Van Buren, Martin

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Van Buren, Martin

Martin Van Buren.

Prominent political leader, U.S. senator, Secretary of State, vice president, and eighth president of the United States, Martin Van Buren led the nation during its first major economic crisis. The New York native built a career based on machine politics—the control of local political power by a well-disciplined organization. Van Buren held top positions in his home state before entering national politics, where his instinct for party building helped create the Democratic Party in the 1820s. Elected vice president in 1832 and president in 1836, he sought to protect federal monetary reserves during the depression that began shortly after he took office.

Born in Kinderhook, New York, on December 5, 1782, Van Buren was the third of five children born to Dutch working-class parents. He began to study law at the early age of fourteen and gained admission to the New York bar four years later in 1803. He was elected to the New York legislature in 1812 and continued to be reelected until 1820. From 1816 until 1819, he also served as the state attorney general.

Van Buren's political views came directly from Jeffersonian Republicanism. Like Thomas Jefferson, he believed in States' Rights and opposed a strong federal government. During the early years of his career in New York, Van Buren controlled the so-called Albany Regency, a political machine that was very influential in state politics. Later, in the 1820s, he joined forces with Andrew Jackson and helped to forge the political alliances that would lead to the formation of the Democratic Party.

"Let them worry and fret and intrigue at Washington. Six weeks hence they will find themselves as wise as they were when they began."
—Martin Van Buren

As in state politics, Van Buren enjoyed steady success at the national level. He won election to the U.S. Senate in 1821 and retained his senatorial seat until 1828 when he became governor of New York. He resigned the office a mere twelve weeks later, however, to become secretary of state under President Jackson. His support of Jackson through the president's turbulent first administration paid off: in 1832 Jackson chose Van Buren as his vice presidential running mate over the incumbent john c. calhoun, and the two were elected.

Van Buren's own election as president in 1836 was precipitated by crisis. Under the Jackson administration, land speculation had run rampant nationwide. When Congress failed to intervene, banks issued great numbers of loans without backing them up with security. The speculation continued until Jackson ordered the government to accept only gold or silver as payment on land. The result was the so-called Panic of 1837, a devastating financial crash that led to the first large-scale economic depression in U.S. history. By 1840 Van Buren had convinced Congress to pass the Independent Treasury Bill. It provided for federally controlled vaults to store all federal monies; transactions were to be conducted in hard currency. The independent treasury protected federal deposits until 1841, when it was abolished. President james k. polk brought it back in 1846.

Van Buren sought reelection in 1840, running as the only presidential candidate without a vice presidential candidate in history. Defeated by William Henry Harrison, he attempted to gain the Democratic nomination again in 1844 but was unsuccessful. His popularity had deteriorated both because of the depression and because of his positions on other domestic issues. He opposed the annexation of Texas, which he feared would precipitate a war with Mexico, and an expensive war against Seminole Indians in Florida. He tried once more to win the Democratic presidential nomination in 1848 but was defeated again. He died on July 24, 1862, in Kinderhook, New York.

Further readings

Leonard, Gerald. 2001. "Party as a 'Political Safeguard of Federalism': Martin Van Buren and the Constitutional Theory of Party Politics. Rutgers Law Review 54 (fall).

Mushkat, Jerome, and Joseph G. Rayback. 1997. Martin Van Buren: Law, Politics, and the Shaping of Republican Ideology. DeKalb: Northern Illinois Univ. Press.

Silbey, Joel H. 2002. Martin Van Buren and the Emergence of American Popular Politics. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield.

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