Martin Van Buren (1782-1862), eighth president of the United States, has been called the first national politician. He built an alliance between the "plain Republicans of the North" and the planters of the South and then launched the first truly national party.
Martin Van Buren executed with distinction the duties of many of the highest offices of the nation, including that of president, but he was always regarded more as a politician than a statesman. Considered a shrewd manipulator, he was consistent in advocating the principles of Jeffersonian Republicanism as defined in the Jacksonian democracy.
Born on Dec. 5, 1782, in the village of Kinderhook, N.Y., Van Buren was the son of a farmer and tavern keeper who was active in Antifederalist politics. Martin worked on the farm and attended local schools. At the age of 14 he became a clerk in a law office in Kinderhook and then in an office in New York City. Beginning in 1803, he prospered in law practice in Kinderhook with his half brother. In 1807 he married Hannah Hoes, and they had four sons. His wife died in 1819, and he never remarried.
Van Buren was elected to the New York Senate in 1813 and 2 years later became attorney general. By the early 1820s he was leader of the organization that controlled government in New York for many years. He advocated moderate reforms in extending democracy. In 1821 he supported the virtual elimination of the property qualification for white manhood suffrage, but also the provision by which only black Americans who possessed freeholds of the clear value of $150 could vote.
In 1821 Van Buren was elected to the U.S. Senate and became a leader there. He supported Andrew Jackson in 1828 and resigned the governorship of New York to become Jackson's secretary of state. In that office Van Buren reached agreement with Great Britain, opening up its West Indian possessions to American trade, and secured payment from France for commercial injuries during the Napoleonic Wars.
In 1831 Van Buren resigned his office to allow the President to reconstitute the Cabinet. He was named minister to Great Britain, but this was not confirmed by the Senate. In 1832 he was elected vice president, and during the following 4 years he supported Jackson in all of his battles. In 1836 he received his party's nomination for president and was elected easily.
In his inaugural address Van Buren observed that he was the first president who had not lived through the revolutionary struggle that created the nation and that he could not "expect his countrymen to weigh my actions with the same kind and partial hand." They did not. He condemned abolitionist propaganda and spoke against the "slightest interference" with slavery "in the states where it exists." In rhetoric common during those years, he said that Americans were without parallel throughout the world "in all the attributes of a great, happy, and flourishing people." Two months after his inauguration, however, a serious economic depression destroyed his popularity. He continued Jacksonian policies, trying to "mitigate the evils" which the banks produced and advocating an independent treasury for public funds, a measure enacted near the end of his term. In foreign affairs he had difficulty maintaining good relations with Great Britain because of the efforts of some Americans on the New York border to support the rebellion in Canada in 1837. He made no effort to annex Texas.
Van Buren was badly beaten in 1840 by the aging William Henry Harrison and retired to his farm at Kinderhook. Van Buren would undoubtedly have been the Democratic nominee in 1844 had not Texas become the dominant issue by that year. In the atmosphere of "manifest destiny" his views were not sufficiently expansionist, and although he had a majority of the votes at the party convention, he lacked the two-thirds required. The dark horse, James K. Polk, was nominated and elected, and he led the nation into aggressive war and territorial expansion.
Increasing Southern domination of the Democratic party drove Van Buren and his faction into opposition in 1848. In that year's election he was the candidate of the Free Soil party, opposing expansion of slavery. In New York, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire he received more votes than the Democratic candidate, but he carried no states and Zachary Taylor won the election for the Whigs.
Van Buren lost the support of the antislavery movement when he returned to the Democratic party in the 1850s. Without much enthusiasm he supported Franklin Pierce (1852), James Buchanan (1856), and Stephen A. Douglas (1860). But when the Civil War came, he supported Abraham Lincoln's government. Van Buren died on July 24, 1862.
Van Buren's remarkable political success was due to a combination of talents. He habitually thought in terms of political forces and was fertile in conceiving, and able in executing, plans to weaken the opposition and advance his own party. He wrote persuasively and was a good speaker. He was charming, cheerful, and always courteous and affable. Although an earnest advocate of his party's principles, he was essentially a moderate in government. On all the important issues of his time except the one which was most crucial, Van Buren played an important role; he vacillated on issues related to slavery and made no contribution toward resolving that problem.
Van Buren's Autobiography, edited by his sons, was republished in 1969. George Bancroft, historian and contemporary Democratic politician, wrote a laudatory life of Van Buren in the early 1840s that was published half a century later: Martin Van Buren to the End of His Public Career (1889). The best life is Edward M. Shepard, Martin Van Buren (1888; rev. ed. 1900), although written without some materials now available and occasionally dogmatic in its interpretations. There is no satisfactory modern biography.
An excellent scholarly monograph that critically assesses Van Buren's overall performance as president is James C. Curtis, The Fox at Bay: Martin Van Buren and the Presidency, 1837-1841 (1970). Robert V. Remini, who wrote a good study of Van Buren's career during the 1820s—Martin Van Buren and the Making of the Democratic Party (1959)—is at work on a comprehensive biography. Van Buren's election to the presidency is detailed in Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., ed., History of American Presidential Elections (4 vols., 1971).