Martin Van Buren was elected as the 8th President of the United States (1837–1841), after serving as the eighth Vice-President and the tenth Secretary of State, both under Andrew Jackson. While the country was enjoying financial security when the “Little Magician” was elected, less than three months later, the financial panic of 1837 ended the prosperity.
Martin Van Buren was born in 1782. He was the son of a Dutch tavern-keeper and farmer, in Kinderhook, New York. After he reached adulthood, many could not believe his humble beginnings because he was always particular about his appearance.
As a young lawyer, Martin Van Buren became associated with New York politics. As leader of the “Albany Regency,” a New York political organization, he shrewdly dispensed public offices and bounty in a fashion designed to help bring votes. Yet he faithfully fulfilled official duties, and in 1821 he was elected to the United States Senate.
By 1827 he had emerged as the prominent northern leader for Andrew Jackson. President Jackson rewarded Van Buren by appointing him Secretary of State. As the Cabinet Members appointed at John C. Calhoun’s recommendation began to demonstrate secondary loyalty to Jackson, Van Buren emerged as the President’s most trusted adviser. Jackson referred to him as “a true man with no guile.”
The rift in the Cabinet became serious because of Jackson’s differences with Calhoun, a Presidential hopeful. Van Buren suggested a way out of a probable impasse: he and Secretary of War Eaton resigned, ensuring that Calhoun men would also resign. Jackson appointed a new Cabinet, and once again trying to reward Van Buren by appointing him as Minister to Great Britain. Vice President Calhoun, as the Senate leader, cast the deciding vote against the appointment–thus making Van Buren a martyr.
Term as President
The “Little Magician” was elected Vice President on the Jacksonian ticket in 1832. In the 1836 elections, the opponents of Andrew Jackson desperately tried to defeat his handpicked successor, Martin Van Buren, but they had no real party foundation from which to work. The anti-Jackson forces tried a very impractical and unusual tactic.
They adopted the name “Whigs” (the name of the British party opposing the monarchy) and ran candidates from each of the four different regions. They hoped that this scheme would prevent Van Buren from gaining a majority in the Electoral College and then cause the election to be decided by the House of Representatives. Harrison, the Whig candidate from the West, came in second during the election, and Van Buren won the majority of both the popular and Electoral College vote.
Upon election, Van Buren devoted his Inaugural Address to a speech concerning the American experiment as an example to the rest of the world. The country was faring well financially, but less than three months later the panic of 1837 shook the image of prosperity.
Basically, the trouble was the 19th-century cyclical economy of “boom and bust,” which was following its regular pattern– but Jackson’s financial measures had contributed to the crash. His destruction of the Second Bank of the United States removed various restrictions placed upon the inflationary practices of some state banks; wild speculation in lands, based on easy bank credit, had swept the West. In order to end this practice, Jackson, in 1836, had issued a Specie Circular requiring that lands be purchased with hard money–either gold or silver.
In 1837, the panic began. Hundreds of banks and businesses failed. Thousands lost their lands. For about five years, the United States was wracked by the worst depression since its beginning.
Helpful programs applied decades later to alleviate economic crisis eluded both Van Buren and his opponents. Van Buren’s remedy–continuing Jackson’s deflationary policies–only deepened and prolonged the depression.
Believing that the depression was because of recklessness in business and over-expansion of credit, Van Buren devoted himself to maintaining the solvency of the national government. He opposed creating a new Bank of the United States placing of government funds in already established state banks. He fought for the development of an independent treasury system to handle federal transactions. He even delayed internal improvements by stopping expenditures so completely that the government even sold the tools it had used on public works.
Martin Van Buren, who was becoming more opposed to the expansion of slavery, also blocked the annexation of Texas because it assuredly would add to slave territory–and it might bring war with Mexico.
The incumbent President Martin Van Buren, who the American people viewed as a dandy and an aristocrat never managed to change his image. Defeated by the Whigs in 1840 for reelection, he was an unsuccessful candidate for American President on the Free Soil ticket in 1848. He died in 1862.
Martin Van Buren served only one term as President, and those four years were marked as much by failure and criticism as by success and popular acclaim. Van Buren’s troubled presidency, though, should not overshadow his significant contributions to American political development. Van Buren played key roles in the creation of both the Democratic Party and the so-called “second party system” in which Democrats competed with their opponents, the Whigs. In these ways, Van Buren left an indelible mark on American politics.
The following poster provides an attractive and concise summary of Martin Van Buren’s achievements throughout his lifetime: