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Unlike the seven men who preceded him in the White House, Martin Van Buren (1782-1862) was the first president to be born a citizen of the United States and not a British subject. He rose quickly in New York politics, winning a U.S. Senate seat in 1821 and presiding over a sophisticated state political organization. Van Buren helped form the new Democratic Party from a coalition of Jeffersonian Republicans who backed the military hero and president Andrew Jackson. A favorite of Jackson’s, Van Buren won the White House himself in 1836 but was plagued by a financial panic that gripped the nation the following year. After losing his bid for reelection in 1840, Van Buren ran again unsuccessfully in 1844 (when he lost the Democratic nomination to the pro-southern candidate James K. Polk) and 1848 (as a member of the antislavery Free Soil Party).
Martin Van Buren’s Early Life
Martin Van Buren was born on December 5, 1782, six years after the colonists declared their independence from Britain. His parents were both of Dutch descent, and his father was a tavern keeper and farmer in Kinderhook, New York. Young Martin apprenticed to a local lawyer in 1796 and opened his own practice in 1803. Four years later, he married his cousin and childhood sweetheart Hannah Hoes; the couple had four sons. Hannah died in 1819 of tuberculosis, and Van Buren would never remarry.
Van Buren subscribed to the political theories of Thomas Jefferson, who had favored states’ rights over a strong federal government. From 1812 to 1820, Van Buren served two terms in the New York State Senate and also held the position of state attorney general. He was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1821, and soon created an efficient state political organization known as the Albany Regency. After John Quincy Adams won a contentious election in 1824, Van Buren led the opposition to his administration in the Senate and helped form a coalition of Jeffersonian Republicans that backed Andrew Jackson in the 1828 election. This coalition soon emerged as a new political entity, the Democratic Party.
Martin Van Buren and Andrew Jackson
Martin Van Buren left the Senate in 1828 and ran successfully for governor of New York, but he gave up that post after Jackson defeated Adams and made Van Buren his secretary of state. Though he resigned as part of a cabinet reorganization in 1831, Van Buren became minister to Britain (with Jackson’s support) and in 1832 earned the Democrats’ first nomination as vice president. He ran with Jackson on a platform that strongly opposed the recharter of the Bank of the United States, which Jackson vetoed in July 1832. The Jackson-Van Buren ticket won easily over Henry Clay of the opposition Whig Party, and Jackson would handpick Van Buren as his successor in the White House four years later.
In the 1836 election, Van Buren defeated William Henry Harrison, whom the Whigs had chosen over their longtime leader Clay, proving the popularity of Jackson’s Democrats. Soon after Van Buren took office in 1837, however, the nation was gripped by a financial panic, caused partially by the transfer of federal funds from the now-defunct Bank of the United States to state banks. The failure of hundreds of banks and businesses and the burst bubble of wild land speculation in the West dragged the country into the worst depression of its history, and Van Buren’s continuation of Jackson’s deflationary money policies did little to improve the situation.
Loss of the White House
To confront the country’s economic woes, Martin Van Buren proposed the establishment of an independent treasury to handle the federal funds that had been moved to state banks and cut off all federal government expenditures in order to ensure the government would remain solvent. The measures passed Congress, though the bitter debate over them drove many more conservative Democrats into the Whig Party. In addition to the Panic of 1837, Van Buren was also hurt by a long, costly war fought during his administration with the Seminole Indians of Florida. He lost his reelection bid to Harrison in 1840 and left the White House after serving only one term.
In 1844, Van Buren tried and failed to gain the Democratic presidential nomination. His refusal to endorse the annexation of Texas led southern delegations to favor James K. Polk, who campaigned for the annexation of both Texas and Oregon. Antislavery Democrats known as “Barnburners” (after a legendary Dutch farmer who burned his barn to get rid of rats) rallied behind Van Buren, joining the movement that led to the formation of the Free Soil Party. In 1848, Van Buren ran as the Free Soil candidate for president; Charles Francis Adams (son of the longtime abolitionist John Quincy Adams, who had died earlier that year) was the vice-presidential nominee.
From Free Soil to Retirement
While the Free Soilers made the divisive issue of slavery and its extension into the territories the central issue of the 1848 election, the two major parties (Democrats and Whigs) tried their best to address it without alienating voters. In the end, Martin Van Buren failed to win a single state and received only 10 percent of the vote, though he carried enough Democratic votes in New York to hand the state to the eventual victor, Zachary Taylor.
After 1848, Van Buren retreated into a long retirement at his Kinderhook estate, Lindenwald, watching as the slavery issue proceeded to tear the country apart during the 1850s. By 1852, he had returned to the Democratic Party, but continued to argue against its pro-southern faction and to support more moderate Democrats such as Stephen Douglas. After completing his own autobiography, which provided valuable insight into the political history of the era, Van Buren died in July 1862, barely a year after the Civil War broke out.
Martin Van Buren and the Politics of Slavery
Martin Van Buren returned to Kinderhook, New York as a one-term president. His 1840 loss to William Henry Harrison was a difficult pill to swallow. He was mature in years, but not old enough to retire. He loved his work and succeeded far beyond most imagined for a son of a tavern owner. But what does one do after serving as America’s eighth president? He retreated to the village of his childhood to be near loved ones and plot his next move.
Little had changed in Kinderhook since he left in 1808, with wife Hannah and firstborn Abraham, for the bustling town of Hudson to practice law, except in one respect - slavery.
Enslavement was not uncommon amongst Kinderhook households before 1827, the year gradual emancipation in New York was finalized. The national census from 1790 – 1820 shows Kinderhook held the second, and at times the third, largest population of enslaved people outside Brooklyn, New York. For such a small, rural agricultural village, this statistic is startling.
Van Buren not only grew up amongst enslaved people but alongside six held by his parents. This early exposure to the institution of slavery later provided him with an understanding of southern politics that differed from northern colleagues raised without similar experiences.
It was an understanding Martin Van Buren seemed to exploit for professional success, but also an understanding he struggled with as the country began to split over the fate and expansion of slavery.
Martin Van Buren’s Political Rise
Martin Van Buren’s successful career was cemented early on with the formation of the Albany Regency, a political group he helped found that controlled state politics until the Civil War. When Van Buren moved from state to national politics, he immediately set out to create new alliances. He quickly succeeded connecting two of the most politically powerful states in the nation: Virginia and New York. A northern and southern alliance through him also meant support for a higher office in the future.
His part in founding the Democratic Party and acceptance of New York’s governorship to assist Andrew Jackson in winning the presidency made him a favourite amongst some southern political circles.
In 1832 Martin Van Buren won the endorsement as Andrew Jackson’s second term Vice President, setting him up to be Jackson’s presidential successor.
It was a volatile time in American politics. “The Act Preventing the Importation of Slaves” in 1807 increased the population and sale of enslaved people throughout the south, while the cotton gin increased product production. When commerce resumed after the War of 1812, southern states increased wealth through lucrative trade contracts with British textile factories. Cotton became the dominant economy of the nation.
Northern Industry leaders raised the need for tariffs to counter southern economic domination. The south claimed tariffs were a violation of states’ rights with a few crying out for secession. The matter was eventually resolved. Southerners later returned to threats of secession over the institution of slavery, with a very different resolution settling the matter.
Appeasement of Southerners to Win the Presidency
Martin Van Buren took the presidency with the help of southerners, earning him the moniker “A northern man with southern principles.”
It was a trying campaign, and the first time a presidential candidate was accused of being a detriment to both slavery and the abolitionist cause.
Southern opponents attacked his vote to enfranchise free men at the 1821 New York Constitution Convention. They chose to overlook his accepted proposal of a $250 property requirement, a near impossibility for most African American men at the time.
Northern abolitionists held up a tie-breaking vote Van Buren cast as Vice President prohibiting the use of the United States Postal system to distribute anti-slavery material in addition to his senatorial vote supporting the ‘gag rule’ which forbade Congress to discuss abolitionist petitions.
When it became evident southern support was waning, Van Buren published a public statement supporting states’ rights. His inaugural address reiterated the statement along with assurances slavery in Washington, D.C. was safe from federal intervention. A national financial catastrophe prevented his chances for re-election, but enslavement became the issue that shaped and defined his legacy.
Van Buren’s View on Slavery
Martin Van Buren is somewhat of an enigma. He was a very private man. No diary or journal exists, and few personal letters have survived. He kept his thoughts to himself, rarely expressing personal notions, and often had both friends and foes guessing. His nickname, ‘The Red Fox’ references his preference for secrecy as much as it was about his hair colour.
The same goes for his thoughts on enslavement. This declaration made in 1819 as a New York state Bucktail is a rare expression in writing of his feelings about the issue:
“Morally and politically speaking slavery is a moral evil.”
This moral evil Van Buren spoke of is one he benefitted from personally and professionally throughout his career.
Van Buren, An Enslaver?
‘Did Martin Van Buren own enslaved people?’ is a question often asked. A letter to him dated December 1824 raises more questions than provides an answer.
A Mr. A. G. Hammond indicates in a letter to Martin Van Buren that a man named Tom, who “quit” Van Buren “some ten years since” was in Worcester, Massachusetts. Hammond requests a reply with an amount Van Buren is willing to accept for the man. One side of the envelope that contained Hammond’s letter reads, “Wrote that if he could get him without violence, I would take $50-"
Hammond sets the year of purchase as 1810 and offers “Fosburgh” as Tom’s previous enslaver. No record exists offering definitive proof Martin Van Buren ever purchased another, including Tom, but the letter does present a possibility.
Questions exist about Tom due to lack of documentation. However, Van Buren relied on the labor of enslaved people for domestic service while serving as Secretary of State under Andrew Jackson, as well as during his presidency.
The 1830 census lists four enslaved women in his household while in residence at the Decatur House. It is likely the women were hired out by their enslaver, as was a common practice.
One of the four was Charlotte “Lottie” Dupuy. Henry Clay brought Mrs. Dupuy to Washington as a household staff member during his Congressional term. Mrs. Dupuy refused to return to Kentucky and sued for emancipation. She lived and worked in Van Buren’s household during the proceedings. Sadly, Mrs. Dupuy lost her case and remained enslaved until 1840 when Clay emancipated Mrs. Dupuy and her daughter.
The 1840 census shows four enslaved people kept as White House staff two men and two women. Historians have raised the possibility the four were brought on through his daughter-in-law’s family, the Singletons, as they were one of the wealthiest plantation owners in South Carolina at the time Angelica Singleton and his son Abraham wed.
Color Engraving and Frontispiece from John Warner Barber (1840). A History of the Amistad Captives. New Haven, Connecticut: E.L. and J.W. Barber, Hitchcock & Stafford, Printers.
Slavery During the Van Buren Presidency
In recent years, the Slave Trail of Tears has become a reference for the route chained and roped slave coffles were force-marched from Virginia to Mississippi and Louisiana. The coffles consisted of 100 to 300 men, women and children sold by upper south plantation owners to stringers. The stringers delivered and sold them to slave traders who would auction them to cotton and sugar plantation owners. Approximately 450,000 enslaved people were moved to the lower south in this manner between 1810 to 1860.
Franklin and Armfield of Alexandria, Virginia, notorious for their brutality, housed their coffles in animal- style pens around Washington, as did other stringer companies, before moving them on to Richmond. Solomon Northrup, whose experience appears in 12 Years a Slave, described these pens as being “within the very shadow of the Capitol.” President Van Buren enjoyed daily riding excursions around the city, but it is unknown how aware he was of their existence.
The Amistad case is another situation arising during Van Buren’s presidency his attempt to intervene with appeals provides another example of his earnest desire to appease pro-slavery southerners.
The Amistad was a Cuban ship carrying illegally captured Africans who self-emancipated at sea. The ship drifted to Long Island and was led by the U.S. Navy to Connecticut. Those onboard were imprisoned and tried for piracy and murder. Supported by abolitionists, the Africans won their case.
President Van Buren’s administration intervened twice with appeals to carry favor with Spain and pro-slavery southern voters. The Supreme Court heard the case with John Quincy Adams acting as the African’s legal counsel. The Supreme Court ruled in favour of the Africans days after Van Buren left office. The ruling supported southerners doubts of Van Buren’s political strength and justified their choice of Harrison as America’s ninth president.
Van Buren’s Constitutional Approach to Slavery
Martin Van Buren was a Jeffersonian from the time he was young until he died, no matter the party he belonged. He once proudly claimed to be, ‘the last vestige of true Jeffersonians.’ These Jeffersonian beliefs shaped the way he interpreted the Constitution, including issues involving enslavement.
Van Buren believed the Constitution exempted Black people of African descent, enslaved and free, from its protections, rights and benefits. This view appears in his response to the Supreme Court Justice opinion involving the Dred Scott case:
“I am now convinced that the sense in which the word ‘citizen’ was used by those who framed and ratified the Federal Constitution was not intended to embrace the African race.”
The Free-Soil Campaign
The Van Buren presidency was one term. He attempted another run in 1844 but lost even Democratic support after refusing to agree to the Annexation of Texas. He feared it would bring war with Mexico and move slavery into western territories and new states, a move he also feared would eventually tear this country apart.
The former president returned to Kinderhook after his 1844 loss. He resigned himself to a life of retirement as a gentleman farmer. Van Buren was through with campaigning until the formation of the Free Soil Party moved him to attempt a fourth run for the presidency.
John Van Buren, Van Buren’s second son, became involved in New York state politics and was a founder of the Free-Soil Party. The party was an interesting mix of political ideologies abolitionists that once belonged to the then defunct Liberty Party, Whigs such as Charles Sumner of Massachusetts bent on abolition and Democrats, many either in favour of or ambivalent about enslavement where it already existed. What they all had in common was a goal to prevent slavery moving westward.
Martin Van Buren joined the party but never held abolitionist views. He thought abolitionists were a detriment to national security because of their willingness to resort to violence.
Van Buren, like Jefferson, believed the federal government held no authority to interfere with what a state decided for themselves, including the institution of slavery. However, when it came to new states and territories, that was a different situation. He placed the sake of the Union above states’ rights and agreed to run as a third-party candidate against the Whigs and Democratic party.
Van Buren helped form the Democratic party in turn, they handed him the presidency. The act of running against the Democratic party to prevent the expansion of enslavement brought on new enemies.
He lost the 1848 election and retreated from active political participation. The Free-Soil Party remained intact until 1854 and the formation of the Republican Party.
The election unsettled the stability of this country. Henry Clay, along with others, cobbled together a solution to appease pro-slavery southerners. However, the Compromise of 1850 included the Fugitive Slave Act, which allowed bounty hunters to return self-emancipated persons to their enslavers. It also obligated any person nearby to assist the bounty hunter or risk fines and possible imprisonment. The act forced many who were indifferent to enslavement to take a position. The outrage and separation generated by this act became the catalyst that eleven years later flung America into a Civil War, taking the lives of over 750,000 citizens, but finally ending enslavement in this country.
A Nation Torn Asunder
Martin Van Buren spent a professional lifetime attempting to keep this country from splitting over the issue of enslavement. Nevertheless, the war he feared came to fruition. He laid on his death bed, knowing he would not live to learn the outcome.
He passed away at his beloved Lindenwald on July 24, 1862 at the height of the American Civil War.
The outcome of the Civil War was two-fold: it ended enslavement in America forever and brought on Reconstruction.
Reconstruction lasted from 1865 to 1877, ending with a quick deal that pulled troops out of the south. The result was Jim Crow, an era of discriminatory laws and practices that, according to Tuskegee Institute, resulted in the lynching of nearly 4743 southern Blacks and 1297 Whites between 1882 and 1968.
Van Buren’s Legacy
Martin Van Buren wanted his home and farm to be his legacy, not his career. His legacy changed the moment his son John sold Lindenwald two years following the death of his father. Through a modern lens, his legacy is his political life, including the decisions he made involving enslavement and southern appeasement.
America’s founding fathers handed the issue of slavery to Martin’s generation. His generation attempted to keep slavery “as is” for the sake of the Union. Children of Van Buren’s contemporaries ended slavery with a Civil War.
For those freed after the Civil War, the issue handed to them was 150 years of Jim Crow law, ended by a generation who fought for their civil rights.
Enslavement must be accounted for. Only then can wounds left by the generations that came before heal, and divisions that remain begin to unite.
Martin Van Buren: Impact and Legacy
When assessing the impact and legacy of Martin Van Buren, scholars have generally drawn a distinction between Van Buren's presidency, which they often judge lacking and troubled, and his contributions to the development of the American political system, which they find singular and significant.
Martin Van Buren was surely one of the most important politicians in American history. He entered politics in the early 1800s and joined the party of Thomas Jefferson, the Democratic-Republicans. Van Buren rose to prominence—first in New York state and then nationally—at a time when his party was beset by factionalism, by vicious in-fighting, and by a lack of organizational and ideological unity. Van Buren recognized these weaknesses and set about to rectify them by constructing a cohesive and unified political organization, first in New York and then nationally. Van Buren believed that political conflict, both among allies and between opponents, was unavoidable. The trick, though, was to manage this conflict. Thus, the importance of his crowning achievement—the Democratic Party—which Van Buren hoped could control this intra-party conflict in order to defeat its opponents.
Van Buren's critics focused on his role in party-building and charged that his efforts were the work of a cynical, manipulative, and power-hungry politician. To be sure, there was some truth to these accusations: all politicians want to build their power base, and often do so by engaging in practices that are both deceptive and manipulative. This critique of Van Buren, however, is overly harsh and misleading.
Van Buren wanted to build an effective and efficient political organization principally because he thought it the best mechanism for defending and extending the Jeffersonian and Jacksonian political ideals. These principles—the preeminence of state and local concerns, the wisdom of limiting the power of the federal government, and the importance of protecting Americans from government or public institutions that supposedly threatened their liberty—he held dearly and believed vital to the nation's political and economic future. Van Buren's adherence to this political ideology deserves discussion and criticism, of course. But one must acknowledge that unflagging belief in this ideology fueled his political activities.
While Van Buren has earned the accolades of scholars for his contributions to the development of the American political system, he has not been judged a great, nor even good, President. The main challenge President Van Buren faced was the nation's economic depression. His chief response—a proposal for an independent treasury system—reflected his Jeffersonian and Jacksonian political beliefs. Ironically, Van Buren, the great party builder and advocate of Democratic unity, lacked the political strength to win quick congressional endorsement of the independent treasury Congress approved it only in late 1840, after the depression had been raging, largely uninterrupted, for three years. Would earlier passage of the independent treasury bill have lifted the nation out of its economic woes? It is impossible to know. It is clear, though, that Van Buren could not win its passage.
Should Van Buren have embraced more drastic and activist measures than the independent treasury to try to end the depression? Historians disagree about whether this approach would have worked. The most perceptive scholars, though, point out that such a course would have required Van Buren to jettison his political beliefs, something he was loathe to do. Thus, we are left with a final irony. As a man of the Democratic party, he could not muster its strength. As a man of strong Jeffersonian and Jacksonian principles, he would not choose (and saw no need to choose) another path. Van Buren perhaps paid the final price for these limitations in 1840 when voters chose not to send him back to the White House for another four years.
Events and Accomplishments of Martin Van Buren's Presidency:
Van Buren's administration began with a depression that lasted from 1837 until 1845 called the Panic of 1837. Over 900 banks eventually closed and many people went unemployed. To combat this, Van Buren fought for an Independent Treasury to help ensure the safe deposit of funds.
Contributing to his failure to be elected to a second term, the public blamed Van Buren’s domestic policies for the 1837 depression, Newspapers hostile to his presidency referred to him as “Martin Van Ruin.”
Issues arose with British held Canada during Van Buren's time in office. One such event was the so-called "Aroostook War" of 1839. This nonviolent conflict arose over thousands of miles where the Maine/Canadian border had no defined boundary. When a Maine authority tried to send Canadians out of the region, militias were called forward. Van Buren was able to make peace through General Winfield Scott before fighting began.
Texas applied for statehood after gaining independence in 1836. If admitted, it would have become another pro-slavery state which was opposed by the Northern states. Van Buren, wishing to help fight against sectional slavery issues, agreed with the North. Also, he continued Jackson's policies concerning the Seminole Native Americans. In 1842, the Second Seminole War ended with the Seminoles being defeated.
Martin Van Buren and the Myth of OK
Martin Van Buren is generally regarded as a below-average, simply “okay” president and is often overlooked for the two presidents who served contiguous to his term. Andrew Jackson and William Henry Harrison typically garner more attention the former for his controversial presidency and the infamous Indian Removal Act, and the latter for the shortest presidential term in US history.
The inauguration of William Henry Harrison, 1840
Van Buren was the heir apparent to the presidency after a political career culminating with his service as Andrew Jackson’s vice president. Jackson’s support aided Van Buren’s campaign as a member of the relatively new Democratic Party in 1836, leading to his election. However, after a poorly rated presidency that included the “Panic of 1837” economic depression, his 1840 presidential campaign faced considerable opposition. Harrison defeated Van Buren’s run for a second term in 1840 to become the oldest man elected president, and age was a point of contention during his campaign. (Since then, both Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump have been elected in their 70s). Harrison famously delivered a superfluous inaugural address on a frigid day, refusing to wear a coat to demonstrate that despite being 68 years old, he was still robust and fit to serve. He contracted pneumonia during his excessive speech and died a month later.
Van Buren’s 1840 campaign is often credited with the origin of the term “OK,” widely popular both then and now however, the derivation of “OK” is convoluted. Proposed origins of OK range from the Choctaw okeh which holds the same meaning as the modern okay, to the Greek olla kalla, “all good,” to stories of a baker with the initials OK stamping the letters on army biscuits. Allan Metcalf explains in his book OK: The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word that OK grew out of a joke written in March of 1839 by editor Charles Gordon Greene in the Boston Morning Post. The joke was that even if a person couldn’t spell “all correct,” they could “o.k.” something to say it was “oll korrect.” OK came out of a time when intellectuals were using wordplay to publish punchy jabs, and abbreviations were becoming popular- precursors to the modern LOL, JK, and even POTUS.
Born in Kinderhook, New York, Van Buren earned the nickname of “Old Kinderhook,” further popularizing the abbreviation “OK.” His Whig opponent, William Henry Harrison, was famous as “Old Tippecanoe” or the “Hero of Tippecanoe” due to his military victory at the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811. With running-mate John Tyler, Harrison’s campaign song of Tippecanoe and Tyler Too included lyrics criticizing Van Buren, calling him “little.” (Sound familiar?) The song stated, “For Tippecanoe and Tyler too/ And with them we’ll beat little Van, Van, Van/ Van is a used up man.”
OK remained a running theme during the campaign. OK Clubs of Van Buren’s supporters rose up around the country, using the meaning of OK, all correct, to say that voting for Van Buren was giving a stamp of approval. His opponents used the term OK to attack Van Buren, stating that his political ally Andrew Jackson was so unintelligent that he “OK’d” bills during his presidency since he could not properly spell “all correct.” Regardless of the debated origin of OK, Van Buren’s 1840 run certainly helped disseminate the word. OK is used today as nearly any part of speech as a noun, verb, adjective, interjection, et cetera, and in almost infinite scenarios so that the meaning has a certain amount of ambiguity. Van Buren’s presidency was just OK, or it could have even been considered oll korrect or all correct depending on your point of view, which is ultimately the legacy of Old Kinderhook’s story.
Personal Life and Education
Van Buren married Hannah Hoes on February 21, 1807, in Catskill, New York. They would have four sons. Hannah Hoes Van Buren died in 1819, and Van Buren never remarried. He was thus a widower during his term as president.
Van Buren went to a local school for several years as a child, but left at about the age of 12. He gained a practical legal education by working for a local lawyer in Kinderhook as a teenager.
Van Buren grew up fascinated by politics. As a child he would listen to political news and gossip relayed in the small tavern his father operated in the village of Kinderhook.
Influence on American Diplomacy
Jackson provided Van Buren an entrée to foreign affairs. Jackson selected Van Buren as Secretary of State as a reward for Van Buren’s efforts to deliver the New York vote to Jackson.
As President, Jackson was hesitant to relinquish control over foreign policy decisions or political appointments. Over time, Van Buren’s ability to provide informed advice about domestic policies, including the Indian Removal Act of 1830, won him a place in Jackson’s circle of closest advisers.
Van Buren’s tenure as Secretary of State included a number of successes. Working with Jackson, he reached a settlement with Great Britain to allow trade with the British West Indies. They also secured a settlement with France, gaining reparations for property seized during the Napoleonic Wars. In addition, they settled a commercial treaty with the Ottoman Empire that granted U.S. traders access to the Black Sea.
However, Jackson and Van Buren encountered a number of difficult challenges. They were unable to settle the Maine-New Brunswick boundary dispute with Great Britain, or advance the U.S. claim to the Oregon territory. They failed to establish a commercial treaty with Russia and could not persuade Mexico to sell Texas.
Van Buren resigned as Secretary of State due to a split within Jackson’s Cabinet in which Vice President John C. Calhoun led a dissenting group of Cabinet members. Jackson acquiesced and made a recess appointment to place Van Buren as U.S. Minister to Great Britain in 1831.
While in Great Britain, Van Buren worked to expand the U.S. consular presence in British manufacturing centers. His progress was cut short when the Senate rejected his nomination in January of 1832.
Van Buren returned to the United States and entered presidential politics, first as Jackson’s Vice President and then as President. While serving as chief executive, Van Buren proceeded cautiously regarding two major foreign policy crises.
Martin Van Buren - HISTORY
Martin Van Buren, the 8th President of the United States, was known by many nicknames. Perhaps the most well known was "Little Magician." "Little" is believed to have referred to both Van Buren's weight as well as his height. Although Van Buren was considered a slender man, there was speculation during his day that he might have utilized a corset or two to achieve his slim appearance. Congressman Davy Crockett went so far as to bring Van Buren's gender into question when he leveled, "[Van Buren] is laced up in corsets, such as women in a town wear, and, if possible, tighter than the best of them. It would be difficult to say, from his personal appearance, whether he was a man or woman, but for his large red and gray whiskers."
|Naturally slim or corset-wearer? You decide.|
Like Van Buren's figure, his relative height is also up for debate. Van Buren stood 5'6, which undoubtedly is short by today's standards. Van Buren would also be considered short compared to his predecessors in the office of President - whose average height was 5'10. Yet, Van Buren was only between one and two inches shorter than the average American male born during his era.
Van Buren may very well have deserved the second half of his moniker - "magician." Throughout his service as Congressman, Vice President, and President, Van Buren always seemed to be involved in the machinations of party politics across the country.
Despite his omnipresence, Van Buren was given a second and more unfortunate nickname of "Martin Van Ruin," by his political opponents. Van Buren took office 5 weeks prior to the Panic of 1837 and was criticized for his laissez faire attitude towards the financial crisis. His detractors claim that the depression would neither have dragged on for five long years or been as severe had Van Buren supported government intervention in the economy. Funny how government intervention in the financial markets was a hot topic for debate some 170 years prior to the 2008 financial crisis.
Van Buren's final nickname, "The Red Fox of Kinderhook," is similar to "Little Magician" in that it addresses Van Buren's physical appearance as well as political acumen. As Davy Crockett pointed out in his aforementioned attack on the eighth president's waistline and gender, Van Buren was indeed red-haired. Although both "silver fox" and "red fox" refer to hair color, the similarities end there. While "fox" in the former context refers an attractive middle-aged male, in the Van Buren's case it designates political prowess. Lastly, "Kinderhook" refers to his place of birth: Kinderhook, New York. Perhaps this was included to emphasize that Van Buren was the first President to be born an American citizen. Or maybe "Kinderhook" just sounds cool.
Martin Van Buren
Martin Van Buren was born on December 5, 1782 in the village of Kinderhook, New York. He was educated at the local schoolhouse and later studied at the Kinderhook Academy and the Washington Seminary in Claverack. Van Buren began his legal studies in the law office of Francis Sylvester in Kinderhook and later studied with William P. Van Ness in New York City. He was admitted to the bar in 1803.
Returning to Kinderhook, Van Buren opened a very successful law office with his half-brother James Van Allen. He practiced law for 25 years, and became financially independent. His clients included the Hudson Valley tenant farmers known as the anti-rent agitators who contested landlords’ colonial-era claims to the land they farmed. Martin Van Buren was counsel to John V. N. Yates in the landmark case before the Court of Errors, Yates v. Lansing.
As a young lawyer, Van Buren became involved in New York politics. He was Surrogate of Columbia County between 1808 and 1813. He served in the New York Senate from 1813 to 1820 and thus was a member of the Court for the Correction of Errors, the highest court in New York until 1847. A supporter of the War of 1812, he sponsored the classification act for the enrollment of volunteers. He also supported the building of the Erie Canal. Van Buren held the office of New York Attorney General from 1815 to 1819, and was a delegate to the 1821 New York State Constitutional Convention, where he opposed the grant of universal suffrage.
In 1821, he was elected to the United States Senate, a seat he held until 1828, when he resigned to take office as Governor of New York. His governorship, which commenced January 1,1829, was short-lived — President Andrew Jackson appointed Van Buren United States Secretary of State on March 5th of that year.
Van Buren had been a staunch supporter of Jackson in 1827 and now became his most trusted advisor. Martin Van Buren was elected Vice-President on the Jacksonian ticket in 1832, and won the Presidency in 1836. He ran for re-election in 1840, but was defeated by William Henry Harrison. At the end of his term, he returned to his estate at Kinderbook and unsuccessfully ran again for President in the elections of 1844 and 1848.
The Enslaved Households of President Martin Van Buren
While many tend to think that slavery was strictly a “southern” issue, this system of racial captivity and exploitation existed across the British colonies in a variety of forms during the eighteenth century. It thrived across North America, survived the American Revolution, and persisted through the creation of the Constitution. That said, individual states began adopting policies of gradual emancipation as early as 1780. Two years later, Martin Van Buren was born in the rural town of Kinderhook, New York. Van Buren himself witnessed and experienced slavery at an early age in his own house and community. His father, Abraham, owned a successful inn and small farm, along with six enslaved individuals. 1 According to the 1790 census, there were 638 enslaved people living in the town of Kinderhook, and only a handful of residents owned six or more—making Abraham one of the town’s largest slave owners. The Van Buren household consisted of fourteen people, which likely meant that Martin’s family and the enslaved lived and worked in close quarters with one another. The Van Buren tavern served as a hub of social activity for the town, and the constant coming and goings of travelers between New York City and the state capital of Albany brought all sorts of people—free and enslaved—into contact with young Martin. 2
As Van Buren studied law and began exploring a career in politics, the state of New York passed a gradual emancipation law in 1799 stipulating that any children born to enslaved mothers after July 4 of that year would be freed no later than July 4, 1827. Boys born after that 1799 date were enslaved until the age of 28, while girls remained in bondage until the age of 25. 3 A second emancipation act in 1817 made freedom possible for those born prior to 1799, putting slavery in New York on the road to extinction. By then, Van Buren had risen quickly through the ranks of New York’s Democratic-Republican Party, and he was serving as the state’s attorney general. Four years later, he and the Bucktail faction of the party challenged Governor DeWitt Clinton and his allies by calling for a new constitutional convention. 4 A political struggle ensued, and ultimately major democratic changes were ratified the following year: the alteration of the election cycle more offices were now elective than by appointment a restructuring of veto power and the legislature’s ability to override the veto and the expansion of white male suffrage by eliminating property requirements. African-American men were also granted suffrage but the law specifically imposed a $250 property requirement, preventing most from exercising their right to vote. Van Buren’s opponents and supporters would later dissect his opinions and votes on these measures as he set his sights on the highest office in the land. While he was representing New York in the United States Senate, Van Buren received this letter from a man named Alonzo G. Hammond in late December 1824. 5
I have assertained that “Tom” a black man who you purchaised of & who quit you some 10 years since is now in the neighbourhood of Worcester Ms. There is yet some time before he is free as he is of that class which will be free July 4th 1827. He was when young a slave of my father and I think I can induce him to be of some service to me if own him. I therefore take the liberty to inquire whether you will sell him for a smal compensation. I cant think of giving much as there is some considerable risque in geting him at all & if I should get him it is doubtfull whether his services wold be worth much, however if you will take the trouble to write me with terms I will then tell you whether I will purchaise him or not & make the necessary arrangements to complete it. Please direct to Berlin Rensselaer County N.Y. 6
This letter, dated December 23, 1824, suggests that Martin Van Buren owned an enslaved man named Tom at some point during the 1810s. Alonzo Hammond offers to recapture Tom for Van Buren. Van Buren's shorthand reply is on the next page: “Wrote that if he could get him without violence I would take $50.”
The Martin Van Buren Papers, Library of Congress
While the senator’s reply is not in his papers, he did jot down a short note on the other side of the letter: “Wrote that if he could get him without violence I would take $50.” 7 While it does not appear that Hammond ever made good on this offer, this letter suggests that Martin Van Buren purchased Tom rather than inherited him from his father or another Van Buren relative. 8 Aside from this letter, Van Buren was rather quiet in regards to his views on slavery at this point in his life. In late 1828, he resigned from the U.S. Senate to briefly serve as governor of New York before accepting President Andrew Jackson’s offer to serve as secretary of state, which was at that time the springboard to the presidency. 9
These pages from the 1830 census show that two free and four enslaved African-American women were at Decatur House, Secretary of State Martin Van Buren's residence. He was renting the Lafayette Square home from Susan Decatur. Charlotte Dupuy was one of the enslaved women listed.
National Archives and Records Administration, Records of the Bureau of the Census, Record Group 29
In 1829, Van Buren arrived in Washington, D.C. and established residency at the Decatur House on Lafayette Square that fall. 10 Only a block from the North Entrance of the White House, the secretary of state was well positioned to influence the president and the Washington social scene. 11 He brought three of his four sons with him—John, Martin, and Smith—while his eldest son, Abraham, was away serving in the United States Army. However, in order for Secretary of State Van Buren to host and entertain as a cabinet member was expected, he needed help to run the household.
According to the 1830 census, there was one white woman, four enslaved women, and two free African-American women living in the house. 12 There is no documented evidence that Van Buren owned these four enslaved women, so it seems more likely that he hired out free and enslaved workers at Decatur House. The lone white woman was likely his housekeeper, tasked with managing the domestic staff and running the household. 13 The enslaved women would have been hired out by their owners and the two free African-American women would have been paid wages. One of the enslaved women was Charlotte Dupuy, who was allowed to stay in Washington while her court case against her owner, Henry Clay, was resolved by the U.S. Circuit Court of the District of Columbia. 14 Regardless of whether or not Van Buren owned these enslaved people, he and many other politicians used enslaved labor to maintain their residences, feed their families, and entertain guests.
Van Buren continued his political ascent by siding with President Jackson, Secretary of War John Eaton, and Eaton’s wife Margaret during the scandalous Petticoat affair. 15 As the president’s relationship with Vice President John C. Calhoun deteriorated, Van Buren was asked to serve as the U.S. Minister to the United Kingdom. During Van Buren’s confirmation hearing in the Senate, Vice President Calhoun delivered the decisive vote against the appointment, confident that it would destroy Van Buren’s career and sabotage his political ambitions. Instead, the vice president’s pettiness brought Van Buren closer to Jackson and elevated his reputation among Democrats. President Jackson asked Van Buren to join the 1832 ticket as his vice president, and after Jackson’s re-election became one of the president’s closest advisors and confidantes. When Jackson decided not to run for a third term, Vice President Van Buren was the natural choice to succeed him. At the same time, many southern Democrats feared the idea of someone from New York—which by this time had over 200 abolitionist societies and organizations—leading their party. 16 Columnists and correspondents began publishing opinion pieces and letters from readers that questioned Van Buren’s commitment to Jacksonian principles, the Constitution, and his views on slavery. Vice President Van Buren tried to respond directly to these inquiries, but eventually there were too many to answer. Instead, his supporters disseminated a pamphlet to assuage the concerns of voters. 17 Click here to learn more about the enslaved households of President Andrew Jackson.
In his Opinions of Martin Van Buren, Vice President of the United States, the vice president detailed his thoughts on the powers and duties delegated to Congress, internal improvements, the Bank of the United States, and the abolition of slavery. One reprinted letter from a North Carolina gentleman asked whether or not Congress had the authority to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia. Van Buren responded: “the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia, against the wishes of the slave-holding States (assuming Congress has the power to effect it) would violate the spirit of that compromise of interests which lies at the basis of our social compact and I am thoroughly convinced, that it could not be so done, without imminent peril, if not certain destruction, to the Union of the States.” 18 He argued that “Congress has no right to interfere in any manner, or to any extent, with the subject of slavery in the States.” 19 Presidential candidate Martin Van Buren then made this promise:
I prefer that not only you, but all the people of the United States shall now understand, that if the desire of that portion of them which is favorable to my elevation to the Chief Magistracy, should be gratified, I must go into the Presidential chair, the inflexible and uncompromising opponent of any attempt on the part of Congress to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia, against the wishes of the slave-holding States and also with the determination equally decided, to resist the slightest interference with the subject in the States where it exists. 20
Van Buren’s written performance delivered electoral results, and true to his word, he repeated this pledge verbatim in his inaugural address. He also added the following: “It now only remains to add that no bill conflicting with these views can ever receive my constitutional sanction.” 21 President Van Buren was unequivocal that any legislation attempting to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia or undermine the institution itself would receive neither his blessing nor his signature. 22 While he was the first president to use the term “slavery” in an inaugural address, he did so to affirm his position on the issue and vowed to use presidential veto power if necessary to protect it.
These pages from the 1840 census show that five free and four enslaved African Americans were at the White House toward the end of Martin Van Buren's presidency. There is no documentary evidence that the president owned these four enslaved people, leaving two possible explanations. These four individuals were either hired out or they were brought to the White House by Angelica Van Buren, the president's daughter-in-law.
National Archives and Record Administration, Records of the Bureau of the Census, Record Group 29
During Van Buren’s time in the White House, the United States experienced one of the worst economic depressions in the young country’s history. As a result, critics accused the president of living lavishly while ordinary Americans struggled to make ends meet. Nonetheless, the social activities, formal dinners, and needs of the first family required a considerable household staff. According to the 1840 census, there were five free and four enslaved African Americans working at the White House. By comparing the 1830 census records, there is little evidence to suggest that these were the same individuals who worked at Decatur House. 23 Three of the enslaved were between the ages of 10 and 24, and the fourth was a woman between 36 and 55. It is plausible that Joseph Boulanger, the steward of the White House, hired out these enslaved individuals from their owners in Washington. Another possible explanation is that these four individuals were a family, brought to the White House by its new hostess Angelica Singleton Van Buren.
On November 27, 1838, Abraham Van Buren married Sarah Angelica Singleton of South Carolina. Her father, Richard Singleton, owned land throughout the Sumter, Richland, and Orangeburgh Districts. Within the Richland District alone, there were three separate Singleton entries listed in the 1840 census—along with 209, 201, and 109 enslaved individuals. 24 Abraham and Angelica tied the knot at the Singleton family plantation in Sumter County, where another fifty-seven enslaved people lived and worked—bringing the total to 576 enslaved people. 25 It is quite possible that the enslaved woman and her children were gifted or loaned to the newlyweds by Richard Singleton, as was the custom at the time for affluent members of the slave owning gentry. Some political observers interpreted the marriage between the daughter of one of South Carolina’s wealthiest slave owners and the president’s son as further proof that President Van Buren and his family were indeed strong supporters of slavery though many still doubted the president’s sincerity. 26
The Amistad case sheds greater light on President Van Buren’s political balancing act. Illegally seized by Portuguese slave hunters in Sierra Leone, a group of Africans were forcibly brought to Havana, Cuba. Pedro Montes and Jose Ruiz, two Spanish plantation owners, purchased fifty-three individuals and set off for home. The enslaved rose up in rebellion, killed the captain, and took control of the ship. They demanded that Montes and Ruiz return them to Africa but the two men steered northward. Eventually the Washington, an American brig, seized the schooner and escorted it to New London, Connecticut. 27 President Van Buren believed that the Africans should be extradited to Cuba and hoped to do so quietly through the naval courts at the request of the Spanish government, but northern abolitionists caught wind of the incident and began raising funds to defend the enslaved.
The key issue in the case was the status of the Africans on board—were they free or were they property? Montes and Ruiz argued that they were the rightful owners Lieutenant Thomas R. Gedney, commander of the vessel that captured the Amistad, requested salvage rights as compensation and legal counsel for the Africans maintained that these individuals were born free and illegally kidnapped. The District Court ruled that the Africans could not be considered property because their enslavement was illegal. The U.S. Attorney appealed the decision to the Circuit Court and later the Supreme Court on behalf of the Van Buren administration. Attorney General Henry D. Gilpin argued that the captives were Spanish property based on the documentation aboard the Amistad, and that they needed to be returned because of treaty obligations with Spain. Former President John Quincy Adams passionately defended the captives at the Supreme Court, and five days after Van Buren had left office, the court ruled in favor of the Africans. It was a remarkable moment for the abolitionist movement. For Van Buren—who had already been cast out of office by voters—the decision was disappointing because it gave credence to the idea that a New York Democrat could not adequately defend the institution of slavery. 28
This portrait of Angelica Singleton Van Buren was completed by Henry Inman in 1842. Angelica Van Buren served as White House hostess after she married the president's son, Abraham Van Buren, in 1838. Angelica was also a member of one of South Carolina's most prominent slave-owning families, the Singletons.
White House Collection/White House Historical Association
Van Buren temporarily retired to his Lindenwald estate in Kinderhook. In 1844, he was poised to reclaim leadership of the Democratic Party, but his opposition to the annexation of Texas ultimately hurt him with southern delegates and those that favored westward expansion. Multiple ballots resulted in the nomination of dark horse candidate James K. Polk, who went on to narrowly defeat Whig nominee Henry Clay for the presidency. Van Buren made one more attempt to return to the White House in 1848, but his party rejected him as their candidate. Undeterred, he ran as the presidential candidate for the Free Soil Party—a party that was formed to oppose the expansion of slavery into the western territories. Whig candidate and Major General Zachary Taylor won the 1848 election, but Van Buren’s presidential campaign—and his motivations for embracing antislavery measures—perplexed contemporaries and later historians. Van Buren likely reveled in the chance to help defeat the party that had rejected him, though he later returned to the fold and supported the Democratic presidential candidates in 1852, 1856, and 1860. 29 The former president lived out the rest of his life at Lindenwald, where he died on July 24, 1862.
This satirical drawing of President Martin Van Buren was created by David Claypool Johnston around 1840. Holding a golden goblet with the initials "MVB," it shows the president enjoying "White House champagne." Critics of President Van Buren insisted he was living lavishly at the Executive Mansion while most Americans struggled during the economic depression of the late 1830s.
White House Collection/White House Historical Association
Martin Van Buren owned at least one enslaved person during his lifetime—not wholly uncommon for a man who was born and raised in a state that permitted slavery until 1827. He also hired out enslaved and free African Americans to work at Decatur House, and probably during his time in Albany. This pattern continued during his time at the White House, where five free African Americans and four enslaved people labored to maintain the Executive Mansion. While we may never know if President Van Buren himself hired out these individuals, he had few qualms when it came to supporting slavery for political gain or exploiting enslaved labor within his home. Despite all of these factors, southern Democrats and supporters of slavery criticized his northern roots and repeatedly questioned his willingness to defend the peculiar institution. While the Panic of 1837 and the Gold Spoon Oration by Pennsylvania Whig representative Charles Ogle hurt him politically, the underlying distrust of Van Buren within the Democratic Party grew stronger over time. 30 As for his personal views on slavery, Van Buren wrote exceedingly little on the subject, but his career trajectory suggests that many of his positions were based more on political calculations rather than moral sentiments.
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.