Van Buren, Martin (b Kinderhook, Columbia Co, 5 Dec 1782; d Kinderhook, 24 July 1862). Lawyer, governor, US president.
Nicknamed the Little Magician or the Red Fox of Kinderhook for his political dexterity, he was the first son and third of six children born to Abraham Van Buren, a farmer and tavern keeper, and Maria Hoes Van Buren, a widow with three children. Reared in a large Dutch American family, Van Buren was educated in local schools and never attended college. In 1796 he began studying law with Francis Silvester, a Kinderhook Federalist, and completed his training in New York City with William Van Ness, Aaron Burr’s close ally. Admitted to the bar in 1803, Van Buren opened a successful practice in Kinderhook with James Van Alen; it dissolved with Van Alen’s 1808 election to Congress. Having moved to Hudson (Columbia Co) in 1808 and then to Albany in 1816, Van Buren associated with other partners and achieved broader statewide success and a greater reputation. He established key legal precedents, grounded on republican principles, in a series of mainly appellate cases, which confirmed his reputation as an elite attorney. Van Buren reached the peak of his profession by serving as state attorney general (1815–18). Van Buren, a slim redhead standing 5 feet 6 inches (168 cm) tall and having a flair for fashionable clothing, became a wealthy man by practicing law. On 21 Feb 1807 he married distant cousin Hannah Hoes. The couple had four sons before she died in 1819.Van Buren did not remarry.
POLITICAL CAREER IN NEW YORK STATE
Attracted by the principles of Jeffersonianism, he joined the Republican Party and used his intelligence and skills in public affairs and party organization to gain eminence without having the benefits of great wealth or family connections usually needed for political advancement in early 19th-century New York State. After breaking with Burr (1804), Van Buren aligned with New York City mayor and future governor De Witt Clinton and gained appointments as Columbia Co’s fence viewer (1806) and surrogate (1808–13). In 1812 voters of the senate’s Middle District elected him to the first of three terms as state senator. Although Van Buren backed Clinton’s 1812 presidential bid, they split over political and wartime issues. Believing in the importance of party regularity and political organization, he opposed Clinton’s personal and dictatorial style of politics. Van Buren also backed the War of 1812, while Clinton questioned its necessity. Van Buren allied with Gov Daniel D. Tompkins and formed the Bucktails, an anti-Clinton faction. A state senator with growing political stature, Van Buren lobbied for a prowar classification bill (1814) that set guidelines for a prototype military draft, and, though his supporters opposed it, he endorsed a bill (1817) authorizing construction of Clinton’s Erie Canal. From 1817 on Van Buren was leader and chief organizer of the Albany Regency, which regularized the chaotic nature of party politics. A model for future political machines, it included many of the state’s most talented politicians, such as Silas Wright and William L.Marcy, and reflected Van Buren’s belief that politics was a career, not a part-time job. Under his leadership the Regency used patronage, ideology, campaign acumen, and tight organization to control the legislature and pass laws reflecting Van Buren’s commitments to limited federal government, New York State–sponsored economic development, and enlightened public service. A moderate delegate at the 1821 Constitutional Convention, he helped modernize state government by backing changes allowing the governor to veto legislation subject to a two-thirds override and by sponsoring efforts to abolish the councils of appointment and revision. He backed efforts to revamp senatorial districts to reflect the state’s population growth and to expand the number of districts to ensure the Regency’s control of the legislature. Acknowledging his achievements the legislature named him to the state’s Board of Regents (1816–29), a position that gave him great personal satisfaction given his lack of formal education. In 1821 the Bucktail-controlled legislature also elected him to the US Senate, where he supported issues he thought critical to New York State: limited federal government, states’ rights, low tariffs, and no federal aid for internal improvements.After John Quincy Adams became president in 1825, Van Buren assembled a diverse coalition around Andrew Jackson, including John C. Calhoun, William H. Crawford, and followers of Clinton; this group became the Democratic Party. Van Buren resigned from the Senate in 1828 and won election as New York State’s governor. Although serving barely 12 weeks before becoming Jackson’s secretary of state, Van Buren helped stabilize state banking through the Safety Fund Law, which created a regulatory commission to monitor banks’ activities. In 1831 Van Buren resigned his cabinet post, served briefly as minister to Great Britain, became Jackson’s vice president in 1833, and solidified his position as Jackson’s political heir. In 1836 Van Buren won the presidency, the first New Yorker to do so, defeating four Whig opponents—William Henry Harrison, Hugh White, Daniel Webster, and Willie Mangum—in the electoral college, 170 to 124. In the popular election Van Buren received 764,176 votes, while Harrison, the leading Whig candidate, garnered 550,816.
PRESIDENT VAN BUREN
Inaugurated just before the Panic of 1837, Van Buren failed to understand its multiple causes. He ignored calls for federal stimulation of the economy, retarded recovery through his Independent Treasury Bill, and increased unemployment by cutting spending for internal improvements. In foreign policy he preserved peace with Great Britain during the Canadian Rebellion of 1837 and when disputes arose over the area along the Maine–New Brunswick border in 1839. On the western border Van Buren continued Pres Jackson’s harsh policy of pushing native people west of the Mississippi. Though he couched his American Indian removal program in humanitarian terms, the army rounded up unprepared Cherokees, thousands of whom died on the trek west along the Trail of Tears in 1838. A consistent nationalist Van Buren sought to avoid sectional fractures over slavery. He opposed both slavery’s abolition in the District of Columbia without the concurrence of slave states and interference with slavery where it existed. He also refused to back freedom for Africans in the Amistad case (1839). Even so he alienated proslavery interests by refusing to support the annexation of Texas, which would have resulted in the spread of slavery. This refusal, coupled with the futile Second Seminole War and the continued downward economic spiral, eroded his popularity and led to his defeat to William Henry Harrison, 234 to 60, in the bitter “Log Cabin Campaign”; Harrison received 1,275,390 popular votes to Van Buren’s 1,128,854. Before leaving office Van Buren issued an executive order limiting labor on federal projects to a 10-hour day.
AFTER THE PRESIDENCY
Believing that Whigs had distorted his record and maligned his character, Van Buren sought vindication, but he forfeited the 1844 presidential nomination when he refused to endorse annexation of Texas without Mexico’s approval. Although he retired to Lindenwald, the Kinderhook estate he acquired in 1839, Van Buren remained active in New York State politics. After first siding with tenants in their disputes with landlords in Columbia and Rensselaer Cos in 1811,Van Buren opposed tenants who used violence against landholders attempting to collect unpaid rents and supported state efforts to subdue antirent rioting in the early 1840s. When conflict developed among Democratic factions, he supported the Barnburners over the Hunkers. In 1848 he accepted the Free-Soil Party’s nomination for president on a platform opposed to slavery’s expansion. Though his strong secondplace finish in New York State caused Democrat Lewis Cass to lose the state, Van Buren failed to carry any state and finished an embarrassing third nationally. He then retired from active politics, spent time at Lindenwald, and traveled overseas. During this period Van Buren wrote a historically valuable but incomplete autobiography and an analytic political history of political parties in the United States. In the Civil War’s early days, he supported Pres Abraham Lincoln, but chronic heart problems left him weak; he died in 1862. His Kinderhook estate became the Martin Van Buren National Historic Site maintained by the National Park Service.
See also LIBERALISM.
Cole, Donald B. Martin Van Buren and the American
Political System(Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ Press,
Mushkat, Jerome, and Joseph G. Rayback. Martin Van Buren: Law, Politics, and the Shaping of Republican Ideology (DeKalb:Northern IllinoisUniv Press, 1997) Niven, John. Martin Van Buren: The Romantic Age of American Politics (New York: Oxford Univ Press, 1983)
Remini, Robert Vincent. Martin Van Buren and the Making of the Democratic Party (New York:Columbia Univ Press, 1959)
Peter Eisenstadt, ed., The Encyclopedia of New York State
(Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2005), [p. 1632-33].
© Syracuse University Press. Reproduced with permission from the publisher.