Only about 5 feet, 6 inches tall, but trim and erect, Martin Van Buren dressed fastidiously. His impeccable appearance belied his amiability and his humble background. Of Dutch descent, he was born in 1782, the son of a tavernkeeper and farmer, in Kinderhook, New York.
As a young lawyer he became involved in New York politics. As leader of the "Albany Regency," an effective New York political organization, he shrewdly dispensed public offices and bounty in a fashion calculated to bring votes, and in 1821 was elected to the United States Senate.
By 1827, he had emerged as the principal northern champion of Andrew Jackson.
President Jackson rewarded him by appointing him secretary of state. As the cabinet members appointed at Vice President Calhoun's recommendation began to demonstrate only secondary loyalty to Jackson, Van Buren emerged as the president's most trusted adviser. Jackson referred to him as "a true man with no guile."
The rift in the cabinet became serious because of Jackson's differences with Calhoun, a presidential aspirant. Van Buren suggested a way out of an eventual impasse: he and Secretary of War Eaton resigned, encouraging the Calhoun men to also resign. Jackson appointed a new cabinet, and sought to reward Van Buren by appointing him minister to Great Britain. Calhoun, as president of the Senate, cast the deciding vote against the appointment and made a martyr of Van Buren. The "Little Magician" was elected vice president on the Jackson ticket in 1832, and won the presidency in 1836.
Van Buren devoted his Inaugural Address to a discourse upon the American experiment as an example to the rest of the world. The country was prosperous, but less than three months later came the panic of 1837. Basically the trouble was the 19th-century cyclical economy of "boom and bust," which was following its regular pattern, but Jackson's financial measures contributed to the crash. His destruction of the Second Bank of the United States had removed restrictions upon the inflationary practices of some state banks; wild speculation in lands, based on easy bank credit, had swept the West. To end this speculation, Jackson in 1836 had issued a Specie Circular requiring that lands be purchased with hard money, gold, or silver.
When the panic began, hundreds of banks and businesses failed. Thousands of Americans lost their lands. For about five years, the United States was wracked by the worst depression thus far in its history. Programs applied decades later to alleviate economic crisis eluded both Van Buren and his opponents. Van Buren's remedy continuing Jackson's deflationary policies only deepened and prolonged the depression.
Declaring that the panic was due to recklessness in business and overexpansion of credit, Van Buren devoted himself to maintaining the solvency of the national government. He opposed not only the creation of a new Bank of the United States but also the placing of government funds in state banks. He fought for the establishment of an independent treasury system to handle government transactions. As for federal aid to internal improvements, he cut off expenditures so completely that the government was compelled to sell even the tools it had used on public works.
Inclined more and more to oppose the expansion of slavery, Van Buren blocked the annexation of Texas because it assuredly would add to slave territory and might bring war with Mexico.
Defeated by the Whigs in 1840 for reelection, he was an unsuccessful candidate for president on the Free Soil ticket in 1848. He died in 1862.
You Might Also Like
Collection The First Ladies
Biographies & Portraits
Podcast The White House in the Age of Eisenhower
President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s White House helped set the tone for an era of peace, economic prosperity, and technological ad...
Collection The Historic Stephen Decatur House
In 1816 the naval war hero, Commodore Stephen Decatur, Jr., and his wife, Susan, moved to the nascent capital city of...
Podcast Back to Basics - White House History with David Rubenstein
In this special episode of The 1600 Sessions, we turn the tables on our podcast’s usual format. Financier and philanthropist Da...
Collection By Land, By Sea, By Air
Whether by hoof, air, waterway, road, or rail, the President’s access to reliable transportation is essential during their time in...
Podcast Life at Camp David
Camp David has provided presidents and their families with a recreational retreat from the White House, as well as a...
Collection Presidential Pastimes
Although the presidency is an often all-consuming job, many presidents have found solace in their various hobbies and pastimes. When...
Collection Slavery in the President's Neighborhood
Many people think of the White House as a symbol of democracy, but it also embodies America’s complicated past an...
Collection A Tour of the White House
In 1961, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy resolved to make the White House a “living museum” by restoring the historic integrity of the...
Podcast The White House Gardens
The White House includes 18 acres of historic grounds and gardens that have been cultivated for more than two hundred years...
Collection The 2016 White House Christmas Ornament
Every year since 1981, the White House Historical Association has had the privilege of designing the Official White House Christmas Ornament....
Collection Presidents & Baseball
No sport is more closely tied to the American presidency than baseball. One of Washington’s first baseball fields was lo...