Martin Van Buren Biography
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#8: Martin Van Buren (1837-1841)
Martin Van Buren (December 5, 1782 – July 24, 1862) was the first President born after the Declaration of Independence. He grew up speaking Dutch and remains the only President for whom English was not his first language. Born in Kinderhook, New York, Van Buren studied law as a youth, gaining admission to the bar in 1803. From 1808-1813, he was Surrogate of Columbia County, New York and was Attorney General of that state from 1815-1819. He also served in the State Senate from 1812-1820. He became the leader of the Albany Regency, a powerful group of New York politicians who proved highly influential across the country and who helped to perfect the spoils system.
From 1821-1828, Van Buren represented New York in the US Senate. He became Governor of New York in January, 1829 but resigned in March because new President Andrew Jackson appointed him Secretary of State. Relations between Jackson and Vice President John C. Calhoun became strained and Calhoun’s job was on the line. Jackson sent Van Buren to Great Britain as Ambassador, but due to Calhoun’s leverage, Van Buren’s nomination to the position was rejected by the Senate. Van Buren came back to the US and lo and behold, he became Jackson’s running-mate in the 1832 election. After winning re-election, Jackson groomed Van Buren as his successor.
Unfortunately, Jackson also set up Van Buren for a fall. In one of his many controversial moves, Jackson dismantled the Second Bank of the United States. This cleared the way for local and state banks to increase credit, which led to a rash of high-risk land speculation. In a case of “too little, too late,” Jackson issued the Specie Circular, mandating that purchasers of government-owned lands pay in gold or silver. This in turn caused a currency crisis, which led to the Panic of 1837 – the year that Van Buren entered the presidency. Blamed for the Panic and the crippling economic depression which followed, President Van Buren didn’t help his case by failing to deviate substantially from Jackson’s economic policies. The new Whig Party called the Democrat “Martin Van Ruin."
On the issue of slavery, Van Buren made enemies on both sides. He refused Texas entry into the United States because he did not wish to increase slave territory, yet he continued the Second Seminole War in Florida, which those in the free states saw as a way ofexpanding slave territory. In truth, Van Buren’s stances on slavery were not so simple. In his inaugural address, he announced: “I must go into the presidential chair the inflexible and uncompromising opponent of every attempt on the part of Congress to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia against the wishes of the slaveholding states, and also with a determination equally decided to resist the slightest interference with it in the states where it exists.” But after an unsuccessful re-election bid in 1840, and failing to snag the Democratic nomination in 1844, Van Buren ran once more for President in 1848 as the candidate of the Free Soil Party, a short-lived group which opposed the expansion of slavery. Maybe it’s for the best that he didn’t win; after all, he famously said, “As to the presidency, the two happiest days of my life were those of my entrance upon the office and my surrender of it.”