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Martin Van Buren

8th President of the United States (1837 - 1841)
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Martin Van Buren (/ˌvæn ˈbjʊərən/; born Maarten Van Buren, December 5, 1782 – July 24, 1862) was an American statesman who served as the eighth president of the United States from 1837 to 1841. He was the first president born after the independence of the United States from the British Empire. A founder of the Democratic Party, he previously served as the ninth governor of New York, the tenth United States secretary of state, and the eighth vice president of the United States. He won the 1836 presidential election with the endorsement of popular outgoing President Andrew Jackson and the organizational strength of the Democratic Party. He lost his 1840 reelection bid to Whig Party nominee William Henry Harrison, due in part to the poor economic conditions of the Panic of 1837. Later in his life, Van Buren emerged as an elder statesman and important anti-slavery leader, who led the Free Soil Party ticket in the 1848 presidential election.

Van Buren was born in Kinderhook, New York to a family of Dutch Americans; his father was a Patriot during the American Revolution. He was raised speaking Dutch and learned English at school, making him the only U.S. president who spoke English as a second language. He trained as a lawyer and quickly became involved in politics as a member of the Democratic-Republican Party. He won election to the New York State Senate and became the leader of the Bucktails, the faction of Democratic-Republicans opposed to Governor DeWitt Clinton. Van Buren established a political machine known as the Albany Regency and in the 1820s emerged as the most influential politician in his home state. He was elected to the United States Senate in 1821 and supported William H. Crawford in the 1824 presidential election. John Quincy Adams won the 1824 election and Van Buren opposed his proposals for federally funded internal improvements and other measures. Van Buren's major political goal was to re-establish a two-party system with partisan differences based on ideology rather than personalities or sectional differences, and he supported Jackson's candidacy against Adams in the 1828 presidential election with this goal in mind. To support Jackson's candidacy, Van Buren ran for Governor of New York and resigned a few months after assuming the position to accept appointment as U.S. Secretary of State after Jackson took office in 1829.

Van Buren was a key advisor during Jackson's eight years as President of the United States and he built the organizational structure for the coalescing Democratic Party, particularly in New York. He resigned from his position to help resolve the Petticoat affair, then briefly served as the U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom. At Jackson's behest, the 1832 Democratic National Convention nominated Van Buren for Vice President of the United States, and he took office after the Democratic ticket won the 1832 presidential election. With Jackson's strong support, Van Buren faced little opposition for the presidential nomination at the 1835 Democratic National Convention, and he defeated several Whig opponents in the 1836 presidential election. Van Buren's response to the Panic of 1837 centered on his Independent Treasury system, a plan under which the Federal government of the United States would store its funds in vaults rather than in banks. He also continued Jackson's policy of Indian removal; he maintained peaceful relations with Britain but denied the application to admit Texas to the Union, seeking to avoid heightened sectional tensions. In the 1840 election, the Whigs rallied around Harrison's military record and ridiculed Van Buren as "Martin Van Ruin", and a surge of new voters helped turn him out of office.

At the opening of the Democratic convention in 1844, Van Buren was the leading candidate for the party's nomination for the presidency. Southern Democrats, however, were angered by his continued opposition to the annexation of Texas, and the party nominated James K. Polk. Van Buren grew increasingly opposed to slavery after he left office, and he agreed to lead a third party ticket in the 1848 presidential election, motivated additionally by intra-party differences at the state and national level. He finished in a distant third nationally, but his presence in the race most likely helped Whig nominee Zachary Taylor defeat Democrat Lewis Cass. Van Buren returned to the Democratic fold after the 1848 election, but he supported Abraham Lincoln's policies during the American Civil War. His health began to fail in 1861 and he died in July 1862 at age 79. He has been generally ranked as an average or below-average U.S. president by historians and political scientists.


Last Updated: April 13, 2019

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