President Martin Van Buren

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The seventh president of the United States, Martin Van Buren, continued the policies of his predecessor, Andrew Jackson, in banking, indian removal, and slavery.

Van Buren helped elect Jackson for president with his behind-the-scenes political manuevering, unifying urban republicans with southern planters into what would be the Democratic Party. He guided Jackson as his secretary of state and then as vice president, earning the trust of Jackson and the position of heir apparent to the presidency. Elected in 1836, Van Buren’s administration would continue Jackson’s policies, causing some historians to call it “Jackson’s third term.”

Independent Treasury

Before Van Buren became president, Jackson had slayed “the monster” Bank of the United States. Believing that the marriage of state and banks would threaten democracy- government favoring the rich over the poor- the B.U.S.’s charter was not renewed. Government revenues were transferred to state or “pet” banks. However, radical Democrats were still uneasy with the continued relationship of banks with the state.

Completing the divorce between bank and state was President Van Buren. He pressed the proposal of an Independent Treasury System. Government deposits would be removed from the pet banks and placed in a federal institution independent of private banks. Sub-Treasury branches would be established in main cities for local convenience. After a long battle with Whigs and conservative Democrats, the Independent Treasury Act was passed in 1840. This was the federal system of finance until the creation of the Federal Reserve in 1913.

Trail of Tears

Also, Van Buren sustained Jackson’s Indian removal policy. Jackson surmised that the irredeemable Indian tribes in the east were endangered due to the settlement of land hungry whites. Therefore, Jackson supported the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which ignored previous treaties and allowed the federal government to remove Native Americans to the west of the Mississippi river. Afterward, a Cherokee party signed the Treaty of New Echota, agreeing to removal by 1838.

But most of the Cherokee nation rejected the treaty, led by Chief John Ross. When the Cherokees didn’t leave Georgia in 1838, the U.S. Army rounded them up in unsanitary camps. According to Daniel Walker Howe, incompetence, indifference, and policy disagreements frustrated the Army’s efforts to prepare for removal. The “Trail of Tears” migration to Oklahoma claimed about 4,000 Cherokees out of 12,000. It was Jackson’s policy, but it happened under Van Buren’s watch.

Amistad

In 1839, a group of illegally acquired African-born slaves, travelling on the ship Amistad along the Cuban coast, revolted against their Cuban owners and killed the captain and the cook. They forced their owners to take them back to Africa, but ended up captured by the U.S. Navy in Long Island Sound. The Spanish government clamored for them to be returned to Cuba as slaves and as accused criminals.

The Van Buren Administration, fearing slave insurrections in America, supported the Spanish request. As president, Jackson had allowed states to restrict the mails to root out abolitionist pamphlets that could incite slaves. When the Africans, defended by lawyers hired by abolitionist Lewis Tappan, won their cases in district and federal circuit courts, Van Buren ordered an appeal each time. In the Supreme Court case, John Quincy Adams accused the Van Buren administration of wresting control of the case from the Judiciary. The Africans eventually won their freedom.

Van Buren would lose to the Whig William Henry Harrison in 1840, his administration consumed by an economic depression. He faithfully towed the Jacksonian line- protecting slavery, removing Indians, and separating bank and state. It was not a surprise that Van Buren continued Jackson’s policies, after all he was crucial to the Jackson presidency. Van Buren’s term was indeed “Jackson’s third term.”

Sources:

  1. Schlesinger, Arthur M., The Age of Jackson, Back Bay: New York, 1945.
  2. Howe, Daniel Walker, What Hath God Wrought, Oxford: New York, 2007.