Why Some Succeed While Others Fail: Martin Van Buren

In the quiet little village of Kinderhook, New York, there was at the close of the Revolution, an indifferent tavern kept by a Dutchman named Van Buren. There his distinguished son Martin was born on the 5th day of December, 1782.

After attending the academy in his native village he, at the age of fourteen, began the study of law. His success was phenomenal from the beginning, and he has passed into history as an indefatigable student all through life. In 1808 he was made surrogate of his native county. In 1812 he was elected to the senate of his native State and in that body voted for electors pledged to support DeWitt Clinton for the presidency. He was attorney-general of the State from 1815 until 1819. Mr. Van Buren was a very able politician and it was through his influence that the celebrated ‘Albany Regency,’ whose influence ruled the State uninterruptedly for over twenty years, was set on foot.

In 1821 Mr. Van Buren was chosen to the United States Senate and was made a member of the convention to revise the State constitution. In the latter body he advocated the extension of the elective franchise, but opposed universal sufferage, as also the plan of appointing justices of the peace by popular election. He voted against depriving the colored citizens of the franchise but supported the proposal to require of them a freehold qualification of $250. In 1828 he was elected governor of the great State of New York and resigned his seat in the National Congress to assume this new position. As governor he opposed the safety fund system which was adopted by the legislature in 1829. In the month of March of the next year after assuming the gubernatorial chair he accepted the leading position in the cabinet of President Jackson but resigned two years later.

On May 22nd, 1832, he was nominated for the office of vice-president on the ticket with General Jackson, and was elected. The Democratic National Convention, which met at Baltimore May 20th, 1835, unanimously nominated him for the presidency, and in the ensuing election he received 170 electoral votes out of a total of 283,—73 being cast for his principal antagonist, General Harrison. The country was now plunged into the deepest pecuniary embarrassments, the result of previous hot-house schemes and speculations, rather than the result of the administrative measures of Van Buren. He had succeeded to the presidency at a most unfortunate time. Commerce was prostrate; hundreds of mercantile houses in every quarter were bankrupt; imposing public meetings attributed these disasters to the policy of the government.

On May 15th, he summoned an extraordinary session of congress to meet the following September. The president in his message advised that a bankrupt law for banking and other incorporations be enacted; and that the approaching deficit in the treasury be made good by withholding from the States the fourth and last installment of a previous large surplus ordered to be deposited with them by act of June 23rd, 1836, and by the temporary issue of $6,000,000 of treasury notes. He also recommended the adoption of what was called the independent treasury system, which was passed in the senate, but was laid on the table in the other branch of congress. The payment of the fourth installment to the States was postponed, and the emission of $10,000,000 of treasury notes was authorized.

Again the President in his next annual message recommended the passage of the independent treasury bill, but the measure was again rejected. Another presidential measure, however, was more fortunate, a so-called pre-emption law being enacted, giving settlers on public lands the right to buy them in preference to others. Van Buren’s third annual message was largely occupied with financial discussions and especially with argument in favor of the divorcement of the national government from the banks throughout the country, and for the exclusive receipt and payment of gold and silver in all public transactions; that is to say, for the independent treasury. Through his urgent arguments in its favor it became a law June 30, 1840, and it is the distinguishing feature in his administration. The canvass of 1840 was early begun by the opposition, and became a bitterly contested one. The Whigs placed Harrison at the head of their ticket and as Van Buren had no competitor, he became the candidate of the Democracy. Never in the political history of the United States had there been such universal excitement as was displayed in the ensuing campaign. The great financial trials through which the government had passed were made the basis of all argument by the press and orators for the opposition.

Charges of corruption, extravagance and indifference to the welfare of the laboring classes were collected and dumped upon poor Van Buren. Thus was Van Buren represented, while the enthusiasm for Harrison was greatly augmented by log cabins, emblematical of his humble origin. This time Van Buren received only 60 electoral votes, while General Harrison received 234. His last annual message set forth with renewed energy the benefits of the independent treasury; announced with satisfaction that the government was without a public debt; and earnestly advised the enactment of more stringent laws for the suppression of the African slave trade.

In 1844 Mr. Van Buren’s friends once more urged his nomination for the presidency by the Democratic national convention at Baltimore. But he was rejected there on account of his opposition to the annexation of Texas to the Union, avowed in a public letter to a citizen of Mississippi who had asked for his position on that question. Though a majority of the delegates in the convention were pledged to his support, a rule being passed making a two-thirds vote necessary to a choice, proved fatal to his interest. For several ballots he led all competitors when he withdrew his name and Mr. Polk was nominated on the ninth ballot.

In 1848, when the Democrats had nominated General Cass, and avowed their readiness to tolerate slavery in the new territories lately acquired from Mexico, Mr. Van Buren and his adherents adopting the name of the free democracy at once began to discuss in public that new aspect of the slavery question.

They held a convention at Utica on June 22nd which nominated Mr. Van Buren for president, and Henry Dodge of Wisconsin for vice-president. Mr. Dodge declined, and at a great convention in Buffalo on August 9th, Charles Francis Adams was substituted. The convention declared: “Congress has no more right to make a slave than to make a king; it is the duty of the federal government to relieve itself from all responsibility for the existence and continuance of slavery wherever the government possesses constitutional authority to legislate on that subject and is thus responsible for its existence.”

In accepting the nomination of this new party Mr. Van Buren declared his full assent to its anti-slavery principles. The result was that in New York he received the votes of more than half of those who had hitherto been attached to the Democratic party, and that General Taylor the candidate of the Whig party was elected. At the outbreak of the civil war he at once declared himself in favor of maintaining the Republic as a Union. Unhappily he died before the close of the war and was thus deprived the satisfaction of seeing perpetuated the Union he so dearly loved. On the 24th of July, 1872, at his home in Kinderhook, he passed from death into life.