Martin Van Buren: Life Before the Presidency

Martin Van Buren: Life Before the Presidency

Martin Van Buren, born on December 5, 1782, was the first American President not born a British subject. Van Buren's non-British ancestry (his parents were Dutch) would break one presidential mold, and his modest upbringing was preceded only by that of Andrew Jackson.

Both of Van Buren's parents, Abraham and Maria, were of pure Dutch extraction. They lived in Kinderhook, New York, a town near Albany that was populated largely by others of similar descent. The Van Burens were a struggling family with six children in the household, Martin being the fourth oldest. His mother had been widowed with three children before marrying his father. Not rich by any means, the Van Burens did own six slaves, which was not unusual for a family in Kinderhook. Politics, though, made the family a living. Abraham owned a tavern and inn frequented by government workers traveling between Albany and New York City. He held the post of town clerk for extra money, and the tavern hosted political meetings or elections. Guests at the tavern, such as Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, offered young Martin his first glimpses of American politics.

Martin attended Kinderhook's one-room schoolhouse until age fourteen—an unusually advanced education for a child whose family needed his labor. Van Buren did not attend college - which was unsurprising for young men in the early nineteenth century - but his father called in a political favor and managed to place his son with a lawyer's office as a law clerk. Martin clerked for seven years, sweeping floors or running errands by day and studying law at night. He moved to New York City—at that time inhabited by 60,000—for about a year, and gained admission to the state bar in 1803 at the age of twenty-one.

Returning to Kinderhook, Van Buren opened his own law practice with his half-brother James Van Allen and achieved considerable success, both financially and in reputation. His clients included the tenants and renters who contested landlords' colonial-era claims to property in New York's Hudson Valley. By siding with the common people instead of the landed elite in these cases, Van Buren participated in - and indeed helped perpetuate - the ferment that helped redefine social and economic relations in the early years of the American Republic.

Savvy Political Choices

In addition to being a lawyer, Van Buren quickly made a name for himself in New York politics. The Federalist Party enjoyed dominance in the Hudson Valley region but Van Buren joined the Democratic-Republicans (who were led by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison), largely, it seems, because his father and his family's friends were Jeffersonians. Van Buren's political party affiliation alienated many friends and colleagues, and he often had to tangle with Federalist judges and lawyers. But he more than held his own, and his party's leaders quickly tagged him as one to watch. Most important, his decision to join the Jeffersonians marked the beginning of a commitment to Jeffersonian principles of limited federal government, defense of individual liberties, and the protection of local and state prerogatives in American politics.

New York state politics in the early years of the nineteenth century were anything but placid, and Van Buren had to navigate among the competing factions that ruled the state's political scene. Two of the nation's most prominent and skilled politicians—DeWitt Clinton and Vice President Aaron Burr—battled during these years for leadership of the Democratic-Republican Party in New York. Van Buren recognized that Burr was a falling star and deflected the Vice President's allies' political entreaties, even while maintaining their friendship. Instead, Van Buren threw his support to Clinton's faction of Democratic-Republicans. The Clintonians awarded Van Buren with a county official's post in 1808. It was during these years, as Van Buren shifted alliances and kept his political intentions and loyalties secret, that his critics labeled him devious and unprincipled.

Love and Leader of the "Bucktails"

In early 1807, while involved in local politics, Van Buren married a young woman he had known all his life named Hanna Hoes. The young couple settled in Hudson, a small town about ten miles from Kinderhook, where Van Buren practiced law; their first of four sons followed about a year later. 1812, Van Buren's courtroom successes enabled him to run for New York's state senate, and he managed a narrow half-percent victory over the Federalist opponent to win the seat.

It was a turbulent time for Van Buren to further his political career. The resurgent Federalist party, which capitalized on the unpopularity of the War of 1812, threatened to overwhelm the Democratic-Republican majority crafted by President Jefferson and his allies. When American fortunes in the war revived in 1814, Federalist power receded, although the party still maintained significant support in New York. Just as distressing to Van Buren were the problems brewing within New York's Democratic-Republican Party. The factional competition that marked the first decade of the nineteenth century only intensified during the 1810s. Van Buren understood that conflict was inevitable, but he feared that incessant, uncontrolled, and destructive in-fighting only weakened New York's Democratic-Republicans and provided a political opening upon which the Federalists might capitalize. He wanted Democratic-Republicans to forgo their personal rivalries and loyalties in favor of unity to party and principles.

Van Buren did not divorce himself from the partisan disputes that marred the Democrat-Republicans. He himself commanded his own faction, the "Bucktails," so named because they wore bucktails (the tails of a deer) on their hats. A collection of allies from Van Buren's region and from the New York state senate, the Bucktails coalesced around a few principles and positions. First, they were committed to the defeat of the Federalists, who the Bucktails feared, sought to establish a strong federal government. Second, they valued, above all else, Jeffersonian ideals and principles. Third, they saw the Democratic-Republican party as indispensable to the defense of Jeffersonian principles and to the defeat of the Federalists. Finally, the Bucktails were unanimous in their dislike of New York's most powerful politician, the Democrat-Republican Dewitt Clinton, whom they found wanting on each of these positions.

Van Buren's battles with Clinton during the 1810s were at the heart of New York state's politics—and sustained Van Buren's reputation for being an unscrupulous political opportunist. After Van Buren won reelection to the state senate in 1816 at the age of thirty-two, he was named New York's attorney general. From this position, Van Buren and the Bucktails struggled unsuccessfully to topple DeWitt Clinton. When the hard-edged party chief won New York's governorship in 1817, he began to dismiss all Bucktail appointees in the state's government. Van Buren held onto his attorney general post for another two years until 1819, then lost it to the Clinton forces.

By this time, Van Buren's wife, Hannah, was suffering from tuberculosis. She died in early 1819, leaving Van Buren a widower with four sons to raise. In the midst of this personal tragedy, he forged ahead with his political agenda of unifying the Democratic-Republican party, defending Jeffersonian principles, and defeating Clinton. Rallying his allies, Van Buren forced the removal of key Clinton political appointees and played a key role at the New York constitutional convention in 1821. These efforts strengthened Van Buren's position among New York's Democratic-Republicans, and by 1820 he headed a party machine known—by its enemies—as the "Albany Regency."

Politically powerful and at the head of a potent organization, Van Buren won election to the United States Senate in 1821. Despite moving to Washington, D.C., to serve in the Senate, he maintained control of the Albany Regency. The power of this party organization, combined with Van Buren's political acuity, made him an influential senator in short order. Just as important, Van Buren brought to Washington an appreciation—earned during his political apprenticeship in New York—of the advantages that a well-organized and ideologically unified party held in the political arena.

A Washington Politico

In the Senate, Van Buren served on the finance committee and chaired the judiciary committee. He brought his pro-states' rights, Jeffersonian commitment to limited government to the major issues of the day, the tariff and internal improvements. He consistently opposed federally financed internal improvements, While suspicious of the tariff, Van Buren refused to oppose it outright, recognizing that even some Jeffersonians supported a protectionist trade policy in certain cases.

On these issues and a host of others, Van Buren, much to his consternation, found the Democratic-Republican party split into different factions. He sought to bridge these divides and build a cohesive party consonant with Jeffersonian and anti-Federalist political ideals. Van Buren recognized the difficulty of unifying this fractious collection of Democratic-Republicans—each member had his own political views and, more important, his own constituencies and alliances to maintain—but he nonetheless reached out to potential allies, even the prickly Senator John Calhoun of South Carolina.

In 1824, Van Buren supported Secretary of the Treasury William Crawford of Georgia for the presidency largely because Crawford shared his Jeffersonian political beliefs. Crawford fared poorly in the election, finishing a distant third in the electoral college. Neither of the two leading candidates, Andrew Jackson or John Quincy Adams, though, had enough electoral votes to claim the presidency. The election went to the House of Representatives where the fourth place finisher, Senator Henry Clay, threw his votes to Adams, who won the presidency. Jackson's supporters were outraged - they believed that a "corrupt bargain" between Adams and Clay had cost their man the White House - and vowed to win the 1828 election.

Van Buren was just as distressed as Jackson's supporters, believing that Adams was a Federalist in all but name and deploring the new President's intention to strengthen the federal government's hand in economic development. In the Senate, Van Buren led the opposition to the Adams administration. He also threw his support to Jackson and began working for his election in 1828, bringing together the anti-Adams factions of the Democratic-Republicans under Jackson's standard. The Jackson-Van Buren coalition, seeking a return to the Jeffersonian policies of minimalist federal government and the protection of local and state concerns, marked the very beginnings of the Democratic Party.

In the 1828 presidential election, Van Buren's work in support of Jackson among Democratic-Republicans, paid off when Jackson defeated Adams. The contest was notable both for its vitriol and its massive turn-out—800,000 more voters went to the polls in 1828 than in 1824. This surge in participation had several sources, especially Jackson's popularity and charisma (he was a war hero with the memorable nickname of "Old Hickory") and the passage of laws in a few key states that enfranchised more Americans. Just as important, though, were the concerted efforts of Democratic-Republican leaders—like Van Buren—to turn out the vote. A new era in American politics, one dominated by political parties—was dawning.

That same year, Van Buren also won the New York gubernatorial election. It was a position he would hold only for a few weeks because the newly elected President asked Van Buren to join his cabinet as secretary of state. Van Buren resigned his governorship and returned to Washington, accepting an appointment that would further catapult him into the national political scene.

Battles to Succeed President Jackson

Jackson's two terms as President were some of the most contentious and eventful years in the history of American politics. During the first term, the coalition that lined up in support of Jackson became the Democratic Party. While unified in name, they hardly were in practice. Vicious in-fighting broke out among Jackson's supporters, with Secretary of State Van Buren heading up one bloc and Vice President John Calhoun the other. The disagreements ranged from the political to the personal. In the latter, the Peggy Eaton affair took center stage. The scandal pitted Washington's elite against Peggy O'Neill, a woman from humble beginnings who had married Jackson's Secretary of War John Eaton. Her social status and the possibility that she may have begun her relationship with Eaton while still married to her first husband spread rapidly through the capital's gossip network. Virtually all of Washington's elite snubbed Peggy O'Neill Eaton, especially Vice President Calhoun's wife.

Van Buren, however, did not follow suit and instead invited the Eatons to social engagements. Jackson, whose own late wife Rachel had suffered personal attacks at the hands of her husband's opponents and enemies in the 1824 and 1828 campaigns—in fact, he blamed her death in 1828 on these attacks—sided with Eaton and his new bride. He appreciated Van Buren's kindness towards the couple.

At the same time, however, the conflict between Van Buren and Calhoun arouse from more weighty, political matters. Calhoun and his supporters took an extreme states' rights position that outpaced even Van Buren's own fear of a centralized, powerful national government. It was Van Buren, after all, who helped Jackson prepare his simple rejoinder ("The Union: it must be preserved") to Calhoun's states' rights position at the annual Jefferson Day dinner in 1830. The dinner confrontation was only the beginning of an almost three year controversy over South Carolina's claim that it could nullify federal tariffs and, in effect, defy the federal government. The case quickly turned into a debate on states' rights. Calhoun led the South Carolina nullifiers, while Van Buren helped shape the Jackson administration's position declaring South Carolina's defiance unconstitutional.

The tensions within the cabinet were so debilitating that Jackson began to rely on an informal "Kitchen Cabinet" of advisers, a group who played a key role in articulating what became known as Jacksonian ideology. Not surprisingly, Van Buren was a member of the Kitchen Cabinet. He drafted the most important, early statement of this ideology—the Maysville Road Bill veto—which outlined objections to federally financed internal improvements. But the discord in the Jackson administration soon proved too much. In the spring of 1831, Van Buren designed a plan in which he (and Eaton) would resign from the Cabinet, allowing Jackson to ask for resignations from the rest of the Cabinet. Jackson would then be able to appoint a cabinet comprised of his allies.

Jackson agreed, with some reluctance, to Van Buren's plan and reorganized his cabinet. He then appointed Van Buren the American minister to England in the late summer of 1831. Van Buren spent only six months in England as the Senate, in January 1832, refused to confirm his appointment by one vote - a ballot cast by Vice President John Calhoun. Van Buren returned to the United States later that spring. But his rejection at the hands of the Senate only secured the alliance between Van Buren and the President. Jackson selected him as his running-mate for the 1832 election, which the President won quite handily.

Much of Van Buren's energies during his vice presidency were focused on Jackson's epic battle with the Second Bank of the United States. This institution had sole right to regulate the issuance of paper currency and credit rates, and Jackson thought its immense powers benefited the privileged few to the disadvantage of many Americans. When the Bank's president, Nicholas Biddle, successfully petitioned Congress for the Bank's recharter, Jackson vetoed the bill in July 1832. The veto ignited "the Bank War," pitting President Jackson against pro-Bank Senator Henry Clay, his allies in Congress, and Biddle, that marked much of Jackson's second term. The president successfully resisted the pro-Bank forces' efforts to have him sign the recharter bill. Moreover, Jackson weakened the Bank by withdrawing federal funds it held and placing them in a network of smaller state banks (called "pet banks"). While Van Buren had grave reservations about the soundness of this decision, fearing it would ignite a political firestorm (which it did), he went along with the President. The popular Jackson eventually prevailed in the crisis, largely because of the clumsy political maneuvering of Clay and Biddle.

The Bank War helped crystallize the emerging party structure that would dominate American politics for the next two decades. Jackson's antagonists—known as "the Opposition"—organized in 1833. This coalition of national Republicans included anti-Masons, ex-Jacksonians, supporters of Senator John Calhoun, and figures such as ex-President Adams and Senator Henry Clay, and began to call themselves the Whigs in 1834. The Whig Party drew its energy and coherence, at least initially, from its opposition to "King Andrew," as they derisively labeled Jackson, who they warned would do nothing less than overturn the chief victory of the American Revolution: republican, self-government.

At the same time, the Democratic Party during Jackson's second term became a more ideologically coherent and unified organization. Since his arrival in Washington in 1822, Van Buren had sought the creation of such an organization—even if he could not have predicted the development of the Democratic Party—and he had played a signal role in its accomplishment. He then went into the 1836 election as Jackson's chosen heir and with the support of a powerful Democratic party. But Van Buren also confronted a Whig party—which he, Jackson, and the Democrats unwittingly had helped create—eager to defeat him.