American Statesmen: Secretaries of State from John Jay to Colin Powell

By Edward S. Mihalkanin | Go to book overview

MARTIN VAN BUREN (1782-1862)

Served 1829-1831

Appointed by President Andrew Jackson

Democrat

When historians evaluate the formation of the second political party system in the 1820s, Martin Van Buren, the “Little Magician, emerges at the vortex. In fact, Van Buren often receives greater praise for his activities in New York and Congressional politics, than his higher profile roles as secretary of state (1829-1831) and president (1837-1841). Van Buren's career in the State Department was brief, but marked by notable successes. No risk taker, the “Red Fox of Kinderhook” was a dedicated, competent administrator who aspired to the White House and loyally followed the lead of President Andrew Jackson. He chose a course that served him well.

Van Buren was born in upstate New York, near Albany, in 1782 to respectable tavern-owning parents of Dutch ancestry. He ceased his formal schooling at the age of 14 and apprenticed with a local Federalist lawyer. Although he learned the law—and practiced with considerable success in both New York City and upstate—his true passion was Jeffersonian politics. For the next two decades, Van Buren shrewdly maneuvered his way through the Byzantine world of Empire State Republicanism.

With considerable dexterity, he moved among factions led by legendary figures such as Aaron Burr and George Clinton. Elected to the state senate (1812-1816), chosen as attorney general (1816-1819), U.S. Senator (1821-1828), and governor (1828) he emerged as the leader of a clique labeled the “Albany Regency.” The Regency dueled throughout the decade with the forces of popular Governor DeWitt Clinton. In the presidential election of 1824, Van Buren backed the ill-fated candidacy of Secretary of the Treasury William H. Crawford of Georgia. The nationalistic bent of the John Quincy Adams administration repulsed Van Buren, a supporter of limited government, and he soon joined the camp of a more likely states' rights prospect, Andrew Jackson, who was gathering allies for his victorious 1828 campaign. Van Buren's energies in promoting the Jacksonian cause did not go unrewarded. When, in February 1829, “Old Hickory” invited him to join the cabinet as secretary of state, he promptly accepted. Van Buren had not acquired a repu-

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