Sunday, December 5, 2010

Today is the 228th birthday of President Martin Van Buren

Martin Van Buren: Sir, thank you for serving as Secretary of State, Vice-President then President from 1837-1841, you were not one of the most popular presidents but thank you for serving these positions, happy 228th birthday!

Martin Van Buren
He is the eighth President of the United States, serving from 1837 to 1841. Before his presidency, he was the eighth Vice President (1833–1837) and the 10th Secretary of State under Andrew Jackson (1829–1831). He was a key organizer of the Democratic Party, a dominant figure in the Second Party System, and the first president not of British descent—his family was Dutch. He was the first president to be born an American citizen, his predecessors having been born British subjects before the American Revolution. He is also the only president not to have spoken English as his first language, having grown up speaking Dutch,and the first president from New York.

Van Buren was the third president to serve only one term, after John Adams and his son, John Quincy Adams. He also was one of the central figures in developing modern political organizations. As Andrew Jackson's Secretary of State and then Vice President, he was a key figure in building the organizational structure for Jacksonian democracy, particularly in New York State. However, as a president, his administration was largely characterized by the economic hardship of his time, the Panic of 1837. Between the bloodless Aroostook War and the Caroline Affair, relations with Britain and its colonies in Canada also proved to be strained. Whether or not these were directly his fault, Van Buren was voted out of office after four years, with a close popular vote but a rout in the electoral vote. In 1848, he ran for president on a third-party ticket, the Free Soil Party.

Martin Van Buren is one of only two people, the other being Thomas Jefferson, to serve as Secretary of State, Vice President and President.

In December 1829, Jackson had already made known his own wish that Van Buren receive the nomination. In April 1831, Van Buren resigned from his secretary of state position as a result of the Petticoat affair—though he did not leave office until June. Van Buren still played a part in the Kitchen Cabinet. In August 1831, he was appointed minister to the Court of St. James's (United Kingdom), and he arrived in London in September. He was cordially received, but in February, he learned that his nomination had been rejected by the Senate on January 25, 1832. The rejection, ostensibly attributed in large part to Van Buren's instructions to Louis McLane, the American minister to the United Kingdom, regarding the opening of the West Indies trade, in which reference had been made to the results of the election of 1828, was the work of Calhoun, the vice-president. When the vote was taken, enough of the majority refrained from voting to produce a tie and give Calhoun his longed-for "vengeance." No greater impetus than this could have been given to Van Buren's candidacy for the vice-presidency.

After a brief tour on through Europe, Van Buren reached New York on July 5, 1832. The 1832 Democratic National Convention, the party's first and held in May, had nominated him for vice-president on the Jackson ticket, despite the strong opposition to him which existed in many states. Van Buren's platform included supporting the expansion of the naval system. His declarations during the campaign were vague regarding the tariff and unfavorable to the United States Bank and to nullification, but he had already somewhat placated the South by denying the right of Congress to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia without the consent of the slave states.

Presidency 1837–1841

Martin Van Buren announced his intention "to follow in the footsteps of his illustrious predecessor", and retained all but one of Jackson's cabinet. Van Buren had few economic tools to deal with the Panic of 1837. Van Buren advocated lower tariffs and free trade, and by doing so maintained support of the South for the Democratic Party. He succeeded in setting up a system of bonds for the national debt. His party was so split that his 1837 proposal for an "Independent Treasury" system did not pass until 1840. It gave the Treasury control of all federal funds and had a legal tender clause that required (by 1843) all payments to be made in War, but it further inflamed public opinion on both sides.

In a bold step, Van Buren reversed Andrew Jackson's policies and sought peace at home, as well as abroad. Instead of settling a financial dispute between American citizens and the Mexican government by force, Van Buren wanted to seek a diplomatic solution. In August 1837, Van Buren denied Texas' formal request to join the United States, again prioritizing sectional harmony over territorial expansion.

In the case of the ship Amistad, Van Buren sided with the Spanish Government to return the kidnapped slaves. Also, he oversaw the "Trail of Tears", which involved the expulsion of the Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw and Seminole from Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, and South Carolina to the Oklahoma territory. To help secure Florida, Van Buren also pursued the Second Seminole War, which had begun while Jackson was in office. The war, which would prove the costliest of the Indian Wars, was highly unpopular in the free states, where it was seen as an attempt to expand slave territory. Fighting was not resolved until 1842, after Van Buren had left office.

"Van Buren entered the presidency not only as the heir to Jackson's policies, Jefferson's ideology of limited government, and Smith's principles of political economy, but also an accomplished politician with a statesmanlike vision of the dangers facing the nation. This complex heritage would shape the new president's response to the multiple challenges of 1837

In 1839, Joseph Smith, Jr., the founder of the Latter Day Saint movement visited Van Buren to plead for the U.S. to help roughly 20,000 Mormon settlers of Independence, Missouri, who were forced from the state during the 1838 Mormon War there. The Governor of Missouri, Lilburn Boggs, had issued an executive order on October 27, 1838, known as the "Extermination Order". It authorized troops to use force against Mormons to "exterminate or drive [them] from the state."

In 1839, after moving to Illinois, Smith and his party appealed to members of Congress and to President Van Buren to intercede for the Mormons. According to Smith's grandnephew, Van Buren said to Smith, "Your cause is just, but I can do nothing for you; if I take up for you I shall lose the vote of Missouri."

Van Buren took the blame for hard times, as Whigs ridiculed him as Martin Van Ruin. Van Buren's rather elegant personal style was also an easy target for Whig attacks, such as the Gold Spoon Oration. State elections of 1837 and 1838 were disastrous for the Democrats, and the partial economic recovery in 1838 was offset by a second commercial crisis in that year. Nevertheless, Van Buren controlled his party and was unanimously renominated by the Democrats in 1840. The revolt against Democratic rule led to the election of William Henry Harrison, the Whig candidate.

Administration and Cabinet

Van Buren Cabinet

President Martin Van Buren 1837–1841
Vice President Richard Mentor Johnson 1837–1841

Secretary of State John Forsyth 1837–1841

Secretary of Treasury Levi Woodbury 1837–1841

Secretary of War Joel R. Poinsett 1837–1841

Attorney General Benjamin F. Butler 1837–1838
Felix Grundy 1838–1840
Henry D. Gilpin 1840–1841

Postmaster General Amos Kendall 1837–1840
John M. Niles 1840–1841

Secretary of the Navy Mahlon Dickerson 1837–1838
James K. Paulding 1838–1841

Supreme Court
Van Buren appointed two Justices to the Supreme Court of the United States:

John McKinley – 1838
Peter Vivian Daniel – 1841

Though he did vote against the admission of Missouri as a slave state, and though he would be the nominated presidential candidate of the Free Soil Party, an anti-slavery political party, in 1848, there was no ambiguity in his position on the abolition of slavery during his term of office. When it came to the issue of slavery in DC and slavery in the United States, he was against its abolition, and said so in his Inaugural Address in 1836: "the institution of domestic slavery"... "I believed it a solemn duty fully to make known my sentiments in regard to it, and now, when every motive for misrepresentation has passed away, I trust that they will be candidly weighed and understood."

"I must go into the Presidential chair the inflexible and uncompromising opponent of every attempt on the part of Congress to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia against the wishes of the slaveholding States, and also with a determination equally decided to resist the slightest interference with it in the States where it exists." Slavery would be abolished in the District of Columbia on April 18, 1862.

He seemed to have the advantage for the nomination in 1844; his famous letter of April 27, 1844, in which he frankly opposed the immediate annexation of Texas, though doubtlessly contributing greatly to his defeat, was not made public until he felt practically sure of the nomination. In the Democratic convention, though he had a majority of the votes, he did not have the two-thirds which the convention required, and after eight ballots his name was withdrawn. James K. Polk received the nomination instead.

In 1848, he was nominated by two minor parties, first by the "Barnburner" faction of the Democrats, then by the Free Soilers, with whom the "Barnburners" coalesced. He won no electoral votes, but took enough votes in New York to give the state—and perhaps the election—to Zachary Taylor. In the election of 1860, he voted for the fusion ticket in New York which was opposed to Abraham Lincoln, but he could not approve of President Buchanan's course in dealing with secession and eventually supported Lincoln.

Martin Van Buren then retired to his home in Kinderhook. After being bedridden with a case of pneumonia during the fall of 1861, Martin Van Buren died of bronchial asthma and heart failure at his Lindenwald estate in Kinderhook at 2:00 a.m. on July 24, 1862. He was 79 years old. He is buried in the Kinderhook Cemetery along with his wife Hannah, his parents, and his son Martin Van Buren, Jr.

A cenotaph to him is located near the parking lot of the Kinderhook Reformed Dutch Church. Van Buren outlived his four immediate successors as President (William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, James K. Polk and Zachary Taylor).

Van Buren in popular culture

Van Buren's unsuccessful reelection campaign in 1840 is regarded by etymologists as instrumental in the popularization of the word "OK". In the context of the campaign, the initialism was used as a nickname for Van Buren and stood for "Old Kinderhook," which was a reference to Van Buren's birthplace.

Van Buren was the first president to grant an exclusive interview to a reporter, James Gordon Bennett, Sr., of the New York Herald in 1839.
Van Buren was the working code-name given to the aborted version of Fallout 3 developed by Black Isle Studios.

Van Buren is sometimes referenced in Homestar Runner cartoons (occasionally a bust).
In an episode of Seinfeld, there is a gang called "The Van Buren Boys" whose gang sign is to hold up eight fingers, signifying that he is the eighth president.

Martin Van Buren's Political Career
"It is said that he is a great magician," wrote Andrew Jackson. "I believe it, but his only wand is good common sense which he uses for the benefit of the country."

A long series of elected and appointed posts afforded the "Little Magician" ample opportunity to practice his true craft: cool, competent diplomacy. A discreet, guarded man, Van Buren operated most effectively behind the scenes, where one observer noted, he "rowed to his object with muffled oars." Yet, in his later years Van Buren realized sadly that the wizardry had failed, that the political system he had helped to create would not prevent civil war.

1801 Delegate to the Republican party caucus in Troy, NY where he avidly supports Jeffersonian principles for the rest of his life.
1808 Surrogate (local judicial officer) of Columbia County, NY
1812-20 NY State Senator; State Attorney General; leader of the Jeffersonian Republicans in NY state; establishes Albany Regency, the first state-wide political machine in the country.
1821 Delegate to Third Constitutional Convention for the revision of the NY state constitution.
1821-28 U.S. Senator; helps form Democratic party
1828 Manages Andrew Jackson's presidential campaign.
1829 Governor of NY state for only 71 days, until
1829-31 appointed Secretary of State by President Jackson; acts as his chief advisor.
1831 Nominated ambassador to Great Britain, the highest US diplomatic post, but the Senate does not confirm him.
1833-37 Vice-President of U.S. under Andrew Jackson
1836 Candidate Party Electoral Votes
Martin Van Buren Democratic 170
William H. Harrison Whig 73
Hugh L. White Whig 26
Daniel Webster Whig 14
Willie P. Mangum Anti-Jacksonian 11

1837-41 8th President of the United States; carries on Jacksonian policies; opposes extension of slavery and annexation of Texas; establishes independent treasury; faces worst economic depression in country's short history. Vice-President is Richard M. Johnson of Kentucky. Inauguration March 4th.
1844 Loses bid for nomination as presidential candidate of the Democratic party to James K. Polk.
1848 Campaigns again for the Presidency, this time under the banner of the Free-Soil party, a group opposing the extension of slavery; after this defeat he ended his political career.

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