An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: The Presidents of the United States of America – Martin Van Buren

Oct 30, 2012 by

Martin Van Buren

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1)      Professor Elder, thank you for agreeing to do this series of interviews to let students all across the United States know a bit more about the men who have led this country for more than 200 years. We are up to the eighth president of the United States, Martin van Buren. When and where was this President born and when did he serve-( during what time period or event or series of events ?)

Martin van Buren holds a distinction among the individuals who have been elected president of the United States. He was the first of those men who was born a citizen of the United States. We had declared our independence in July of 1776, and van Buren was born on December 5, 1782.

He was born in Kinderhook, New York, a community that had been found by Dutch settlers when present day New York was a colony of the Netherlands. The residents of Kinderhook spoke Dutch, and that was the language that van Buren spoke growing up. He thus also holds the distinction of being the only American president for whom English was a second language. As he grew up van Buren was able to attend local public and private schools, and he demonstrated an aptitude for elocution.

At the age of 14 he began to study law with a lawyer in his home town of Kinderhook, and spent six years in the process of honing his skills. He was admitted to the bar in New York in 1803, and began to practice law. Van Buren entered politics in 1812 when he was elected to the New York State Senate. While serving in that capacity, he organized like minded elected officials (known as the Bucktails) in an effort to use their political positions to control the allocation of patronage.  This process became known as The Spoils System, and van Buren’s skills in manipulating it earned him the nickname “The Little Magician.” Van Buren benefited from this process by winning a seat in the US Senate from New York in 1821. Van Buren was reappointed to that seat in 1827, and in November of 1828 he was elected governor of New York. Van Buren only served three months in that capacity, as President Andrew Jackson nominated him to be his secretary of state.

Here again, van Buren would not remain long on the job. A controversy erupted during Jackson’s first term regarding the wife of one of his cabinet members, and the brouhaha caused every member of Jackson’s cabinet to resign in 1831. Jackson then appointed van Buren to be our minister to Great Britain, but the Senate refused to confirm his nomination. Van Buren was not idle long, as the Democratic National Convention selected him to be Jackson’s running mate in 1832. Van Buren was thus perfectly positioned to be the party’s candidate for president in 1836 when Jackson’s second term ended. Van Buren easily won the election, and was inaugurated on March 4, 1837.

2)      What was he MOST known for?

Van Buren had been very good at building political coalitions, and most people expected that he would continue this trend. Unfortunately for him, his political skills failed him as president. He alienated anti-slavery Americans when he supported returning slaves whom had commandeered the ship “Amistad” to their Spanish masters, but angered pro-slavery Americans when he refused the request of the Republic of Texas to be annexed by the United States. Even worse, one of the worst economic downturns in our nation’s history started the year he was inaugurated. These three things are what van Buren’s presidency is best known for.

3)      What would you say were his strengths?

Van Buren was a gentleman in the best sense of the word. He was never mean spirited towards his political opponents, and was well respected by all who knew him. He also had integrity. He could easily have blamed the economic downturn on Jackson’s economic policies, but he chose to shoulder the burden himself.

4)      What were his relative weaknesses- politically perhaps, personally?

Van Buren proves how difficult it is to be president. While he had displayed admirable political finesse at every level before he was inaugurated, he made decisions regarding the “Amistad” and Texas that even a novice should have recognized would be politically disastrous.

5)      What would you say was his impact on the United States and possibly the world?

Van Buren had helped create an idea that would remain a powerful political tool for a long stretch of time in American life: rewarding supporters with governmental largesse. Creating the Civil Service system helped ameliorate this to a certain extent, but there are still vestiges of that that are still with us today.

6)      In terms of his place in history- it seems to be secure – but could you summarize your views as a historian about him?

Ironically, Van Buren will always be remembered for being an unmemorable president. The nation recovered from the economic downturn, the US Supreme Court ruled in favor of the “Amistad” slaves, and Texas was eventually admitted to the Union. Thus there was no real legacy of his presidency to look back on.

7)      What would you say were his greatest accomplishments?

Van Buren was far more influential before he became president. The way that political parties function today is in large measure a result of his machinations during the 1820s and 1830s.

8)      Could you provide a summary statement about our eighth President?

If people still talk about van Buren today, it is usually in connection with the term “OK.” Some historians have argued that the phrase entered the American language as a result of Martin van Buren (the usual explanation is that it was an acronym for Old Kinderhook). If that is all that van Buren is remembered for today, it does not say much for him as president.

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