Born to a Dutch farmer and tavern-keeper in 1782, President Martin Van Buren’s fastidious appearance belied his humble origins in Kinderhook, New York.
As a young lawyer, Van Buren became involved in New York State politics through the “Albany Regency,” a highly effective political organization. Van Buren quickly worked his way to the top, where he began dispensing political offices, favours and gifts in a manner calculated to bring him votes. At the same time, he also faithfully executed the political responsibilities that voters expected of him. In 1821, Van Buren was elected to the United States Senate.
Martin Van Buren and Andrew Jackson
By 1827, Van Buren had become one of Andrew Jackson’s most important supporters in the north eastern United States. Jackson rewarded Van Buren’s loyalty by appointing him to the politically significant position of Secretary of State. As the other members of Jackson’s Cabinet recommended by Vice President John C Calhoun began to reveal their true loyalties, to Calhoun and not the President, Jackson increasingly came to rely on Van Buren as his most trusted advisor. Jackson once called Van Buren “a true man with no guile.”
As the rift in Jackson’s cabinet worsened, the possibility of a deadlock loomed. The only way to resolve the crisis was for Van Buren and Secretary of War John Eaton to resign. This had the effect of forcing two of Calhoun’s supporters to resign as well, allowing Jackson to form a new Cabinet. At the same time, Jackson once against sought to reward Van Buren for his loyalty and self-sacrifice, this time by making Van Buren Minister to England. When the vote in the Senate was tied, it fell to Calhoun, as President of the Senate, to cast the deciding vote. The result was that Van Buren became a political martyr.
In the next election, Van Buren replaced Calhoun as Jackson’s Vice President and in 1836 Van Buren was propelled into the Presidency.
President Martin Van Buren
Van Buren devoted his 1836 Inaugural Address to a discourse on the American Experiment and how the United States could be an inspiration to the world. At the time of Van Buren’s election, the United States was prosperous. However, the country was struck by a severe economic depression in 1837. This was part of the on-going boom-bust cycle typical of 19th Century Economics; however, the crisis was exacerbated by President Jackson’s fiscal policies. Jackson’s battle with the Second Bank of the United States led to the removal of restrictions on the inflationary practices of state banks. One of the results of this was wild and uncontrolled land speculation. In order to end this, Jackson issued an executive order stating that land could only be bought with silver or gold.
The Panic of 1837
Hundreds of businesses failed and thousands of people lost their land in the resulting economic downturn. The depression of 1837 would be the worst economic downturn in American history until the Great Depression in the 1930s.
Van Buren declared that the panic had occurred as a result of reckless over-extension of credit. He also opposed the formation of a new national bank and fought for the establishment of an independent treasury system to handle government transactions.
As Van Buren’s Presidency progressed, he became increasingly opposed to slavery. To that end, he tried to block the admission of Texas, knowing that Texas would enter the Union as a slave state. He also feared that the admission of Texas would trigger a war with Mexico. Van Buren’s elegant personal style and the deepening of the economic crisis in 1838 led to the election of Whig candidate William Henry Harrison.
In 1840 and 1848, Van Buren tried unsuccessfully to run for a second term on the Free Soil ticket. He died of heart failure on July 24, 1862.