The Incredible Life Of Martin Van Buren – America’s Forgotten 8th President

It’s December 1837, and U.S. President Martin Van Buren is dealing with a provocation from British forces over the border in Canada. The Brits have seized and destroyed a U.S. steamer known as Caroline on the American side of the Niagara. But can Van Buren find a way to avoid the potentially destructive war that some hotheads are now demanding?

We’ll leave Van Buren with that perilous situation for the moment. First, let’s find out a little more about the man who would go on to become the eighth president of the United States. Maarten Van Buren – as he was born – came into the world on December 5, 1782, just six years after America declared independence and the year before American sovereignty was enshrined in the Treaty of Paris.

Van Buren was born in Kinderhook, a village on the River Hudson in upstate New York. His parents were Dutch Americans, which explains the name Maarten – later anglicized to Martin. In fact, his father, Abraham Van Buren, was a descendant of Cornelis Maessen, who had arrived in America from the Netherlands in 1631.

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Abraham was an innkeeper and, for a time, Kinderhook’s town clerk, and in 1776 he married Maria Hoes Van Alen – a widow who was also of Dutch heritage. She brought three children from her previous marriage to her union with Abraham and went on to have five more children with her second husband – one of whom was Martin Van Buren himself. And interestingly, Martin’s half-brother James I. Van Alen was also to become a politician, as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

So with this strong Netherlands family background – and the fact that many of Kinderhook’s inhabitants spoke the language – it’s perhaps unsurprising that Van Buren’s mother tongue was Dutch. In fact, to this day, he is the only American president for whom English was a second language. But he learned English at the village schoolhouse in Kinderhook.

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What’s more, being brought up in the convivial atmosphere of an inn is said to have given Van Buren a good grounding in relating to people. These were skills that would be put to good use in his future career as a politician, too. And his father’s tavern had some highly illustrious patrons indeed.

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Yes, it’s said that both Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr – both prominent political figures of their day – visited the modest Kinderhook inn. Burr would, in fact, go on to be vice president to Thomas Jefferson during his term as president, in fact. But while vice president, Burr shot Hamilton dead in a duel. And although he was never charged for this illegal act, it was the end of Burr’s career.

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Perhaps Van Buren was inspired by the politicians who visited his father’s inn, then. As for more formal learning, though, Van Buren attended Kinderhook Academy and then the Washington Seminary in Claverack. And after his schooling, Van Buren joined the lawyers Peter Silvester and his son Francis at their Kinderhook office – where he started studying law. Silvester Sr. was himself a politician, sitting in the House of Representatives for New York.

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Still only a young teenager when he started at Silvester’s, Van Buren was a slight youth and was often called Little Van. He never grew to be tall, either, standing at around 5 foot 6 inches in adulthood. Meanwhile, Silvester acted as something of a mentor towards Van Buren during his years learning about the law at his practice.

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In fact, one of the first pieces of advice that Silvester gave Van Buren was to smarten up. And the young lad – scruffy in homemade clothes – took this suggestion to heart; a lawyer, after all, needed to look and act the part. From then on, Van Buren was known for his careful dress and immaculate appearance.

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Van Buren subsequently moved to New York City for the last year of his legal apprenticeship and joined the office of William P. Van Ness – a political ally of Aaron Burr. Already, then, the young Van Buren was rubbing shoulders with some powerful individuals in his professional life. And these particular people he had surrounded himself with were politically connected.

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Having finished his legal training, Van Buren returned to Kinderhook in 1803 – but not before he’d entered the New York bar. Once back in his hometown, the newly qualified lawyer kept things in the family by starting a law firm in partnership with his half-brother James Van Alen. And as soon as Van Buren was established in his profession, he decided to make an important life change.

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In 1807 Van Buren – now aged 24 – wed Hannah Hoes in Catskill, New York. The pair had apparently been sweethearts as children, and Hannah was in fact the child of a first cousin of Van Buren’s. And just like her new husband, Hoes had been brought up in a Dutch household.

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The couple’s relationship was by all accounts a happy affair, and Hannah bore five children – with all but one surviving into adulthood. But tragedy struck in 1819 when tuberculosis afflicted Hannah and killed her at just 35. And although socially gregarious, Van Buren never remarried. So, in later years at the White House, his daughter-in-law Angelica would act as a kind of surrogate first lady.

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However, Van Buren’s political career had been launched in 1812 while his wife was still alive. In that year he secured the nomination from what was then called the Democratic-Republican Party to stand for the New York State Senate. And Van Buren duly won the election and took up a seat in the Senate.

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What’s more, the year that Van Buren became a state senator was a momentous one indeed, since it saw the outbreak of the War of 1812 with the British. For the British, this was a minor conflict – part of the much larger struggle with France’s Napoleon Bonaparte. But for the Americans, it was a major conflict that lasted until 1815 and saw the burning of the White House and the Capitol Building in 1814.

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Van Buren threw his weight behind the war against the British and opposed those members of the Federalist party who took an anti-war position. The conflict subsequently came to an end in February 1815 and peace returned to the U.S. That year was an important one for Van Buren personally, as well, as he now added the position of state attorney general to his seat in the New York Senate.

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Van Buren also then took the lead of one faction in a political battle for ascendancy within the New York Democratic-Republican Party. At a time when politics was perhaps more colorful than today, his followers were known as the “Bucktails” – named after the deer’s tails that they wore on their hats.

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Van Buren then won a second four-year term in the New York Senate in 1816 and also continued to serve as attorney general. And in 1821 he stepped on to the national political stage. That’s right: it was at this time that it was voted upon to send Van Buren to Washington as a representative in the U.S. Senate.

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Van Buren’s political experience and skills soon propelled him into a prominent position in Washington life, too. Yes, he became chairman of two important senatorial committees – Finance and Judiciary – and he also picked up a couple of nicknames. One was “Sly Fox,” and the other – rather more friendly – one was “Little Magician.”

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In general, Van Buren’s political position was one of favoring states’ rights and what we’d now call small government. And this led him to support William H. Crawford in the 1824 presidential election. But in the event, after political shenanigans complex enough to baffle even the keenest political expert, John Quincy Adams was elected as the sixth president of the U.S.

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Van Buren – whom New Yorkers had re-elected to the U.S. Senate in 1827 – now turned his attention to the next presidential election in 1828. This time, after some hesitation, Van Buren decided that the man to back was Andrew Jackson. And it seems that Van Buren’s motivation for this was that he believed Jackson was best placed to beat Adams.

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This time round, Van Buren had backed the winner, and Jackson duly became president in 1829. But it may well have been the case that Van Buren was thinking of his own political career at this point in time. After all, in 1828 Van Buren had run for the governorship of New York State.

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Van Buren won the election, and so he left the Senate to take up his new post. His tenure started on the first day of January, 1829, but his time as governor was to be short-lived. You see, in February Jackson asked him to become Secretary of State – the government official responsible for foreign relations. Van Buren agreed, and so he subsequently resigned his governorship in March after just 43 days in office.

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Happily for Van Buren, foreign affairs were relatively stable during his time as Secretary of State. And he had a number of notable successes, too. These included a trade agreement with the British that encompassed the West Indies and a similar treaty with the Ottoman Empire allowing trade in the Black Sea. But his most important role was probably as a key adviser to President Jackson.

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Indeed, Van Buren ended up becoming involved in a peculiar spat known as the Petticoat Affair. This feud involved the wives of Jackson’s cabinet members snubbing Secretary of War John H. Eaton’s wife, Peggy. You see, rumors had spread that Peggy’s first husband had committed suicide because she was having an affair with Eaton. This first husband was later found to have actually passed away from pneumonia, though.

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In the midst of the gossip, Van Buren did his best to heal what turned into an ugly rift between cabinet members and President Jackson. But unable to pour oil on the troubled waters, Van Buren actually elected to resign his post. Even so, though, he remained in Washington as an important adviser to Jackson.

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Jackson made Van Buren the ambassador to Britain, in fact, and he travelled to London in September 1831. Unfortunately, news then reached him the following February that the Senate had rejected his appointment. This was said to have been orchestrated by a bitter political rival of Van Buren’s, Vice President John C. Calhoun. Indeed, Calhoun apparently believed that the rejection would end Van Buren’s political career.

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But it seems that Calhoun’s persecution of Van Buren was entirely counterproductive. Yes, the ploy actually made Van Buren more popular because he appeared to be the victim of a vindictive political vendetta. So much so, in fact, it prepared the way for Van Buren to stand on a ticket as vice president with Jackson in the 1832 election – ousting Calhoun from the role in the process.

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So, Van Buren was duly named as vice presidential candidate at the Democratic National Convention in May 1832. Jackson and Van Buren then went on to achieve a thumping victory in the election of that year, too. And so Van Buren’s opportunity to grasp the highest office in the land came at the next U.S. presidential election.

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Jackson decided, you see, that he did not want to stand for a third term as president, as he could have done at that time. After all, it was not until 1947 that Congress passed the constitutional amendment limiting presidents to two terms. Van Buren, then, secured the Democratic Party’s nomination to stand for president in 1836.

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On the Democrat ticket, Van Buren actually stood against three candidates from the Whig Party, which was a rather disorganized union of interests. At an individual level, Van Buren apparently thought slavery to be immoral. However, in what we might today see as an unethical sleight of hand, he claimed to southerners that he was not an abolitionist.

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In any case, Van Buren won the 1836 election and was inaugurated as the eighth president of the United States in March 1837. His political honeymoon was brief, though, cut short by a financial crisis that gripped the country a couple of months into his presidency. Indeed, during what came to be known as the “Panic of 1837,” the banks collapsed and the economy was then subject to a depression lasting five years.

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In the face of this predicament, Van Buren wanted to create a U.S. Treasury that would have a non-political role in safeguarding the country’s financial health. But the Whigs opposed the measure, delaying it until 1840. And the financial crisis undoubtedly tarnished Van Buren’s reputation and impacted on his political future – particularly with regard to the election he faced in 1840.

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Native Americans, moreover, had little cause to respect Van Buren. You see, President Jackson had engaged in a policy of forced removal of the Native Americans from their lands, and Van Buren continued this policy. This, of course, made Van Buren unpopular with those who were being displaced. And there was one particular incident that cast a long shadow over his presidency.

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In 1835 the Cherokees had agreed to vacate their lands in the southeast and settle in Oklahoma. But some of them had not moved by 1838, and so Van Buren ordered that the remaining Cherokee be removed by force. Subsequently, a unit of some 7,000 U.S. Army troops, volunteers and militiamen under the command of General Winfield Scott set about this task in brutal fashion. Around 20,000 Cherokee people were forcibly removed, then, with about 4,000 dying on the arduous journey to Oklahoma.

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Then there was a war with the Seminole people in Florida. The Seminole had initially agreed to be resettled in the west, but they thought better of it after seeing the detention camps. There followed the inconclusive Battle of Lake Okeechobee in December 1837. This made Van Buren realize just how difficult it would be to force the Seminoles out of Florida, and a peace treaty was agreed. For now, then, the Seminoles had thwarted the will of the U.S. government.

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Now, if you’ll remember, we started by describing the dangerous situation that developed on America’s northern border with Canada – which at that time was still a British colony. Well, in 1839 a territorial dispute between Americans in Maine and the British in Canada’s New Brunswick threatened to result in hostilities. And with unrest rising, some sections of the American press and Congress were gung-ho for a war with Britain. However, Van Buren reached an agreement with the British and avoided war.

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But somewhat surprisingly, this avoidance of conflict seemingly didn’t help Van Buren’s political appeal. You see, the election year of 1840 rolled around and the Democratic National Convention duly endorsed Van Buren as the party’s presidential candidate. But Van Buren’s opponents were critical of his response to the crisis with Britain as well as his handling of the economic depression. What’s more, the Whigs portrayed the president as a privileged member of the elite while claiming that their candidate, William Henry Harrison, was in tune with the common man.

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Ultimately, the Whig’s tactics were successful; Harrison won the election, denying Van Buren a second term. Van Buren stood again in 1848, though – this time for a political grouping called the Free Soil Party, which opposed slavery. However, he was a long way behind the other candidates, coming third in the poll. That was his last attempt to win public office and he died in 1862 at the age of 79. And today, Van Buren’s presidency is little remembered.

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