MARTIN VAN BUREN | 1837-1841

Only about 5 feet, 6 inches tall, but trim and erect, Martin Van Buren’s impeccable appearance belied his humble background. Of Dutch descent, he was born on December 5, 1782, the son of a tavern keeper and farmer, in Kinderhook, New York.

As a young lawyer he led the “Albany Regency,” a New York political organization. He shrewdly dispensed public offices and bounty in a fashion calculated to bring votes. Yet he faithfully fulfilled official duties, and in 1821 was elected to the United States Senate.

By 1827 he had emerged as the principal northern leader for Andrew Jackson. President Jackson appointed Van Buren secretary of state. He became the president’s most trusted adviser. Jackson referred to him as “a true man with no guile.”

A rift developed in the cabinet because of Jackson’s differences with Vice President John C. Calhoun. Martin Van Buren compelled the resignation of the old cabinet. To reward him, Jackson appointed Van Buren as minister to Great Britain. Calhoun, president of the Senate, cast the deciding vote against the appointment.

The “Little Magician” was elected vice president on the Jacksonian ticket in 1832, and won the presidency in 1836. Van Buren devoted his inaugural address to a discourse upon the American experiment as an example to the rest of the world. The country was prosperous, but less than three months later the panic of 1837 punctured the prosperity.

To end wild speculation on lands that had swept the West, President Jackson had, in 1836, issued a Specie Circular requiring that lands be purchased with gold or silver. In 1837 the panic began. Hundreds of banks and businesses failed. For about five years the United States suffered the worst depression thus far in its history. Van Buren’s remedy – continuing Jackson’s deflationary policies – only deepened and prolonged the depression.

Van Buren opposed a new Bank of the United States and the placing of federal funds in state banks. He fought to establish an independent treasury system to handle government transactions. He cut off expenditures so completely that the government even sold the tools it had used on public works.

Inclined more and more to oppose the expansion of slavery, Van Buren blocked the annexation of Texas because it assuredly would add to slave territory – and it might bring war with Mexico. Defeated by the Whigs in 1840 for reelection, he was an unsuccessful candidate for president on the Free Soil ticket in 1848. He died in 1862.

Permission granted to re-post by The White House Historical Association