How does Martin Van Buren rise from being an impoverished child with no education to taking over New York State politics, forging the Democratic Party, and creating the modern two-party system? He does it by being sly. Sly as a fox.
Follow Van Buren, the "Little Magician," as he outwits and manipulates every foe and ally alike to remake the American political landscape, only for it all to collapse on him just four days after reaching the White House when America's first great depression destroys the economy and any dreams Van Buren might have held for what his presidency might have been.
1. Martin Van Buren and the American Political System – Donald B. Cole
2. The Life of Andrew Jackson – Robert V. Remin
3. Heirs of the Founders – H.W. Brands
4. John Quincy Adams – Harlow G Unger
5. Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America – Walter R. Borneman
6. William Henry Harrison – Gail Collins
Support the show (https://www.patreon.com/AbridgedPresidentialHistories)
I know what you’re thinking. Rock-a-bye baby as a campaign song? Yup.
Marvin Van Buren is the president credited with creating America’s two-party system.
And I’m not sure I’d give him all the credit, so don’t just blame Van Buren that you only ever seem to have two parties to pick from, but politics were in this man’s blood. He lived, breathed, and dreamed politics. He created one of the most powerful political machines of his day – the Albany Regency – which controlled New York State politics for 20 years, and then he expanded his reach across the country by forging the Democratic Party, the oldest political party still alive today.
This isn’t going to be an episode about international diplomacy, or wars or invasions. This is a story of the backroom deals and political games our leaders play to gain power. Think of this as an episode of house of cards – the early seasons before the story sucked and we learned Kevin Spacey is creepy as Fork.
This is the story of the five political battles of Martin Van Buren.
Martin Van Buren was born in Kinderhook, New York, on Dec. 5, 1782. One year after George Washington’s victory at York Town and one year before John Adams helped negotiate the end to the revolutionary war. He is the first U.S. President actually born in the independent United States. He’s also the first and only president who didn’t speak English as a first language. Kinderhook was an old Dutch town, so Van Buren actually grew up speaking Dutch. And I hope that earns you some trivia points someday.
Van Buren’s family was pretty poor and ran an inn to get by. Because Kinderhook was along the road from New York City to the state capital in Albany, prominent New York politicians like Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr frequently stayed the night and Van Buren delighted in hearing them debate one another in the tavern – there actually an old rumor, in zero way confirmed, that Van Buren is actually Aaron Burr’s son, because Aaron Burr was a total player and, well, they did kind of look alike. It’s a fun and scandalous rumor, but yeah, zero proof it’s true.
So, constantly exposed to politicians in the family inn, Martin Van Buren decided to become one. Which might have struck his family as crazy. Van Buren hadn’t even complete his basic schooling because his folks were so poor he’d had to drop out to help run the inn. But Van Buren is nothing if not determined. Van Buren left the tavern and spent most of his 20s apprenticing with lawyers and developing political connections around the state until, in 1812, he was elected to the New York state legislature at the age of 30. From this point on, there would be no turning back. Van Buren would be a professional politician the rest of this life.
Martin Van Buren’s political career can basically be defined by five political battles.
First, the battle for New York.
Second, the battle for the Nation.
Third, the Jackson cabinet battle.
Fourth, the battle from the white house.
And fifth, after losing the white house, the battle to get it back.
Let’s start with the battle for New York. A battle that will turn Van Buren from an unknown son of an innkeeper into the most powerful political boss in New York State.
Ok. So this story starts immediately after Martin Van Buren was first elected to the state senate in 1812 when he ran into a bit of a political buzzsaw that nearly took off his head.
The trouble was President James Madison, a Jeffersonian Republican, was running for reelection, and New York City Mayor, DeWitt Clinton, another Jeffersonian Republican, decided to run against him.
And you might be thinking, great. Two Jeffersonian Republicans, they’ll duke it out in the primary and the winner will be their party’s nominee.
But no. Primaries didn’t exist in 1812. If anything, party leaders might hold a caucus to decide who the party would support, but if you decided to buck the will of the caucus and run for president anyway, you were running against your fellow party-mate in the general election.
And that’s what DeWitt Clinton did in 1812.
And Martin Van Buren had to decide who to support.
Clinton ran the Jeffersonian-Republican party in New York. He had helped Van Buren win his seat and his favor or disfavor could make or break Van Buren’s career in New York State.
But James Madison was the friggin president and national leader of the Jeffersonian Republican party. What do you think’s going to happen if Van Buren makes the national party upset?
No matter what, Van Buren was going to offend a group of people who held significant influence over his future career. And he decided that not endorsing was not an option.
Van Buren rolled the dice and decided it was safer to back the regional boss over the national boss. This proved to be the wrong choice. New York went for Clinton in the election of 1812, and quite a few other states did, too, but not enough. Madison won reelection 128-89 in the electoral college, and the national Jeffersonian Republicans now had a bone to pick with that Martin Van Buren guy.
Which was really frustrating for Martin Van Buren. I mean, what was he supposed to do? He was a freshman legislator who owed his seat to Clinton. If his first act as a senator had been to buck Clinton, his political career might have been over before it began. If only there were a strong national party that could keep everyone in line and prevent young politicians like Van Buren from having to make difficult choices like that.
Hey. That’s a good idea. Why doesn’t Van Buren build that party himself, starting in New York State?
And so he did. The 1810s are basically a montage of Van Buren shaking hands, making friends, whispering in ears, building alliances, and slowly drifting away from Clinton, who he felt never properly rewarded him for his loyalty in 1812. And by the way, those were important details about how Van Buren built his political parties. It was never a cult of personality – it was never about him. He did it by keeping an ear out for what people were passionate about and introducing them to like-minded individuals that coalesced into a party that he then led.
By 1821, Van Buren was at the helm of a new New York political party called the BuckTails – basically a state splinter faction of the old Jeffersonian republicans – and they were an election away from taking over New York State politics completely.
But first they’d have to defeat now-Governor Dewitt Clinton.
This is the political battle.
Let’s reset the table. In 1821, Van Buren’s new party, the Bucktails, were riding high. They had just won majorities in the New York State legislature and on a powerful state committee called the Council of Appointments, which, you guessed it, had the power to make lucrative political appointments. Getting control of this council was like pouring gas onto the Bucktails’ fire, because it meant Van Buren could take lucrative jobs away from Clinton’s backers and give them to his Bucktail backers instead, weakening the Clintonians and strengthening the Bucktails.
But state politics can be a fickle thing. Clinton was still a formidable foe and the state’s governor. He was also the governor who had just built the Eerie Canal, which was such a boon for the state’s economy, so he had a strong record to run on. One bad election could reverse the Bucktails’ fortunes.
So Martin Van Buren decided to put his thumb on the scale.
He came up with a plan to guarantee his party’s control of New York politics for decades to come, and it was plan that nobody saw coming – he called for a convention to rewrite the state constitution.
That’s right. He went for the nuclear option. Forget winning elections, he wanted to hardwire the system in his favor to make sure the Clintonians could never threaten his hold on power again.
Calling the state convention was a surprisingly easy move. The real challenge was securing the outcomes he wanted when he got there. You never know what’s going to happen when you call a constitutional convention. Just look at the national convention of 1787. The United States thought it was calling the convention to amend the articles of confederation, and instead the delegates locked the doors, swore each other to secrecy, and wrote an entirely new national constitution with this new-fangled thing called the presidency instead. Nobody saw that coming.
If Van Buren wasn’t careful, there was no knowing what a new state constitution would look like.
But Van Buren was thinking three steps ahead of his competition to make sure he got the outcomes he wanted.
Remember how important that council of appointments is? The Clintonians were convinced that Van Buren’s big play at the convention would be to change how the council was appointed so it would never slip out of the Bucktails’ power. Van Buren let his opponents take the floor first, and they spent all their preparation, and all their time, arguing why the council of appointments should never be in one party’s power. The council was too dangerous to leave in one party’s control, they said. We can’t let that happen!
And after they’d all made the point of how dangerous the council could be, Van Buren took the floor and shocked them by saying he agreed. And not just that he agreed, but that he thought the council of appointments should be dissolved altogether.
(boom sound) that’s the sound of minds being blown.
That’s right. The powerful patronage machine that Van Buren had just taken control of, he wanted it dissolved! And because his opponents had spent all their time railing against it, they felt helpless but to go along with it.
And then Van Buren introduced a series of changes that caught the Clintonians wholly unprepared. In addition to dissolving the council of appointments, Van Buren took aim right at Clinton and called for reducing the Governor’s term from three years to two – so Clinton would be up for reelection next year instead of the year after. Van Buren also wanted the council’s appointment powers given to the senate and the governor, and – this is the big one – he wanted the right to vote expanded from the 100,000 white, male New Yorkers who owned property to the 260,000 white, male New Yorkers who paid certain taxes. And it was purely coincidental, I assure you, that these new voters were almost all rural Bucktails, and the urban Clintonians of New York city weren’t included because, oh, so sorry, you don’t pay the right taxes.
The Clintonians were totally unprepared to argue against this expansion of the voter rolls. And let me tell you, any time you fight against giving people the right to vote, you’re fighting a losing battle. They had to let it through.
Van Buren’s plan succeeded brilliantly. With the pool of eligible voters more than doubled, and most of the new voters being from Bucktail parts of the state, the Bucktails easily expanded their advantage in the Senate and ousted Clinton from the governorship in the next election. By 1823, the Bucktails weren’t the Bucktails any longer. They were the Albany regency, and their control of New York State was total.
Historian Donald B Cole explains how it worked,
“Policy was made at the top by a directorate, or ‘Regency,’ in Albany. Many of those leaders, but not all, held high political positions such as governor, United States senator or Secretary of State. If a problem or crisis arose, the leaders would meet or letters would flow back and forth until a consensus had been reached on how to act. Once the decision had been made, orders would come down to the party caucus in the legislature and would them be transmitted across the state by the party press or roving emissaries. The new circuit judges, appointed by the governor, played an important role as they traveled about their circuits spreading the party line from Albany. At the grassroots the Regency controlled the choice of thousands of justices of the peace, county judges, surrogates, masters and examiners of chancery, all of whom exercised great power at the local level.”
In short, the regency’s power was absolute, and Van Buren was its acknowledged leader. It was around this time friends and foe alike began calling him “The little magician.”
That’s how Martin Van Buren won the battle for New York.
For the magician’s next trick, he’ll do what he did to New York state to the entire nation. It’s time for political battle No. 2, the fight for the Democratic party.
This was his first step to creating that two-party system he was so passionate about.
Ok, but before I get into this, I want to take a quick detour to discuss why did Van Buren want to reincarnate a national two-party system? The country had one before – Federalist and Jeffersonian-Republicans. And the founding fathers had considered that a bug in democracy, not a feature. James Monroe had worked his tail off to end the two-party system by killing the Federalist party. So, why did Van Buren want to bring it back?
Well, he had a few reasons. One was that he saw parties as way to protect the public from power-hungry men out for self-enrichment. I’ll give you a moment to stop laughing. Obviously, this hasn’t really worked out, but Van Buren thought parties would force politicians to subordinate themselves to the will of the party if they wanted to advance politically, and he argued the will of the party would come from the ground up, and the voters would demand accountability.
Van Buren’s other arguments for national parties had more merit. Van Buren thought national parties could focus the political debate on national issues instead of regional issues, reducing the risk of regional factionalism that could lead to civil war. If there were two political parties and they both had the same position on an issue that threatened to split the country geographically like slavery, then anyone with extreme views would have nowhere to go and debate could be controlled. And that basically would work for a couple decades until slavery just became too important to ignore and it split the carefully arranged national party system along regional boundaries. The two party system Van Buren is about to create, it might have helped bury the issue of slavery and postpone civil war for a couple decades, but slavery couldn’t be ignored forever.
Anyway, the point is, Van Buren wanted a two-party system, and he was going to have it.
Back to the narrative.
So, in the process of remaking New York politics, Van Buren had gotten himself elected senator from New York in 1820. Because back then, the New York legislature chose the state’s senators in D.C. and it’s good to be king.
But that’s not all the new York state legislature controlled. In 1820’s New York, the state legislature also decided who the states electors would be to the electoral college during presidential elections. Which is important. Because it meant that the man who controlled the legislature probably controlled New York’s presidential electors. And that man was Martin Van Buren.
So, as Senator Van Buren settled into his new role in D.C., and as the election of 1824 began to grow near, he turned his attention to national politics and the creation of a national party.
And, you may remember, the election of 1824 was a doozie. It represented everything Van Buren feared about not having a two-party system. This was the election where five major regional candidates ran for president: John Quincy Adams from the north, Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay from the west, and John C. Calhoun and William Crawford from the south. As these five candidates vied for the white house, none of them needed to be reminded that the politician who could deliver New York might just deliver the election.
Which meant Van Buren was in position to be choosy. And the thing is, he wasn’t interested in helping just anyone win. He wanted to end the political chaos. He wanted to build a new party devoted to national – not regional – issues. He wanted a partner.
And the partner he chose was William H. Crawford.
And you might be thinking, who?
William Crawford was Monroe’s secretary of treasury. I’ve mentioned him before - he’s the one who, you may remember, nearly got into a physical fight with Monroe in the White House, with Crawford wielding a cane and Monroe wielding a fire poker. More importantly to Van Buren, Crawford had the backing of the Richmond Junto, the powerful Virginia political machine that totally wins the cool name contest. The original Jeffersonian-Republican party had been built on an alliance between New York and Virginia politicians. So Van Buren figured, if it worked for Jefferson, it could work for him, and he announced his support for Crawford.
And who knows, the alliance might have been enough to deliver Crawford the White House and pour the foundation of a new national political party right then and there, if not for one unforeseeable problem. Crawford suffered a paralytic stroke.
The Regency leadership met in a panic – what were they to do? Crawford was slowly recovering, but how could he win if he couldn’t walk or talk?
Van Buren had an answer. Stick with Crawford. The problem was, this was a bad answer. Enough Bucktails thought it was crazy to elect a paralytic that the powerful New York newspaper publisher Thurlow Weed – one of the great behind-the-scenes power brokers in American history – was able to bend enough elbows to beat Van Buren at his own game and convince the state legislature to split New York’s electors between John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, and Crawford with Crawford getting the fewest electors.
Van Buren was humiliated!
But, who says election results have to be final? Yes, New York had chosen its slate of electors, but they wouldn’t actually vote at the electoral college until December. Van Buren had time to act, and he acted by putting so much pressure on the chosen electors that three Clay electors switched their votes to other candidates or failed to show up at the electoral college. These three votes were the difference between Clay tying Crawford for third place – which would have qualified him for the run-off in the House of Representatives, where he was sure he would win – and finishing fourth and missing the runoff.
And because Clay missed the runoff, he was free to direct his support to John Quincy Adams– this was the so-called corrupt bargain where John Quincy Adams was elected president with Clay’s help, and Clay was named his Secretary of State. When Clay directed his home state of Kentucky, which hadn’t cast a single ballot for John Quincy, to vote for him, Van Buren gasped and whispered to a Kentucky Congressman, “If you do this, you sign Mr. Clay’s political death warrant.” Van Buren was right. No matter how many times Clay ran for president, and no matter how favorable the conditions appeared, he would never reach the white house.
I have to say though. It’s terribly ironic that Clay is the one who got tarred with the “corrupt bargain” moniker when Van Buren was the one usurping the will of his own state legislature by pressuring electors to change their votes. Can you imagine if we had an election decided by one or two votes today and it flipped the other way in the electoral college because some senator convinced three of his state’s electors to flip their votes? I can’t even imagine the chaos that would ensue.
Van Buren might not have gotten the exact outcome he was looking for in 1824, but he wasn’t defeated. Van Buren spent the next four years opposing everything president John Quincy wished to accomplish. Van Buren also spent that time building new alliances. In the south, he found a powerful ally in former South Carolina senator and current John Quincy vice president John C. Calhoun, who’s kind of the Emperor Palpatine of early American politics. He seems like a sharp and compelling orator, but secretly he’s a Sith lord who supports slavery and is interested only in his own personal power.
Van Buren also reached out to the west and brought the populist general Andrew Jackson into the fold. Jackson, who had actually won the most electoral votes in 1824, would serve as the energizing face of the new party. The Democratic party.
As John Quincy watched this alliance form against him, he recognized the threat and called Van Buren, “The great electioneering manager for General Jackson,” and found himself powerless to stop it. In 1828, Andrew Jackson was overwhelmingly elected president, Calhoun his vice president, and Van Buren was soon invited to join Jackson’s cabinet as Secretary of State.
The Democratic party had arrived. The national battle had been won. But, if Secretary of State Van Buren and Vice President Calhoun both wanted to be president, and only one of them could follow Jackson, well, who would it be? It’s time for political battle No. 3 - The cabinet battle is about to begin.
As Van Buren joined the Jackson administration, there were three factions vying for Jackson’s favor. The westerners – men Jackson brought with him from Tennessee – the southerners – men aligned with Vice President Calhoun – and the northerner – Van Buren. Van Buren was probably the least trusted of these men by Jackson, which was going to be a challenge, but he quickly went to work winning the general’s confidence.
And this is where Van Buren had an ace up his sleeve.
Van Buren was a widower.
I haven’t mentioned it yet, but Van Buren had married a cousin named Hannah Hoes in 1807 when he was 24 years old. The pair had had four sons, but then, in 1819, just as the Albany regency was taking off, Hannah died.
And Van Buren never remarried, but, well, he did love to flirt. In New York, Washington, and every step of his career, he befriended the wives of his colleagues, and he would tell them things that he knew would get back to their husbands, and that he knew would make him look good. For example, shortly after joining Jackson’s cabinet, Van Buren told Jackson’s niece “Please don’t repeat this to Jackson, but I think he might be the greatest man of all time,” which she of course repeated to Jackson, who thought a little better of Van Buren after that.
But I didn’t bring up Van Buren being a widower for just one anecdote. No. It had two other benefits.
ONE.) Jackson was also widower, very recently, and I bet they bonded a bit over that.
And TWO.) The lack of a wife is going to be very important for earning brownie points with Jackson during a kerfuffle known as the Petticoat affair.
I didn’t talk about this during the Jackson episode because I knew I’d get to it here, but this is one of the most ludicrous cabinet scandals of all time.
The Petticoat affair was when one of Jackson’s cabinet members, an old Tennessee friend, married a woman named Peggy who, well, had a reputation for getting around. This reputation was so strong that, whenever the cabinet and their families met for social occasions, all the other cabinet members’ wives and daughters would ostracize Peggy and treat her terribly. Peggy was never invited to any social engagements and if she ever appeared at one, the other women would leave in a huff and drag their cabinet-member fathers or husbands with them. This treatment of Peggy infuriated President Jackson, whose own beloved wife had suffered similar smears in the press before her death. I mean, Jackson got so worked up and obsessed about this that at one point he hired private eyes to find evidence of Peggy’s good character and then called a cabinet meeting solely to present this evidence and demand his cabinet members say Peggy was a moral woman, which was probably awkward for the cabinet member whose wife they were all talking about.
The ringleader in this mistreatment of Peggy was John Calhoun’s wife, Floride. Which meant nobody drew more of Jackson’s ire than Calhoun for, in Jackson’s opinion, not keeping his wife in line.
The only cabinet member Jackson didn’t get angry at was Martin Van Buren, because Van Buren was being perfectly kind to Peggy since he had no wife or daughter around urging him to do otherwise.
The net of all this is Jackson became closer to Van Buren at the expense of Calhoun and everyone else.
And things for Calhoun got worse. In 1831, Jackson was presented with evidence that Calhoun had opposed Jackson’s invasion of Florida way back when he was a militia general earlier in his career. Jackson’s perception that Calhoun had supported this invasion was the foundation of their entire relationship. So, coming as this did after petticoat affair, this was the last straw. The relationship between Jackson and Calhoun was essentially dead.
Which was great, and terrible, for Van Buren. Van Buren had developed such a reputation as an intriguer that he knew he’d be blamed for driving Jackson and Calhoun apart. I mean, yes, it’s great that Van Buren is now Jackson’s No. 1 man, but if everyone in the country distrusted him for it, he was never going to win the presidency. So Van Buren came up with a plan to avoid the blame. He wrote a letter of resignation and handed it to Andrew Jackson. And Jackson was shocked. What’s this about? And Van Buren explained – you want to fire everyone in your cabinet but me over the Petticoat affair. But if you do that and I’m the only one still standing, the whole country will think that you’re under my spell. So I must resign first, and then we can force the others to resign, and that way you look like you’re in control. And don’t worry. You can hire my friends to replace all those Tennessee or Calhoun-loyalists you’re about to fire and then you can appoint me minister to England until this whole mess blows over.
And Jackson said yes, probably not realizing how thoroughly he was getting played.
But there was one problem. Remember that part about Van Buren being appointed minister to England? That’s a position that requires senate confirmation and, well, anyone who wasn’t a Democrat, and any Democrats aligned with Calhoun, were not inclined to give Van Buren what he wanted right now. So when the senate voted to confirm, it resulted in a tie, and, per senate rules, in the case of a tie, the vice president gets to cast the deciding vote. And who’s vice president right now? Oh yeah. John C Calhoun.
Calhoun must have been bursting with smugness when he cast the deciding vote against Van Buren’s appointment to minister to England. Calhoun later commented to a friendly senator that denying Van Buren the post, “Will kill him, sir. Kill him dead. He will never kick, sir. Never kick.” But the senator replied to Calhoun that he may have, “Broken a minister, but elected a vice president.” And indeed he had.
Instead of being out of sight, out of mind in England, Van Buren was now available to be on hand when Jackson ditched Calhoun in 1832 and invited Van Buren to replace him as Vice President. The first national party convention in U.S. history was called in 1832 to force the party to get in line behind Van Buren, and a rule was passed saying 2/3 of delegates must vote for a candidate to nominate them. This was seen as a way to force more members of the party to accept whoever the party bosses had decreed would be president and vice president, and it will work out that way this one time, and then basically never again. The 2/3 rule will last 100 years and cause a ton of brokered conventions. Today, you need only a simple majority to be nominated by a major political party and, once a presidential candidate hits that threshold, the rest of the delegates tend to get in line. Well, the delegates would get in line behind a winner back then, too, but it’s much harder to win 2/3s of the delegates than one half..
Secure as Jackson’s Vice President, Van Buren had won the cabinet battle. He’d banished his rival Calhoun from the administration and, in 1836, was overwhelming elected president in a four-way race against three regional candidates from the Whig party, which had formed to oppose Jackson and the Democrats, 170 to a combined 124. The national party system that Van Buren had created made it impossible to win with anything less than a national campaign, which the Democrats had and the Whigs lacked – for now. The Whigs were organizing, and an economic disaster was brewing, and whatever Van Buren thought his presidency would bring, I can almost guarantee it was wrong.
And so, on March 4, 1837, a 54 year-old Martin Van Buren, the little magician from Kinderhook who had created the Albany regency, founded the Democratic party, and emerged triumphant from the Jackson cabinet battles, was sworn in as the eighth president of the United States of America. Little did he know that he was about to be confronted with the first great depression of American history.
But before we get to that, let’s take a look around the country and the world to see what Van Buren will contend with.
On the domestic front, the Democratic monopoly on national politics is about to end and Van Buren will get that two-party system he was looking for. Henry Clay – the man who’d helped John Quincy win the presidency in 1824, and arch nemesis of Andrew Jackson – was building an opposition party known as the Whigs. They had lost in 1832 and 1836, but they were growing more numerous, and more organized, with every passing year.
Economically, Jackson’s presidency had ended with the destruction of the national bank and the moving of government deposits to the state banks. Despite the economic disruption this had caused, the nation’s economy was doing well as Van Buren entered the white house thanks to booming cotton crops. And booms never go bust, right? Right?
Internationally, an independent Mexico controlled most of the American southwest, with the exception of Texas, which had just won its independence in 1836. Overseas, Queen Victoria is about to become the monarch of great Britain. The so-called Victorian age will last more than 60 years and mark the height of Britain’s imperial power. The world is, for the most part, experiencing a period of relative peace.
Martin Van Buren had about four days to look out upon that world and think about what he wanted to do with it before the ground dropped out from under him. If there’s one major event to know about the Van Buren presidency, it’s the Panic of 1837. This was THE great depression, before THE great depression, and it is still the second largest economic disaster in American history, though as I write this in the summer of 2020, COVID-19 sure is doing a number on the world, so that could change.
Ok, so, to explain the Panic of 1837, I’m going to have to dial it back a bit. In the 1830’s, the United States’ largest export was cotton. And cotton was booming, and everyone wanted to invest in it.
At the same time everyone was investing in Cotton, President Andrew Jackson killed the Bank of the United States in 1833 and moved all the federal government’s gold and silver from the national bank into state banks. Those state banks then invested that money, because that’s what banks do, and quite a bit of it was invested in cotton.
Then, in early 1837, the price of cotton suddenly dropped. And when it dropped, the New Orleans cotton houses that shipped it all over the world couldn’t repay all those banks and other investors who had given them loans. Three days after Van Buren’s inauguration, this got so bad that the cotton houses began failing altogether. And if a cotton house went out of business, well, that meant it would never pay back the banks it owed money to. And if the cotton houses weren’t paying back the banks, then the only way the banks were going to be able to cover their bills and keep everyone employed is if they started calling in loans from other businesses across the country.
And then all those businesses, well, they’d love to have paid off their loans, but there was another problem. At the end of Andrew Jackson’s presidency, he had issued an executive order called the “Specie circular” that said federal land could only be purchased with gold and silver, not paper bank notes. This meant that the value of paper money had dropped significantly over the past couple years, even as its supply ballooned because state banks irresponsibly kept printing more of it. So all those businesses that had borrowed, say, $500 in paper money from the banks a few years ago now had to pay back $1,000 in paper money today because the paper money was worth less than it used to be. And guess what, a lot of those businesses couldn’t pay the banks back. So now they started going out of business, too.
In a number of months, the economy had completely collapsed. Wages for workers who were paid salaries dropped 30-50%. Nearly half of all banks closed. 90 percent of eastern factories shut down! In New York City, the army had to be called out to prevent riots. The British minister reported to London that he thought the crisis was so severe that Van Buren would be overthrown.
But Van Buren wasn’t overthrown. He consulted his cabinet and trusted party advisors and came up with a 5-part plan he thought would save the economy. The first four parts of the plan were pretty straightforward and passed congress easily. The fifth part proved to be the tricky one. Van Buren called for an Independent Treasury. And the fight for that independent treasury would be the Fourth major political battle of Van Buren’s career.
So what’s an independent treasury? It’s actually pretty simple. Remember how Andrew Jackson had ordered all the federal government’s money to be moved from the National bank of the united states to the state banks, who then printed too much paper money and overinvested in cotton, creating the bubble that popped and caused the whole mess? Well, an independent treasury was another place the federal government could put its money where it wouldn’t be spent, wouldn’t be invested, and would just sit waiting for the government to need it. You’re really not too far off if you just picture all the gold currently sitting in Fort Knox – although, this is NOT fort knox. An independent treasury would slow the growth of the nation’s economy by reducing cash available for investment, but it would also reduce the frequency and severity of depressions because less investment means smaller economic booms and bubbles.
Van Buren spent the next three years – that’s most of his presidency – trying to bring the independent treasury to life. Every year, Congress would debate it, Congress would vote on it, and the vote would narrowly fail. And the fight only got harder in 1838 when the economic depression led to sweeping Whig victories and Democratic losses. But Van Buren didn’t give up on the idea. In the end, he allied with Calhoun’s southern radicals and supported a series of pro slavery resolutions in exchange for their help getting the independent treasury across the finish line. In 1840, the independent treasury became a reality.
Van Buren had won, but it was a pyrrhic victory. Not only had the democrats suffered steep losses in 1838 midterms, but many members of the party defected to the whigs in opposition to the independent treastury. When the time came to run for re-election in 1840, Van Buren was defeated by an energized, organized Whig party, and its 68-year-old candidate William Henry Harrison. The popular vote was relatively close, but the electoral college vote was a route, 234-60.
So how had the nation and the world changed during Martin Van Buren’s presidency? Domestically, the Van Buren presidency was a dark time for the country’s Native American population. Van Buren continued Andrew Jackson’s policy of Indian removal, an event known as the trail of tears. This dark legacy is shared by Van Buren and Jackson, who combined to forcibly move some 100,000 Native Americans west at gun point. 15,000 died during the journey.
The other domestic challenge Van Buren struggled with was the second Seminole War, fought between the U.S. Army and the Seminole tribe in Florida – this is that same tribe Andrew Jackson had invaded Spanish Florida to defeat 20 years earlier, but, well, they still weren’t defeated, and they’d continue to still not be defeated for another 20 years. It was a major, expensive headache for Van Buren.
There was one new state added during Van Buren’s presidency. Michigan in 1837, bringing the total to 26.
Internationally, recently independent Texas was asking for annexation, which southern states badly wanted, because it would expand slavery, but which northern states strongly opposed, because it would expand slavery. Van Buren basically avoided it for four years. Someone else would deal with Texas.
British Canada experienced a minor armed rebellion against the monarchy during Van Buren’s administration that was put down, but did almost break into a wider war when exuberant New England militias tried to get involved. Van Buren had to dispatch General Winfield Scott – a veteran of the war of 1812 who had earned the nickname “Ol’ Fuss and Features” – to subdue the American agitators.
The greatest American invention during Van Buren’s presidency was undoubtedly Samuel Morse’s patent of the electronic telegraph in 1837, which he paired with his recently developed Morse Code system to revolutionize communication. The first public electronic telegraph system would be completed between D.C. in Baltimore in 1844. And its first message would be “What hath God wrought!” Which, whoever wrote that, I can only imagine what they’d say about the internet.
Oh, I also want to mention that Samuel Colt patented the six-shooter revolver in 1836. Which was actually Jackson’s presidency, but I should have caught that one during his episode, as it’s quintessentially American, so here it is.
So that’s how the nation and the world changed during Martin Van Buren’s presidency.
As for Van Buren, well, he was pretty worn out after all that, so he retired to his home in New York to peacefully lived out the rest of this days.
Just kidding. He had one more great political battle left in him. The battle to get back to the white house.
This is a battle Van Buren will lose. Not once, but twice, and with two different parties.
Van Buren’s first attempt to get back to the White House came in 1844 when his loyalists in the Democratic party recruited him out of retirement to run for the party’s nomination again. Now, everyone knew the general election would be tough sledding against the Whigs, but the nomination should be a lock. Right? Wrong.
For the first time in his life, Van Buren came out hard against slavery when he wrote a letter opposing Texas annexation because he knew it would add another slave state to the union and disrupt the balance of power between slave states and free. The trouble is, the presumptive 1844 Whig candidate, Henry Clay – who just keeps running for president – also wrote a letter coming out against Texas annexation and, by coincidence, the two letters published the same day.
This infuriated southern democrats and it especially infuriated the elderly Andrew Jackson, who was still kicking, and who dropped all support for Van Buren and recruited a virtual nobody named James K Polk to run for president on a pro-Texas annexation platform instead. The fact that we’re now three episodes away from James K Polk’s presidency should tell you all you need to know about what happened next – Van Buren lost, and James Polk won – but I’ll save the details of how Polk won for when we get to his episode.
But I promised you two more campaigns for the White House, and with two different political parties, so let’s get to the second one. In 1848, Van Buren let himself be talked into running for president as a candidate for the Free Soil party. The free soil party was one of the country’s first anti-slavery parties and it campaigned on the motto “free soil, free speech, free labor, free men.” Despite having a former president on the ballot, the anti-slavery movement wasn’t yet strong enough to sustain a national party. The Free Soilers won zero states and Martin Van Buren’s final attempt at the presidency netted just 10% of the popular vote.
Martin Van Buren retired from politics for good after 1848. He lived another 13 years, long enough to see the south secede in 1861. In those early days of the civil war, after secession had been declared, but before shots were fired, Van Buren called for a convention to try to find a compromise on slavery that could preserve the union. But he also said that if the convention failed to find a solution, the south should be allowed to leave peacefully. Van Buren’s call for diplomacy was ignored, and he died later that year, at the age of 79, after slipping into a coma, never learning how the widening civil war would end.
So, what can we learn from Martin Van Buren?
Martin Van Buren is someone who lacked the charisma to charm a crowd – he was not a great orator, not a great inspirer of men – but people who met him liked him, and you need that in politics.
But more importantly, Van Buren had a clear vision of what he wanted to create. A national two-party system, where each party drew unity from the threat of the other party’s strength. And he had a plan on how to make that two-party system happen. First, he created a political machine in New York that lent him power and prestige on the national level that he could then use to build a national Democratic party, and he gave that party the same strong central organization he’d developed in New York. And the very strength of this party prompted the rise of first the Whigs and eventually the Republicans to oppose it, and granted us the two-party system we still have today.
This clarity of vision – of what he wanted, and how to make it happen – helped Van Buren overcome early setbacks, like backing Clinton when he lost in 1812 and supporting Crawford when he lost in 1824, but Van Buren’s inability to amend his vision of what politics could be to what they had become in the 1840’s, 20 years after he first dreamed up national parties, meant he was entirely behind the times by 1840 when he lost to a better organized and better motivated William Henry Harrison campaign. So that’s one of the cool things of Martin Van Buren. He teaches us both the power of a compelling vision, and the perils of being unable to let it go, or better yet, let it grow. As a result, Van Buren is a forgotten president, even if the two party system he dreamed in his head is still with us today.
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The music in today’s podcast is a public domain recording of the United States Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps. The intro music was a recording of Isaac Brands from Smithsonian Folkway Records.
The primary biography for today’s episode was Martin Van Buren and the American Political System by Donald Cole
In our next episode, we’ll look at the life and presidency of William Henry Harrison, the president who least adheres to the timeless Vulcan greeting, live long and prosper.
That’s next time, on Abridged Presidential Histories.