Martin Van Buren (December 5, 1782 – July 24, 1862) was an American politician who served a single term as the eighth President of the United States (1837–41). A member of the Democratic Party, he served in a number of senior roles, including eighth Vice President (1833–37) and tenth Secretary of State (1829–31), both under Andrew Jackson. Van Buren’s inability as president to deal with the deep economic depression following the Panic of 1837 and with the surging Whig Party led to his defeat in the 1840 election.
Of Dutch ancestry, Van Buren learned early to interact with people from multiple ethnic, income, and societal groups, which he used to his advantage as a political organizer. A meticulous dresser, he could mingle in upper class society as well as in saloon environments like the tavern his father ran. A delegate to a political convention at age 18, he quickly moved from local to state politics, gaining fame both as a political organizer and an accomplished lawyer.
Elected to the Senate by the New York State Legislature in 1821, Van Buren supported William H. Crawford for president in the 1824 election, but by 1828 had come to support General Andrew Jackson. Van Buren was a major supporter and organizer for Jackson in the 1828 election, and ran for Governor of New York in the hope of using his personal popularity to boost Jackson’s campaign. Jackson and Van Buren were elected, and after serving as governor for two months, Van Buren resigned to become Jackson’s Secretary of State.
During Jackson’s eight years as president, Van Buren was a key advisor, and built the organizational structure for the coalescing Democratic Party, particularly in New York. In 1831, following his resignation as Secretary of State, which aided Jackson in resolving the Petticoat affair, Jackson gave Van Buren a recess appointment as American minister to Britain, but Van Buren’s nomination was rejected by the Senate, cutting short his service in London.
He was successful in the jockeying to become Jackson’s picked successor, and was elected vice president in 1832. Van Buren defeated several Whig opponents in 1836, and was elected president.
As president, Van Buren was blamed for the depression of 1837; hostile newspapers called him “Martin Van Ruin”. He attempted to cure the economic problems by keeping control of federal funds in an independent treasury—rather than in state banks—but Congress would not approve of this until 1840.
In foreign affairs, he denied the application of Texas for admission to the Union, unwilling to upset the balance of free and slave states in the Missouri Compromise, and hoping to avoid war with Mexico over Texas annexation by purchasing the territory from Mexico’s government. Additionally, relations with Britain and its colonies in Canada proved to be strained from the bloodless Aroostook War and the Caroline Affair.
In the 1840 election, Van Buren was voted out of office, losing to Whig candidate William Henry Harrison. Van Buren was the leading candidate for the Democratic nomination in 1844, but lost to James K. Polk, who went on to win the election.
In the 1848 election Van Buren ran unsuccessfully as the candidate of the anti-slavery Free Soil Party. He returned to the Democratic fold to support Franklin Pierce (1852), James Buchanan (1856), and Stephen A. Douglas (1860) for the presidency, but his increasingly abolitionist views and support for the Union led him to support Abraham Lincoln’s policies after the start of the American Civil War.
Van Buren’s health began to fail in 1861, and he died in July 1862 at the age of seventy-nine. Although he served in many high offices, his most lasting achievement was as a political organizer who built the modern Democratic Party and guided it to dominance in the new Second Party System.
Words of Wisdom
As to the presidency, the two happiest days of my life were those of my entrance upon the office and my surrender of it.