bureaucracy small and protecting the independent farmers. Though against massive government spending, the Regency eventually came to support one of the largest public projects to date: the Erie Canal. The Regency worked with the other political machine in New York - Tammany Hall and together, held incredible influence over public policy.
During his leadership of the Albany Regency, Van Buren won an election to become a U.S. Senator for the state of New York. Despite moving to Washington to step into his new role, Van Buren remained a key influential figure in the political machine which only provided him greater influence as a legislator at the federal level. The success of the party machine likely fueled Van Buren’s decision to later create a national organization to help Andrew Jackson get elected in 1828, as he witnessed first hand how successful a unified organization could be.
It was as Senator that Van Buren was pulled into the orbit of predecessor Andrew Jackson. As I covered extensively during my episodes on Jackson and John Quincy Adams, the presidential election of 1824 was one of the most controversial elections of the time, leading to Jackson supporters crying foul and painting Adams’ ascension to the office the result of a quote, unquote corrupt bargain. Though not originally a supporter of Jackson’s candidacy, Van Buren was highly concerned about what an Adams’ presidency could mean, suspecting he was a Federalist in disguise.
Van Buren used his position in the Senate to actively fight the Adams agenda. He also used this as an opportunity to develop a broad coalition to defeat Adams in the 1828 contest, reaching out to the anti-Adams’ Democratic Republicans and those who wanted to see a more limited government. These efforts were successful in not only securing the presidency for Jackson in 1828, but all saw the start of the Democratic party and many of the machinations we still see today. Again from Van Buren biographer Ted Widmer, Van Buren quote “shaped the invention of the party caucus, the nominating convention, the patronage system, the publicity network, and the Democratic party,” end quote.
Much like in his early career, stomping for Jackson paid off in dividends when Jackson asked Van Buren to join his cabinet. Van Buren, having just won the Governor’s seat in New York, quickly resigned his seat and headed back to Washington, this time as the Secretary of State - a position seen as a grooming role for future presidents. However, Van Buren’s time in the cabinet was anything but smooth, as he often butted heads with ambitious Vice President John C Calhoun. Tensions got so bad that Van Buren offered to resign his post, so Jackson could completely makeover his entire cabinet.
Still trying to keep him within the administration, Jackson appointed Van Buren as Minister to Great Britain, however Van Buren didn’t serve long as his appointment was defeated in the Senate by one vote - the Vice President John C Calhoun. Perhaps hoping to finally put an end to Van Buren’s political ascension, Calhoun’s vote only served to further bond Jackson and Van Buren together, with Jackson asking him to join his ticket in 1832 as the Vice President. Van Buren readily agreed.
Van Buren finally ran for the top job himself in 1836. Largely seen as the chosen successor to the still popular Andrew Jackson, Van Buren won handedly, capturing over two hundred thousand more votes than his challenger. Despite earning more votes than Jackson in 1832, Van Buren lost a bit of electoral ground, despite having a geographically balanced ticket. Upon his election, Van Buren promised to maintain Jackson policies and indicating he would support no bills interfering with the institution of slavery. With his inaugural address, Van Buren made history as he became the first president to speak directly about slavery during an inauguration speech.
As happy as he might have been to be in the driver’s seat, Van Buren was about to walk into a nightmare on the domestic front as Jackson’s fiscal policies were about to fuel an economic recession known as the Panic of 1837. Continuing in his predecessor’s footsteps, Van Buren maintained a majority of Jackson’s cabinet. While a decision previous presidents came to regret, Van Buren seemed uniquely positioned to benefit from maintaining the cabinet. Committed to the continuation of his predecessor’s policies, Van Buren saw no reason to go through the potential political fights of replacing cabinet members. Additionally, Van Buren had strong working relationships with the cabinet, working closely with them during the preceding several years.
Perhaps another motivating factor in maintaining the membership of the cabinet was the economic downturn facing the country as Van Buren took the oath of office. Opposed to the Second Bank of the United States, Andrew Jackson had vetoed its renewal charter and had placed the country’s deposits into smaller, regional banks. Jackson was also a fan of hard money - backed by precious metal - over soft money. This, in conjunction with the loss of investment from British banks and U.S. banks calling in loans created a perfect storm. Only two months into his term, several prominent banks across New York ran out of their hard money reserves and began refusing to turn soft money into hard. This created a ripple effect of sorts with regional banks throughout the country followed New York’s lead.
Suddenly, public works projects ended, creditors stopped accepting paper money as payment on loans and citizens lost their jobs. While it may have been politically expedient to at least put partial blame on his predecessor, Van Buren stayed the course and instead pointed to greed from the business community as the true cause of the panic. Trying to blunt its impacts, Van Buren proposed the creation of an independent treasury. The idea was the federal government would select sub treasuries to place its deposits, denying funds to banks seen as poorly run. However, Congress was not in alignment with the president - arguing instead for one central bank, such as the Second Bank of the United States Jackson had vetoed during his administration.
Van Buren got slammed in the press for his inability to curb the recession. Aware of, and perhaps overly sensitive to his very humble beginnings, Van Buren was a man who appreciated the finer things in life. Always impeccably dressed, he became an easy target for the press, who came to refer to him as Martin Van Ruin.
This failure to pull the country out of financial peril played heavily into the election in 1840, contributing to his loss to William Henry Harrison. However, this wasn’t the only domestic issue on the voting public’s mind as they headed to the polls. Van Buren was also criticized by the growing Whig party for his treatment of the Native American population, as he again continued Jackson’s policy of their removal, overseeing the Second Seminole War which I mentioned in an episode a couple of weeks ago.
The other critical domestic issue Van Buren faced during his tenure was the question of annexing Texas. At issue was whether or not the United States should bring the large land mass into the union. Large swaths of american citizens had ventured into the territory, bringing their human property with them. This created tensions within the country as opponents were against allowing yet another slave state into the country. Though Jackson publicly supported annexation, Van Buren went on record early in his administration stating he opposed it, pointing to his desire to avoid war with Mexico as one of the motivating factors.
On the international front, Van Buren had to tackle two potentially volatile situations with Great Britain, with the first cropping up in 1837 when several Canadians decided to push for independence from Britain. Roping several Americans into their cause, Van Buren had to explore a diplomatic solution, prohibiting U.S citizens from selling arms to the separatists and declaring the country’s neutrality in the dispute. This seemed to ease tensions for the moment, but Great Britain came back to the fore just over a year later when a land dispute threatened to escalate. But Van Buren remained calm, engaging in diplomacy instead of the military. Though he succeeded in keeping the country out of war, his handling of the issue left a sour taste in the mouths of several citizen of the North.
The prolonged recession, the escalating issue of slavery and his handling of the issues with Great Britain, combined with the growing strength of the opposing Whig Party spelled doom for Van Buren. While he readily received his party’s nomination for the ticket, he was ultimately outgunned, losing to William Henry Harrison.
Not prepared to give up his political career, Van Buren tried for the Democratic nomination in 1844, but lost out to James K Polk. And though he established the party, Van Buren switched affiliations and attempted to run again in 1848 under the Free Soil Party. Running on a third party ticket, Van Buren lost again in 1848, though posted an impressive showing, winning just over 10% of the popular vote, making him the most successful third party candidate up to that point.
A three time loser for the presidency, Van Buren never again ran for public office, instead retiring and traveling the world. He published his memoirs while in retirement and lived long enough to see the start of the Civil War before dying in 1862 at the age of 79.
Perhaps a political disappointment when viewing his career through a presidential lens, Martin Van Buren’s legacy and impact can be felt today. First of all, his name inspired a common phrase we all use today. One of his nicknames, Old Kinderhook, eventually led to the phrase OK. Political party bosses used slang when discussing their choice picks, altering the phrase “all correct” into our guy old kinderhook, shortened more to ok.
More seriously, however, is his political legacy. Like it or love it, much of the political machinations we see today in United States politics emanate from Van Buren’s work in the 19th century. Organizing individuals under a set of ideals, voting as a block, the idea of party politics - all came to fruition due to Van Buren’s leadership. While parties - or factions as they were more commonly referred to - existed prior to Van Buren, he managed to turn fractured sectionalist party affiliations into one cohesive, broad coalition - and creating a political organization that, though very different than its early days, still exists today.
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