The U.S. President who presided over the longest economic downturn the new nation experienced is remembered for little besides the Panic of 1837.
Martin Van Buren was the first President of the United States to be born as an American citizen. His predecessors in office came from British ancestry and citizenship. Martin Van Buren was of Dutch ancestry and would be the first of the American presidents to break the strict British Empire ancestry hold on the office. He would also become the first American president who spoke English as a second language having been raised in a predominantly Dutch speaking community.
Upstate New York Roots
Like the Roosevelts who would follow him in later years as Chief Executives, his roots were among the Dutch immigrants who came into the Hudson Valley region of New York and was both drawn to an supported by the influence that the New York metropolitan area would provide in both financial wealth and voter roles.
He was characterized as being a consummate politician and quickly advanced through the ranks of government both in his home state of New York and later at the national level. At the age of 32 with his law practice rewarding him handsomely, he became attorney general of New York in 1814 an office he held until 1819.
Van Buren Comes to Prominence in Federal Service
In 1821 Van Buren became a United States Senator from New York and due to his abilities as a lawyer became Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1823. He remained in the United States Senate until 1828 at which time he resigned his Senate seat to become Governor of New York. His Governorship was brief. In March of 1829 he resign to become he United States Secretary of State under President Andrew Jackson in whose election he played a key role in becoming president.
In part because of a scandal of a private nature known as the “Petticoat Affair”, Van Buren resigned his position as a cabinet secretary in April 1831 actually leaving office in late May. He was then appointed as Minister to theCourt of St. James in August of that year an appointment which would be later rejected by the United States Senate in January 1832.
Jackson’s Heir Apparent
By the summer of 1831 it had become apparent that President Jackson considered van Buren his heir as leader of the Democratic Party, a political platform he had helped to come into being over the course of over fifteen years.
In the Presidential election of 1832, the ticket of Jackson-Van Buren was elected by a considerable margin. As the practice of the time was a traditional “two term” limit established by the first President of the United States George Washington it was almost assured that Martin Van Buren would be his party’s candidate in 1836.
The Election of 1836
Van Buren was elected in 1836 to succeed Jackson in a multiparty race by a small plurality in the popular vote but a significant Electoral College majority.
The Panic of 1837
The United States had achieved during the 1820s and into 1830s astounding population, technological, and economic growth. The nation had expanded westward. Population of many of the eastern states grew significantly, for example New York’s population increased by over 50% and the population of the western territories went from nil to tens of thousands as in the case of Michigan.
Railroads, road construction, and canals were making travel faster, easier, and cheaper. These technological improvements as well methods of mechanization in industry fueled economic growth. These factors also fueled inflation and speculation.
President Jackson was opposed to the amount of paper money being circulated by state banks. The Specie Act, by which payment could only be made in gold or silver became law just after the inauguration of Martin Van Buren. Panic hit the financial markets and Martin Van Buren’s presidency was doomed from almost day one. Economic depression and high unemployment would be his undoing.
Elections of 1840, 1844, and 1848
Although renominated in 1840, Van Buren was defeated by his major opponent William Henry Harrison from the 1836 campaign.
In 1844 he had a majority of the votes but no the requisite number to achieve nomination by the Democratic Party and the nomination fell to James Knox Polk.
Again, in 1848 Van Buren ran for president getting the nomination from two minor parties including the anti-slavery,Free Soil Party, and ended a distant contender.
Although he would remain interested and somewhat involved in the political process up until the time of his death in 1861, he was never a major factor in the national political scene.