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Martin Van Buren: Significant Facts and Brief Biography

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Martin Van Buren, 8th President of the United States
Lithographic portrait of Martin Van Buren

Martin Van Buren

Library of Congress

Life span: Born: December 5, 1782, Kinderhook, New York.
Died: July 24, 1862, Kinderhook, New York, at the age of 79.

Martin Van Buren was the first American president born after the colonies declared their independence from Britain and became the United States.

To put his life span in perspective, Van Buren could recall that as a young man he had stood several feet away from Alexander Hamilton, who was giving a speech in New York City. The young Van Buren was also acquainted with Hamilton's enemy (and eventual killer) Aaron Burr.

Near the end of his life, on the eve of the Civil War, Van Buren publicly expressed his support for Abraham Lincoln, whom he had met years earlier on a trip to Illinois.

Presidential term: March 4, 1837 - March 4, 1841

Van Buren was elected president in 1836, following the two terms of Andrew Jackson. As Van Buren was the successor picked by Jackson, it was assumed that he would also be an influential president.

In reality, Van Buren's term in office was marked by difficulty and failure. The United States suffered a great economic disruption, the Panic of 1837, which was partly a result of Jackson's policies. And Van Buren took the blame.

Accomplishments: Van Buren's greatest political accomplishment occurred a decade before his presidency: He organized the Democratic Party in the mid-1820s, before the election of 1828 brought Andrew Jackson to power.

In many ways the organizational structure Van Buren brought to national party politics set the template for the American political system we know today.

Supported by: Van Buren's political base was rooted in New York State, in the "The Albany Regency," a prototypical political machine which dominated the state for decades.

With political skills honed in the cauldron of Albany politics, Van Buren was able to forge a national alliance between northern working people and southern planters. That made him perhaps the most valuable political ally of Andrew Jackson.

Opposed by: As Van Buren was closely allied with Andrew Jackson, Jackson's many opponents were also opposed to Van Buren. Throughout the 1820s and 1830s Van Buren was often attacked in political cartoons.

There were even entire books written attacking Van Buren. A 200-page political attack published in 1835, supposedly written by the frontiersman turned politician Davy Crockett, characterized Van Buren as "secret, sly, selfish, cold, calculating, distrustful."

Spouse and family: Van Buren married Hannah Hoes on February 21, 1807, in Catskill, New York. They would have four sons. Hannah Hoes Van Buren died in 1819, and Van Buren never remarried. He was thus a widower during his term as president.

Education: Van Buren went to a local school for several years as a child, but left at about the age of 12. He gained a practical legal education by working for a local lawyer in Kinderhook as a teenager.

Van Buren grew up fascinated by politics. As a child he would listen to political news and gossip relayed in the small tavern his father operated in the village of Kinderhook.

Early career: In 1801, at the age of 18 Van Buren traveled to New York City, where he worked for a lawyer, William Van Ness, whose family was influential in Van Buren's hometown.

The connection with Van Ness, who was closely allied to the political operations of Aaron Burr, was extremely beneficial to Van Buren. (William Van Ness was a witness to the infamous Hamilton-Burr duel.)

While still in his teens, Van Buren was exposed to the highest levels of politics in New York City. It was later said that Van Buren learned much through his connections with Burr.

In later years, efforts to link Van Buren to Burr became outrageous. Rumors were even spread that Van Buren was Burr's illegitimate son.

Later career: After his difficult term as president, Van Buren ran for reelection in the election of 1840, losing to William Henry Harrison. Four years later, Van Buren tried to recapture the presidency, but failed to be nominated at the 1844 Democratic convention. That convention resulted in James K. Polk becoming the first dark horse candidate.

In 1848 Van Buren once again ran for president, as the candidate of the Free-Soil Party, which was composed mostly of anti-slavery members of the Whig Party. Van Buren received no electoral votes, though the votes he received (especially in New York) may have swayed the election. The Van Buren candidacy kept votes from going to Democratic candidate Lewis Cass, thus ensuring victory for Whig candidate Zachary Taylor.

In 1842 Van Buren had traveled to Illinois and was introduced by a young man with political ambitions, Abraham Lincoln. Van Buren's hosts had enlisted Lincoln, who was known as a good teller of local tales, to entertain the former president. Years later, Van Buren said he recalled laughing at Lincoln's stories.

As the Civil War began, Van Buren was approached by another former president, Franklin Pierce, to approach Lincoln and seek some peaceful resolution to the conflict. Van Buren considered Pierce's proposal unseemly. He refused to participate in any such effort and indicated his support for Lincoln's policies.

Nickname: "The Little Magician," which referred both to his height and great political skills, was a common nickname for Van Buren. And he had a number of other nicknames, including "Matty Van" and "Ol' Kinderhook," which some say led to the work "okay" entering the English language.

Unusual facts: Van Buren was the only American president who did not speak English as his first language. Growing up in a Dutch enclave in New York State, Van Buren's family spoke Dutch and Van Buren learned English as his second language when he was a child.

Death and funeral: Van Buren died at his home in Kinderhook, New York, and his funeral was held in a local cemetery. He was 79 years old, and the cause of death was ascribed to chest ailments.

President Lincoln, feeling respect and perhaps a kinship for Van Buren, issued orders for a period of mourning that exceeded the basic formalities. Military observances, including the ceremonial firing of cannon, occurred in Washington. And all U.S. Army and Navy officers wore black crepe armbands on their left arms for six months after Van Buren's death in tribute to the late president.

Legacy: The legacy of Martin Van Buren is essentially the political party system of the United States. The work he did for Andrew Jackson in organizing the Democratic Party in the 1820s created a template which has endured to the present day.

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