The Presidents of the USA


 
 
 

Biography

 
8
Martin van Buren
R R R R R
 
1837-1841
 
He was the first national politician. He developed the ideas that led to the two-party system in the United States. His Presidency was a failure. It was largely characterized by the economic hardship of his time, the Panic of 1837.


Born: Dec. 5, 1782, Kinderhook, N.Y.
Political partyDemocrat
Education none formal; read law, 1796-1803
Military service none
Previous public office♦ Judge, Columbia County NY, 1811
♦ New York Senate, 1813-17
♦ attorney gen. of New York, 1816-17
♦ U.S. Senate, 1821-28
♦ governor of New York, 1829
♦ US secretary of State, 1829-31
♦ Vice President, 1833-37
Died July 24, 1862, Kinderhook, N.Y.
picture of Martin van Buren



Early Life

Born on Dec. 5, 1782, in the village of Kinderhook, N.Y., Van Buren was the son of a farmer and tavern keeper (and owner of six slaves) whose forebears had come from Holland 150 years before. Dutch was still spoken in his home and English was not his first language.

Martin worked on the farm and attended local schools. He received no formal education. At the age of 14 he became a clerk in a law office in Kinderhook and then in an office in New York City. Beginning in 1803, he prospered in law practice in Kinderhook with his half brother. In 1807 he married Hannah Hoes, and they had four sons. His wife died in 1819, and he never remarried.



Political Career

Van Buren became a successful lawyer, served as attorney general of New York State, and in 1821 he organized a convention to write a new constitution for New York. By the 1820s he was considered for the U.S. Supreme Court. But Van Buren was by instinct a politician whose canny maneuvers gave him the nickname Little Magician, and he was more interested in a political career than serving as a judge.

His chief contribution to U.S. politics was the development of the two-party system. He argued that the public interest would be best served with two parties (rather than one or many): one would govern and the other would offer the voters an alternative. Prior to Van Buren's time, the Federalists did not believe there should be a Democratic-Republican party, and the Democratic-Republicans did all they could to bury the Federalists. The result was one-party government in the so-called Era of Good Feeling during James Monroe's Presidency. But Van Buren recognized that this was actually an “era of bad feelings” in which sectional animosities had replaced party competition. His goal was the re-creation of the old struggle between Federalists and Democratic-Republicans, with each party containing followers from all across the Union-and each acknowledging the legitimacy of the other.

Van Buren came to his understanding of two-party politics through his experience in New York. There he led a faction of the Democratic-Republicans who instituted the spoils system-giving government appointments to political allies-by removing a large number of opposition officeholders. After winning election to the U.S. Senate, Van Buren used his patronage powers to create and dominate the Albany Regency -a small group of politicians who organized a political machine and ran the state through the post-Civil War period.

In 1828, while running for governor of New York, he strongly supported Andrew Jackson's second campaign for the White House. After Jackson won, Van Buren became his secretary of state in 1829, resigning the governorship of New York. In this post, he was successful in difficult diplomatic negotiations with France, Great Britain, and Turkey.

Between 1828 and 1832 Van Buren and Jackson created the Democratic party. Instead of trying for a single, all-embracing party, with no principles or program, they put together a party that was not all-inclusive. They opposed the national banking system and favored state banks, and they opposed national funding of internal improvements. Moreover, Van Buren pushed Jackson to institute New York's spoils system in the national government, which froze out many politicians. Jackson's opponents united in the 1830s to form the opposition Whig party. Through Van Buren's efforts, the first stable two-party system had been created.

In 1832 the first Democratic party convention nominated Van Buren to be Jackson's running mate. As Vice President, he served Jackson well as a political adviser and supported him loyally in the “bank wars.” In May 1835, with Jackson's endorsement, Van Buren won the Democratic nomination for the Presidency by a unanimous vote of the convention. He won the election against four Whig regional candidates.



Presidency

Martin Van Buren announced his intention "to follow in the footsteps of his illustrious predecessor", and retained all but one of Jackson's cabinet.

In one of his last major decisions Andrew Jackson issued the Specie Circular, which ordered that paper money not be accepted for payment in the sale of government lands. There was a run on specie (metal currency), and it flowed from the Eastern banks to the Western banks that needed it. Then the Treasury withdrew its surplus funds from state banks for distribution to state governments, which further reduced deposits of specie in the state banks, particularly large commercial banks in the Northeast. Soon these banks cut back on loans and extensions of credit needed for businesses all along the Eastern seaboard. In May 1837, two months after Van Buren's inauguration, the New York banks suspended payments of specie on demand to their depositors. Within a week banks across the nation followed suit. That was the Panic of 1837, one of the worst economic crises in the USA history.

Unfortunately for Van Buren, this panic, the first serious economic setback the United States had experienced since 1789, destroyed whatever confidence the nation had in his leadership. Of 788 banks, 618 failed when depositors removed their funds. No one could obtain loans or credit, factories closed, and farms were foreclosed, leading to an economic depression. Van Buren refused to endorse a policy of easy money, and he opposed any expansion of credit by the national government. The government did intervene minimally to repair the immediate damage: it ended further distribution of surplus revenue from the Treasury and issued $10 million in new Treasury notes to be used to pay government bills and put new funds in circulation. Van Buren refused to spend money on public works to relieve the depression, claiming these expenditures were unconstitutional. His Treasury ran surpluses, which further deflated the currency and weakened the economy.

Van Buren proposed to sever all financial relationships between state banks and the Treasury. He proposed the establishment of an independent treasury system with “subtreasuries” in large cities into which national government funds would be deposited. This would replace Jackson's system in which “pet” banks, owned by state Democratic politicians, controlled federal funds and used them in speculative schemes that had undermined the banking system. The measure, however, would reduce the amount of money available for loans by banks and therefore would further contract the credit system. Whigs argued that the subtreasuries would only make the depression worse. After three years of trying, Van Buren finally won congressional passage of his measure with the argument that the government's funds would be safe only in the government's own bank vaults. Van Buren signed the bill on July 4, 1840, hailing it as the “Second Declaration of Independence.” Whigs vowed to make it a campaign issue in the next election.

Van Buren was controversial in handling sectional crises and foreign affairs. He vowed to veto any law changing the status of slavery in the nation's capital (which at that time was legal), leading John Quincy Adams to call him a “northern man with southern feelings.” He won over Northern Democrats to oppose the abolitionist cause. He got Southerners to delay their attempts to annex Texas after Texas requested it in 1837. Like the attempts of other Presidents to keep sectional peace, these efforts only delayed the inevitable conflict between North and South and lost him support in both regions.

In a bold step, Van Buren reversed Andrew Jackson's policies and sought peace at home, as well as abroad. Instead of settling a financial dispute between American citizens and the Mexican government by force, Van Buren wanted to seek a diplomatic solution. In August 1837, Van Buren denied Texas' formal request to join the United States, again prioritizing sectional harmony over territorial expansion.

In the case of the ship Amistad, Van Buren sided with the Spanish Government to return the kidnapped slaves. Also, he oversaw the "Trail of Tears", which involved the expulsion of the Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw and Seminole from Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, and South Carolina to the Oklahoma territory. To help secure Florida, Van Buren also pursued the Second Seminole War, which had begun while Jackson was in office. The war, which would prove the costliest of the American Indian Wars, was seen as an attempt to expand slave territory in the free states. Fighting was not resolved until 1842, after Van Buren had left office.

Van Buren continued Jackson's policy of removing Southern Indians to Oklahoma, supervising the transfer of 20,000 Cherokee in 1838. In Florida, he fought a long and bloody war against the Seminole Indians, leading to the removal of 3,500 of the 4,000 Indians and the capture of many runaway slaves who had taken refuge with them-all at the cost of 1,500 casualties to U.S. forces.

In foreign affairs Van Buren kept the nation at peace and its borders secure. He prevented two crises with Great Britain from becoming wars.

The hard economic times led to “Martin Van Ruin's” defeat in 1840 at the hands of the popular Whig candidate William Henry Harrison.



Retirement

After leaving the White House, Van Buren devoted his efforts to regaining the Presidency. He was a leading contender for the Democratic nomination in 1844, receiving more than half of the ballots cast but not the necessary two-thirds. He lost the nomination because his stand against the annexation of Texas eroded his support: he correctly foresaw that it would lead to war with Mexico.

In 1848 he was nominated by the Free-Soil party, a coalition of New York abolitionists, “conscience” Whigs, and others opposed to the extension of slavery. Van Buren received no electoral college votes but won 10 percent of the popular vote, enough to defeat the Democratic candidate, Lewis Cass, and pave the way for Whig candidate Zachary Taylor to win. Thereafter Van Buren played no role in national politics. After being bedridden with a case of pneumonia during the fall of 1861, Martin Van Buren died of bronchial asthma and heart failure at his Lindenwald estate in Kinderhook. He was 79



Legacy

Born six years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Martin Van Buren was the first President who was born a citizen of the United States. (All prior Presidents had been born British subjects.)

Hardworking, quick at collecting and absorbing facts, and a good judge of character, Martin Van Buren was in his early career an exceptionally able trial lawyer who gained a reputation for his political skills.

Buren's novel tactics, his patronage policies, and his understanding of communication and discipline anticipated modern political practices. As such, he was the principal architect of the second American party system.

With Andrew Jackson, he founded the Democratic party and developed the ideas that led to the two-party system in the United States.

He was an able man, but always regarded more as a politician than a statesman and as a shrewd manipulator.

His Presidency was a failure. It was largely characterized by the economic hardship of his time, the Panic of 1837. He was scapegoated for the depression and called "Martin Van Ruin".




 
 
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