Eighth president Martin Van Buren was the father of four sons. “The Van Buren Boys” would grow into four very different men.
When their father, Martin, was president, Abraham, John, Martin, Jr., and Smith Thompson Van Buren were darlings of Washington society. As the “Van Buren Boys” grew into men, however, their lives would take very different turns. One was very successful, one was a disappointment, another died before he could realize his potential, and one was a political powerhouse in his own right who worked to preserve his father’s reputation. The brothers’ four distinct personalities helped shape American history and created a political dynasty.
Abraham Van Buren (1807-73): Pride and Joy
Had his mother, Hannah, lived, she would have been very proud of first-born son Abraham. A graduate of the Military Academy at West Point, Abraham served as an officer on the American frontier and later re-enlisted in the Army in order to serve active duty during the Mexican War. (Interestingly, he was sensitive and said to have inherited Hannah’s meek dispostion.) He was also his father’s White House secretary. Abraham married Dolley Madison’s first cousin, Angelica Singleton, who became President Van Buren’s substitute First Lady.
John Van Buren (1810-66)
Squandered TalentUnlike his older brother, second eldest Van Buren brother John was a disgrace to his family. John’s adult life began with much promise. He graduated from Yale University in his teens. Things went downhill when John accompanied his father to England. There, John began drinking, gambling, and womanizing prodigiously. His behavior earned him the nickname “Prince John.” He briefly served in Congress, but his career was unremarkable.
Martin Van Buren, Jr. (1812-55)
What Might Have BeenMartin Van Buren, Jr., known as “Mat,” could have been politically successful, but he died of tuberculosis in his early forties. Father Martin sent Mat to Paris to recover from his illness, but Mat did not survive the voyage. Mat never married or had children. During his short life, Mat spent all his time editing his father’s papers. He inherited his late mother’s flawless penmanship and worked as a White House copyist.
Smith Thompson Van Buren (1817-76)
Preserver of a Political LegacySmith Thompson, the youngest of the four brothers, married twice and was the father of seven children. Like Abraham and Mat, Smith worked to preserve his father’s political legacy. He became very powerful in New York State politics and bore an uncanny resemblance to his father. He did not like Washington and lived in New York with Alexander Hamilton’s family during his father’s adminstration. Smith would later become a thorn in the side of future president James K. Polk.
- Harris, Bill. The First Ladies Fact Book, p. 138-9. New York: Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, Inc., 2005.