Martin Van Buren

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Van Buren, Martin,

1782–1862, 8th President of the United States (1837–41), b. Kinderhook, Columbia co., N.Y.

Early Career

He was reared on his father's farm, was educated at local schools, and after reading law was admitted (1803) to the bar. He practiced law successfully and soon became active in politics. After he was (1808–13) surrogate of Columbia co., he served (1813–20) in the state senate and became prominent in the state Democratic party. While still a senator Van Buren was made state attorney general in 1815, but because of his mounting rivalry with De Witt ClintonClinton, De Witt
, 1769–1828, American statesman, b. New Windsor, N.Y.; son of James Clinton. He was admitted (1790) to the New York bar but soon became secretary to his uncle, George Clinton, first governor of the state, and in that position (1790–95) gained
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, the governor of New York, he was removed from this post in 1819. Meanwhile he had helped to secure the election (1816) of Daniel D. TompkinsTompkins, Daniel D.,
1774–1825, American political figure, Vice President of the United States (1817–25), b. Scarsdale, N.Y. A leader of the Jeffersonian group in New York state, he was elected to Congress in 1804, but he preferred to accept an appointment to the New
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 as Vice President.

Van Buren served (1821–28) in the U.S. Senate, where he firmly backed the tariffs of 1824 and 1828. His record there was inconsistent as to states' rightsstates' rights,
in U.S. history, doctrine based on the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution, which states, "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.
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, slavery, and internal improvements; this wavering was later brought up against him by his political enemies. Van Buren was far more important as a political leader than as a legislator. He organized the closely knit political group known as the Albany RegencyAlbany Regency,
name given, after 1820, to the leaders of the first political machine, which was developed in New York state by Martin Van Buren. The name derived from the charge that Van Buren's principal supporters, residing in Albany, managed the machine for him while he
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 and was a leading supporter of William H. CrawfordCrawford, William Harris,
1772–1834, American statesman, b. Amherst co., Va. (his birthplace is now in Nelson co.). He moved with his parents to South Carolina and later to Georgia. After studying law he practiced at Lexington, Va.
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, who ran for President in 1824. After the election of John Quincy AdamsAdams, John Quincy,
1767–1848, 6th President of the United States (1825–29), b. Quincy (then in Braintree), Mass.; son of John Adams and Abigail Adams and father of Charles Francis Adams (1807–86).
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, Van Buren gradually swung his power to the support of Andrew JacksonJackson, Andrew,
1767–1845, 7th President of the United States (1829–37), b. Waxhaw settlement on the border of South Carolina and North Carolina (both states claim him). Early Career

A child of the backwoods, he was left an orphan at 14.
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A Jacksonian Democrat

Elected (1828) governor of New York state, Van Buren resigned in 1829, after Jackson had become President, to become his Secretary of State. Probably the most influential of Jackson's advisers, Van Buren, although essentially opposed to the doctrine of nullificationnullification,
in U.S. history, a doctrine expounded by the advocates of extreme states' rights. It held that states have the right to declare null and void any federal law that they deem unconstitutional.
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, did not at first take a conspicuous part in the rising hostilities between Vice President John C. CalhounCalhoun, John Caldwell
, 1782–1850, American statesman and political philosopher, b. near Abbeville, S.C., grad. Yale, 1804. He was an intellectual giant of political life in his day. Early Career

Calhoun studied law under Tapping Reeve at Litchfield, Conn.
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 and the President. Van Buren further strengthened his position with Jackson by being courteous to Peggy Eaton (see O'Neill, MargaretO'Neill, Margaret
(Peggy O'Neill), c.1796–1879, wife of John Henry Eaton, U.S. secretary of war under President Andrew Jackson. She was the daughter of a Washington tavern keeper and married John Timberlake, a purser in the U.S. navy.
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). His resignation (1831) as Secretary of State brought about that of the other cabinet officers and enabled Jackson to eliminate the supporters of Calhoun from the cabinet. Jackson immediately appointed Van Buren minister to Great Britain, but the deciding vote of Calhoun in the Senate prevented him from being confirmed in the post.

Thoroughly in accord with Jackson's policies, Van Buren was nominated for Vice President by the Democratic party in 1832 and was elected to office along with President Jackson. It was largely through Jackson's influence that Van Buren was chosen as Democratic candidate for President in 1836. The Whig party was still in the formative stage, and there was no well-organized opposition; Van Buren, therefore, was easily swept into office.


As President, Van Buren announced his intention of following Jackson's policies, but the Panic of 1837 and the hard times that followed brought Van Buren a great deal of unpopularity. To meet the economic crisis, Van Buren, wary of the existing banking system, backed after 1837 the Independent Treasury SystemIndependent Treasury System,
in U.S. history, system for the retaining of government funds in the Treasury and its subtreasuries independently of the national banking and financial systems. In one form or another, it existed from the 1840s to 1921.
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. Not until 1840, however, did Congress pass measures establishing it. In foreign affairs, Van Buren attempted to conciliate differences with Great Britain arising out of the Caroline AffairCaroline Affair.
In 1837 a group of men led by William Lyon Mackenzie rebelled in Upper Canada (now Ontario), demanding a more democratic government. There was much sympathy for their cause in the United States, and a small steamer, the Caroline, owned by U.S.
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 and the Aroostook WarAroostook War,
Feb.–May, 1839, border conflict between the United States and Canada. In 1838, Maine and New Brunswick both claimed territory left undetermined on the U.S.-Canadian border, including the valley of the Aroostook River.
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Later Years

He was again the presidential candidate of the Democratic party in 1840, but he was defeated in the "log cabin and hard cider" campaign by William Henry Harrison. The Whigs unfairly painted Van Buren as a man of great wealth who was ignorant of, and disdainful toward, the common people. In 1844, Van Buren was the leading possibility as Democratic candidate for the presidency, but he flatly opposed the annexation of Texas because he felt it would provoke war with Mexico and because he opposed the extension of slavery. Although he held a majority in the nominating convention, he was unable (largely as a result of the efforts of Robert J. WalkerWalker, Robert John,
1801–69, American public official, b. Northumberland, Pa. A lawyer, he practiced for a time in Pittsburgh. In 1826 he moved to Natchez, Miss. As a Democratic Senator (1836–45) from Mississippi, Walker was an ardent advocate of U.S.
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) to obtain the two-thirds majority necessary to win the nomination. Van Buren, bitterly disappointed, saw James K. PolkPolk, James Knox
, 1795–1849, 11th President of the United States (1845–49), b. Mecklenburg co., N.C. Early Career

His family moved (1806) to the Duck River valley in Tennessee and there, after graduating from the Univ.
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 elected President.

He remained prominent in Democratic party politics, and helped lead the BarnburnersBarnburners,
radical element of the Democratic party in New York state from 1842 to 1848, opposed to the conservative Hunkers. The name derives from the fabled Dutchman who burned his barn to rid it of rats; by implication, the Barnburners would destroy corporations and public
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 in their violent struggle with the HunkersHunkers,
conservative faction of the Democratic party in New York state in the 1840s, so named because they were supposed to "hanker" or "hunker" after office. In opposition to them stood the radical Democrats, or Barnburners.
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. In 1848 he was the presidential candidate of the newly organized Free-Soil partyFree-Soil party,
in U.S. history, political party that came into existence in 1847–48 chiefly because of rising opposition to the extension of slavery into any of the territories newly acquired from Mexico.
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 and managed to take enough New York votes away from the Democratic candidate, Lewis CassCass, Lewis,
1782–1866, American statesman, b. Exeter, N.H. He established (1802) himself as a lawyer in Zanesville, Ohio, became a member (1806) of the state legislature, and was U.S. marshal for Ohio from 1807 to 1812.
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, to aid Zachary TaylorTaylor, Zachary
, 1784–1850, 12th President of the United States (1849–50), b. Orange co., Va. He was raised in Kentucky. Taylor joined the army in 1808, became a captain in 1810, and was promoted to major for his defense of Fort Harrison (1812) in the War of 1812.
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, the Whig party candidate, in winning the election. He voted for the Democratic candidate in the elections of 1852, 1856, and 1860, but supported Abraham Lincoln during the secession crisis. An Inquiry into the Origin and Course of Political Parties of the United States (1867) was written by Van Buren, edited by one of his sons, and published posthumously.


See his autobiography (1920, repr. 1973); biographies by J. Niven (1983) and T. Widmer (2005); R. V. Remini, Martin Van Buren and the Making of the Democratic Party (1959, repr. 1970); J. C. Curtis, The Fox at Bay (1970).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia™ Copyright © 2013, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

Van Buren, Martin

(1782–1862) eighth U.S. president; born in Kinderhook, N.Y. After studying law in a law office, he began a local practice and soon became active in the Democratic-Republican party. He entered the N.Y. state senate (1812–20), concurrently serving as state attorney general from 1816–19. In 1821 he entered the U.S. Senate and in 1828 was elected governor of New York, by which time he was a leader of the so-called Albany Regency. In 1829 he was named secretary of state by President Andrew Jackson, whom Van Buren had staunchly supported with his New York political machine. After effective service in the cabinet, he became Jackson's vice-president and heir apparent (1833–37). Elected president as a Democrat in 1836, Van Buren soon had to deal with the financial panic of 1837, to which he responded with the Independent Treasury Act. Meanwhile he tolerated slavery but opposed its spread into the territories, and he maintained neutrality during the Canadian rebellion of 1837. Two unpopular policies—his refusal to annex Texas and his war against the Seminoles—contributed to his defeat in 1840 by the anti-Jackson Whigs. Van Buren's later political life was marked by several attempts to regain the presidency, but his opposition to the annexation of Texas and then to the spread of slavery left him on the sidelines.
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.
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