8th President of the United States, 1837-1841
Biography Read: “Martin Van Buren” by Ted Widmer
Key Facts: He started the Democrat Party. He was the first President born after America’s Independence. He was born December 5th, 1782 in Kinderhook, NY. He died on July 24th, 1862 during the Civil War.
- Van Buren was 5’6″ tall making him the 2nd shortest President to date (behind Madison). They called him the Little Magician or Red Fox.
- He grew up speaking Dutch and was the first President not from an English-speaking family.
- He never went to college or served in the Military. The only other President with this claim is Cleveland.
- The “Little Magician” came from a poor background like Andrew Jackson.
- In 1830, the USA had 23 miles of train tracks. By the time Van Buren left office in 1841, we had over 2816 miles of track.
- Van Buren was the 5th longest-living ex-President after Hoover, Ford, Adams, and Carter.
- He was born in Kinderhook, NY in his father’s tavern. The town was a small Dutch community where inbreeding was common. Both his father and grandfather were married to relatives.
- His father (Abraham) owned six slaves. Martin grew up living near them in the same tavern building where he was born.
- Van Buren quit school at age 13. He later studied law in NYC which put him in contact with Aaron Burr (Vice President under Jefferson who shot Hamilton). It is rumored that Burr was his real father.
- In 1807, Van Buren married Hannah Hoes (a first cousin once removed). She died in 1819 before he was elected and he never remarried. Little is known about her.
- In 1821, he was elected to the US Senate.
- He helped start the Democratic Party, but also took the middle ground on controversial issues such as Slavery (supported by the party).
- After working to get Jackson elected, he was rewarded with the Secretary of State job.
- Van Buren became President in 1837. 13 days into his administration “The Panic of 1837” began. It was the worse financial crisis in US history until this point.
- Despite being from the North, Van Buren was a slave owner (a single man named Tom) and tried to avoid the slave debate which was popular at the time.
- In the Fall of 1837, Van Buren’s former Vice President Calhoun presented six resolutions supporting slavery in Congress. Most Democrats supported the measures implying Van Buren approved. John Quincy Adams fought against slavery in the House.
- In the famous Amistad case (where John Quincy fought in the Supreme Court to win the freedom of several escaped slaves that took over the slave boat and landed in Long Island), Van Buren issued an executive order demanding the slaves be returned to their Spanish owners.
- Van Buren lost re-election to Harrison in 1840. 80% of voters turned out voting 1.1 million for Van Buren and 1.3 million for Harrison.
- The term “OK” was popularized during the campaign. It meant “oll korrect” or “all right” and was used by Van Buren’s supporters that wanted to brand him “Old Kinderhook” (Ok). Before this it wasn’t used commonly in the English language.
- After losing the election, Van Buren went on a tour where he was the first former (or current) President to visit Chicago. During his trip he got stuck in a snow storm and spent the night in Rochester, IL where he met a young Abe Lincoln and talked to him all night. Lincoln wasn’t a democrat, but a Whig.
- In 1844, Van Buren tried to run for President again, but he lost the nomination to James Polk. This is because he came out against accepting Texas in the Union.
- In 1848, the Democrat Party split. Van Buren organized former Whigs and Northern Democrats into the Free Soil Party. This party was strongly against Slavery and while it didn’t win, it laid the foundations for what would become the Republican Party.
- Van Buren later supported the Pro-Slavery Democrat Party again, but this time he openly expressed his forming anti-slavery views. However, he didn’t attack slavery openly since it was accepted by the party (particularly the Southern Members). Former Free Soil Party members that refused to accept slavery went on to start the Republican Party.
- Van Buren died July 24th, 1862 during the civil war. President Lincoln had the Navy and Army wear black crapes on their left arms in tribute to him.