Eighth President of the United States
Martin Van Buren was the primary architect of the Jacksonian Democratic Party in the 1820s, its most prominent and resourceful leader after Andrew Jackson, and the holder of many state and federal offices, both elected and appointed, including U.S. senator, secretary of state, vice president, and president of the United States.
The son of a tavern keeper in Kinderhook in New York's Hudson Valley, Van Buren trained as a lawyer and built up a successful local practice that he was able to expand to other courts in the state, which enabled him to become well off financially. He was married in 1807, but his wife, Hannah, died of tuberculosis after almost 12 years of marriage, leaving four sons to be raised by their father. While practicing law and raising his family, he also became involved in local politics around the time of the War of 1812. He served in the state legislature, as New York's attorney general, and then in the U.S. Senate from 1821 to 1828. From the first, he identified himself with the Jeffersonian Republicans in their bitter battle against the Federalists to define and shape the direction and nature of the new country. The followers of Thomas Jefferson wanted a decentralized, agrarian republic with strong states' rights, while the Federalists sought to create a more centralized political system with an economy rooted in a strong, government-assisted, commercial base.
Van Buren came of political age in a contentious, faction-ridden political climate in New York in the years after American independence from England. As his political experience deepened, he became a major articulator of a new style of political organization that accepted the inevitability of perennial conflict in American society and the danger from unfettered factional warfare. He argued the need, therefore, for permanent organizations—national political parties—to manage and direct campaigns, forge unity among often recalcitrant blocs, and convince everyone of the virtues of compromise among different claims and agendas and submission to discipline among the usually warring Republican factions. If they did not follow his prescription to build a well-defined political party, he argued, if different groups went off on their own (as they often did) or moved in and out of temporary alliances for temporary advantage, or if they opposed other Republicans for their own personal interests and parochial agendas, then the Federalists, with their extreme nationalizing ideas, would dominate the state and the nation.
He was able to put his ideas into practice in his home state in the early 1820s as the leader of the so-called Albany Regency, a group comprising mostly the state legislators who were the leaders of the Jeffersonians. Political parties had traditionally not been acceptable to Americans, who saw them as manipulative, covert in their activities, indifferent to public will, and engaged in constant warfare that was disruptive of the civic order. But when Van Buren moved into national politics after 1821, he built on his New York experience to get Republicans across the nation to accept the need to organize and come together on behalf of the Jeffersonian creed of limited government to preserve and protect individual freedom. Although initially skeptical of the growing popular currents seeking political reform, particularly the expansion of suffrage beyond its current limits, Van Buren and his allies adopted a populist stance as they developed and refined their party's outlook.
Working with like-minded leaders elsewhere, such as the Virginia newspaper editor Thomas Ritchie, John Forsyth in Georgia, and the leaders of the Concord Regency in New Hampshire, among others, and by traveling, pleading, negotiating, and knocking heads together when necessary, he successfully built up his self-designated plain republican coalition behind Andrew Jackson's quest for the presidency in 1828. The coalition was successful in attracting support across the social spectrum on behalf of the hero of the Battle of New Orleans. At the same time that Jackson was chosen as the nation's president, Van Buren won election as governor of New York. He held that office only briefly, however, leaving to become Jackson's secretary of state. He then became, for a short time, minister to England, and in 1832 he was elected vice president, with Jackson again winning the presidency. Van Buren's political rise culminated with his election as Jackson's designated successor four years later. Through it all he remained a close advisor to the president, proving himself to be a man of well-developed political instincts that served the often volatile president well in his battle over the Bank of the United States and during the Nullification Crisis, in which the South Carolina legislature voted to nullify tariff laws it did not like. Jackson won both battles with Van Buren at his side, further defining the national coalition he led and cementing his close association with his vice president.
As Van Buren's career blossomed, he became the object of great hostility. His political enemies painted him as a tricky manipulator and fixer, as the "sly fox" of American politics, skilled only in the arts of political management and dedicated only to winning office for himself and his allies. They particularly assailed his role as a spoilsman, as the energetic advocate of an appointment policy to government offices that rewarded friends and ousted putative enemies, no matter how competent.
But Van Buren was much more than that. In foreign affairs, economic matters, and other policy areas that they dealt with, he and his fellow Jeffersonian Republicans (now called Democratic-Republicans, or just Democrats) remained committed to their idea of limited government. They were hostile to their Federalist opponents' (now Whigs) commitment to a national bank, high protective tariffs, significant government spending, control over people's lives, and resistance to the popular currents affecting the political world. Van Buren, and those he influenced and led, tried to live up to the idea of the Jeffersonian creed throughout his political career. Much of the opposition to the New Yorker stemmed from his party's program and Jackson's success as president. Name calling, however, had become a fixture of the popular politics encased in the new party system, and it would remain so as both parties did their best to show their disdain for the other's leaders as well as the absurdity and iniquity of their ideas.
Van Buren's election to the presidency against a still poorly organized Whig Party, despite its blackguarding of him as unworthy, demonstrated the virtues of what the New Yorker had built. Once in office, however, the political world shifted against Van Buren. As president, he remained faithful to his noninterventionist, hands-off policies in most areas, a commitment that cost him politically when a severe depression struck the nation in 1837 and persisted for several years. Falling prices for Southern cotton, the nation's principal export commodity, had major consequences for the rest of the economy including the collapse of the credit system, bank failures, land foreclosures (and abandonment), and rising unemployment throughout the nation. Van Buren did not change his political course because of the emergency, however. His response was to do little directly to aid those faced with ruin and loss of their livelihood. He maintained the federal government's tight credit policies and refused to get involved in relief efforts. As he summed up in his annual message to Congress in 1840, "all communities are apt to look to government for too much." (Silbey 117) It was a sentiment he had internalized throughout his political career.
This crude woodcut satirizes the obstacles facing President Van Buren in his reelection effort in 1840. The president is weighed down by a large bundle labeled "Sub Treasury" and follows the lead of Andrew Jackson toward the White House, as a young man to the left thumbs his nose. Symbolizing the popular appeal of William Henry Harrison's candidacy are the barrels of "Hard Cider" and the log cabins blocking the president's path. (Library of Congress)
Few Americans were happy with such ideological consistency amid crisis. The result was a political backlash against the administration and severe Democratic losses, first in off-year state and congressional elections, and culminating in Van Buren's defeat when he ran for reelection in 1840. The Whigs' noisy, dramatic, "hurrah" campaign that year behind another general, William Henry Harrison, raised a mighty uproar highlighting Van Buren's failures and alleged indifference to the American people's suffering at a time of national crisis. It also demonstrated how far Van Buren's opponents had come in emulating his organizational and campaigning methods. The Whigs joined the Democrats in organizing to mobilize their supporters and convince them of what had to be done. Their negative portrait of the president—whom they called "Martin Van Ruin" (Silbey 145), and who was allegedly living in extravagant splendor in the presidential palace, drinking fine French wine, and dining off gold plate while others starved—carried the day at the polls. The president and his party colleagues were routed in the election, which had the highest turnout in a presidential election up to that date. More than 80 percent of those eligible to vote did so, compared to a turnout of only 56 percent in 1836.
The Whigs had gleefully yelled that "Matty Van is a used up man" during the 1840 campaign. (Silbey 142) But he did not think so. Van Buren sought renomination for the presidency and political vindication in 1844, but he was defeated at the Democratic National Convention, largely because of memories of his failed administration and the introduction of a new issue to the political world: America's further continental expansion, specifically the annexation of the Texas Republic. Van Buren's opposition to precipitate expansion, especially into new slaveholding areas out of fear of its potentially debilitating consequences for the nation in its foreign relations and its potential effects on internal harmony among the different sections of the nation, allowed his many enemies in the party to bypass him and nominate the former Speaker of the House of Representatives and governor of Tennessee, James K. Polk, who ran on a platform of traditional Jacksonian policies and immediate territorial expansion. (Van Buren had come into the Convention with a majority of the delegates supporting him, but the party's rules ordained that two-thirds of those voting had to support a nominee before he was declared the party's choice. Unfortunately, Van Buren could never achieve that many additional delegate votes.)
Polk won a very close election over the Whig leader, Henry Clay. The newly elected president, determined to be the party's unquestioned leader, held Van Buren at arm's length, although the former president and his supporters worked hard to elect the man who had defeated them at the national convention. Polk stumbled in his early dealings with Van Buren over Cabinet and other appointments, taking actions that seemed to the angry Van Burenites to be dismissive of their role in party affairs and hostile to the recognition they had earned. All of this was intensified by a bad split among the New York Democrats between Van Buren's "Barnburners" and the "Hunkers," who were less committed in their adherence to traditional party policies, more commercially minded, and more willing to use the government to promote and finance economic development. Polk apparently supported the Hunkers, at least as the Van Burenites saw it. The ugly New York confrontation had resonance in other states, particularly when Polk led the country into a war against Mexico that was clearly designed to add more territory to the United States. By 1846-1847, sectional tensions had greatly increased, and the Democratic Party was rent by disagreements and a fear that Polk and his Southern allies were doing things that would harm the party in the North.
The Barnburners revolted when they were not recognized as the sole representative of their state at the Democratic National Convention in 1848. Polk had refused to run for a second term, but the party's hierarchy remained hostile to Van Buren and his followers. Moved by their frustration with and anger against the leaders of the party that Van Buren had built and led, the Barnburners joined with dissident Whigs and other reformers who had long challenged the South's slave system to form the Free-Soil Party. They sought to contest Polk's heritage on a platform of not allowing slavery in the large areas of the Southwest and along the Pacific Coast acquired as a result of the war with Mexico. Van Buren went along and, although at first hesitant to do so, he accepted the Free-Soil nomination for president, with his second son, "Prince John," leading the party's campaign that autumn.
Despite their hopes, the Free-Soilers won only 10 percent of the national vote in the election, and they did not carry a single state, although they came in second to the Whigs in several states, including New York and Massachusetts. Historians have argued about whether or not the strong showing of the Free-Soilers in New York cost the Democratic candidate the state's electoral votes—and the election itself as a consequence. But the main point was that the Whigs, who had lost in a very close election in 1844, now won a clear victory over their disorganized foes, drawing support among all social classes as they did so. The defeated Democrats blamed Van Buren for his treason to the cause he had championed for so long.
After 1848, Van Buren joined with others and worked hard to reunite the Democrats. Despite persistent hostility among many of them toward one another, the Democrats did knit their party back together in time for the presidential election of 1852. Van Buren, however, now in his late 60s, no longer played an active role in party or political affairs. He retired to his newly rebuilt home, Lindenwald, in Kinderhook, traveled a certain amount, enjoyed his family (several of his sons lived close by his estate), and lived the peaceful life of a country gentleman. He worked intermittently on his autobiography, part of which was titled "Inquiry into the Origin and Course of Political Parties in the United States." The full work was never completed, although his sons later edited and published the "Inquiry" as a separate volume. His fragment of an autobiography appeared only in 1920, when the American Historical Association published it.
Van Buren lived to see the outbreak of the Civil War and was approached to be part of a group of retired presidents who might work out a compromise between North and South. The effort did not get very far, however, and the war continued. Van Buren, weakened by persistent asthma, died at his home in the summer of 1862.
Martin Van Buren's creative and critical role in the development and maturing of American political life in the first half of the nineteenth century is self-evident, even if his is something of a mixed legacy. Never a charismatic national leader like Andrew Jackson, his attainments lay elsewhere. His vision of a political party system was a major breakthrough in ordering what was otherwise a disorganized, elite-dominated situation inadequate for the political needs of a growing, pluralist America.
On the other hand, Van Buren's ideological commitments and tactical caution led to grievous mistakes for himself and his party, as exemplified in his response to the economic downturn of 1837 and his refusal to venture into uncharted ideological territory. He did not conceive, for instance, of pushing the cause of equal rights (for white males) that his party articulated beyond the rhetorical, articulating the right of the common folk to vote and hold office. Neither blacks nor women were on his policy agenda, however, only white males. (In the case of blacks, several of his actions had been distinctly hostile toward them while he was president.) His commitment to Free Soil in 1848 was sincere but brief and limited. He remained, first and foremost, a party leader, conscious of the need for unity and compromise, and he sought to practice the art of the possible in order to achieve what could and should be accomplished.
- The Free Soilers: Third Party Politics, 1848-1854 Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1973.
- Martin Van Buren and the American Political System Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984.
- The Fox at Bay: Martin Van Buren and the Presidency, 1837-1841 Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1970.
- Martin Van Buren: The Romantic Age of American Politics New York: Oxford University Press, 1983. .
- Martin Van Buren and the Making of the Democratic Party New York: Columbia University Press, 1959. .
- Martin Van Buren and the Emergence of American Popular Politics Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefied, 2002.
- The Autobiography of Martin Van Buren. Edited by . Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1920. .
- Inquiry into the Origin and Course of Political Parties in the United States New York: A. M. Kelley, 1967. .
- Liberty and Power: The Politics of Jacksonian America Rev. ed. New York: Hill & Wang, 2006.
- The Presidency of Martin Van Buren Lawrence: University Press of Kansas: 1984.
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