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Reading 1: The Life of Martin Van Buren
Born in December 1782, Martin Van Buren grew up in the small community of Kinderhook, New York. He came from a large family that was the fifth generation of descendants of Dutch immigrants who settled in New Netherland in the early 1600s. Almost everyone in Kinderhook was related. Most spoke Dutch with their fellow townspeople and English with outsiders.
Abraham and Maria Hoes Van Buren owned a tavern that was a favorite meeting place in the town. The Van Burens never became wealthy, but neither were they poor. Young "Matty" did his share of work in the tavern and spent much time listening to well-dressed, important men discuss business and politics over their drinks. He attended Kinderhook Academy, where all students of the community went. Most students of Van Buren's social and economic status dropped out after a couple of years to help their parents, but he stayed on as long as he could, even though he knew he could never afford to go to college as his wealthier classmates would. By age 14, having excelled in English and Latin, Van Buren left school to study law under a local attorney.
During the next several years Van Buren became intensely interested in politics. By the time he was 20, he had impressed the popular and important Van Ness family so much that he was offered a job in New York City at William Van Ness's law office. This experience provided Van Buren with more than training in the law. He also became acquainted with national politics and politicians, including Vice President Aaron Burr.
After Van Buren passed the bar exam, he returned to Kinderhook and went into business with his stepbrother. He quickly built up an important practice and became well known throughout the state. In 1807 he married Hannah Hoes with whom he would have five sons. In 1808 the newlyweds moved to Hudson, the county seat and a somewhat larger town than Kinderhook. Van Buren immediately became involved in politics and backed the successful Democratic-Republican (generally shortened to Democratic) candidate for governor. For his efforts he was appointed to a county post, which kept his name in front of the public. He also continued his law practice, which involved considerable travel around the state.
In 1812 Van Buren won an election to the state Senate and immediately gained a reputation as a War Hawk. The War Hawks were a group of young politicians, mostly from southern and western states, who called for war against Great Britain. That was a fairly unpopular position for a northerner to take because Great Britain was the major trading partner of the developing industries of the northern states. It was also unpopular early in the war when the British were handily outfighting the Americans. When the Battle of Lake Champlain ended in American victory, however, Van Buren's stance became the popular one, and his fame spread to the national level.
Although he won many friends while he served New York, he also made enemies when he organized his own supporters and practiced patronage in an unprecedented manner. Patronage was the power to make appointments to government jobs, especially for political advantage. His circle of politicians, known as the Albany Regency, is regarded by many historians as the first "political machine" in American politics. It easily brought about Van Buren's 1821 election to the U.S. Senate.
In Washington, D.C., Van Buren continued his wheeling-and-dealing brand of politics, and by 1828 he had helped to ensure Andrew Jackson's election to the presidency. He himself had run for and been elected governor of New York, which he resigned after only four months to become Jackson's secretary of state. He soon resigned that post to take the position of minister to Great Britain. The Senate refused to confirm his appointment, however, because both he and his mentor, Andrew Jackson, had many enemies among the senators. In 1832 Van Buren was selected as Andrew Jackson's running mate.
Van Buren was elected to the presidency in 1836 as the true heir to the popular Jackson. Utilizing restraint and levelheaded action, Van Buren resolved two potentially dangerous incidents on the Canadian border, thus avoiding confrontations with Great Britain. He resisted arguments for the annexation of Texas because he believed that it would aggravate the sectional antagonism between North and South, and risk a war with Mexico. His position was unpopular, even though it was prophetic.
Van Buren's long, skyrocketing career reached its zenith with the presidency and quickly began its decline. The nation was caught up in a depression that began in 1837, and as president, Van Buren was blamed. In the election of 1840, he was badly beaten by William Henry Harrison. He looked homeward toward Kinderhook and the estate he had recently purchased. He would never again hold public office. He did try for the Democratic nomination in 1844 but could not draw votes from the South, because of his stand against the annexation of Texas. In 1848 he was willing to head the Free Soil ticket, even though he knew he had little chance to win the presidency. Nevertheless, his name on that ticket helped the antislavery movement, as he knew it would. Although he was an intensely political man and committed to the virtues of compromise, he never departed from his deepest convictions: the Jeffersonian ideals of limited federal power and a strict interpretation of the Constitution.
Ever in the shadow of Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren never quite achieved his own niche in American history. Even at his presidential inauguration, he was upstaged by Old Hickory. The crowd wildly cheered Jackson that day while giving Van Buren only polite applause. "For once," commented Senator Thomas Hart Benton, "the rising sun was eclipsed by the setting." But perhaps this is only as it should be for a politician who preferred the antechamber to the orator's podium. As a founder of the Democratic party, Van Buren was an organization man--everything for party, the individual was secondary.
Van Buren was the first of the second generation of American politicians. The fact that he had been born in 1782, the year after Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown, held a special significance for him; he was the first president to have American citizenship as his birthright--a gift of the founding fathers. He grew up under their influence, and when the time came, he accepted the presidency as a sacred trust to preserve and perpetuate what had evolved out of the Revolution.
Perhaps Andrew Jackson gave the best tribute to Martin Van Buren. Jackson once commented that he was aware that Van Buren was referred to as the "Little Magician." Old Hickory confessed that he believed the nickname to be appropriate enough, but that the "magician's" only wand was "good common sense," which he utilized for the benefit of his countrymen.
1. What kind of education did Martin Van Buren receive?
2. How did Van Buren's job at Van Ness's law office advance his career in politics?
3. What reputation did Van Buren gain through his involvement in politics? What political positions did he hold prior to becoming president?
4. Why do you think Van Buren was "ever in the shadow of Andrew Jackson"?
Reading 1 was compiled and adapted from the National Park Service visitor's guide for Martin Van Buren National Historic Site; Rafaela Ellis, Martin Van Buren (Ada, Okla.: Garret Educational Corporation, 1989); and John P. Platt, "Historic Resource Study, Lindenwald: Martin Van Buren National Historic Site, New York," National Park Service, 1982.