Martin Van Buren and the Politics of Slavery

Martin Van Buren returned to Kinderhook, New York as a one-term president. His 1840 loss to William Henry Harrison was a difficult pill to swallow. He was mature in years, but not old enough to retire. He loved his work and succeeded far beyond most imagined for a son of a tavern owner. But what does one do after serving as America’s eighth president? He retreated to the village of his childhood to be near loved ones and plot his next move.

Little had changed in Kinderhook since he left in 1808, with wife Hannah and firstborn Abraham, for the bustling town of Hudson to practice law, except in one respect - slavery.

Enslavement was not uncommon amongst Kinderhook households before 1827, the year gradual emancipation in New York was finalized. The national census from 1790 – 1820 shows Kinderhook held the second, and at times the third, largest population of enslaved people outside Brooklyn, New York. For such a small, rural agricultural village, this statistic is startling.

Van Buren not only grew up amongst enslaved people but alongside six held by his parents. This early exposure to the institution of slavery later provided him with an understanding of southern politics that differed from northern colleagues raised without similar experiences.

It was an understanding Martin Van Buren seemed to exploit for professional success, but also an understanding he struggled with as the country began to split over the fate and expansion of slavery.

 

Martin Van Buren’s Political Rise


Martin Van Buren’s successful career was cemented early on with the formation of the Albany Regency, a political group he helped found that controlled state politics until the Civil War. When Van Buren moved from state to national politics, he immediately set out to create new alliances. He quickly succeeded connecting two of the most politically powerful states in the nation: Virginia and New York. A northern and southern alliance through him also meant support for a higher office in the future.

His part in founding the Democratic Party and acceptance of New York’s governorship to assist Andrew Jackson in winning the presidency made him a favourite amongst some southern political circles.

In 1832 Martin Van Buren won the endorsement as Andrew Jackson’s second term Vice President, setting him up to be Jackson’s presidential successor.

It was a volatile time in American politics. “The Act Preventing the Importation of Slaves” in 1807 increased the population and sale of enslaved people throughout the south, while the cotton gin increased product production. When commerce resumed after the War of 1812, southern states increased wealth through lucrative trade contracts with British textile factories. Cotton became the dominant economy of the nation.

Northern Industry leaders raised the need for tariffs to counter southern economic domination. The south claimed tariffs were a violation of states’ rights with a few crying out for secession. The matter was eventually resolved. Southerners later returned to threats of secession over the institution of slavery, with a very different resolution settling the matter.

 

Appeasement of Southerners to Win the Presidency

Martin Van Buren took the presidency with the help of southerners, earning him the moniker “A northern man with southern principles.”

It was a trying campaign, and the first time a presidential candidate was accused of being a detriment to both slavery and the abolitionist cause.

Southern opponents attacked his vote to enfranchise free men at the 1821 New York Constitution Convention. They chose to overlook his accepted proposal of a $250 property requirement, a near impossibility for most African American men at the time.

Northern abolitionists held up a tie-breaking vote Van Buren cast as Vice President prohibiting the use of the United States Postal system to distribute anti-slavery material in addition to his senatorial vote supporting the ‘gag rule’ which forbade Congress to discuss abolitionist petitions.

When it became evident southern support was waning, Van Buren published a public statement supporting states’ rights. His inaugural address reiterated the statement along with assurances slavery in Washington, D.C. was safe from federal intervention. A national financial catastrophe prevented his chances for re-election, but enslavement became the issue that shaped and defined his legacy.

 

Van Buren’s View on Slavery


Martin Van Buren is somewhat of an enigma. He was a very private man. No diary or journal exists, and few personal letters have survived. He kept his thoughts to himself, rarely expressing personal notions, and often had both friends and foes guessing. His nickname, ‘The Red Fox’ references his preference for secrecy as much as it was about his hair colour.

The same goes for his thoughts on enslavement. This declaration made in 1819 as a New York state Bucktail is a rare expression in writing of his feelings about the issue:

“Morally and politically speaking slavery is a moral evil.”


This moral evil Van Buren spoke of is one he benefitted from personally and professionally throughout his career.

 

Van Buren, An Enslaver?


‘Did Martin Van Buren own enslaved people?’ is a question often asked. A letter to him dated December 1824 raises more questions than provides an answer.

A Mr. A. G. Hammond indicates in a letter to Martin Van Buren that a man named Tom, who “quit” Van Buren “some ten years since” was in Worcester, Massachusetts. Hammond requests a reply with an amount Van Buren is willing to accept for the man. One side of the envelope that contained Hammond’s letter reads, “Wrote that if he could get him without violence, I would take $50-"

Hammond sets the year of purchase as 1810 and offers “Fosburgh” as Tom’s previous enslaver. No record exists offering definitive proof Martin Van Buren ever purchased another, including Tom, but the letter does present a possibility.

Questions exist about Tom due to lack of documentation. However, Van Buren relied on the labor of enslaved people for domestic service while serving as Secretary of State under Andrew Jackson, as well as during his presidency.
The 1830 census lists four enslaved women in his household while in residence at the Decatur House. It is likely the women were hired out by their enslaver, as was a common practice.

One of the four was Charlotte “Lottie” Dupuy. Henry Clay brought Mrs. Dupuy to Washington as a household staff member during his Congressional term. Mrs. Dupuy refused to return to Kentucky and sued for emancipation. She lived and worked in Van Buren’s household during the proceedings. Sadly, Mrs. Dupuy lost her case and remained enslaved until 1840 when Clay emancipated Mrs. Dupuy and her daughter.

The 1840 census shows four enslaved people kept as White House staff; two men and two women. Historians have raised the possibility the four were brought on through his daughter-in-law’s family, the Singletons, as they were one of the wealthiest plantation owners in South Carolina at the time Angelica Singleton and his son Abraham wed.

 
Engraving depicting uprising of the enslaved captives on the deck of the ship Amistad

Color Engraving and Frontispiece from John Warner Barber (1840). A History of the Amistad Captives. New Haven, Connecticut: E.L. and J.W. Barber, Hitchcock & Stafford, Printers.

Slavery During the Van Buren Presidency


In recent years, the Slave Trail of Tears has become a reference for the route chained and roped slave coffles were force-marched from Virginia to Mississippi and Louisiana. The coffles consisted of 100 to 300 men, women and children sold by upper south plantation owners to stringers. The stringers delivered and sold them to slave traders who would auction them to cotton and sugar plantation owners. Approximately 450,000 enslaved people were moved to the lower south in this manner between 1810 to 1860.

Franklin and Armfield of Alexandria, Virginia, notorious for their brutality, housed their coffles in animal- style pens around Washington, as did other stringer companies, before moving them on to Richmond. Solomon Northrup, whose experience appears in 12 Years a Slave, described these pens as being “within the very shadow of the Capitol.” President Van Buren enjoyed daily riding excursions around the city, but it is unknown how aware he was of their existence.

The Amistad case is another situation arising during Van Buren’s presidency; his attempt to intervene with appeals provides another example of his earnest desire to appease pro-slavery southerners.

The Amistad was a Cuban ship carrying illegally captured Africans who self-emancipated at sea. The ship drifted to Long Island and was led by the U.S. Navy to Connecticut. Those onboard were imprisoned and tried for piracy and murder. Supported by abolitionists, the Africans won their case.

President Van Buren’s administration intervened twice with appeals to carry favor with Spain and pro-slavery southern voters. The Supreme Court heard the case with John Quincy Adams acting as the African’s legal counsel. The Supreme Court ruled in favour of the Africans days after Van Buren left office. The ruling supported southerners doubts of Van Buren’s political strength and justified their choice of Harrison as America’s ninth president.

 

Van Buren’s Constitutional Approach to Slavery


Martin Van Buren was a Jeffersonian from the time he was young until he died, no matter the party he belonged. He once proudly claimed to be, ‘the last vestige of true Jeffersonians.’ These Jeffersonian beliefs shaped the way he interpreted the Constitution, including issues involving enslavement.

Van Buren believed the Constitution exempted Black people of African descent, enslaved and free, from its protections, rights and benefits. This view appears in his response to the Supreme Court Justice opinion involving the Dred Scott case:


“I am now convinced that the sense in which the word ‘citizen’ was used by those who framed and ratified the Federal Constitution was not intended to embrace the African race.”

 
Campaign banner for Free Soil Party with Martin Van Buren and Charles Francis Adams' images in oval frames

Library of Congress

The Free-Soil Campaign


The Van Buren presidency was one term. He attempted another run in 1844 but lost even Democratic support after refusing to agree to the Annexation of Texas. He feared it would bring war with Mexico and move slavery into western territories and new states, a move he also feared would eventually tear this country apart.

The former president returned to Kinderhook after his 1844 loss. He resigned himself to a life of retirement as a gentleman farmer. Van Buren was through with campaigning until the formation of the Free Soil Party moved him to attempt a fourth run for the presidency.

John Van Buren, Van Buren’s second son, became involved in New York state politics and was a founder of the Free-Soil Party. The party was an interesting mix of political ideologies; abolitionists that once belonged to the then defunct Liberty Party, Whigs such as Charles Sumner of Massachusetts bent on abolition and Democrats, many either in favour of or ambivalent about enslavement where it already existed. What they all had in common was a goal to prevent slavery moving westward.

Martin Van Buren joined the party but never held abolitionist views. He thought abolitionists were a detriment to national security because of their willingness to resort to violence.

Van Buren, like Jefferson, believed the federal government held no authority to interfere with what a state decided for themselves, including the institution of slavery. However, when it came to new states and territories, that was a different situation. He placed the sake of the Union above states’ rights and agreed to run as a third-party candidate against the Whigs and Democratic party.

Van Buren helped form the Democratic party; in turn, they handed him the presidency. The act of running against the Democratic party to prevent the expansion of enslavement brought on new enemies.

He lost the 1848 election and retreated from active political participation. The Free-Soil Party remained intact until 1854 and the formation of the Republican Party.

The election unsettled the stability of this country. Henry Clay, along with others, cobbled together a solution to appease pro-slavery southerners. However, the Compromise of 1850 included the Fugitive Slave Act, which allowed bounty hunters to return self-emancipated persons to their enslavers. It also obligated any person nearby to assist the bounty hunter or risk fines and possible imprisonment. The act forced many who were indifferent to enslavement to take a position. The outrage and separation generated by this act became the catalyst that eleven years later flung America into a Civil War, taking the lives of over 750,000 citizens, but finally ending enslavement in this country.

 

A Nation Torn Asunder


Martin Van Buren spent a professional lifetime attempting to keep this country from splitting over the issue of enslavement. Nevertheless, the war he feared came to fruition. He laid on his death bed, knowing he would not live to learn the outcome.

He passed away at his beloved Lindenwald on July 24, 1862 at the height of the American Civil War.

The outcome of the Civil War was two-fold: it ended enslavement in America forever and brought on Reconstruction.

Reconstruction lasted from 1865 to 1877, ending with a quick deal that pulled troops out of the south. The result was Jim Crow, an era of discriminatory laws and practices that, according to Tuskegee Institute, resulted in the lynching of nearly 4743 southern Blacks and 1297 Whites between 1882 and 1968.

 

Van Buren’s Legacy


Martin Van Buren wanted his home and farm to be his legacy, not his career. His legacy changed the moment his son John sold Lindenwald two years following the death of his father. Through a modern lens, his legacy is his political life, including the decisions he made involving enslavement and southern appeasement.

America’s founding fathers handed the issue of slavery to Martin’s generation. His generation attempted to keep slavery “as is” for the sake of the Union. Children of Van Buren’s contemporaries ended slavery with a Civil War.

For those freed after the Civil War, the issue handed to them was 150 years of Jim Crow law, ended by a generation who fought for their civil rights.

Enslavement must be accounted for. Only then can wounds left by the generations that came before heal, and divisions that remain begin to unite.

Last updated: November 2, 2020

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