The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Van Buren, Martin

VAN BUREN, Martin, eighth President of the United States: b. Kinderhook, N. Y., 5 Dec. 1782; d. there, 24 July 1862. His father, Abraham Van Buren, was of Dutch descent, a farmer and a tavern-keeper. He attentded the village school, studied at Kinderhook Academy and in 1796, when 14 years of age, entered the law office of Francis Sylvester, where he read law and other subjects. In 1802 he entered the law office of William P. Van Ness of New York, an influential man and a close friend and defender of Aaron Burr. The latter paid considerable attention to young Van Buren. In 1803 he was admitted to the bar, returned to Kinderhook and practised his profession with great success. He was married in 1807 to Hannah Hoes, but the latter died in 1819. From 1808 to 1813 he was surrogate of Columbia County. He was in the State senate 1812 to 1820, and in February 1815 was made attorney-general, holding this office till 1819. In 1816 he removed to Albany and entered into a partnership with Benjamin F. Butler. He was elected United States senator in 1821 and re-elected in 1827, but resigned his seat in 1828 on his election to the governorship of New York. While holding the offices mentioned Van Buren became interested in politics. His father was a Jeffersonian-Republican, and Van Buren followed him politically. The State politics of New York were factional and complex in this period. It was out of this situation that the principles involved in the spoils system were developed. It was a thoroughly established system when Van Buren was made a member of the “Albany Regency,” and he had in his own person experienced its operation, both to his advantage and disadvantage. The “Albany Regency” was a group of men organized to control the politics of New York and was sponsor for the spoils system in local, State and national affairs. While United States senator his political views became more and more fixed and precise. In general he was a strict constructionist, a States Rights man, and against the United States Bank. He was closely associated with Senator Benton of Missouri and Andrew Jackson, and thus laid the foundations of a life-long intimacy with these men. He was opposed to the principle of internal improvements at national expense though he was at first willing to vote for such improvements. He voted for the tariff of 1824 and 1828, but later was in favor of a tariff for revenue only. As chairman of the judiciary committee he endeavored to enlarge the influence of the Federal judiciary. As governor of New York he urged, in his first message, a Safety-Fund banking system, a plan whereby banks mutually insured each other's soundness. He resigned the office in March 1829 in order to become Secretary of State in Jackson's Cabinet. He used his influence to bring the followers of Crawford and Jackson together in preparation for the campaign of 1828, and did much to make Jackson's election possible. Van Buren was responsible, more than any other man, for the political creed of Jackson's administration. He resigned in 1831, because he felt that the public measures of the administration would be attributed to his intrigue, and thus made to injure the President. Van Buren has been accused of being primarily and chiefly responsible for the “Spoils system” which flourished under Jackson. While he did not oppose the system, the main responsibility cannot be placed on Van Buren. His most important work as Secretary of State was the opening up of trade in American vessels between the United States and the British West Indian colonies. The restrictions placed by Great Britain were removed and a source of international irritation disposed of. In June 1831 Van Buren was appointed Minister to England and spent some months abroad. In January 1832, however, the Senate rejected his appointment. Before his return to New York 5 July 1832 he had been nominated for the vice-presidency, and was elected in November. While he held this office he was the chief adviser of the President. He, however, disapproved the removal of the deposits. The Democratic-Republican Convention, which met at Baltimore 20 May 1835, was anxious to find a man to preserve the unity of the party and one who would carry on the principles of Jackson's administration. Van Buren received the unanimous vote of the convention. His platform declared that Congress did not have the power to distribute the surplus revenue without a constitutional amendment. He was opposed to the distribution of the proceeds of the sale of public lands among the States; to internal improvements at national expense; to a recharter of the United States Bank and to the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia. He was elected to the presidency by a combination of the Middle States and New England against the West, which voted for Harrison, with the South divided. The electoral vote was 170 for Van Buren and 73 for Harrison. His Cabinet, with a single exception, was the same as Jackson's: John Forsyth of Georgia, Secretary of State; Levi Woodbury of New Hampshire, Secretary of the Treasury; Mahlon Dickerson of New Jersey, Secretary of the Navy; Amos Kendall, Postmaster-General, and Joel R. Poinsett, Secretary of War. In his inaugural address he stated his policy would be “A strict adherence to the letter and spirit of the Constitution.” Van Buren inherited the financial troubles of Jackson's administration. He was not responsible for the Panic of 1837, and on the other hand did much to repair its damage. He called an extra session of Congress 15 May to meet the first Monday of September. His message to Congress was an important state paper. He declared that the law provided that the Secretary of the Treasury must deposit public moneys only in banks that paid their notes in specie; that, therefore, some agency must be provided for the custody of public moneys. He opposed the re-establishment of a national bank, because it was wrong in principle and the popular will had twice been expressed in opposition to it. He urged what was called the independent treasury system. The collection, safekeeping, transfer and disbursement of public moneys should, Van Buren said, be managed by public officers. His suggestion was not finally incorporated into law until 4 July 1840 and the act was repealed in 1842, but was again re-enacted in 1846 and this principle became a cardinal feature of American finance. This was the most important State act of Van Buren, and showed courage, firmness and the qualities of a statesman. Two other measures advocated by Van Buren and passed, were the issuance of $10,000,000 in treasury notes and the postponement of the distribution of the surplus among the States. Another question that arose in Van Buren's administration was the reorganization of the Texan Republic and its annexation to the United States. Van Buren was against both of these propositions, but the matter did not become a pressing one while he remained in office. Van Buren was a candidate for re-election in 1840 and the unanimous choice of the convention. He was opposed by the Whig candidate, Harrison, and was defeated by an electoral vote of 234 for Harrison to 60. He was charged with being a “Northern man with Southern principles.” As ex-President he was active in expressing his political views. In 1843 he declared for a tariff for revenue only. He was a candidate for President in the election of 1844. The great question was the annexation of Texas, desired especially by the southern representatives to the convention. Van Buren's nomination seemed assured two months before the convention met, but now it was certain that his nomination depended on his surrendering his views on this question. He courageously set forth the reasons in his famous letter of 27 April. The nomination went to Polk, although on the first ballot Van Buren received 146 votes, or 13 more than a majority. The rule, however, required a two-thirds vote. In 1848 he was the Presidential candidate of the Free Soil Party but the Whig candidate, Taylor, was elected President. This ended his political career. After the election he spent two years in Europe, and on his return in 1855, he lived quietly at his old home in Kinderhook. The character of Van Buren has been a matter of some controversy. He has been called the first politician-president. He was brought up in an era of politicians and was made President by such men. His early political associates were men from this class, so that it is not strange that he did not measure up to the highest standard of statesmanship. However, he was not entirely lacking in real ability and statesmanship. He was known as a polite, affable, good-natured, mild, courteous and dignified gentleman. He was also known as a shrewd, practical, skilful politician, and was accused of Being more anxious about the means than the end. He was the “Little Magician” in his ability to bring things to pass politically, but, except occasionally, his action seems not to have been determined by great moral forces. On the other hand he, on several important occasions, took the unpopular side of questions when he knew that such a course would be likely to have a very bad effect on his political career. His action on the Texas question in 1844 is a notable example and proved that he had moral courage. Calhoun was certainly wrong in asserting that he was only a practical politician with whom “justice, right, patriotism, etc., were mere vague phrases.” He loved the Union, was anxious that money should not be taken from the people without exceedingly good reasons, and had a dislike for slavery and its extension. He at least showed great statesmanship during the panic of 1837 and is responsible for one of the most important and fundamental fiscal policies of the United States.

Bibliography. — There are numerous lives of Van Buren. Consult Bancroft, George, ‘Martin Van Buren’ (1889); Shepard, Edward M., ‘Martin Van Buren’ (Boston 1899); American Statesman Series, the best biography but very favorable. Contemporary campaign biographies are by W. H. Holland (Hartford 1835) and by David Crockett (Philadelphia 1836). Consult also a biography by William L. Mackenzie (Boston 1846), unfavorable; Orth, S. P., ‘Five American Politicians’ (1906); West, E. H., ‘Calendar of the Papers of Martin Van Buren’ (1911); Richardson, J. D., ‘Messages and Papers of the Presidents’ (Vol. III, 1896).

Associate Professor of History, University of Chicago.


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