Martin Van Buren
by R.D. Monroe, Ph.D.

Martin Van Buren (1782-1862) was born to a family of Dutch ancestry in Kinderhook, New York. He became a lawyer through self-study and worked as a clerk in a law office. He was a passionate Republican, and he became a dominant figure in New York politics. Though a strong partisan, Van Buren was known for his amiability, snappy dress, and his ability to maintain friendships with political foes. He was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1821, distinguishing himself on the national stage. Andrew Jackson selected him for secretary of state in 1829, and Van Buren eventually became Jackson's vice president. He won the presidency in his own right in 1836 with Jackson's blessing, but his administration suffered under the economic depression that followed the Panic of 1837. He was defeated in 1840 and lost a bid for the Democratic nomination in 1844 because of his opposition to the annexation of Texas. Van Buren's son John was a leading figure in the Free Soil party, a third party anxious to resist the extension of slavery. John persuaded his father to accept a draft to be the presidential candidate of the Free Soil party in 1848 but former general Zachary Taylor was victorious that year. After that defeat, Van Buren returned to the Democratic party.