Martin Van Buren: Life Story and the Major Challenges during his Presidency
A foremost member of the newly-formed Democratic Party, Martin Van Buren was a New York-based politician and an attorney of law who rose steadily to become the 8th President of the United States in 1837. Before moving into the White House, Van Buren had served as: a New York Senator (1812-1820); governor of New York (1829); and then from 1833 to 1837, he was the Vice President under President Andrew Jackson.
Van Buren’s presidency lasted for just a single term. You could say that he did not leave an indelible mark while in office. Rather, his tenure was rocked by the stock market crash of 1837; the subjugation of Native Americans to horrific conditions during the Trail of Tears; and a high tendency to select party members to government positions (i.e. the “Spoils System”).
Van Buren’s not so remarkable legacy lies in the fact that he allowed many of Andrew Jackson’s policies to perpetuate during his tenure. He does, however, hold the enviable honor of being the first U.S. president to be born as a U.S. citizen.
In the article below, you will learn more about Martin Van Buren’s life and the major challenges he faced during his presidency.
Early Life and Education
Martin Van Buren was born on December 5, 1782 in a place called Kinderhook, New York State. The Van Burens were from the Netherlands; therefore Martin’s first language was in actual fact Dutch. Martin’s father was Abraham Van Buren and his mother was Maria Van Buren.
It is believed that his first exposure to politics came during the time he spent in the company of the patrons of his father’s saloon/pub. The social establishment served as a place where people met to discuss political affairs. It is likely that the future eighth president of the United States picked up his passion for politics over there.
Right up until age 14, his education remained relatively uninterrupted. The Buren’s could afford to send Martin to the Kinderhook Academy.
After his academy days, he could not make it to college due to some financial stress faced by his family. The alternative was to send him to apprenticeship training under the guidance of a renowned lawyer, Francis Sylvester.
For about three years, Martin remained committed and hardworking in his craft. This paid off as he aced his bar exams and got admitted into the bar in New York in 1803. Young and filled with ideas, he went straight into practicing law; Van Buren worked in a law firm with his half-brother James Van Alen.
Martin Van Buren’s Wife and Children
About four years into his law practice, Martin decided to start a family. He married Hannah Hoes, his first cousin, on February 24, 1807. Hannah and Martin had four children together — Abraham, John, Martin, Smith Thompson. Two of his children later had minor roles in his cabinet.
After struggling with tuberculosis for some time, Hannah Van Buren died in 1819. She was 35 years and her body was buried at the Kinderhook Cemetery, New York. The grief-struck Martin Van Buren did not remarry after her death.
His Political Life
The political life of Martin Van Buren started at a very early age. Thus, by age 17 he was already frequenting political rallies and conventions in his home state, New York.
He was part of the “Bucktail” – a group within the Democratic-Republican Party that will later join breakaway Democrats under the leadership of Andrew Jackson. As a Bucktail member, he was truly a Jeffersonian, and the group that he mingled with often times advocated and revered so many Thomas Jefferson’s policies.
The first political office that Martin held was as a New York Senator in 1812, which he held for the next 8 years. Van Buren also worked at the New York Attorney general’s office. From 1815 to 1819, he served as the attorney general of New York State. Politically, he excelled very well in this position. He built very strong alliances with a cross-section of state politicians.
Formation of the Democratic Party
In 1821, Van Buren won a seat in the U.S. Senate to represent the people of New York. While in the Senate, he secured a strong alliance with Andrew Jackson and John Calhoun. This faction of his is what later founded the Democratic Party.
The break-away Democratic Party stuck true to Jefferson’s ideas (they were called the “Jeffersonians”) and believed in given back states their rights and protecting individual liberties. Together, these men became a constant nightmare and a thorn in the flesh of John Quincy Adams’ administration.
Van Buren, as well as the majority of the Democratic Party members, was very sour because of John Quincy Adams’ victory over Andrew Jackson in the 1824 presidential election. They believed that Adams claimed victory because of the “corrupt bargain” he had with Senator Henry Clay. Hence, this group of men broke away from the Democratic-Republican Party.
Secretary of State and Vice President under Andrew Jackson
Martin Van Buren worked assiduously and put his weight behind Andrew Jackson during the 1828 presidential election. As a result, Andrew Jackson and his Democratic Party snatched victory from incumbent President John Quincy Adams. The following year, in 1829, Van Buren took a shot at the governorship of New York. He emerged victoriously and became the 9th governor of New York.
However, his time as governor only lasted for about three months – from January 1, 1829, to March 12, 1829. President Andrew Jackson placed his trust in the New York governor and appointed him secretary of state. Two years after his appointment, massive fallout between Jackson and some of his cabinet members showed up, especially Vice President John C. Calhoun. The ensuing conflict resulted in Calhoun resigning his position as vice president.
Jackson and Van Buren crafted a plan where Van Buren would resign his position as Secretary of State. He would then go on to serve a year as minister to Great Britain. After this, Van Buren would become the vice-presidential candidate for Andrew Jackson.
The unfolding events went according to plan. In the 1832 presidential election, the combination of Jackson and Van Buren was too strong for the opposition National Republicans to handle. Andrew Jackson secured a second term in the White House, and Martin Van Buren served as the vice president of the United States from 1833 to 1837.
During his tenure as vice president, Van Buren remained very loyal to Jackson. He had no qualms over Jackson’s policies that encouraged the forceful removal of Native Americans from their tribal lands. Likewise, Van Buren couldn’t do anything about Jackson’s extreme hate towards the Second Bank of the United States.
Van Buren was also partly responsible for introducing and continuing the “spoils system”. As the very name implies, the system encouraged elected public officials to reward allies that they considered loyal and generous during their bid for election.
Before Andrew Jackson left office in 1837, there were tell-tale signs that the American economy was heading into a depression. It was therefore not surprising when the banks and numerous other businesses went under from 1837 onward.
His Presidency and the Challenges
With immense support from Andrew Jackson and the Democratic Party as a whole, Martin Van Buren cruised his way to victory in the 1836 presidential election. He shrugged off competition from the Whig Party presidential candidate, William H. Harrison (later 9th President) . Van Buren pulled about 765,000 of the popular votes, against Harrison’s 540,000. With regard to the electoral votes, Harrison’s 73 was no match for Van Buren’s 170.
On March 4, 1837, Martin Van Buren, 59 years old at the time, was sworn into office as the 8th president of the United States. Up until then, none of his seven predecessors was born as citizens of the United States. Van Buren was the first person to achieve this feat.
Below is a detailed explanation of some of the herculean challenges Martin Van Buren faced during his presidency:
Economic Challenges and the Panic of 1837
Steep deep in similar ideas and economic philosophy as Jackson, Van Buren was bound to have a difficult time managing the country that was on the brink of economic decline. Many historical economists state that the economic crisis of 1837 was the result of the federal government pulling large amounts of funds and assets from the Second Bank of the United States.
Like his predecessor, Van Buren believed that the bank was too powerful and corrupt an institution to let it survive. The bank, therefore, had to go. However, the bank’s demise came back to bite deep into the American economy.
This was new territory for Van Buren and the country in general. There had never been an economic crisis that big ever in U.S. history. Therefore, Van Buren was left to bear the brunt of criticisms and accusations of ineptness from the opposition and large sections of the public. Lands and properties were lost every blessed day. The discount rates in the system climbed to almost 25 percent. With inflation skyrocketing, the market entered into a state of panic.
A lack of an effective response to the Panic of 1837 cost Van Buren a lot in the political arena. The president struggled to keep his own home state workers from laying down their tools. New Yorkers rioted due to high cotton prices. America’s currency went into a free fall and depreciated by a significant percentage.
To be fair to Van Buren, many of the failed economic policies were initiated by Jackson. However, that still did not stop his opponents from chastising him and giving him a nickname like “Martin Van Ruin”. Many of his long-time allies in the media and Congress failed to come to his defense. He was left very much befuddled and perhaps clueless.
The Maine-Canada Border Dispute
In 1837, the U.S. and Great Britain were close to locking horns again over border issues in the isolated regions of Aroostook Valley. The problem stemmed from incursions made by both towns along the line that divided Maine in the U.S. and New Brunswick in British Territory, Canada.
The genesis of the problem goes back to a revolt by William Lyon Mackenzie against the British. Lyon Mackenzie, a Canadian journalist and a community leader, rallied a group of people from the American side of the border to rebel against British rule.
Great Britain responded by sending a battalion of soldiers to quell the attacks and keep peace on its side of the border. After a series of miscalculation by the soldiers, an American died during an attack on the Caroline ship – an American owned ship. There were also scores of wounded people. Americans on the other side saw this as a blatant attack on the United States. The issue died down a bit after Van Buren sent expert military men to the area to calm tensions.
However, two years later, tensions erupted again. Timber loggers in both Maine and New Brunswick faced off over access to a forest that sat in the disputed region between Canada and the U.S. The Canadian local authorities apprehended a Maine developer and held him in a Brunswick jail. Both governors in Maine and New Brunswick clashed. The two towns, Maine and New Brunswick, traded accusations and counter-accusations.
President Van Buren quickly dispatched his best diplomats to the negotiating table. As he expected, the issue was brought to an amicable end. There were some people in his government, as well as in the opposition, who believed that Van Buren was too soft with Great Britain; those people wished the president took a tougher stand in dealing with the issue. In the eyes of some, this was one of Van Buren’s failures as a president. However, too many people, Van Buren was seen as a neutral figure, a peacemaker that averted a war with Great Britain.
Native American Disenfranchisement and the “Trail of Tears”
You could summarize Van Buren’s presidential term of office as an extension of Andrew Jackson’s term. In spite of the numerous outcries from the Native American tribes that were suppressed all across the country, Van Buren took no action in alleviating the crisis. In what would later be termed as the “Trail of Tears”, several thousands of Native Americans perished as they were forced to relocate from their tribal lands to Indian territories (present-day Oklahoma).
Because the majority of the atrocities actually occurred during Van Buren’s term, many historians hold him chiefly responsible for the crisis. But in his defense, you could say that the legislative act (Removal Act of 1830) that was used to carry out these atrocities (during Jackson and Van Buren’s tenures) was signed by Jackson himself on May 28. 1830.
The Seminole Indians War (the Second Seminole War)
Towards that latter end of Andrew Jackson’s tenure, the Second Seminole War erupted. The conflict came as a result of a Native American relocation exercise that went badly. The federal government, in its own analysis of the situation, aimed at bringing long-lasting peace between the Seminoles and white settlers. So the government initiated a relocation exercise of all Native Americans from Florida to territories in present-day Oklahoma.
The process went on smoothly until Osceola from the Seminole Indian tribe killed General Wiley Thompson in December 1835. The Seminoles also attacked Major Francis Dade and his men. This ignited the Second Seminole War. The Seminole tribes resisted the federal government’s forceful removal of them from their homes.
The war would span the administrations of both Jackson and Van Buren. It lasted from 1835 to 1842. During Van Buren’s tenure, Colonel Zachary Taylor (later 12th President of the United States) suffered heavy casualties while rounding up Seminoles that rebelled against relocation. The number of casualties was 36 U.S. soldiers. 11 Seminoles died that day. The war officially ended in 1842, this was after about 4500 Seminoles reluctantly laid down their arms and agreed to move to the westward.
How and Why He Blocked Texas Annexation
On the issue of Texas annexation, President Van Buren stood his grounds and resisted pressures from some Democratic Party officials and opposition politicians. He believed that annexation of Texas could inflame tensions between Northerners and Southerners. Regardless of Texans themselves calling for the U.S. to annex their territory, Van Buren stated that it would be unconstitutional for the United States to annex Texas. He was worried that the fallout with neighboring Mexico could lead to a bloody conflict.
How Van Buren’s Responded to the Panic of 1837
The financial crisis that tore through the United States in 1837 was primarily because of the federal government’s hasty withdrawal of funds from the Second Bank of the United States. The bank and the federal government were at war because the administration of Andrew Jackson declined re-chartering the bank.
In response, the bank fought back and restricted investment in the country. It also took back all the credit facilities it had given to other banks across the nation. The result of all these caused several banks to fail. Numerous businesses went the way of the failing banks.
Van Buren and his administration responded to the crisis by instituting similar economic policies as the previous government. Rather than leave funds in the Second Bank of the United States, van Buren set up an independent bank (an Independent Treasury) that would take receipt of the funds withdrawn from those banks in question.
In addition to the above measure, he also reduced federal government spending across the country. This measure, in particular, incurred the ire of some Congressmen. Many of those agitated politicians in his party decided to defect to the Whig Party.
Re-election Bid in 1840 Presidential Election
The Democratic Party in 1840 kept fate in incumbent president Van Buren and re-elected him as their presidential candidate for the 1840 presidential election. He was to go against long-time foe William H. Harrison from the Whigs.
Come election season, Martin Van Buren’s abysmal track record in his first term proved to work against him. The country was still reeling from the panic of 1837; and the Native American issue had not completely left the minds of the voters.
All the above factors were capitalized on by the opposition party. His leading opponent, Whig Party presidential candidate William Henry Harrison, helped himself to a resounding victory. The Whigs earned 1,274,624 votes for the popular votes. This was approximately 147,000 more votes than Van Buren’s 1,127,781. In the electoral votes, Van Buren’s 60 came nowhere close to William Harrison’s 234 votes.
Retirement and Post- Presidency
Defeated and gloomy, Martin Van Buren retired to his home state of New York. He took up residence at Lindewald, his estate in Kinderhook, New York.
In 1844, his quest to return to Washington D.C. was halted by James K. Polk. Van Buren failed to get the nomination of his Democratic Party. Many of the delegates preferred a new face in the person of Polk. Besides, many of those delegates (especially southerners) aligned more to Polk’s aspirations to annex Texas.
Realizing that there was no way he could secure the nomination of his party in 1848; Van Buren decided to run under the banner of the Free Soil Party. The party was filled with antislavery campaigners and abolitionists.
This political party of his was sometimes called the “Barnburners”, and they selected Charles Francis Adams, John Quincy Adam’s son, as their vice-presidential candidate for the 1848 election. Their agenda did not resonate well with the majority of the American people. Hence, Van Buren could only secure about one-tenth of the votes at the 1848 presidential election.
How Martin Van Buren died
With two successive defeats, Van Buren took to doing things out of politics. While in retirement, Van Buren went on several trips, especially in Europe. It was also around this time that he had the opportunity to write and finish his memoirs.
On July 24, 1862, Martin Van Buren died from a heart attack. He was 79 at the time of his death. The “Red fox of Kinderhook” was survived by two children – Abraham Van Buren and Smith Thompson Van Buren.
His family laid him to rest at the Kinderhook Cemetery, New York. The cemetery is the same resting place of his wife Hannah Van Buren.