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
“Everything Wrong with the Presidents” series focuses on, as the title suggests, everything each president did wrong while in office. While many presidents enacted worthwhile, and even occasionally beneficial, policies, that’s not what these essays are about. Thus, silence regarding the good actions should not be taken as denial of their existence.
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 his presidency as average, grouped among some of the least‐effective and forgettable presidents in U.S. history. 1
Martin (Maarten) 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 and the first to have been born an American citizen. 2 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 of July 1804. In New York, Van Buren pioneered the Jacksonian period’s new national politics, forging an alliance between Albany and Richmond, consolidating his personal influence over state political factions, and preparing the way for what became the Democratic Party in the 1830s. By then, Van Buren climbed to become President Jackson’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.” 3 For Van Buren, opportunity was everywhere. In part because he was a widower whose wife died in 1819, he had a great deal of free time and devoted the greater part of his life to a particularly engaged and involved form of party leadership. He did, of course, have several children but for a man like Van Buren, they were the makings of a political dynasty. 4
Van Buren easily won the election of 1836 and he did so with the intent of “following in Old Hickory’s footsteps.” 5 The “Red Fox of Kinderhook” ran against four Whigs – 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 betrayed their 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 had worked, the job of choosing the president would have passed to 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. 6 This plan failed and Jackson’s lingering popularity helped boost Van Buren into the White House of his own right. The “Little Magician” was now running the castle, and Democrats expected that their victory would be complete. They were wrong.
Shortly after Van Buren entered office in 1837, a trans‐Atlantic financial panic gripped the United States. In the years prior to the Panic of 1837, the United States flourished economically but a combination of poor communications, Mexican silver flows, and decisions made by the Bank of England sharply cut credit markets and disrupted the cotton trade, arresting business of all kinds over the course of several months. 7 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.” 8 Many Americans blamed Andrew Jackson’s specie circular for the financial collapse. Jackson issued this order in 1836, requiring payment in gold or silver for all western land sales. Jackson’s purpose was the drive paper money out of circulation, and now bankers and politicians urged Van Buren to repeal the circular and encourage the flow of paper credit. Democrats including William C. Rives (1793–1868) and Nathaniel P. Tallmadge 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, 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. 9
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 key Democrats waged a letter writing campaign to keep the circular as law. Van Buren ultimately kept the circular though “a majority in Congress had declared against [it].” 10 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. Jackson instituted the circular in the first place as part of his larger “Bank War” against the Bank of the United States (BUS). The very first step had been his famous veto of the bank’s charter, followed by the specie circular and removal of government deposits from the BUS. Once the government withdrew its deposits, the administration still needed to keep its treasury somewhere, so Jackson distributed it across a series of state‐chartered banks which Jackson’s opponents called the “pet banks.” Rather than privileging Jackson’s “pets,” radical Democrats pushed President Van Buren to keep the government’s treasury altogether separate from the banking system. The only real solution, they said, was a truly independent treasury—a proper divorce of bank and state. The Van Buren administration proposed the Divorce Bill which would have established a sub‐treasury system to shift funds from state banks to the federal level. The radical Locofoco faction of the Democratic Party supported the bill while more conservative Democrats like Calhoun opposed it. 11 There was also talk of reviving the BUS, but even the bank’s president Nicholas Biddle knew that the Democrats would not “betray Jackson by restoring the bank.” 12
Van Buren’s Divorce Bill was an attempt to win back the locofoco faction, but the gamble backfired and the bill languished. Opposition newspapers delighted in the legislation’s apparently permanent state of limbo. For the moment, at least, government deposits remained in the “pet banks,” and the banking, business, and political communities at the state level diligently set about reinflating the bubble from a few years earlier. 13 By 1838, the U.S. and Atlantic economies recovered, but as Van Buren’s conservative Democratic colleagues warned, not acting on the Panic of 1837 cost the party votes in the South. By 1839, New York’s Whig Governor William Seward 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.” 14
Van Buren’s response to the Panic of 1837 was more of an effort to save face with his Jacksonian counterparts than to save the country from economic disaster—and the haphazard policy outcomes 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 lush British carpets, and slept on luxurious French beds. According to Van Buren biographer Caroline Lazo, though, the charges were unfounded. The Jacksonian Washington Post used more colorful language, calling them “a collection of lies.” However, the imagery of Van Buren as an effete aristocrat won out in public arena, the “Red Fox” turned into “Martin Van Ruin,” and already Van Buren’s reputation as a mere Jackson lackey started to cement in place. 15
But Van Buren was—in reality, at least—no mere lackey, not even for Jackson. Van Buren created the very party system which elevated Jackson to office in the first place and delivered him majorities in Congress. He was one of the era’s “new men of politics,” born of humble origins but possessed with inordinate talents and drive. Rather than submit himself to carry out a superior man’s order, Van Buren relished his own behind‐the‐scenes, master‐level puppetry and desired nothing so much throughout his political career as pacific relations between factions of Democrats. So long as there was peace and cooperation within the party across sectional lines, Van Buren could always strike the right policy notes to gain a majority. Because the subject of slavery was always the most explosive issue with the most potential to divide parties across sectional lines, Van Buren was committed to maintaining the “gentleman’s agreement” that good Democrats not mention slavery at all in national debates. Even broaching the subject could kick off a firestorm that separates the party into warring factions, so Van Buren assiduously avoided the subject at all costs—even at the cost of acquiring vast new territories for the Union. 16
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 was opposed. 17 Politically, the nation was divided. Jackson did not act on the Texas question as he did not want to go to war with Mexico. 18 Van Buren – good Jacksonian that he was — followed suit. Although he would defend the country’s national security if threatened, Van Buren did not want a war with Mexico. 19 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). 20 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 General Winfield Scott 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 the northern and southern borders cost him a great deal of support from both slaveholders in the South and radical Democrats in the North. Years later, the outgoing Tyler administration finally did annex Texas only after the committed expansionist James K. Polk won the election of 1844. Also under Tyler, Daniel Webster’s diplomatic prowess prevailed as he and Winfield Scott negotiated the Webster‐Ashburton Treaty to resolve the border with Britain. Van Buren’s inaction allowed the rise of William Henry Harrison, Tyler, and then James K. Polk—each of them enemies of Van Buren’s very best ideas and qualities. The Magician’s own career never recovered. 21
While in office, Van Buren continued Jackson’s Indian removal policies. Signed in 1830, Jackson’s Indian Removal Act led to the infamous 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 and 4,000. 22 This policy remains the most serious stain on Van Buren’s historical record, the clearest example of his administration—normally heralded as the most libertarian of presidencies—causing direct and incalculable harm to an entire class of people.
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, but 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. 23
Van Buren did accomplish many of his goals in office, like strengthening the relationship between the U.S. and Britain and firmly establishing the new party system in American politics. Unlike so many of his southern Jacksonian counterparts—and the northern “monopoly” or “Bank Democrats,”—Van Buren was genuinely laissez‐faire. Even his best qualities and greatest accomplishments, 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.
11. For more, see: “Loco Foco” in Carroll Free Press, Carroll Ohio, April 22, 1836.
12. Roberts, America’s First Great Depression, 86–89.
13. Ibid., 90. For more on the Panic of 1837, see: Lepler, Jessica M. The Many Panics of 1837: People, Politics, and the Creation of a Transatlantic Financial Crisis. New York: Cambridge University Press. 2013.
14. 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.
15. Caroline Evensen Lazo, Martin Van Buren (Minneapolis: Lerner Books, 2012), 73, 77.
16. Pessen, Edward. Jacksonian America: Society, Personality, and Politics. Homewood, Illinois: The Dorsey Press. 1969.
17. 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.
18. H.W. Brands, Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times (New York: Random House), 526–527.
19. 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.
20. 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.
21. William Lyon Mackenzie, The Life and Times of Martin Van Buren (1846). For more on Webster’s resolution of the border dispute, see Carroll, Francis. A Good and Wise Measure: The Search for the Canadian‐American Boundary, 1783–1842. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. 2001.
22. John Ehle, Trail of Tears: The Rise and Fall of the Cherokee Nation (Anchor: New York, 1988), 380, 390.
23. For more on the Amistad rebels and their battles for freedom against slavery and Van Buren both, see Marcus Rediker, The Amistad Rebellion: An Atlantic Odyssey of Slavery and Freedom, (New York: Penguin Books) 2012.