8. MARTIN VAN BUREN 1837-1841
Only about 5 feet, 6 inches tall, but trim and erect, Martin Van
Buren dressed fastidiously. His impeccable appearance belied his
amiability--and his humble background. Of Dutch descent, he was
born in 1782, the son of a tavernkeeper and farmer, in
Kinderhook, New York.
As a young lawyer he became involved in New York politics. As
leader of the "Albany Regency," an effective New York political
organization, he shrewdly dispensed public offices and bounty in
a fashion calculated to bring votes. Yet he faithfully fulfilled
official duties, and in 1821 was elected to the United States
By 1827 he had emerged as the principal northern leader for
Andrew Jackson. President Jackson rewarded Van Buren by
appointing him Secretary of State. As the Cabinet Members
appointed at John C. Calhoun's recommendation began to
demonstrate only secondary loyalty to Jackson, Van Buren emerged
as the President's most trusted adviser. Jackson referred to him
as, "a true man with no guile."
The rift in the Cabinet became serious because of Jackson's
differences with Calhoun, a Presidential aspirant. Van Buren
suggested a way out of an eventual impasse: he and Secretary of
War Eaton resigned, so that Calhoun men would also resign.
Jackson appointed a new Cabinet, and sought again to reward Van
Buren by appointing him Minister to Great Britain. Vice
President Calhoun, as President of the Senate, cast the deciding
vote against the appointment--and made a martyr of Van Buren.
The "Little Magician" was elected Vice President on the
Jacksonian ticket in 1832, and won the Presidency in 1836.
Van Buren devoted his Inaugural Address to a discourse upon
the American experiment as an example to the rest of the world.
The country was prosperous, but less than three months later the
panic of 1837 punctured the prosperity.
Basically the trouble was the 19th-century cyclical economy
of "boom and bust," which was following its regular pattern, but
Jackson's financial measures contributed to the crash. His
destruction of the Second Bank of the United States had removed
restrictions upon the inflationary practices of some state
banks; wild speculation in lands, based on easy bank credit, had
swept the West. To end this speculation, Jackson in 1836 had
issued a Specie Circular requiring that lands be purchased with
hard money--gold or silver.
In 1837 the panic began. Hundreds of banks and businesses
failed. Thousands lost their lands. For about five years the
United States was wracked by the worst depression thus far in
Programs applied decades later to alleviate economic crisis
eluded both Van Buren and his opponents. Van Buren's
remedy--continuing Jackson's deflationary policies--only
deepened and prolonged the depression.
Declaring that the panic was due to recklessness in business
and overexpansion of credit, Van Buren devoted himself to
maintaining the solvency of the national Government. He opposed
not only the creation of a new Bank of the United States but
also the placing of Government funds in state banks. He fought
for the establishment of an independent treasury system to
handle Government transactions. As for Federal aid to internal
improvements, he cut off expenditures so completely that the
Government even sold the tools it had used on public works.
Inclined more and more to oppose the expansion of slavery,
Van Buren blocked the annexation of Texas because it assuredly
would add to slave territory--and it might bring war with
Defeated by the Whigs in 1840 for reelection, he was an
unsuccessful candidate for President on the Free Soil ticket in
1848. He died in 1862.