Martin Van Buren (1837 – 1841): The Eighth Retrospective
“Whatcha got ain’t nothin new. This country’s hard on people, you can’t stop what’s coming, it ain’t all waiting on you. That’s vanity.” – Ellis, No Country for Old Men (2007)
Martin Van Buren was the true father of Andrew Jackson’s Democratic party, as well as Andrew Jackson’s handpicked heir in 1836. This endorsement gave him the election.
Martin Van Buren officially owned one slave though he wrote that “Morally and politically speaking slavery is an evil of the first magnitude and whatever may be the consequences it is our duty to prohibit its progress in all cases where such prohibition is allowed by the Constitution.”
Still, he believed the Constitution did not allow for the prohibition of slavery in existing U.S. states, so the practical effect of his antislavery statement was minimal.
Indeed, in his inaugural address of March 4, 1837, he promised to be an “inflexible and uncompromising opponent of every attempt on the part of Congress to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia against the wishes of the slaveholding States, and also with a determination equally decided to resist the slightest interference with it in the States where it exists.”
Van Buren referred to slaveholders as “sincere friends to the happiness of mankind,” and he described abolition as a vicious device “of evil disposed persons to disturb the harmony of our happy Union.” Van Buren even published a pamphlet opposing the abolition of slavery.
Toward the end of his life, he also praised the Dred Scott decision in which the U.S. Supreme Court denied citizenship to African Americans. Van Buren wrote:
I have read all the opinions given by the judges in the Dred Scott case with care, and …. I am now convinced that the sense in which the word ‘citizen’ was used by those who framed and ratified the Federal Constitution was not intended to embrace the African race.
Panic of 1837
Van Buren inherited the financial ruins of Jackson’s Bank War immediately upon his inauguration. The Panic of 1837 was a financial crisis in the United States that touched off a major depression, which lasted until the mid-1840s. Profits, prices, and wages went down; unemployment went up; and pessimism abounded.
The panic had both domestic and foreign origins. Speculative lending practices in the West, a sharp decline in cotton prices, a collapsing land bubble, international specie (money in the form of coins rather than notes) flows, and restrictive lending policies in Britain were all factors.
On May 10, 1837, banks in New York City suspended specie payments and so would no longer redeem commercial paper in specie at full face value. Despite a brief recovery in 1838, the recession persisted for approximately seven years. Banks collapsed, businesses failed, prices declined, and thousands of workers lost their jobs. Unemployment may have been as high as 25% in some locales. From 1837 to 1844, generally speaking, deflation in wages and prices occurred
Panic of 1839
After a brief recovery, the Panic of 1839 took hold mainly due to a glut in the cotton market. Cotton was the backbone of the American economy at the time, so when the price of cotton collapsed, the American economy went with it.
Van Buren and Texas
He avoided the question of the annexation of Texas for fear it would inflame the brewing slavery issue. His failure there was exacerbated by his lack of a plan for the ailing economy. We went into a deep depression in 1840.
Van Buren and the Whig Party
A combination of economic and political factors made it pretty clear that Martin Van Buren would be a one term president. The new Whig Party could have run anybody and won. If they knew that, they probably would have run Henry Clay. Instead they chose William Henry Harrison because he resembled the ever popular Andrew Jackson in that he was a frontier general. Unlike his predecessors, Harrison supported rechartering the of Bank of the United States.
Election of 1840
The election of 1840 was the first campaign to feature open public rallies, songs, and slogans. Van Buren was called “Martin Van Ruin” by Harrison supporters while their cry was “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” as the Battle of Tippecanoe was where Harrison gained his war time acclaim, and John Tyler was Harrison’s running mate. American expansion west (with log cabin imagery) was the symbol of the election of 1840. For his part, Harrison was accused of being too old, a pseudo-Jackson, and a phony general. None of this mattered as ultimately the disastrous economy decided the election.
Martin Van Buren
Van Buren was the ultimate political protegé and machine politician. A back room organizer, he was better as a builder of a party but not for executive office. This is one of the earliest public outcries about the president’s inability to manage the economy. This is ironic because the economic distress was caused by his predecessor. Sound familiar?
We are about 50 years deep into the country. By now it should be evident that what people are bitching about in the present day, people bitched about from the very beginning. Van Buren was incapable of making tough decisions. He always straddled the fence as a builder and architect of a political party.
- “Battle of Tippecanoe“. (n.d.). The Canadian Encyclopedia. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/battle-of-tippecanoe
- “Martin Van Buren“. (n.d.). UnderstandingPrejudice.org. https://secure.understandingprejudice.org/draft/slavery/presinfo.php?president=8
- (n.d.). NEH-Edsitement. https://edsitement.neh.gov/curricula/campaign-1840-william-henry-harrison-and-tyler-too
- “Panic of 1837“. (n.d.). https://ohiohistorycentral.org/w/Panic_of_1837
- “The panic of 1839“. (2016, May 25). Last Best Hope of Earth. https://lastbesthopeofearth.com/2016/05/30/the-panic-of-1839/
- “Van Buren to Polk and the Texas annexation“. (n.d.). Macrohistory : World History. https://www.fsmitha.com/h3/h41-mex3.htm
- “Whig party“. (n.d.). Ohio History Central. https://ohiohistorycentral.org/w/Whig_Party
William Henry Harrison (1841) would follow Martin Van Buren
Andrew Jackson (1829 – 1837) preceded Martin Van Buren
John Quincy Adams (1825 – 1829) was the first President who wasn’t a founding father.
Zachary Taylor (1849 – 1850) would assume the presidency after the Mexican War
Woodrow Wilson (1913 – 1921) would guide the United States through World War I.
Jimmy Carter (1977 – 1981) would be the only Democratic President for 25 years post Civil Rights.
George W. Bush (2000 – 2008) is the final President in our series.