Last updated: July 31, 2017
Martin Van Buren was President of the United States during the Amistad trial. The Amistad incident placed Van Buren in a precarious situation. He had received a direct request from the Spanish government to return the African captives to Cuba, and if he allowed the trial to move forward he risked losing the support of Southern voters on whom he depended for reelection.
Van Buren was born in Kinderhook, New York in 1782. In 1827 he became Jackson’s Secretary of State and then Vice President in 1832. Van Buren would become Jackson’s hand-picked successor four years later in 1836.
In 1839 President Van Buren received an extradition request for the Amistad captives from the Spanish government. Van Buren sent this request to the courts while Secretary of State John Forsyth readied a ship to return the captives to Cuba. The courts ruled in favor of the Africans but the U.S. government appealed the decision to the Supreme Court. The government's argument was that the captives' return was required under treaty obligations.
Van Buren was eager to return the African captives to Spain. He was facing reelection in 1840 and his support was already weakened by an economic crisis in 1837, which did ultimately cause him to lose to William Henry Harrison. In a reflection of the complicated political landscape preceding the Civil War, in 1848 Van Buren was the presidential candidate for the Free Soil Party opposing the extension of slavery to the territories. After this defeat he retired to focus on his farm, and he died in 1862 at his Kinderhook estate, Lindenwald, now Martin Van Buren National Historic Site
Martin Van Buren is just one of many people associated with the Amistad event. To learn more about others involved, please access the main People page of this itinerary.