Martin Van Buren was the 8th President of the United States, serving from 1837 to 1841. He was a Democrat and was a leading figure in the Jacksonian Era of American politics. In this lesson, you’ll learn more about President Van Buren’s career and accomplishments.

Introduction

Though he is largely unknown today, President Martin Van Buren left a significant stamp on American politics in the mid nineteenth century. He was both a Vice President and Secretary of State under Andrew Jackson, and he was a major player in the development, growth, and success of the Democratic Party in the 1830s.

Van Buren was born in New York in 1782. He did not come from a family of extravagant means; his father was an innkeeper, a farmer, and a slave owner. Van Buren spent many of his adolescent years studying law, and he became a lawyer in 1803 when he was admitted to the New York State bar. He married Hannah Hoes in 1807; she died several years later in 1819. She was his first and only wife.

Political Rise

In 1812, Van Buren took his first elected office when he became a State Senator in New York. He was already connected with Democrats in New York and was fast becoming an important player in state politics. Within several years, Van Buren was a leader of the Bucktails, a political network within the New York Democratic Party. The interconnected network of the Bucktails was an early form of the spoils system, featuring government jobs as rewards for political loyalty.

Van Buren soon entered the national stage, becoming a United States Senator from New York in 1821. As a Senator, Van Buren altered his positions over time. He came to embrace political positions championed by Andrew Jackson, who failed to win the presidency in 1824. By the 1828 election, Van Buren was firmly in Jackson’s camp. When Jackson won the presidency, it was a good sign for Van Buren’s future. That same year, Van Buren was elected the governor of New York, a position he would not hold for long.

When Jackson became president, Van Buren quickly rose to a prime spot in the new chief executive’s cabinet. Jackson made Van Buren his Secretary of State, a tremendously powerful and important post.

During the turbulent Jackson administration, Van Buren was able to navigate many pitfalls that could have hurt his relationship with the president. During the Petticoat Affair, when the wives and members of Jackson’s cabinet turned against Peggy Eaton, the wife of Secretary of War John Eaton, Van Buren remained cordial to Mrs. Eaton, further endearing him to the president. During Jackson’s other, more serious political fights, Van Buren supported the chief executive as well.

In 1832, when Jackson was up for re-election, Van Buren was chosen by the Democrats and Jackson to be the nominee for Vice President. Jackson won re-election that year, and Van Buren was elevated to the second-highest office in the land. This further cemented his link to Jackson and his agenda, as well as his standing as a leading figure in the Democratic Party.

This close relationship with Jackson paid off handsomely once again for Van Buren in 1836 when Jackson decided that Van Buren should succeed him to the presidency. Jackson’s blessing, Van Buren’s political connections in the party, and his status as Vice President made him an obvious choice for the Democrats.

President Martin Van Buren
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President of the United States

The 1836 election was one of the more strange and bizarre contests in American history. While Van Buren was the nominee of a national party, the only national opposition, the nascent Whig Party, did not put forward a single candidate, but several regional ones. The Whigs wanted to split the national vote, deny Van Buren the necessary majority in the Electoral College, and have the election decided in the U.S. House of Representatives. Their strategy failed horribly, and Van Buren was elected the 8th President of the United States.

During his presidency, Van Buren dealt both with Jackson’s legacy and national troubles. The Panic of 1837 hit during his first year in office, plunging the country into an economic depression. Van Buren tried to promote lower tariffs, which was popular in the South but did little to alleviate the financial pains of the nation. He attempted to calm sectional tensions when he denied Texas admission into the Union, deviating from Jackson’s legacy in doing so. Van Buren began a conflict with the Seminoles in Florida, known as the Second Seminole War, and his policies led to the famed Trail of Tears, which occurred when Native Americans were forcibly removed from their lands in the Southeast.

While he was from New York, Van Buren showed himself to be an ally of slave holders in the South during his presidency. He publicly sided with Spain in the Amistad case regarding several escaped slaves who killed the crew of the Spanish slave ship while the ship was on its way to America.

Ultimately, however, it was the economy that most troubled Van Buren. Whigs cunningly nicknamed him ‘Martin Van Ruin,’ and the economic malaise was placed on his shoulders. In 1840, the Whigs ran one national candidate. William Henry Harrison was a War of 1812 hero who was much beloved, and he was elected the 9th President of the United States, defeating Van Buren and the Democrats.

Post-Presidency and Quote

Van Buren would run for the presidency again in 1844, but failed to win the Democratic nomination. In 1848, he was nominated by the Free Soil Party, but lost to Zachary Taylor. He died in July 1862 at the age of 79.

Van Buren’s life and legacy remind us today of the nation’s complex and difficult politics in the first half of the nineteenth century. He was the heir to the throne of Andrew Jackson’s legacy, but economic malaise and domestic troubles plagued his administration, making him a one term president who nonetheless had a big impact on early American politics. Perhaps Van Buren’s presidency is best summarized by some of his own words:

‘As to the presidency, the two happiest days of my life were those of my entrance upon the office and my surrender of it.’

Learning Outcomes

When you are done with this lesson, you’ll be ready to:

  • Describe the early years of Martin Van Buren
  • Identify the rise of Van Buren in politics
  • Determine how important Van Buren was to President Jackson
  • Discuss Van Buren’s years as president
  • Recognize the events that doomed Van Buren’s reelection