Martin Van Buren, 1782–1862, 8th President of the United States (1837–41), b. Kinderhook, Columbia co., N.Y.
He was reared on his father's farm, was educated at local schools, and after reading law was admitted (1803) to the bar. He practiced law successfully and soon became active in politics. After he was (1808–13) surrogate of Columbia co., he served (1813–20) in the state senate and became prominent in the state Democratic party. While still a senator Van Buren was made state attorney general in 1815, but because of his mounting rivalry with De Witt Clinton, the governor of New York, he was removed from this post in 1819. Meanwhile he had helped to secure the election (1816) of Daniel D. Tompkins as Vice President.
Van Buren served (1821–28) in the U.S. Senate, where he firmly backed the tariffs of 1824 and 1828. His record there was inconsistent as to states' rights, slavery, and internal improvements; this wavering was later brought up against him by his political enemies. Van Buren was far more important as a political leader than as a legislator. He organized the closely knit political group known as the Albany Regency and was a leading supporter of William H. Crawford, who ran for President in 1824. After the election of John Quincy Adams, Van Buren gradually swung his power to the support of Andrew Jackson.
A Jacksonian Democrat
Elected (1828) governor of New York state, Van Buren resigned in 1829, after Jackson had become President, to become his Secretary of State. Probably the most influential of Jackson's advisers, Van Buren, although essentially opposed to the doctrine of nullification, did not at first take a conspicuous part in the rising hostilities between Vice President John C. Calhoun and the President. Van Buren further strengthened his position with Jackson by being courteous to Peggy Eaton (see O'Neill, Margaret). His resignation (1831) as Secretary of State brought about that of the other cabinet officers and enabled Jackson to eliminate the supporters of Calhoun from the cabinet. Jackson immediately appointed Van Buren minister to Great Britain, but the deciding vote of Calhoun in the Senate prevented him from being confirmed in the post.
Thoroughly in accord with Jackson's policies, Van Buren was nominated for Vice President by the Democratic party in 1832 and was elected to office along with President Jackson. It was largely through Jackson's influence that Van Buren was chosen as Democratic candidate for President in 1836. The Whig party was still in the formative stage, and there was no well-organized opposition; Van Buren, therefore, was easily swept into office.
As President, Van Buren announced his intention of following Jackson's policies, but the Panic of 1837 and the hard times that followed brought Van Buren a great deal of unpopularity. To meet the economic crisis, Van Buren, wary of the existing banking system, backed after 1837 the Independent Treasury System. Not until 1840, however, did Congress pass measures establishing it. In foreign affairs, Van Buren attempted to conciliate differences with Great Britain arising out of the Caroline Affair and the Aroostook War.
He was again the presidential candidate of the Democratic party in 1840, but he was defeated in the
"log cabin and hard cider"
campaign by William Henry Harrison. The Whigs unfairly painted Van Buren as a man of great wealth who was ignorant of, and disdainful toward, the common people. In 1844, Van Buren was the leading possibility as Democratic candidate for the presidency, but he flatly opposed the annexation of Texas because he felt it would provoke war with Mexico and because he opposed the extension of slavery. Although he held a majority in the nominating convention, he was unable (largely as a result of the efforts of Robert J. Walker) to obtain the two-thirds majority necessary to win the nomination. Van Buren, bitterly disappointed, saw James K. Polk elected President.
He remained prominent in Democratic party politics, and helped lead the Barnburners in their violent struggle with the Hunkers. In 1848 he was the presidential candidate of the newly organized Free-Soil party and managed to take enough New York votes away from the Democratic candidate, Lewis Cass, to aid Zachary Taylor, the Whig party candidate, in winning the election. He voted for the Democratic candidate in the elections of 1852, 1856, and 1860, but supported Abraham Lincoln during the secession crisis. An Inquiry into the Origin and Course of Political Parties of the United States (1867) was written by Van Buren, edited by one of his sons, and published posthumously.
See his autobiography (1920, repr. 1973); biography by T. Widmer (2005); R. V. Remini, Martin Van Buren and the Making of the Democratic Party (1959, repr. 1970); J. C. Curtis, The Fox at Bay (1970).