Martin Van Buren: Significant Facts and Brief Biography

Engraved portrait of President Martin Van Buren
President Marin Van Buren.

Kean Collection / Getty Images

Martin Van Buren was a political genius from New York, sometimes called "The Little Magician," whose greatest accomplishment may have been building the coalition that made Andrew Jackson president. Elected to the nation's highest office after Jackson's two terms, Van Buren faced a looming financial crisis and was generally unsuccessful as president.

He tried to return to the White House at least twice, and he remains a fascinating and influential character in American politics.

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Eighth President of the United States

Born: December 5, 1782, Kinderhook, New York.
Died: July 24, 1862, Kinderhook, New York, at the age of 79.

Martin Van Buren was the first American president born after the colonies declared their independence from Britain and became the United States.

To put the span of Van Buren's life in perspective, he could recall that as a young man he had stood several feet away from Alexander Hamilton, who was giving a speech in New York City. The youthful Van Buren was also acquainted with Hamilton's enemy (and eventual killer) Aaron Burr.

Near the end of his life, on the eve of the Civil War, Van Buren publicly expressed his support for Abraham Lincoln, whom he had met years earlier on a trip to Illinois.

Presidential term: March 4, 1837 - March 4, 1841

Van Buren was elected president in 1836, following the two terms of Andrew Jackson. As Van Buren was generally considered to be a successor picked by Jackson, it was expected at the time that he would also be an influential president.

In reality, Van Buren's term in office was marked by difficulty, frustration, and failure. The United States suffered a great economic disruption, the Panic of 1837, which was partly rooted in Jackson's economic policies. Perceived as Jackson's political heir, Van Buren took the blame. He faced criticism from Congress and the public, and he lost to the Whig candidate William Henry Harrison when he ran for a second term in the election of 1840.

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Political Accomplishments

Van Buren's greatest political accomplishment occurred a decade before his presidency: He organized the Democratic Party in the mid-1820s, before the election of 1828 brought Andrew Jackson to power.

In many ways the organizational structure Van Buren brought to national party politics set the template for the American political system we know today. In the 1820s the earlier political parties, such as the Federalists, had essentially faded away. And Van Buren realized that political power could be harnessed by a tightly disciplined party structure.

As a New Yorker, Van Buren might have seemed like an unusual ally for Tennessee's Andrew Jackson, the hero of the Battle of New Orleans and the political champion of the common man. Yet Van Buren understood that a party which brought together different regional factions around a strong personality such as Jackson would likely be influential.

The organizing Van Buren did for Jackson and the new Democratic Party in the mid-1820s, following Jackson's loss in the bitter election of 1824, essentially created a lasting template for political parties in America.

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Supporters and Opponents

Van Buren's political base was rooted in New York State, in the "The Albany Regency," a prototypical political machine which dominated the state for decades.

The political skills honed in the cauldron of Albany politics gave Van Buren a natural advantage when forging a national alliance between northern working people and southern planters. To some degree, Jacksonian party politics rose from Van Buren's personal experience in New York State. (And the spoils system often associated with the Jackson years was inadvertently given its distinctive name by another New York politician, Senator William Marcy.)

As Van Buren was closely allied with Andrew Jackson, Jackson's many opponents were also opposed to Van Buren. Throughout the 1820s and 1830s Van Buren was often attacked in political cartoons.

There were even entire books written attacking Van Buren. A 200-page political attack published in 1835, supposedly written by the frontiersman turned politician Davy Crockett, characterized Van Buren as "secret, sly, selfish, cold, calculating, distrustful."

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Personal Life and Education

Van Buren married Hannah Hoes on February 21, 1807, in Catskill, New York. They would have four sons. Hannah Hoes Van Buren died in 1819, and Van Buren never remarried. He was thus a widower during his term as president.

Van Buren went to a local school for several years as a child, but left at about the age of 12. He gained a practical legal education by working for a local lawyer in Kinderhook as a teenager.

Van Buren grew up fascinated by politics. As a child he would listen to political news and gossip relayed in the small tavern his father operated in the village of Kinderhook.

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Career Highlights

Engraved portrait of elderly Martin Van Buren
Martin Van Buren in his later years. Getty Images

In 1801, at the age of 18 Van Buren traveled to New York City, where he worked for a lawyer, William Van Ness, whose family was influential in Van Buren's hometown.

The connection with Van Ness, who was closely allied to the political operations of Aaron Burr, was extremely beneficial to Van Buren. (William Van Ness was a witness to the infamous Hamilton-Burr duel.)

While still in his teens, Van Buren was exposed to the highest levels of politics in New York City. It was later said that Van Buren learned much through his connections with Burr.

In later years, efforts to link Van Buren to Burr became outrageous. Rumors were even spread that Van Buren was Burr's illegitimate son.

After his difficult term as president, Van Buren ran for reelection in the election of 1840, losing to William Henry Harrison. Four years later, Van Buren tried to recapture the presidency, but failed to be nominated at the 1844 Democratic convention. That convention resulted in James K. Polk becoming the first dark horse candidate.

In 1848 Van Buren once again ran for president, as the candidate of the Free-Soil Party, which was composed mostly of anti-slavery members of the Whig Party. Van Buren received no electoral votes, though the votes he received (especially in New York) may have swayed the election. The Van Buren candidacy kept votes from going to Democratic candidate Lewis Cass, thus ensuring victory for Whig candidate Zachary Taylor.

In 1842 Van Buren had traveled to Illinois and was introduced to a young man with political ambitions, Abraham Lincoln. Van Buren's hosts had enlisted Lincoln, who was known as a good teller of local tales, to entertain the former president. Years later, Van Buren said he recalled laughing at Lincoln's stories.

As the Civil War began, Van Buren was approached by another former president, Franklin Pierce, to approach Lincoln and seek some peaceful resolution to the conflict. Van Buren considered Pierce's proposal unseemly. He refused to participate in any such effort and indicated his support for Lincoln's policies.

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Unusual Facts

"The Little Magician," which referred both to his height and great political skills, was a common nickname for Van Buren. And he had a number of other nicknames, including "Matty Van" and "Ol' Kinderhook," which some say led to the word "okay" entering the English language.

Van Buren was the only American president who did not speak English as his first language. Growing up in a Dutch enclave in New York State, Van Buren's family spoke Dutch and Van Buren learned English as his second language when he was a child.

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Death and Legacy

Van Buren died at his home in Kinderhook, New York, and his funeral was held in a local cemetery. He was 79 years old, and the cause of death was ascribed to chest ailments.

President Lincoln, feeling respect and perhaps a kinship for Van Buren, issued orders for a period of mourning that exceeded the basic formalities. Military observances, including the ceremonial firing of cannon, occurred in Washington. And all U.S. Army and Navy officers wore black crepe armbands on their left arms for six months after Van Buren's death in tribute to the late president.

The legacy of Martin Van Buren is essentially the political party system of the United States. The work he did for Andrew Jackson in organizing the Democratic Party in the 1820s created a template which has endured to the present day.

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McNamara, Robert. "Martin Van Buren: Significant Facts and Brief Biography." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, McNamara, Robert. (2023, April 5). Martin Van Buren: Significant Facts and Brief Biography. Retrieved from McNamara, Robert. "Martin Van Buren: Significant Facts and Brief Biography." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 29, 2023).