Martin Van Buren - Eighth President of the United States

Detailed, close up oil portrait of Martin Van Buren later in life.

Daderot after George Peter Alexander Healy/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 1.0

Martin Van Buren's Childhood and Education:

Martin Van Buren was born on December 5, 1782 in Kinderhook, New York. He was of Dutch ancestry and grew up in relative poverty. He worked at his father's tavern and attended a small local school. He was finished with with formal education by the age of 14. He then studied law and was admitted to the bar in 1803.

Family Ties:

Van Buren was the son of Abraham, a farmer and tavern keeper, and Maria Hoes Van Alen, a widow with three children. He had one half-sister and half-brother along with two sisters, Dirckie and Jannetje and two brothers, Lawrence and Abraham. On February 21, 1807, Van Buren married Hannah Hoes, a distant relative to his mother. She died in 1819 at 35, and he did not remarry. Together they had four children: Abraham, John, Martin, Jr., and Smith Thompson. 

Martin Van Buren's Career Before the Presidency:

Van Buren became a lawyer in 1803. In 1812, he was elected a New York State Senator. He was then elected to the US Senate in 1821. He worked while Senator to support Andrew Jackson in the Election of 1828. He held the seat of New York Governor for only three months in 1829 before becoming Jackson's Secretary of State (1829-31). He was Jackson's Vice President during his second term (1833-37).

Election of 1836:

Van Buren was unanimously nominated to be President by the Democrats. Richard Johnson was his Vice Presidential nominee. He was not opposed by a single candidate. Instead, the newly created Whig Party came up with a strategy to throw the election into the House where they felt they could have a better chance of winning. They chose three candidates who they felt could do well in particular regions. Van Buren won 170 out of 294 electoral votes to win the presidency.

Events and Accomplishments of Martin Van Buren's Presidency:

Van Buren's administration began with a depression that lasted from 1837 until 1845 called the Panic of 1837. Over 900 banks eventually closed and many people went unemployed. To combat this, Van Buren fought for an Independent Treasury to help ensure the safe deposit of funds.

Contributing to his failure to be elected to a second term, the public blamed Van Buren’s domestic policies for the 1837 depression, Newspapers hostile to his presidency referred to him as “Martin Van Ruin.”  

Issues arose with British held Canada during Van Buren's time in office. One such event was the so-called "Aroostook War" of 1839. This nonviolent conflict arose over thousands of miles where the Maine/Canadian border had no defined boundary. When a Maine authority tried to send Canadians out of the region, militias were called forward. Van Buren was able to make peace through General Winfield Scott before fighting began.

Texas applied for statehood after gaining independence in 1836. If admitted, it would have become another pro-slavery state which was opposed by the Northern states. Van Buren, wishing to help fight against sectional slavery issues, agreed with the North. Also, he continued Jackson's policies concerning the Seminole Native Americans. In 1842, the Second Seminole War ended with the Seminoles being defeated.

Post Presidential Period:

Van Buren was defeated for reelection by William Henry Harrison in 1840. He tried again in 1844 and 1848 but lost both of those elections. He then decided to retire from public life in New York. However, he did serve as a presidential elector for both Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan. He also endorsed Stephen Douglas over Abraham Lincoln. He died on July 2, 1862 of heart failure.

Historical Significance:

Van Buren can be considered an average president. While his time in office was not marked by many "major" events, the Panic of 1837 ultimately led to the creation of an independent Treasury. His stance helped avoid open conflict with Canada. Further, his decision to maintain sectional balance delayed admitting Texas to the Union until 1845.

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Kelly, Martin. "Martin Van Buren - Eighth President of the United States." ThoughtCo, Dec. 27, 2022, Kelly, Martin. (2022, December 27). Martin Van Buren - Eighth President of the United States. Retrieved from Kelly, Martin. "Martin Van Buren - Eighth President of the United States." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 29, 2023).