Martin Van Buren was born on December 5, 1782 in Kinderhook, New York. He was the third of five children of Abraham and Maria Goes Van Alen, and was the first U.S. president not born a British subject. His ancestors emigrated from Holland in 1633, and English was his second language, his family and the Kinderhook community spoke Dutch.
His mother had been widowed with three children before marrying his father who was a tavern keeper and farmer. The Van Buren’s owned six slaves, which was not unusual for a family in Kinderhook. His father’s tavern and inn was frequented by government workers traveling between Albany and New York City and Martin was exposed to discussions on politics. He was influenced to pursue work as an apprentice to a local lawyer in 1796, he swept floors and run errands during the day, and studied law at night.
In 1801 he accompanied his cousin to Troy, New York who was selected as a delegate to the Democratic-Republican Congressional Caucus, due to Martin campaigning for him. At the age of twenty-one Martin moved to New York City and gained admission to the state bar.
On February 21, 1807 Martin married Hannah Hoes in Catskill, New York. She was his childhood sweetheart, and also his first cousin. They lived in Hudson, a small town about ten miles from Kinderhook where Martin practiced law and was appointed to his first public office on February 20, 1808. Four years later, in a close heated race, Martin was elected to the New York State Senate.
He was appointed Attorney General of New York on February 17, 1815, and he still served in the state senate and was reelected to the state senate again in 1816. Martin and the Bucktails, who where a group of men committed to defeat the Federalists and tried to stop DeWitt Clinton from being elected as the New York’s Governor in 1817. Unfortunately for them Clinton became governor and began to dismiss all Bucktail appointees in the state’s government. Martin held onto his attorney general post for another two years before he was removed.
On February 5, 1819, at the age of 35, Martin’s wife Hannah died of tuberculosis, she was buried in Kinderhook. Martin never remarried and their four boys spent much of their childhood living with relatives. Martin regretted not being more involved in their upbringing but he did provide for their education and well-being.
Martin was elected to the United States Senate by the New York state legislature on February 6, 1821 and in 1823 became the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
By 1827 Martin became the principal northern leader supporting Andrew Jackson and traveled throughout the south campaigning for him. In September he commits the Bucktails to Jackson, confirming the North-South alliance, which could be considered the official beginning of the Democratic Party. He was also running for Governor of New York and in November was elected. He was directly responsible for Andrew Jackson taking the majority of New York’s electoral votes, making Jackson the nation’s seventh President.
When Andrew Jackson was elected President he rewarded Martin by appointing him Secretary of State, a position four of the past five Presidents occupied. Although Martin was just elected as the Governor of New York he resigned from that position after serving in that capacity for only a couple of weeks and accepted the Secretary of State position. Martin emerged as the President’s most trusted adviser.
Martin resigned as Secretary of State during Jackson’s cabinet reorganization in 1831. This give Jackson the opportunity to remove the entire Cabinet and replaced them with members loyal to him instead of his Vice President John Calhoun. Martin became minister to Britain but only spent six months in England due to not being confirmed for his appointment by one vote, a ballot cast by Calhoun.
President Jackson selected Martin as his running-mate for the 1832 presidential election, although thirty electors refused to support him. The Jackson-Van Buren ticket won easily over the Whig Henry Clay and Martin was inaugurated as the Vice President on March 4, 1833.
In May of 1835 Martin was nominated for President at the second national convention of the Democratic Party with Richard M. Johnson of Kentucky being nominated as vice president. Martin was elected as the eighth president of the United States on December 7, 1835. He received 50.83% of the popular vote and 170 electoral votes, winning 15 out of 26 states. Even though the race was closer than expected, Martin still got more votes than his four Whig opponents combined.
Martin was the first American president of Dutch descent and also the first to be born as a United States citizen, free from the British colonial rule. He was also the first president elected from New York. Since Martin never remarried after his wife died he relied on his daughter-in-law, Angelica Van Buren, to fulfill the duties of the First Lady during his time in the White House.
The Van Buren’s administration continued to push American Indian tribes west and in 1838 General Winfield Scott rounded up the Cherokee of Georgia and forced them to move west of the Mississippi. One-quarter of the tribe died of disease and deprivation along the Trail of Tears. Similarly, the Seminoles in Florida were forced to relocate to the West, eventually hostilities between the tribe and the federal government ended by 1842.
During Martin’s Presidency the slave ship Amistad drifted into the Long Island Sound and was seized by an American survey ship. Looking to cash in on salvage money, the commander of the ship steered it to New London, Connecticut. But the Van Buren administration accepted that the ship and its passengers belonged to the Spanish government. The matter went to Federal court who ruled that the Africans who staged the mutiny on the Amistad were kidnapped and should be transported back to Africa. The Van Buren administration appealed the decision.
Martin easily won the Democratic nomination for a second term, but he and his party faced a difficult election in 1840. During his presidency he was criticized for his actions on how he dealt with the slumping economy, slavery, the Trail of Tears, and tensions with Great Britain. But he still made a lasting impact, and his supports formed the OK Club, short for “Old Kinderhook,” a reference to the village he was born in. They marched with placards marked OK, which is the origin of what is now used as an abbreviation for okay, to just OK.
The Whigs selected William Henry Harrison of Ohio as their candidate for the presidency. The Whig party flooded the public with promotional items like sewing boxes, cigar tins, whiskey bottles, and pennants with the Whig slogan, “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too.” Tippecanoe was Harrison’s nickname after a battle he had won and Tyler was his running mate. The Whigs also sang “Van, Van, is a used-up man,” and gave Martin a new nick-name, “Martin Van Ruin.” Martin’s chances of being reelected didn’t get any better when the Whigs claimed that Vice President Richard Johnson had several affairs with African American women. Martin was close in the popular vote but Harrison crushed him in the Electoral College and received 234 electoral votes to Martin’s 60.
Martin tried to gain the Democratic presidential nomination in 1844 but failed, he miscalculated a political decision when he didn’t support the annexation of Texas. Andrew Jackson was in favor of the annexation and suggested that Martin step aside and southern delegations favored James Polk. Antislavery Democrats known as “Barnburners” backed Martin and the movement led to the formation of the Free Soil Party.
Although he lost the nomination he supported Polk’s candidacy, which helped the Democrats to win over the Whig candidate Henry Clay. Andrew Jackson and his allies believed that Polk owed his election largely to Martin’s efforts and he should receive an important post in the Polk administration. But Polk offered Martin the ministership to London, which he refused and the relationship between Martin and Polk disintegrated.
In 1848 Martin ran for president as the Free Soil candidate with Charles Francis Adams, who was the son of the longtime abolitionist John Quincy Adams, as his Vice President. Martin failed to win a single state and announced his retirement from politics.
The following years he traveled extensively and enjoyed the time he spent with his children and grandchildren. He started to work on his autobiography in 1854 but never finished it, oddly enough he never mentioned his wife who had died 35 years before he started to write his autobiography. It was finally published in 1920.
Surrounded by his family at his Lindenwald estate in Kinderhook, Martin died July 24, 1862 at the age of seventy-nine of bronchial asthma and heart failure. He’s buried in Kinderhook, New York cemetery with his wife.
“The atonement of Jesus Christ is the only remedy and rest for my soul.”
“It is easier to do a job right than to explain why you didn’t.”
“I am more than ever convinced of the dangers to which the free and unbiased exercise of political opinion – the only sure foundation and safeguard of republican government – would be exposed by any further increase of the already overgrown influence of corporate authorities.”
“The government should not be guided by Temporary Excitement, but by Sober Second Thought.”
“There is but one reliance.”
“The less government interferes with private pursuits, the better for general prosperity.”
“I never knew a man more free from conceit, or one to whom it was a greater extent a pleasure, as well as a recognized duty, to listen patiently to what might be said to him upon any subject under consideration….Neither, I need scarcely say, was he in the habit of talking, much less boasting, of his own achievements.”
“Most men are not scolded out of their opinion.”
“Railroad carriages are pulled at the enormous speed of fifteen miles per hour by engines which, in addition to endangering life and limb of passengers, roar and snort their way through the countryside, setting fire to the crops, scaring the livestock, and frightening women and children. The Almighty certainly never intended that people should travel at such break-neck speed.”
“All the lessons of history and experience must be lost upon us if we are content to trust alone to the peculiar advantages we happen to possess. Look, being a lame flunky for a batshit crazy person isn’t all that bad. Stay alive long enough and you may sneak your way to Washington!”
“I only look to the gracious protection of the Divine Being whose strengthening support I humbly solicit, and whom I fervently pray to look down upon us all. May it be among the dispensations of His Providence to bless our beloved country with honors and with length of days; may her ways beways of pleasantness, and all her paths be peace.”
“In time of peace there can, at all events, be no justification for the creation of a permanent debt by the Federal Government. Its limited range of constitutional duties may certainly under such circumstances be performed without such a resort.”
“The case of the Seminoles constitutes at present the only exception to the successful efforts of the Government to remove the Indians to the homes assigned them west of the Mississippi.”
“No evil can result from its [slavery’s] inhibition more pernicious than its toleration.”
“There is a power in public opinion in this country – and I thank God for it: for it is the most honest and best of all powers – which will not tolerate an incompetent or unworthy man to hold in his weak or wicked hands the lives and fortunes of his fellow-citizens.”
“As to the presidency, the two happiest days of my life were those of my entrance upon the office and my surrender of it.”
“I shall tread in the footsteps of my illustrious predecessor.”
“In a government whose distinguishing characteristic should be a diffusion and equalization of its benefits and burdens the advantage of individuals will be augmented at the expense of the community at large.”
“The national will is the supreme law of the Republic, and on all subjects within the limits of his constitutional powers should be faithfully obeyed by the public servant.”
“To avoid the necessity of a permanent debt and its inevitable consequences, I have advocated and endeavored to carry into effect the policy of confining the appropriations for the public service to such objects only as are clearly with the constitutional authority of the Federal Government.”
“I tread in the footsteps of illustrious men… in receiving from the people the sacred trust confided to my illustrious predecessor.”
“I cannot expect to perform the task with equal ability and success.”
“Is it possible to be anything in this country without being a politician?”
“With respect to the northeastern boundary of the United States, no official correspondence between this Government and that of Great Britain has passed since that communicated to Congress toward the close of their last session.”
“The condition of the tribes which occupy the country set apart for them in the West is highly prosperous, and encourages the hope of their early civilization. They have for the most part abandoned the hunter state and turned their attention to agricultural pursuits.”
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