Martin Van Buren – Last of the Founding Fathers?

When Martin Van Buren was born in 1782, the Founding Fathers had just laid the foundations for the new nation in the Constitution and Bill of Rights. The actual workings of the government were far from settled. Issues that separated political activists included states’ rights, the establishment of a National Bank, a standing army, international commerce and the powers of the Federal Government, to name a few.

 
A sketch of the one and a half story tavern where Van Buren was born
Van Buren's childhood spent in the family tavern exposed him to political discourse early in his life.

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Martin, as a boy growing up in his father’s tavern on the Post Road between New York City and Albany, would have been exposed to and probably even entered into the conversations and arguments of the many politicians seeking respite in the tavern.

Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, authors of the Federalist Papers, would have surely been supported and challenged on their views and interpretations of government as they frequented the tavern. One historian suggests that Martin, sleeping in the tavern’s loft, would have absorbed the discussions below that went long into the night.

Martin proved early that he had a natural ability for organization and clarity of complicated issues. Having been apprenticed to a local attorney at 14, he was instructed by his mentor just a year later to provide a trial summation. He impressed the court room with his presence and clear understanding of the facts.

Once passing the Bar, his career as lawyer and politician moved quickly. At age 30 he won a seat in the New York Assembly and three years later, in 1815, that body selected him for the position of Attorney General of the state.

His political influence also grew rapidly. In 1821, he was initially opposed to a New York Constitutional Convention, but once he recognized the popularity of the idea he put his full efforts behind it. He so dominated the procedures that he gained the upper hand in New York politics for the next two decades for the Albany Regency, a collaboration of fellow Republican and business leaders.

“I am timid in innovation,” Van Buren wrote of himself. But once he judged that an issue had direction and momentum his course of action was set. He worked tirelessly behind the scenes insuring the eventual benefit to his political party and to his own advancement.
 
Portrait of Martin Van Buren standing
Martin Van Buren, founder of the Democratic Party

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This ability and his organizational skills served him well when the New York Assembly sent him to Washington as their United States Senator. Anticipating the presidential election of 1828, he used the influence of the Albany Regency, in concert with Southern planters, to win the White House for Andrew Jackson; thus, sealing this new coalition’s place in history as the first ever national political party.

In other contributions, he was a long time advocate for greater participation in the democratic process. He helped to break the mold of wealthy elites dominating the White House with the election of Jackson. As President, he also helped to settle the issue of the handling of federal monies by convincing congress to establish a National Treasury. Diplomatic inroads with England finally brought to end animosities along the New York and Maine borders with Canada. By vying for the Presidency in 1844 and 1848, though unsuccessfully, he advanced the national conversation of slavery’s expansion westward.

Though history may not remember him as a Founding Father, as a professional politician, he used his skills, intuitive nature and shrewdness to bring to conclusion issues that had burdened the nation for four decades. He was an influential and instrumental member of the second generation of politicians leaving a legacy of building on the Founding Fathers’ foundations and making this experiment in self government into a working reality.

Last updated: November 18, 2020

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