Martin Van Buren was born on December 5th 1782 in Kinderhook New York. The region was mostly Dutch so he was the first Vice President who spoke English as a second language. His father ran a local tavern where he learned how to deal with all kinds of people from the poor farmers to the wealthy merchants passing through the area.
Unlike the former Vice Presidents Martin Van never attended a college, he apprenticed with a law firm in New York City. After a few years he passed the bar and joined the practice of his half brother James Van Alen. While in New York he became active in the Democrat-Republican party working for the campaign of John Peter Van Ness. He first aligned himself with Aaron Burr’s political machine but then switched over to George Clinton. His work paid off and he was appointed to the Surrogate (Probate) Court until the Federalist won control of the state legislation and he was removed from the office.
In 1812 Van Buren was elected to the state senate where he joined the Opposition Party, the group trying to seize control of the Democrat-Republican party from DeWitt Clinton. In 1815 he was appointed the New York Attorney General. In 1820 he served as the New York representative to the Electoral College and voted for James Monroe.
Van Buren never served in the military but became active in promoting and funding the militia. He even served on the prosecution of William Hull (following the surrender of Detroit during the War of 1812). Van Buren was offered a military position but the war ended before he received his commission.
As the nation became a two party political system Van Buren became an important figure in the Democrat-Republican party and promoted the spoils system, rewarding those who supported certain politicians. At the 1820 convention he attempted to increase voting rights, although he opposed the suffragettes. He formed a group known as the Bucktails who worked to raise funds and influence the vote through pandering and intimidation. As the Democrat-Republicans began to fall out of favor Van Buren joined his political organization the Jeffersonian Democrats and eventually the Democrats.
In 1821 Van Buren was elected to the Senate. He supported improving the nation’s infrastructure such as new roads and canals and even voted to create tariffs to raise funds but remained a supporter of States Rights including slavery. In 1824 he backed the campaign of William H. Crawford but the candidate came in fourth. Van Buren tried to keep the state of New York from supporting John Quincy Adams but a tie vote threw the campaign into the House and the New York representative voted against Van Buren’s wishes. There were charges of election corruption but Van Buren decided to stay out of the fight and bide his time.
In 1828 Van Buren backed Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams’ top rival, for the Presidency. He even ran and was elected Governor of New York in order to guarantee Jackson the support of the state. Three months after winning the office he had to resign since Jackson appointed him Secretary of State, he was the shortest serving Governor in the history of New York. During his time as Secretary of State he managed to achieve a number of trade agreements with the European powers. In 1831 Jackson named Van Buren as the Minister to the Court of St. James as a recess appointment but after congress reconvened he lost the position and returned to the United States, John C. Calhoun had been the driving factor behind Van Buren losing the appointment.
During his battles with Calhoun Andrew Jackson found that Van Buren was a powerful ally. In the election of 1832 Jackson hand picked Van Buren to run as the second on the ticket, it was the first time a Presidential candidate chose his running mate, previously the party officials voted for the Vice President. Although people felt that Van Buren couldn’t help win the southern states due to his support of the tariff act, the political attack by Calhoun made him a sympathetic character and the Jackson/Van Buren ticket won the election.
As the Vice President Van Buren found himself in the middle of several fights. During the Nullification Crisis in which South Carolina attempted to secede from the Union, Van Buren came into direct confrontation with Calhoun but he managed to keep the peace. He found himself in another battle when Jackson refused to renew the Second Bank of America, a corrupt organization that controlled the nation’s money supply. The fights became so bad that he started carrying a pistol for self protection. Eventually he managed to negotiate the Tariff Compromise of 1833 that defused the situation.
In 1836 Andrew Jackson decided to retire and threw his support behind Van Buren. It was a heated election, the Whigs fielded a number of candidates in order to throw the election to the House but Van Buren managed to win votes in the south by supporting slavery and blocking the distribution of abolitionist propaganda in the Southern States. Van Buren became the first sitting Vice President to win the Presidency since the ratification of the 12th Amendment, and he would be the only one for the next 132 years. His Presidency was marred by the financial crisis of 1837, brought on by Jackson’s banking policies. He attempted to maintain the peace in the U.S. by blocking the statehood of Texas until the slave to free state balance could be maintained and paid Mexico for the territory. He tried to return the slave ship The Amistad to Spain, which eventually turned into a Supreme Court trial argued by John Quincy Adams. And perhaps worst of all he executed the relocation policy of the Native American population to Oklahoma that resulted in the Trail of Tears. He even ignored the pleas of the Mormons who were being driven from their homes in Missouri. The financial crisis and division among the new Democratic Party resulted in the Whig’s winning congress in 1838 and the White House in 1840.
In 1844 Van Buren attempted to run for the Presidency again but his support of the slave states cost him votes among the northern abolitionists and he lost the nomination to Polk. After his loss he became a strong supporter of the abolitionists and formed two different parties, the Barnburners and the Free Soils but was never able to create a large enough coalition to make inroads against the Democrats and the Whigs.
After the outbreak of the Civil War he remained a member of the Northern Democrats but threw his full support behind Abe Lincoln. Although he was asked to join a convention of former Presidents to try to end the war he refused saying it was the responsibility of people like Buchanan and Pierce since they were the last to hold office.
In 1862 Martin Van Buren contracted a bad case of pneumonia and eventually died from a combination of asthma and a heart attack. He was buried at his home in Kinderhook New York. He served as Vice President during a complex period in the United States as the fight increased over who would run the country, the central government or the individual states. His actions helped to delay the Civil War but he was unable to completely prevent it. His greatest contribution was creating the oldest continuous party in the U.S., the Democrats but he did so using corruption, payoffs and political machines. In the end he was a better Vice President than a President.
The lesson of Van Buren is first, keep your head down while you are in office and two, don’t try to be President. So in 2016 write in Ocular Nervosa as an independent Vice President candidate, but not for President.