The Presidents of the United States, 1789-1914/Martin Van Buren
Martin Van Buren, eighth president of United States, born in Kinderhook, Columbia County, N. Y., December 5, 1782; died there, July 24, 1862. He was the eldest son of Abraham Van Buren, a small farmer, and of Mary Hoes (originally spelled Goes), whose first husband was named Van Allen. Martin studied the rudiments of English and Latin in the schools of his native village, and read law in the office of Francis Sylvester at the age of fourteen years. Rising as a student by slow gradations from office-boy to lawyer's clerk, copyist of pleas, and finally to the rank of special pleader in the constables courts, he patiently pursued his legal novitiate through the term of seven years and familiarized himself with the technique of the bar and with the elements of common law. Combining with these professional studies a fondness for extemporaneous debate, he was early noted for his intelligent observation of public events and for his interest in politics. He was chosen to participate in a nominating convention when he was only eighteen years old. In 1802 he went to New York and there studied law with William P. Van Ness, a friend of Aaron Burr. He was admitted to the bar in 1803, returned to Kinderhook, and associated himself in practice with his half-brother, James J. Van Allen.
Van Buren was a zealous adherent of Jefferson, and supported Morgan Lewis for governor of New York in 1803 against Aaron Burr. In February, 1807, he married Hannah Hoes, a distant kinswoman, and in the winter of 1806-'7 he removed to Hudson, the county-seat of Columbia County, and in the same year was admitted to practice in the supreme court. In the state election of 1807 he supported Daniel D. Tompkins for governor against Morgan Lewis, the latter, in the factional changes of New York politics, having come to be considered less true than the former to the measures of Jefferson. In 1808 Van Buren became surrogate of Columbia County, displacing his half-brother and partner, who belonged to the defeated faction. He held this office till 1813, when, on a change of party predominance at Albany, his half-brother was restored. Attentively watching the drift of political events, he figured in the councils of his party at a convention held in Albany early in 1811, when the proposed recharter of the United States bank was the leading question of Federal politics. Though Albert Gallatin, secretary of the treasury, had recommended a recharter, the predominant sentiment of the Republican party was adverse to the measure. Van Buren shared in this hostility and publicly lauded the “Spartan firmness” of George Clinton when as vice-president he gave his casting-vote in the U. S. senate against the bank bill, February 20, 1811.
From a photograph by Brady, Washington, D. C.
In 1812 Van Buren was elected to the senate of New York from the middle district as a Clinton Republican, defeating Edward P. Livingston, the candidate of the “Quids,” by a majority of 200. He took his seat in November of that year and became thereby a member of the court of errors, then composed of senators in connection with the chancellor and the supreme court. As senator he strenuously opposed the charter of “the Bank of America,” which, with a large capital and with the promise of liberal subsidies to the state treasury, was then seeking to establish itself in New York and to take the place of the United States bank. He upheld Gov. Tompkins when, exercising his extreme prerogative, he prorogued the legislature on March 27, 1812, to prevent the passage of the bill. Though counted among the adherents of the administration of Madison, and though committed to the policy of declaring war against Great Britain, he sided with the Republican members of the New York legislature when in 1812 they determined to break from “the Virginia dynasty” and to support De Witt Clinton for the presidency. In the following year, however, he dissolved his political relations with Clinton and resumed the entente cordiale with Madison's administration. In 1814 he carried through the legislature an effective war-measure known as “the classification bill,” providing for the levy of 12,000 men, to be placed at the disposal of the government for two years. He drew up the resolution of thanks voted by the legislature to Gen. Jackson for the victory of New Orleans. In 1815, while still a member of the state senate, he was appointed attorney-general of the state, superseding the venerable Abraham Van Vechten. In this same year De Witt Clinton, falling a prey to factional rivalries in his own party, was removed by the Albany council from the mayoralty of New York city — an act of petty proscription in which Van Buren sympathized, according to the “spoils system” then in vogue. In 1816 he was re-elected to the state senate for a further term of four years, and, removing to Albany, formed a partnership with his life-long friend, Benjamin F. Butler. In the same year he was appointed a regent of the University of New York. In the legislative discussions of 1816 he advocated the surveys preliminary to Clinton's scheme for uniting the waters of the great lakes with the Hudson.
The election of Gov. Tompkins as vice-president of the United States had left the “Bucktails” of the Republican party without their natural leader. The people, moreover, in just resentment at the in dignity done to Clinton by his removal from the New York mayoralty, were now spontaneously minded to make him governor that he might preside over the execution of the Erie canal which he had projected. Van Buren acquiesced in a drift of opinion that he was powerless to check, and, on the election of Clinton, supported the canal policy; but he soon came to an open rupture with the governor on questions of public patronage, and, arraying himself in active opposition to Clinton's re-election, he was in turn subjected to the proscription of the Albany council acting in Clinton's interest. He was removed from the office of attorney-general in 1819. He opposed the election of Clinton in 1820. Clinton was re-elected by a small majority, but both houses of the legislature and the council of appointment fell into the hands of the anti-Clinton Republicans. The office of attorney-general was now tendered anew to Van Buren, but he declined it. The politics of New York, a mesh of factions from the beginning of the century, were in a constant state of swirl and eddy from 1819 till 1821. The old party- formations were dissolved in the “era of good feeling.” What with “Simon-pure” Republicans, Clintonian Republicans, Clintonian Federalists, “high-minded” Federalists cleaving to Monroe, and Federalists pure and simple, the points of crystallization were too many to admit of forming a strong or compact body around any centre. No party could combine votes enough in the legislature of 1818-'19 to elect its candidate for U. S. senator. Yet out of this medley of factions and muddle of opinions Van Buren, by his moderation and his genius for political organization, evolved order and harmony at the election for senator in the following year. Under his lead all parties united on Rufus King, a Federalist of the old school, who had patriotically supported the war against Great Britain after it was declared, and who by his candor had won the confidence of President Monroe; and Rufus King was re-elected with practical unanimity at a time when he was fresh from the hot debate in the U. S. senate against the admission of Missouri without a restriction on slavery. His anti-slavery views on that question were held by Van Buren to “conceal no plot” against the Republicans, who, he engaged, would give “a true direction” to that momentous issue. What the “true direction” was to be he did not say, except as it might be inferred from his concurrence in a resolution of the legislature of New York instructing the senators of that state “to oppose the admission, as a state in the Union, of any territory not comprised within the original boundaries of the United States without making the prohibition of slavery therein an indispensable condition of admission.” In that Republican resolution of 1820 “the Wilmot proviso” of 1847 appeared above our political horizon, but soon vanished from sight on the passage of the Missouri compromise in 1821.
On February 6, 1821, Van Buren was elected U. S. senator, receiving in both houses of the legislature a majority of twenty-five over Nathan Sanford, the Clintonian candidate, for whom the Federalists also voted. In the same year he was chosen from Otsego county as a member of the convention to revise the constitution of the state. In that convention he met in debate Chancellor Kent, Chief-Justice Ambrose Spencer, and others. Against innovations his attitude was here conservative. He advocated the executive veto. He opposed manhood suffrage, seeking to limit the elective franchise to householders, that this “invaluable right” might not be “cheapened” and that the rural districts might not be overborne by the cities. He favored negro suffrage if negroes were taxed. With offence to party friends, he vehemently resisted the eviction by constitutional change of the existing supreme court, though its members were his bitter political enemies. He opposed an elective judiciary and the choice of minor offices by the people, as swamping the right it pretended to exalt.
He took his seat in the U. S. senate, December 3, 1821, and was at once made a member of its committees on the judiciary and finance. For many years he was chairman of the former. In March, 1822, he voted, on the bill to provide a territorial government for Florida, that no slave should be directly or indirectly imported into that territory “except by a citizen removing into it for actual settlement and being at the time a bona-fide owner of such slave.” Van Buren voted with the northern senators for the retention of this clause; but its exclusion by the vote of the southern senators did not import any countenance to the introduction of slaves into Florida from abroad, as such introduction was already prohibited by a Federal statute which in another part of the bill was extended to Florida. Always averse to imprisonment for debt as the result of misfortune, Van Buren took an early opportunity to advocate its abolition as a feature of Federal jurisprudence. He opposed in 1824 the ratification of the convention with England for the suppression of the slave-trade (perhaps because a qualified right of search was annexed to it), though the convention was urgently pressed on the senate by President Monroe. He supported William H. Crawford for the presidency in 1824, both in the congressional caucus and before the people. He voted for the protective tariff of 1824, and for that of 1828, though he took no part in the discussion of the economic principles underlying either. He voted for the latter under instructions, maintaining a politic silence as to his personal opinions, which seem to have favored a revenue tariff with incidental protection. He vainly advocated an amendment of the constitution for the election of president by the intervention of an electoral college to be specially chosen from as many separate districts as would comprise the whole country while representing the electoral power of all the states. The measure was designed to appease the jealousy of the small states by practically wiping out state lines in presidential elections and at the same time proposed to guard against elections by the house of representatives, as in case of no choice at a first scrutiny the electoral colleges were to be reconvened. After voting for a few “internal improvements,” he opposed them as unconstitutional in the shape then given to them, and proposed in 1824 and again in 1825 to bring them within the power of congress by a constitutional amendment that should protect the “sovereignty of the states” while equally distributing these benefits of the government. In a debate on the Federal judiciary in 1826 he took high ground in favor of “state rights” as against the umpirage of the supreme court on political questions, and deplored the power of that court to arraign sovereign states at its bar for the passage of laws alleged to impair “the obligation of contracts.” He confessed admiration for the Republicans of 1802 who had repealed “the midnight judiciary act.” He opposed the Panama mission, and reduced the “Monroe doctrine” to its true historical proportions as a caveat and not a “pledge.” On all questions he was strenuous for a “strict construction of the constitution.” He favored in 1826 the passage of a general bankrupt law, in opposing the pending measure, sharply accentuated the technical distinction of English law between “bankrupt” and “insolvent” acts — a distinction which, in the complexity of modern business transactions, Chief-Justice Marshall had pronounced to be more metaphysical than real, but which to Van Buren was vital because the constitution says nothing about “insolvent laws.”
He was re-elected to the senate in 1827, but soon resigned his seat to accept the office of governor of New York, to which he was elected in 1828. As governor he opposed free banking and advocated the “safety-fund system,” making all the banks of the state mutual insurers of each other's soundness. He vainly recommended the policy of separating state from Federal elections. After entering on the office of governor he never resumed the practice of law. Van Buren was a zealous supporter of Andrew Jackson in the presidential election of 1828, and was called in 1829 to be the premier of the new administration. As secretary of state he brought to a favorable close the long-standing feud between the United States and England with regard to the West India trade. Having an eye to the presidential succession after Jackson's second term, and not wishing meanwhile to compromise the administration or himself, he resigned his secretaryship in June, 1831, and was sent as minister to England. The senate refused in 1832 to confirm his nomination, by the casting-vote of John C. Calhoun, the vice-president. Conscientious Whigs, like Theodore Frelinghuysen, confessed in after days the reluctance with which they consented to this doubtful act. A clause in one of Van Buren's despatches while secretary, containing an invidious reference to the preceding administration, was alleged as the ground of his rejection. The offence was venial, compared with the license taken by Robert R. Livingston when, in negotiating the Louisiana purchase, he cited the spectre of a Federalist administration playing into the hands of “the British faction.” Moreover, the pretext was an afterthought, as the clause had excited no remark when first published, and, when the outcry was raised, Jackson “took the responsibility” for it. The tactical blunder of the Whigs soon avenged itself by bringing increased popularity to Van Buren. He became, with Jackson, the symbol of his party, and, elected vice-president in 1832, he came in 1833 to preside over the body which a year before had rejected him as foreign minister. He presided with unvarying suavity and fairness. Taking no public part in the envenomed discussions of the time, he was known to sympathize with Jackson in his warfare on the United States bank, and soon came to be generally regarded by his party as the lineal successor of that popular leader,
He was formally nominated for the presidency on May 20, 1835, and was elected in 1836 over his three competitors, William H. Harrison, Hugh L. White, and Daniel Webster, by a majority of 57 in the electoral college, but of only 25,000 in the popular vote. The tide of Jacksonism was beginning to ebb. South Carolina, choosing her electors by state legislature and transferring to Van Buren her hatred of Jackson, voted for Willie P. Mangum. During the canvass Van Buren had been opposed at the north and championed at the south as “a northern man with southern principles.” As vice-president, he had in 1835 given a casting-vote for the bill to prohibit the circulation of “incendiary documents” through the mails, and as a candidate for the presidency he had pledged himself to resist the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia without the consent of the slave-states and to oppose the “slightest interference” with slavery in the states. He had also pledged himself against the distribution of surplus revenues among the states, against internal improvements at Federal expense, and against a national bank.
Compelled by the fiscal embarrassments of the government, in the financial crash of 1837, to summon congress to meet in special session, September 4, 1837, he struck in his first message the key-note of his whole administration. After a detailed analysis of the financial situation, and of the causes in trade and speculation that had led to it, he proceeded to develop his favorite idea of an independent treasury for the safe-keeping and disbursement of the public moneys. This idea was not new. It was as old as the constitution. The practice of the government had departed from it only by insensible degrees, until at length, in spite of the protests of Jefferson, it had been consolidated into a formal order of congress that the revenues of the government should be deposited in the United States bank. On the removal of the deposits by Jackson in 1833, they had been placed in the custody of “the pet banks,” and had here been used to stimulate private trade and speculation, until the crisis in 1837 necessitated a change of fiscal policy. By every consideration of public duty and safety, conspiring with what he believed to be economic advantage to the people, Van Buren enforced the policy of an independent treasury on a reluctant congress. There was here no bating of breath or mincing of words; but it was not until near the close of his administration that he succeeded in procuring the assent of congress to the radical measure that divorced the treasury from private banking and trade. The measure was formally repealed by the Whig congress of 1842, after which the public moneys were again deposited in selected banks until 1846, when the independent treasury was reinstalled and has ever since held its place under all changes of administration. He signed the independent treasury bill on July 4, 1840, as being a sort of “second Declaration of Independence,” in his own idea and in that of his party. Von Holst, the sternest of Van Buren's critics, awards to him on “this one question” the credit of “courage, firmness, and statesmanlike insight.” It was the chef d'œuvre of his public career. He also deserves credit for the fidelity with which, at the evident sacrifice of popularity with a certain class of voters, he adhered to neutral obligations on the outbreak of the Canada rebellion late in 1837.
The administration of Van Buren, beginning and ending with financial panic, went down under the cloud rising on the country in 1840. The enemies and friends of the United States bank had equally sown the wind during Jackson's administration. Van Buren was left to reap the whirlwind, which in the “political hurricane” of 1840 lifted Gen. Harrison into the presidential chair. The Democratic defeat was overwhelming. Harrison received 234 electoral votes, and Van Buren only 60. The majority for Harrison in the popular vote was nearly 140,000. Retiring after this overthrow to the shades of Lindenwald, a beautiful country-seat which he had purchased in his native county, Van Buren gave no vent to repinings. In 1842 he made a tour through the southern states, visiting Henry Clay at Ashland. In 1843 he came to the front with clear-cut views in favor of a tariff for revenue only. But on the newly emergent question of Texan annexation he took a decided stand in the negative, and on this rock of offence to the southern wing of his party his candidature was wrecked in the Democratic national convention of 1844, which met at Baltimore on May 27. He refused to palter with this issue, on the ground of our neutral obligations to Mexico, and when the nomination went to James K. Polk, of Tennessee, he gave no sign of resentment. His friends brought to Polk a loyal support, and secured his election by carrying for him the decisive vote of the State of New York.
Van Buren continued to take an interest in public affairs, and, when in 1847 the acquisition of new territory from Mexico raised anew the vexed question of slavery in the territories, he gave in his adhesion to the “Wilmot proviso.” In the new elective affinities produced by this “burning question” a redistribution of political elements took place in the chaos of New York politics. The “Barnburner” and the “Hunker” factions came to a sharp cleavage on this line of division. The former declared their “uncompromising hostility to the extension of slavery.” In the Herkimer Democratic convention of October 26, 1847, the Free-soil banner was openly displayed, and delegates were sent to the Democratic national convention. From this convention, assembled at Baltimore in May, 1848, the Herkimer delegates seceded before any presidential nomination was made. In June, 1848, a Barnburner convention met at Utica to organize resistance to the nomination of Gen. Lewis Cass, who, in his “Nicholson letter,” had disavowed the “Wilmot proviso.” To this convention Van Buren addressed a letter, declining in advance a nomination for the presidency, but pledging opposition to the new party shibboleth. In spite of his refusal, he was nominated, and this nomination was reaffirmed by the Freesoil national convention of Buffalo, August 9, 1848, when Charles Francis Adams was associated with him as candidate for the vice-presidency. In the ensuing presidential election this ticket received only 291,263 votes, but, as the result of the triangular duel, Gen. Cass was defeated and Gen Zachary Taylor, the Whig candidate, was elected. The precipitate annexation of Texas and its natural sequel, the war with Mexico, had brought their Nemesis in the utter confusion of national politics. Van Buren received no electoral votes, but his popular Democratic vote in Massachusetts, Vermont, and New York exceeded that of Cass. Henceforth he was simply a spectator in the political arena. On all public questions save that of slavery he remained an unfaltering Democrat, and, when it was fondly supposed that “the slavery issue” had been forever exorcised by the compromise measures of 1850, he returned in full faith and communion to his old party allegiance. In 1852 he began to write his “Inquiry into the Origin and Course of Political Parties in the United States” (New York, 1867), but it was never finished and was published as a fragment. He supported Franklin Pierce for the presidency in 1852, and, after spending two years in Europe, returned in time to vote for James Buchanan in 1856. In 1860 he voted for the combined electoral ticket against Lincoln, but when the civil war began he gave to the administration his zealous support.
[ Fac-simile letter from Martin Van Buren to Fitz-Greene Halleck ]
Van Buren was the target of political accusation during his whole public career, but kept his private character free from reproach. In his domestic life he was as happy as he was exemplary. Always prudent in his habits and economical in his tastes, he none the less maintained in his style of living the easy state of a gentleman, whether in public station at Albany and Washington, or at Lindenwald in his retirement. As a man of the world he was singularly affable and courteous, blending formal deference with natural dignity and genuine cordiality. Intensely partisan in his opinions and easily startled by the red rag of “Hamiltonian Federalism,” he never carried the contentions of the political arena into the social sphere. The asperities of personal rivalry estranged him for a time from Calhoun, after the latter denounced him in the senate in 1837 as “a practical politician,” with whom “justice, right, patriotism, etc., were mere vague phrases,” but with his great Whig rival, Henry Clay, he maintained unbroken relations of friendship through all vicissitudes of political fortune. As a lawyer his rank was eminent. Though never rising in speech to the heights of oratory, he was equally fluent and facile before bench or jury, and equally felicitous whether expounding the intricacies of fact or of law in a case. His manner was mild and insinuating, never declamatory. Without carrying his judicial studies into the realm of jurisprudence, he yet had a knowledge of law that fitted him to cope with the greatest advocates of the New York bar. The evidences of his legal learning and acute dialectics are still preserved in the New York reports of Cowen, Johnson, and Wendell. As a debater in the senate, he always went to the pith of questions, disdaining the arts of rhetoric. As a writer of political letters or of state papers, he carried diffusiveness to a fault, which sometimes hinted at a weakness in positions requiring so much defence. As a politician he was masterful in leadership — so much so that, alike by friends and foes, he was credited with reducing its practices to a fine art.
He was a member of the famous Albany regency which for so many years controlled the politics of New York, and was long popularly known as its “director.” Fertile in the contrivance of means for the attainment of the public ends which he deemed desirable, he was called “the little magician,” from the deftness of his touch in politics. But, combining the statesman's foresight with the politician's tact, he showed his sagacity rather by seeking a majority for his views than by following the views of a majority. Accused of “non-committalism,” and with some show of reason in the early stages of his career, it was only as to men and minor measures of policy that he practised a prudent reticence. On questions of deeper principle — an elective judiciary, negro suffrage, universal suffrage, etc. — he boldly took the unpopular side. In a day of unexampled political giddiness he stood firmly for his subtreasury system against the doubts of friends, the assaults of enemies, and the combined pressure of wealth and culture in the country. Dispensing patronage according to the received custom of his times, he yet maintained a high standard of appointment. That he could rise above selfish considerations was shown when he promoted the elevation of Rufus King in 1820, or when he strove in 1838 to bring Washington Irving into his cabinet with small promise of gain to his doubtful political fortunes by such an “unpractical” appointment. As a statesman he had his compact fagot of opinions, to which he adhered in evil or good report. It might seem that the logic of his principles in 1848, combined with the subsequent drift of events, should have landed him in the Free-soil party that Abraham Lincoln led to victory in 1860; but it is to be remembered that, while Van Buren's political opinions were in a fluid state, they had been cast in the doctrinal moulds of Jefferson, and had there taken rigid form and pressure. In the natural history of American party-formations he supposed that an enduring antithesis had always been discernible between the “money power” and the “farming interest” of the land. In his annual message of December, 1838, holding language very modern in its emphasis, he counted “the anti-republican tendencies of associated wealth” as among the strains that had been put upon our government. This is indeed the main thesis of his “Inquiry,” a book which is more an apologia than a history. In that chronicle of his life-long antipathy to a splendid consolidated government, with its imperial judiciary, funding systems, high tariffs, and internal improvements — the whole surmounted by a powerful national bank as the “regulator” of finance and politics — he has left an outlined sketch of the only dramatic unity that can be found for his eventful career.
Confessing in 1848 that he had gone further in concession to slavery than many of his friends at the north had approved, he satisfied himself with a formal protest against the repeal of the Missouri compromise, carried through congress while he was travelling in Europe, and against the policy of making the Dred Scott decision a rule of Democratic politics, though he thought the decision sound in point of technical law. With these reservations, avowedly made in the interest of “strict construction” and of “old-time Republicanism” rather than of Free-soil or National reformation, he maintained his allegiance to the party with which his fame was identified, and which he was perhaps the more unwilling to leave because of the many sacrifices he had made in its service. The biography of Van Buren has been written by William H. Holland (Hartford, 1835); Francis J. Grund (in German, 1835); William Emmons (Washington, 1835); David Crockett (Philadelphia, 1836); William L. Mackenzie (Boston, 1846); William Allen Butler (New York, 1862); and Edward M. Shepard (Boston, 1888). Mackenzie's book is compiled in part from surreptitious letters, shedding a lurid light on the “practical politics” of the times. Butler's sketch was published immediately after the ex-president's death. Shepard's biography is written with adequate learning and in philosophical spirit, which may also be said of a brief and appreciative biography that appeared from the practised pen of the venerable historian of the United States, in his ninetieth year, entitled “Martin Van Buren to the End of his Public Career, by George Bancroft” (New York, 1889).
His wife, Hannah, born in Kinderhook, N. Y., in 1782; died in Albany, N. Y., February 5, 1819, was of Dutch descent, and her maiden name was Hoes. She was educated in the schools of her native village, and was the classmate of Mr. Van Buren, whom she married in 1807. She was devoted to her domestic cares and duties, and took little interest in social affairs, but was greatly beloved by the poor. When Mrs. Van Buren learned that she could live but a few days, she expressed a desire that her funeral be conducted with the utmost simplicity, and the money that would otherwise have been devoted to mourning emblems be given to the poor and needy.
|LINDENWALD, KINDERHOOK, N. Y., THE HOME OF MARTIN VAN BUREN|
Their son, Abraham, soldier, born in Kinderhook, N. Y., November 27, 1807; died in New York city, March 15, 1873, was graduated at the U. S. military academy in 1827, and attached to the 2d infantry as 2d lieutenant. He served for two years on the western frontier, and for the next seven years as aide-de-camp to the general-in-chief, Alexander Macomb, except during several months in 1836, when he accompanied Gen. Winfield Scott as a volunteer aide in the expedition against the Seminole Indians. He was commissioned as a captain in the 1st dragoons on July 4, 1836, resigning on March 3, 1837, to become his father's private secretary. He brought daily reports of the proceedings of congress to President Van Buren, who was often influenced by his suggestions. At the beginning of the war with Mexico he re-entered the army as major and paymaster, his commission dating from June 26, 1846. He served on the staff of Gen. Zachary Taylor at Monterey, and subsequently joined the staff of Gen. Scott as a volunteer, and participated in every engagement from Vera Cruz to the capture of the city of Mexico, being brevetted lieutenant-colonel for bravery at Contreras and Churubusco on August 20, 1847. He served in the paymaster's department after the war till June 1, 1854, when he again resigned, after which he resided for a part of the time in Columbia, S. C. (where his wife inherited a plantation), till 1859, and afterward for fourteen years leading a life of leisure in New York City.
Another son, John, lawyer, born in Hudson, N. Y., February 18, 1810; died at sea October 13, 1866, was graduated at Yale in 1828, studied law with Benjamin F. Butler, and was admitted to the bar at Albany in 1830. In the following year he accompanied his father to London as an attaché of the legation. In February, 1845, he was elected attorney-general of the state of New York, serving till December 31, 1846. He took an active part in the political canvass of 1848 as an advocate of the exclusion of slavery from the territories, but did not remain with the Free-soil party in its later developments. He held high rank as a lawyer, appearing in the Edwin Forrest and many other important cases, was an eloquent pleader, and an effective political speaker. He died on the voyage from Liverpool to New York. He was popularly known as “Prince John” after his travels abroad during his father's presidency, was tall and handsome, of elegant manners and appearance, a charming conversationalist, and an admirable raconteur.
Abraham's wife, Angelica, born in Sumter District, S. C., about 1820; died in New York city, December 29, 1878, was a daughter of Richard Singleton, a planter, and a cousin of William C. Preston and of Mrs. James Madison, who, while her kinswoman was completing her education in Philadelphia, presented her to President Van Buren. A year later she married Maj. Van Buren, in November, 1838, and on the following New-Year's-day she made her first appearance as mistress of the White House. With her husband she visited England (where her uncle, Andrew Stevenson, was U. S. minister) and other countries of Europe, in the spring of 1839, returning in the autumn to resume her place as hostess of the presidential mansion.
Walking in Broadway with Fitz-Greene Halleck the year before
the war, he exclaimed, “Ah! there's Little Van and Prince John!”
when I saw approaching arm-in-arm the silvery-haired ex-president
and his handsome son. The former was among the smallest, physically,
of our chief magistrates, and it was a constant delight to his
political opponents to designate him as “Little Van.” In this respect,
however, he in no way differed from the other twenty-two presidents,
who without exception were labelled with more or less inimical or
popular nicknames. Washington was called the “Father of his Country”
and the “American Fabius”; John Adams, the “Colossus of
Independence”; Jefferson, the “Sage of Monticello,” and “Long Tom”
by his political opponents; Madison, “Father of the Constitution”;
Monroe, “Last Cocked Hat,” from the circumstance of his being the
last of the revolutionary presidents to wear the cocked hat of that
period; John Quincy Adams, the “Old Man Eloquent”; Jackson, the
“Hero of New Orleans” and “Old Hickory”; Van Buren, the “Little
Magician,” in allusion to his political sagacity and astuteness, “King
Martin the First,” and “Little Van”; Harrison, the “Washington of
the West” and “Old Tippecanoe”; Tyler, “Accidental President”;
Polk, “Young Hickory,” so christened by his admiring adherents of
the presidential campaign; Taylor, “Rough and Ready” and “Old
Zach”; Fillmore, the “American Louis Philippe,” owing to his dignified,
courteous manners and supposed resemblance to the French
king; Pierce, “Poor Pierce,” pronounced Purse; Buchanan, “Old
Public Functionary” and “Old Buck”; Lincoln, “Honest Old Abe” and
“Father Abraham,” used in the famous war-song, “We're coming,
Father Abraham, three hundred thousand strong”; Johnson, “Sir
Veto” and the “Tailor President”; Grant, “Unconditional Surrender,”
and by his political adversaries the “American Caesar,” in allusion to
his third-term candidacy and their claim that Grantism was a synonym
of Csesarism; Hayes, “President de facto”; Garfield, the “Teacher
President” and “Martyr President”; Arthur, “The First Gentleman
in the Land,” and by his New York admirers “Our Chet,” a
contraction of Chester; Cleveland, the “Man of Destiny” and “Old
Grover”; and Benjamin Harrison, “Backbone Ben” and the “Son of
his Grandfather,” the latter's hat being a conspicuous object in the
campaign cartoons of 1888 and afterward. Kinley in McKinley
stands in Gaelic for “the man with the glad countenance,” his
popular name, and a happy coincidence in the case of William McKinley.
His successor was familiarly and universally known as “Teddy.”
At the Broadway meeting referred to the poet mentioned a pleasant visit to Van Buren at Lindenwald, where he had met Washington Irving, and that the latter had written the concluding chapters of his “History of New York” when in retirement there for two months after the death of his betrothed, Miss Matilda Hoffman. At that time (1809) it was the estate of Irving's intimate friend, William P. Van Ness, an eminent lawyer and jurist, who acted as Burr's second in his duel with Hamilton. The ex-president purchased the property, Halleck informed me, from the heirs of Judge Van Ness, and incidentally remarked that he had seen all the presidents except Washington, and had known most of them. The poet also alluded to the circumstance of Irving having been offered by President Van Buren the portfolio of the secretary of the navy, which, on his declining its acceptance, was conferred on the amiable author's friend and literary partner, James K. Paulding. Halleck on several occasions introduced the name of Van Buren in his poems, and in “Fanny,” which first appeared in 1819, he remarks:
“What, Egypt, was thy magic, to the tricks
Of Mr. Charles, Judge Spencer, or Van Buren?
The first with cards, the last in politics,
A conjurer's fame for years has been securing.”