The Martin Van Buren Presidency
Martin Van Buren was elected president after Andrew Jackson decided to not run for a third term. While Van Buren was president, there were many disputes with Canada over where border lines should be lain. Through these disputes, Van Buren tried to remain peaceful and avoid any and all foreign conflict. He was also president during the Panic of 1837, where people were losing their property thanks the the “Specie Circular”, declared by Jackson in 1836, which stated that all land must be purchased from the government with gold coins which were not easily found. Many states were over-spending on infrastructure during this time, which also caused economic problems of their own. Due to Van Buren’s efforts to alleviate these economic problems, Presidents from then on have been able to influence how much money is in circulation.
Martin Van Buren has the distinction of being the first president to be born a citizen of the United States and the only non-native English speaker. Van Buren grew up speaking Dutch in the New York town of Kinderhook. His father owned a tavern that was a popular meeting place for local politicians. It was here that a young Martin gained his first lessons in politics as he observed the patrons.
Though a bright child, he did not complete a formal education. He embarked on a legal career at 14 and relocated to New York City at 19. He made the acquaintance of powerful political figures in the city thanks to his association with the influential Van Ness family. Van Buren was an admirer of and believed in Jefferson’s democratic principles. After passing the bar exam, Van Buren began his own law practice back in Kinderhook.
As a young lawyer, Van Buren gained a reputation for standing up for poorer landowners in legal disputes with wealthy elites. This helped to carry him to his first political office, the New York Senate, in 1812.
Van Buren did not have the personal magnetism of other prominent political figures of the day, but he made up for his lackluster oratory skill with hard work and keen political instincts. He was adept at forming political alliances and making backroom deals. In his time in the New York senate, he formed the Albany Regency. The Albany Regency was a collection of bright young legal minds and journalists who supported Jeffersonian ideals and wanted to reform politics in New York state. They were particularly adept at influencing the press in their favor.
Among other reforms, the Albany Regency succeeded in gaining control of key political offices in the state and rewriting the state constitution to significantly expand the electorate. Van Buren’s habit of avoiding commitment to potentially sticky political situations began early in his career. He supported allowing free blacks to vote but also supported a property ownership requirement that effectively ruled out blacks from voting. He was known to allies as the Little Magician for his ability to make political deals while his enemies referred to him as the Red Fox of Kinderhook for his evasive politicking.
The Albany Regency helped Van Buren emerge onto the national stage with a successful run for the U.S. Senate in 1821. He endured a difficult start in Washington but soon recovered from some early missteps to become Chairman of the Judiciary Committee. It wasn’t long before he began building a Washington version of the Albany Regency. He formed political alliances and a national platform, laying the foundations for the modern Democratic party.
His work behind the scenes has made it difficult for historians to retrace his political steps during these important years. He managed to make inroads with Southern politicians and backed the candidacy of Georgia’s William Crawford for the 1824 election. The election was won by John Quincy Adams, despite the fact Andrew Jackson won the popular vote by a wide margin.
Sensing the way the wind was blowing, Van Buren formed an alliance with Andrew Jackson and worked to build the first truly national political movement. The modern Democratic Party was formed in January 1828 and the Jackson campaign easily swept aside the reelection bid of President Adams. At the same time, Van Buren successfully campaigned for Governor of New York.
His tenure as governor was to last only three months as he was chosen for Secretary of State. Jackson was 61, in poor health, and only expected to last a single term so the fight to succeed him began almost as soon as Old Hickory entered the White House. Van Buren’s rival was the Vice-President, South Carolina’s John C. Calhoun. Jackson and Van Buren were quite different in appearance and temperament but made an effective team.
Jackson’s relationship with Calhoun broke down entirely when word got back to Jackson that Calhoun was critical of Jackson’s conduct in Florida. Calhoun suspected it was Van Buren who tattled to Jackson. After Jackson’s cabinet was dissolved, Van Buren took a diplomatic posting to Britain and set sail for Europe. He was in London for only five months when Calhoun cast a tie-breaking vote in the Senate to block Van Buren’s appointment. Calhoun gained satisfaction from getting one over his rival, but the move was effectively a death sentence for his presidential ambitions. Van Buren returned to the United States and became a key member of Jackson’s so-called Kitchen Cabinet, his informal circle of trusted allies and advisors. Calhoun was replaced with Van Buren on Jackson’s ticket for reelection in 1832 and Van Buren succeeded Jackson as president four years later.
At 53, he was the youngest person elected president at the time. His rise to the top had been steady, the product of years of work and political wheeling and dealing. His inaugural address forecasted the beginning of a bright new era. Unfortunately, he did not have very long to savor his time at the summit of the mountain.
The Panic of 1837 broke out weeks into Van Buren’s presidency. The crisis was an outcome of Jackson’s war with the United States bank. With the restraining hand of the national bank removed, state banks began to speculate wildly. Van Buren continued the Specie Circular, Jackson’s policy of requiring land transactions to be made with gold or silver. Intended to limit speculation, the policy had the practical effect of limiting the government’s ability to respond to economic troubles. Which is exactly when economic troubles began to boil over.
America’s economic bubble burst in 1837, cotton prices plunged, and rising inflation and unemployment saw several banks fail. Van Buren was caught between upholding the Jeffersonian ideal of the government staying out of economic affairs and issuing more paper money to ease the crisis. With the Panic Session of September 5, 1837 Van Buren attempted to find a middle ground between the two positions. He proposed the creation of an independent treasury for federal deposits while offering to print more treasury notes and suspend federal lawsuits. The bill to create an independent treasury failed to pass until 1840. Van Buren did not have Jackson’s ability to seemingly bend Congress to his will.
The inability to form an effective response to the Panic of 1837 hamstrung Van Buren’s presidency; he was never able to shake the public perception that he was to blame for the crisis. He was also ineffective in dealing with the other great issue of the day – the growing polarization over slavery.
Van Buren’s personal views on slavery were complex. His father had owned six slaves, while he only had one, named Tom, who ran away in 1814. When Tom was found in Massachusetts, Van Buren agreed to his sale but never followed up on the deal. Tom lived out the rest of his days as a free man. In his early days in New York, Van Buren was aligned with abolitionist groups but conspicuously absent from a meeting over the question of Missouri’s slave-state-status. In fact, his name was not among the signatories of any anti-slavery document.
His inaugural speech broke with tradition by mentioning slavery, but only to proclaim he would not interfere with the practice. Van Buren had no wish to tackle such a divisive issue, but silence was proving to be an untenable position. Fierce debates over the expansion of slavery raged in Congress, to the extent that a fatal duel between Maine’s Johnathon Cilley and Kentucky’s William Graves took place in 1838.
The middle ground between the abolitionists and slave owners that Van Buren tried so desperately to hold was evaporating. By trying not to offend either side, he managed to alienate both. Southern politicians thought he was a closet abolitionist while northerners disdained his lack of conviction. Texas sought to join the United States after splitting off from Mexico in 1836, so a formal offer of annexation was presented to Van Buren in August 1837. Unwilling to admit a large slave-holding state into the Union at such a delicate time, Van Buren eventually rejected the offer.
Another Jacksonian policy that Van Buren continued was the Indian Removal act. The Trail of Tears, the forced removal of the Cherokee from Georgia, began in 1838 with Van Buren’s order to General Winfield Scott to enforce the terms of the dubious Treaty of New Echota. The treaty essentially stated that all Cherokee land east of the Mississippi River would be ceded for $5 million and the Cherokee would be given new land in current-day Oklahoma. The end result didn’t quite match the original sentiment.
Thousands died on the long march to Indian lands west of the Mississippi. In Florida, the Seminole War continued throughout Van Buren’s presidency without resolution. Van Buren was far more concerned with the ongoing economic problems than the atrocities committed by his administration in Georgia and Florida.
There were some successes in Van Buren’s single term as president. He mandated a ten-hour workday for government employees by executive order in 1840, a major advance for workers’ rights at the time. Relations with Great Britain also improved and a border dispute between Maine and British Canada was resolved without escalating into war. The only casualties were two Canadian lumberjacks attacked by a bear.
Ultimately, the Panic of 1837 and the growing animosity over slavery led to Van Buren’s downfall in the 1840 election. After decades in politics, he’d made his fair share of enemies. His opponents seized upon his fondness for lavish spending and for dressing well to cast him as an out-of-touch dandy unable to lead the country out of its economic hardship. His opponent, William Henry Harrison, was touted as a self-made man of the people but was actually from a wealthy Virginian family. Harrison’s victory was decisive but short-lived; he fell ill after his inauguration and died after just 31 days as president.
Van Buren made two unsuccessful attempts to regain the White House. In 1844 he came close to securing the Democratic nomination, but his opposition to annexing Texas saw James K. Polk chosen instead. Van Buren’s last run for president came in 1848 as part of the short-lived Free Soil Party. He won 10% of the popular vote without winning a single state. He decided to step away from politics for the later years of his life, choosing instead to travel and write his memoirs.
Okay, now that we’ve spanned the presidency of Van Buren, let’s go over a couple of review questions to see what you remember.
1. In an attempt to find a middle ground during the Panic of 1837, which of the following did he propose?
- To create an independent treasury for federal deposits
- To suspend federal lawsuits
- To halt the printing of high-value treasury notes
- To print more treasury notes
The correct answers are A, B, and D! He wanted to find the middle ground between the government staying out of economic affairs and issuing more paper money to ease the crisis.
2. Which of the following was considered a success for Van Buren during his single-term presidency?
- Rejecting the annexation of Texas.
- Mandating a 10-hour workday for government employees
- Maintaining the middle ground on hot-button issues
- Continuing the Specie Circular
The correct answer is B! Mandating a 10-hour workday was a major advance for workers’ rights at the time.
Okay, that’s all for this review! Thanks for watching, and happy studying!