Van Buren, Martin

Born: 1782-12-05 Kinderhook, New York

Died: 1862-07-24 Kinderhook, New York

Growing up in a family of modest means, Van Buren received little formal education other than a few sessions in the Kinderhook Academy. His introduction to formal study came in 1796 when his parents apprenticed him to a lawyer. While he was studying law, he gained an interest in politics, following his father's political beliefs as a Democratic Republican. Van Buren earned admission to the New York bar, and in 1802, he commenced practicing law in New York City with William P. Van Ness. In 1803, he moved back to Kinderhook to open his own practice. In 1807, he married his cousin Hannah Hoes, with whom he had four children. In 1808, the couple moved to Hudson, New York, where Van Buren became a prominent lawyer. In 1812, Van Buren won election to the New York State Senate. In 1816, he became attorney general of New York. He was emerging as a brilliant and powerful New York politician; he was also gaining a reputation for unscrupulousness. The first instance of this trait came during the presidential election of 1812. Van Buren, like other Northern Democratic-Republicans, broke with President James Madison and voted for dissident Democratic-Republican DeWitt Clinton, who opposed the War of 1812 and had the support of the Federalist Party. Van Buren maneuvered New York City's electoral votes for Clinton, angering many Democratic-Republicans. To make matters worse, Van Buren immediately abandoned Clinton after his loss, causing the two to become bitter rivals for control of the Democratic-Republican party in New York.

Though still attorney general and a state senator, Van Buren suffered political and personal setbacks immediately after the war that put his future in doubt. In 1817, Clinton became governor of New York, and began pushing for the Erie Canal. Van Buren opposed the construction of the canal for a time, which hurt him politically, before shifting course and getting the project through the New York State Legislature. Clinton also removed Van Buren as state attorney general. In February 1819, Hannah Van Buren died of tuberculosis; Martin took her death hard; he never remarried.

In 1820, Van Buren recovered from his personal and political setbacks and worked tirelessly to build an Anti-Clinton Republican base in New York called the Bucktails. He also established the Albany Regency, a political machine that soon came to dominate New York politics. In 1820, the Bucktails gained control of the state legislature, and they elected Van Buren to the U.S. Senate, where he served until 1828. Van Buren was a formidable presence in New York politics, earning the nicknames "Little Magician" and "Sly Fox." While his political opponents were critical of his methods, Van Buren was actually quite an ethical and honest man.

Van Buren was also growing in statute in national politics. In 1824, he supported William H. Crawford for president, but he gradually became an ardent advocate for Andrew Jackson, helping him win the presidency in 1828.

In 1828, Van Buren won election as governor of New York, but he resigned when President Jackson appointed him secretary of state. It was in that capacity that he helped with the development of the Democratic Party. He was a strong supporter of the president and even sided with him in the Peggy Eaton Affair. However, the political dissent among Jackson's cabinet forced a change, and in 1831 Jackson reluctantly removed Van Buren and named him minister to the United Kingdom. Supporters of Vice-President John C. Calhoun, Van Buren's bitter rival, and the National Republicans blocked his appointment, but Van Buren returned to Washington in 1832 to replace Calhoun as Jackson's running mate in the presidential election of 1832. Van Buren won election as vice president and became Jackson's political heir apparent. In the presidential election of 1836, Van Buren defeated four Whig Party candidates to become the eighth president of the United States. Although Van Buren was less expansionist than his predecessor, he carried out most of Jackson's policies, including the removal of Indians west of the Mississippi River. The removal of the Cherokee in 1838 led to the infamous Trial of Tears, while efforts to dislodge the Seminoles sparked the Second Seminole War, which was not resolved until after Van Buren left office. The Panic of 1837 and Van Buren's support of an independent treasury bill, which split the Democratic Party, cost him re-election in 1840.

Van Buren retired to Kinderhook, but not for long. In 1844, he was considered as a possible presidential candidate for the Democratic Party, but his opposition to Texas annexation kept him off the ballot. In 1848, he joined with the Barnburners in breaking with the Democratic Party, and was a somewhat reluctant candidate for the presidency on the Free Soil Party ticket, garnering only 10 percent of the popular vote and no electoral votes. Van Buren returned to his Democratic Party, believing it was the Union's best hope. He endorsed the Compromise of 1850 and was disturbed by the Kansas-Nebraska Act, but by then his political star had faded. He died not knowing the final fate of the country he had served for fifty years.

Donald B. Cole, "Van Buren, Martin," American National Biography, ed. by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 22:159-62; John Niven, Martin Van Buren: The Romantic Age of American Politics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983), 23-39, 215-31, 566-612; Donald B. Cole, Martin Van Buren and the American Political System (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press,1984), 285-426.