Aug 14, 2019
Everything Wrong with the Van Buren Administration
Although Van Buren himself was an effective politician, his years as president prompted scholars to rank Van Buren’s presidency as average, grouped among some of the least-effective and forgettable presidents in U.S. history
President Martin Van Buren (1782-1862) is oft quoted: “It is easier to do a job right than to explain why you didn’t.” To be frank, Mr. Van Buren has some explaining to do. Over Van Buren’s tenure as the nation’s chief executive, his administration did little correctly. Some of the major issues that plagued the Van Buren administration included: A global economic disaster in 1837, failing to act on the Upper Canada (present-day Ontario) and Texas questions, and continuing many of Andrew Jackson’s policies including Indian Removal. As a result of Van Buren’s mismanagement of the nation’s domestic affairs and foreign policy mishaps, the Whigs toppled the Democratic Party in 1840. Although Van Buren himself was an effective politician, his years as president prompted scholars to rank Van Buren’s presidency as average, grouped among some of the least-effective and forgettable presidents in U.S. history.
Martin (Maartin) Van Buren was born on December 5, 1782 in Kinderhook, New York. Of Dutch origin, he was the first president in U.S. history not born of British blood. He was qualified for the presidency because he: (a) was born during the American Revolution (1775-1783) – and under British law, he was technically a British citizen (despite being Dutch) and (b) he was born prior to the signing of the Treaty of Paris (1783). Van Buren studied law and learned New York politics from William P. Van Ness (1778-1826) – an associate of Aaron Burr who served as his second in the famed Burr-Hamilton Duel in July 1804. Van Buren, a member of Jackson’s cabinet, served as Old Hickory’s Secretary of State from 1829-1831 and as his Vice President from 1833-1837. According to historian Sean Wilentz, Van Buren was an astute politician. He “moved up the ladder of the law and politics by dint of his diligence, charm, and ability to make useful connections.” For Van Buren, opportunity was everywhere. Since he was a widower – Van Buren lost his wife in 1819 - he had a great deal of free time. Despite having a number of children, among other responsibilities, Van Buren served at Jackson’s will.
Van Buren easily won the election of 1836 and he did so with the intent of “following in Old Hickory’s footsteps.” The “Red Fox of Kinderhook” ran against four Whigs – most notably future president William Henry Harrison (1773-1841), future Secretary of State Daniel Webster (1782-1852), Hugh White (1773-1840), and Willie Mangum (1792-1861). The Whigs’ strategy of running four candidates who represented different regions in the U.S. was a result of a lack of party unity. The idea followed the logic that although the Whig Party did not agree on everything, they all had one thing in common: they opposed the policies of Andrew Jackson. If the plan to deny Van Buren a majority of Electoral College votes worked, the job of choosing the president would have been that of the House of Representatives. Thanks to the Whig factions in the House, this would have more than likely resulted in the election of William Henry Harrison. This plan, however, failed. Harrison later occupied the presidency for a little over a month in 1841 and Daniel Webster became perhaps one of the most notable diplomats in U.S. history.
Endorsed by Old Hickory and the Democratic Party’s political machine, Van Buren entered office in 1837. Shortly thereafter, a Trans-Atlantic financial panic plagued the United States: the Panic of 1837. In the years prior to the economic panic, the U.S., under many of Van Buren’s predecessors, flourished economically. However, a financial collapse beginning in 1836 crippled the United States. To make matters worse, English banks refused to infuse money into the American economy. In 1836, Andrew Jackson issued the specie circular which devalued paper money. As the economy worsened, banks overextended credit to customers which led to economic disaster and a five-year depression which loomed over the U.S. and throughout most of the Atlantic World.
Van Buren’s response to the Panic of 1837 was timid (at best) – especially as his initial reaction was first to ponder “what, if anything, the federal government could do to provide relief.” Many Americans blamed Andrew Jackson’s specie circular for the financial collapse. Some bankers and politicians urged Van Buren to repeal the circular. Democrats including William C. Rives (1793-1868) and Nathaniel P. Tallmadge (1795-1864) warned Van Buren that if he retained Jackson’s specie circular that he would become so unpopular in the U.S. that he could potentially lose votes in the South and the West. Another Democrat, Andrew J. Donelson (1799-1871), hoped to convince Van Buren to modify the circular to allow “land buyers… to use paper money, but only in large bills.” Major newspapers echoed the sentiments of these major Democratic politicians and suggested to their readers that Van Buren would change the terms of the circular for the better.
Constant pressure from fellow Democrats and the nation’s newspapers may have convinced Van Buren to act on Jackson’s specie circular. However, Jackson and other aligned Jacksonian Democrats waged a letter writing campaign to keep the circular as law. Van Buren ultimately kept the circular despite “a majority in Congress had declared against [it].” Van Buren also attempted to shift the blame for the Panic of 1837 from Jackson, the Jackson-aligned Democrats, and the federal government to the banks. Van Buren proposed the Divorce Bill which would have established a sub-treasury system that allocated funds from banks at the state level to the federal level. The radical Locofoco faction of the Democratic party supported the bill while more conservative Democrats opposed it. There was also talk of reviving the Bank of the United States, but the bank’s president Nicholas Biddle (1786-1844) knew that the Democrats would not “betray Jackson by restoring the bank.”
Van Buren’s “Divorce Bill” proved unsuccessful. Newspapers heralded the fact the legislation remained in a state of limbo. This degree of uncertainty benefited the business community. By 1838, the U.S. and Atlantic economies recovered. As Van Buren’s Democratic colleagues warned, not acting on the Panic of 1837 lost Van Buren and the Democrats votes in the South. By 1839, Whig Governor of New York William Seward (1801-1872) declared the Divorce Bill dead and the nation slowly recovered. Meanwhile, “The angry passions which availed themselves of that disastrous time…to disseminate pernicious opinions, and to bring forward measures of rash, intemperate legislation, have subsided.”
Van Buren’s ideologically-driven response to the Panic of 1837 was an effort to save face with his Jacksonian counterparts rather than save the country from economic disaster. This disaster killed his public image. Cartoonists depicted Van Buren as an out-of-touch aristocrat. As the nation suffered, Van Buren’s opponents claimed “Martin Van Ruin” or “King Martin I” ate with gold spoons, walked on eloquent British carpets, and slept on luxurious French beds. This according to Van Buren biographer Caroline Lazo, was not true and according to the Washington Post, “a collection of lies.” However, this “collection of lies” surpassed any remaining historical truisms and the moniker of “Martin Van Ruin” among other nicknames cemented Van Buren’s place as Andrew Jackson’s lackey and defined much of the eighth president’s legacy in American history.
After the former Mexican province of Texas declared its independence, the influx of Anglo-Americans – many of whom were slave owners pressured the Jackson and then Van Buren administrations to allow it into the Union. Most Democrats favored admitting Texas into the Union, while the Whig Party opposed the measure. Politically, the nation was divided on the Texas question. Jackson did not act on the Texas question as he did not want to go to war with Mexico. Van Buren – a good Jackson acolyte - followed suit. Although he would defend the country’s national security if threatened, Van Buren did not want a war with Mexico. By leaving the figurative door open for annexation without war, Van Buren paved the way for the next Democratic president (James K. Polk) to seek annexation even if it meant war.
Meanwhile, in December 1837, a group of Upper Canadian rebels revolted against British colonial officials in York (Toronto). One of the last major rebellions in the Atlantic World, the Canadian Rebellion of 1836-1837 and the subsequent Patriot War (1838-1841) threatened the domestic tranquility of the United States and British hegemony throughout the West. Early on, Van Buren declared the U.S. neutral in Canadian affairs. He did, however, dispatch Winfield Scott (1786-1866) to patrol the U.S.-Upper Canadian border to prevent any hostilities from spilling-over into the U.S., despite the strong support for Canadian republicanism within his own party. Meanwhile in the winter months of 1838-1839, a land dispute in the Northeast – known as the Aroostook War – threatened the U.S. and peace with Britain even further. Diplomats eventually resolved both issues with the British in the Canadas as part of the slaveholding Tyler administration’s pivot from acquiring northern territories to acquiring Texas. The peaceful resolution of these issues led to peace between the U.S. and the British Empire which radicals in the Democratic Party said was a result of Van Buren’s affinity for British power.
Van Buren “passed the buck” on the Texas question and the Canadian Rebellions. His inability to act on these issues on the U.S.’s northern and southern borders cost him a great deal of support from both slaveholders in the South and radical Democrats in the North. A future John Tyler (1790-1862) administration annexed Texas, while the diplomatic prowess of Daniel Webster and Winfield Scott resolved longstanding border issues with the Canadians and the British. Van Buren’s inaction allowed the rise of William Henry Harrison and then James K. Polk while also spelling the downfall of his own political career.
While in office, Van Buren continued Jackson’s Indian removal policies. Signed in 1830, Jackson’s Indian Removal Act led to the infamous and terrible Trail of Tears. In the decades following Jackson’s policy, the U.S. military forcibly removed Native Americans from their ancestral lands in the East and relocated them in the West past the Mississippi River. The bulk of the Indian removal efforts occurred during Van Buren’s presidency. By the end of the 1830s, the Trail of Tears devastated Native American populations throughout the U.S. and was quite costly to the federal government. The total lives lost remains unknown, but for just the Cherokee Nation, numbers range between 500 to 2,000 on the low end and 800 to 4,000 on the extreme end. This policy remains a major stain on Van Buren’s historical record.
Finally, Van Buren, a native New Yorker, was not a defender of slavery, but neither was he a defender of abolitionism or abolitionists. Indeed, Van Buren believed that abolitionists would drive the nation toward civil war and he spent almost his entire career trying to maintain the “gentleman’s agreement” that neither section would agitate the slavery issue. He tried always to be a force for managing political conflict and assiduously avoided agitating it whenever possible. In 1839, a Spanish slave-ship from Cuba called The Amistad was overtaken by the slaves onboard. Survivors of the uprising attempted to navigate back to Africa, however, the Spanish navigators steered the ship north and it was intercepted by the USS Washington near Long Island. The case went to court and a federal judge ruled that the slaves were to be set free. As a sop to the South, Van Buren successfully appealed the decision, leading to the famed Amistad Supreme Court ruling. The justices affirmed the lower court’s ruling that the African slaves must be set free.
Van Buren’s presidency was by no means the most effective in U.S. history. He did, however, accomplish many of his goals like strengthening the relationship between the U.S. and Britain and firmly establishing the new party system in American politics. Van Buren’s shortcomings, though, were tainted then and now with the blot of pragmatism and business as usual at nearly any moral cost. His constant political triangulation, his hand-wringing compromises, and his callous disregard of those who stood in the way of coalition-building marked him (and perhaps still do) as a sycophant to the British and southern slaveholders, tarnishing his image among radicals then and virtually everyone now.
 There are numerous polls that support this claim. For example, a 2019 APSA poll ranked Van Buren 27 out of 44 presidents. For more on this poll see Brennan Weiss’ Presidents Day article: “RANKED: The Greatest U.S. Presidents, According to Political Scientists,” Business Insider, February 18, 2019, accessed July 10, 2019, https://www.businessinsider.com/greatest-us-presidents-ranked-by-political-scientists-2018-2. Time magazine ranked Van Buren among the 10 most forgettable presidents in U.S. history. For more, see: Dan Fletcher, “Fail to the Chief: Martin Van Buren,” Top Ten Forgettable Presidents, Time, accessed July 19, 2019, http://content.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1879648_1879646_1879654,00.html.
 Joel Silbey, “Martin Van Buren: Life in Brief,” University of Virginia, Miller Center, accessed July 30, 2019, https://millercenter.org/president/vanburen/life-in-brief.
 Sean Wilentz, Andrew Jackson: The American President Series: The 7th Presidents, 1829-1837 (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2005), 13.
 Jon Meacham, American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House (New York: Random House, 2008), xxi.
 Amy H. Sturgis, The Trail of Tears and Indian Removal (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2007), 39.
 William Preston Vaughn, The Anti-Masonic Party in the United States: 1826-1843 (Lexington: The University of Kentucky Press, 1983), 172.
 Alasdair Roberts, America’s First Great Depression: EconomicCrisis and Political Disorder After the Panic of 1837 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2012), 86-87. Donald B. Cole, Martin van Buren and the American Political System (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984), 293.
 Ibid., 296.
 For more, see: “Loco Foco” in Carroll Free Press, Carroll Ohio, April 22, 1836.
 Roberts, America’s First Great Depression, 86-89.
 Ibid., 90.
 William Seward private correspondence quoted in ibid., 90. With significant modifications, Democrats did finally pass a version of the Independent Treasury in 1840, which Van Buren signed on July 4, declaring the move “the second declaration of independence.” Jeffrey Rogers Hummel, “Martin Van Buren: The American Gladstone,” Reassessing the Presidency: The Rise of the Executive State and the Decline of Freedom, John V. Denson (ed.), Auburn, Alabama: The Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2001.
 Caroline Evensen Lazo, Martin Van Buren (Minneapolis: Lerner Books, 2012), 73, 77.
 James McPherson, “Editors Note” in Joel Silbey, Storm Over Texas: The Annexation Controversy and the Road to Civil War (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), xi.
 H.W. Brands, Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times (New York: Random House), 526-527.
 David Edwin Harrell, Edwin S. Gaustand, et al., Unto a Good Land: A History of the American People (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing,), 426.
 The Anglophone British colony of Upper Canada refers to much of the Canadian province of Ontario. On the other hand, Lower Canada refers to present-day Quebec.
 William Lyon Mackenzie, The Life and Times of Martin Van Buren (1846).
 John Ehle, Trail of Tears: The Rise and Fall of the Cherokee Nation (Anchor: New York, 1988), 380, 39