Presidency of Martin Van Buren

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Presidency of Martin Van Buren
Mvanburen.jpeg
In office
March 4, 1837 – March 4, 1841
Preceded by Jackson presidency
Succeeded by W. H. Harrison presidency
Seat White House, Washington, D.C.
Political party Democratic

The presidency of Martin Van Buren began on March 4, 1837, when Martin Van Buren was inaugurated as President of the United States, and ended on March 4, 1841. Van Buren, the incumbent Vice President and chosen successor of President Andrew Jackson, took office as the eighth United States president after winning the 1836 presidential election. A Democrat, he garnered 170 electoral votes to 124 for William Henry Harrison and 3 other Whig Party candidates. Van Buren sought a second term in the 1840 presidential election, but he was defeated by Harrison.

The central issue facing the Van Buren administration was its response to the Panic of 1837, a sustained economic downturn that began just weeks into Van Buren's presidency. Van Buren opposed any direct federal government intervention and cut back federal spending to maintain a balanced budget. Central banking was also a major issue, and Van Buren helped establish an independent treasury system that stored federal funds. Van Buren continued the Indian removal policies the Jackson administration, and thousands of Native Americans were resettled west of the Mississippi River. In foreign affairs, Van Buren denied the application of Texas for admission to the Union, concerned that it would touch off an acrimonious debate over the extension of slavery. Relations with Britain were strained by the bloodless Aroostook War and the Caroline Affair, but Van Buren proclaimed American neutrality during a series of insurrections in Canada.

Van Buren's inability to deal effectively with the economic crisis, combined with the growing political strength of the opposition Whigs, led to his defeat in the 1840 presidential election. Van Buren's four-year presidency was marked as much by failure and criticism as by success and popular acclaim, and his presidency is considered average, at best, by historians. His most lasting achievement was as a political organizer who built the modern Democratic Party and guided it to dominance in the new Second Party System.[1]

Presidential election of 1836

President Andrew Jackson declined to seek another term in the 1836 presidential election, but he remained influential within the Democratic Party as his second term came to an end. Jackson was determined to help elect Vice President Martin Van Buren in 1836 so that the latter could continue the Jackson administration's policies.[2] Van Buren had emerged as Jackson's preferred successor during the Petticoat affair, and he had been elected vice president in 1832.[3] With Jackson's support, Van Buren won the presidential nomination of the Democratic Convention without opposition.[4] Two names were put forward for the vice-presidential nomination: Representative Richard M. Johnson of Kentucky, and former senator William Cabell Rives of Virginia. Southern Democrats, along with Van Buren, strongly preferred Rives, while Jackson strongly preferred Johnson. Again, Jackson's considerable influence prevailed, and Johnson received the required two-thirds vote after New York Senator Silas Wright prevailed upon non-delegate Edward Rucker to cast the 15 votes of the absent Tennessee delegation in Johnson's favor.[5][4]

1836 electoral vote results

Van Buren's competitors in the election of 1836 were three members of the newly established Whig Party, a loose coalition bound by mutual opposition to Jackson's anti-bank policies but lacking the party unity or organizational strength to field a single ticket or define a single platform.[5] The Whigs ran several regional candidates in hopes of sending the election to the House of Representatives, where each state delegation would have one vote and the Whigs would stand a better chance of winning.[6] The three candidates were: Hugh White of Tennessee, Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, and William Henry Harrison of Indiana. Besides endorsing internal improvements and a national bank, the Whigs tried to tie Democrats to abolitionism and sectional tension, and attacked Jackson for "acts of aggression and usurpation of power."[7]

Southern voters presented the biggest potential impediment in Van Buren's quest for the presidency, as many were reluctant to vote for a Northerner.[8] Van Buren moved to obtain the support of Southerners by assuring them that he opposed abolitionism and supported the maintaining of slavery in states where it had already existed.[9] Van Buren personally considered slavery to be immoral, but sanctioned by the Constitution.[10] To demonstrate consistency regarding his opinions on slavery, Van Buren cast the tie-breaking Senate vote in favor of a bill to subject abolitionist mail to state laws, thus ensuring that abolitionist mail would not be circulated in the South.[11]

Van Buren won the election with 764,198 popular votes, 50.9 percent of the total, and 170 electoral votes. Harrison led the Whigs with 73 electoral votes, White receiving 26, and Webster 14.[7] Willie Person Mangum received South Carolina's 11 electoral votes, which were awarded by the state legislature. Compared to Jackson's 1832 campaign, Van Buren performed better in New England but worse in the South and West.[12] Van Buren's victory resulted from a combination of his own attractive political and personal qualities, Jackson's popularity and endorsement, the organizational power of the Democratic party, and the inability of the Whig Party to muster an effective candidate and campaign.[13] Virginia's presidential electors voted for Van Buren for president but William Smith for vice president, leaving Johnson one electoral vote short of election.[14] In accordance with the Twelfth Amendment, the Senate elected Johnson vice president in a contingent vote.[12]

The election of 1836 marked an important turning point in American political history because of the part it played in establishing the Second Party System. In the early 1830s the political party structure was still changing rapidly, and factional and personal leaders continued to play a major role in politics. By the end of the campaign of 1836, the new party system was almost fully formed, as nearly every faction had been absorbed by either the Democrats or the Whigs.[15]

Inauguration

Engraved full-length portrait of a balding man standing next to a table with his left arm resting on a book and in the background a stone balustrade beyond which are trees and a building with columned portico
Portrait of Martin Van Buren

Van Buren was sworn in as president by Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney on March 4, 1837, in a ceremony held on the East Portico of the United States Capitol.[16] At age 54, he was the youngest person at the time to assume the presidency. Taking the oath as the eighth president, Van Buren defined his role as one of preservation: "sacredly to uphold those political institutions" created by the Founders and especially to safeguard the hallowed Jeffersonian principles of a limited national government and the liberty and sovereignty of "the people and the states."[17]

The inauguration marked the departure of a vital personality–Jackson–and the arrival of his chosen successor–Van Buren–in a new presidential dynasty. They rode together in a small phaeton (built from the wood of USS Constitution) drawn by four gray horses.[18] This was the first time that the outgoing president and incoming president rode together to the Capitol.[16] The days festivities proved less a celebration of the incoming president than a tribute to the outgoing one. Van Buren's inaugural address took wistful note of it:

In receiving from the people the sacred trust twice confided to my illustrious predecessor, and which he has discharged so faithfully and so well, I know that I can not expect to perform the arduous task with equal ability and success. But...I may hope that somewhat of the same cheering approbation will be found to attend upon my path.[19]

Administration

Cabinet

The Van Buren Cabinet
Office Name Term
President Martin Van Buren 1837–1841
Vice President Richard Mentor Johnson 1837–1841
Secretary of State John Forsyth 1837–1841
Secretary of Treasury Levi Woodbury 1837–1841
Secretary of War Joel R. Poinsett 1837–1841
Attorney General Benjamin Butler 1837–1838
Henry D. Gilpin 1840–1841
Felix Grundy 1838–1840
Postmaster General Amos Kendall 1837–1840
John M. Niles 1840–1841
Secretary of the Navy Mahlon Dickerson 1837–1838
James K. Paulding 1838–1841

Van Buren retained much of Jackson's cabinet and lower-level appointees, as he hoped that the retention of Jackson's appointees would halt Whig momentum in the South and restore confidence in the Democrats as a party of sectional unity.[20] The cabinet holdovers represented the different regions of the country: Secretary of the Treasury Levi Woodbury came from New England, Attorney General Benjamin F. Butler and Secretary of the Navy Mahlon Dickerson hailed from the mid-Atlantic states, Secretary of State John Forsyth represented the South, and Postmaster General Amos Kendall of Kentucky represented the West. For the position of Secretary of War, the lone unfilled post in the cabinet, Van Buren first approached William Cabell Rives, who had sought the vice presidency in 1836. After Rives declined to join the cabinet, Van Buren appointed Joel Roberts Poinsett, a South Carolinian who had opposed secession during the Nullification Crisis. Van Buren's cabinet choices were criticized by Pennsylvanians such as James Buchanan, who argued that their state deserved a cabinet position, as well as some Democrats who argued that Van Buren should have used his patronage powers to augment his own power. But Van Buren saw value in avoiding contentious patronage battles, and his decision to retain Jackson's cabinet made it clear that he intended to continue the policies of predecessor. Additionally, Van Buren had helped select Jackson's cabinet appointees and enjoyed strong working relationships with them.[21]

Dissatisfied with the discipline and morale of the navy, Van Buren pressured Dickerson to resign in 1838, and Dickerson was succeeded by James K. Paulding.[22] That same year, Butler resigned and was replaced with Felix Grundy, a Senator from Tennessee with close ties to Jackson. Grundy was later succeeded by Henry D. Gilpin of Pennsylvania.[23] John M. Niles, a party loyalist and former Senator from Connecticut, became Postmaster General in 1840.[24]

Van Buren was closely involved in foreign affairs and matters pertaining to the Treasury Department, but the Post Office, War Department, and Navy Department all possessed high levels of autonomy under their respective cabinet secretaries.[25] Van Buren held regular formal cabinet meetings and discontinued the informal gatherings of advisers that had attracted so much attention during Jackson's presidency. Van Buren saw himself as "a mediator, and to some extent an umpire between the conflicting opinions" of his counselors. He solicited advice from department heads, tolerating open and even frank exchanges between cabinet members. The president's detachment allowed him to reserve judgment and protect his own prerogative for making final decisions.[26]

White House hostess

White House hostess Angelica Singleton

For the first half of his presidency, Van Buren, who had been a widower for many years, did not have a specific person fill the role of White House hostess, instead assuming such duties himself. When his eldest son Abraham Van Buren married Angelica Singleton in 1838, the president quickly acted to install his daughter-in-law as his hostess. She solicited the advice of her distant relative, Dolley Madison,[27] who had moved back to Washington after her husband's death,[28] and soon the president's parties livened up. After the 1839 New Year's Eve reception, the Boston Post raved: "[Angelica Van Buren is a] lady of rare accomplishments, very modest yet perfectly easy and graceful in her manners and free and vivacious in her conversation ... universally admired."[27] As the nation endured a deep economic depression, newspaper coverage of Angelica van Buren's receiving style at receptions, influenced by her heavy reading on European court life, as well as the anecdotal claim that she intended to re-landscape the White House grounds to resemble the royal gardens of Europe, were used to attack her father-in-law. Pennsylvania Whig Congressman Charles Ogle referred obliquely to her as part of the presidential "household" in his famous "Gold Spoon Oration."[29]

Judicial appointments

Van Buren appointed two associate justices of the Supreme Court. Congress had added two new seats on the Supreme Court with the Eighth and Ninth Circuits Act of 1837, but President Jackson had filled only one of those positions. To fill the vacancy, in early 1837 Van Buren appointed Senator John McKinley of Alabama, a key supporter of Van Buren's 1836 presidential campaign. A second Supreme Court vacancy arose in 1841 due to the death of Philip Pendleton Barbour. Van Buren appointed federal judge Peter Vivian Daniel to succeed Barbour.[30] Van Buren also appointed eight other federal judges, all to United States district courts.[31]

Domestic affairs

Panic of 1837 and treasury system

Panic of 1837

The modern balaam and his ass, an 1837 caricature placing the blame for the Panic of 1837 and the perilous state of the banking system on outgoing President Andrew Jackson, shown riding a donkey, while President Martin Van Buren comments approvingly.

When Van Buren entered office, it was clear that the nation's economic health had taken a turn for the worse and that the prosperity of the early 1830s was over. Two months into his presidency, on May 10, 1837, some important state banks in New York, running out of hard currency reserves, suddenly refused to convert paper money into gold or silver. Other financial institutions throughout the nation quickly followed suit. This financial crisis would become known as the Panic of 1837.[19] The panic was followed by a five-year depression in which numerous banks failed and unemployment reached record highs.[32]

Van Buren blamed the economic collapse on greedy business and financial institutions, as well as on the over extension of credit by U.S. banks. Whig leaders in Congress, meanwhile, blamed Democratic economic policies, especially the 1836 Specie Circular.[19] That policy had required the use of specie (coins), rather than paper money, in the purchase of government-held lands, and had had the effect of transferring specie from Eastern banks to Western banks[33] and undermining confidence in banknotes.[34] Whigs also blamed Jackson's dismantling of the Second Bank of the United States, which allowed for state banks to engage in lending and the printing of paper money without effective regulation.[35] Another contributing factor to the panic was the sudden contraction of English credit, which had helped to finance a period of strong economic growth since 1830.[36]

Independent Treasury debate

Though Whig leader Henry Clay promoted his own American System as the means for economic recovery, Van Buren's response to the panic focused on the practice of "strict economy and frugality."[37] The potential repeal of the Specie Circular policy split the Democratic Party, with prominent Democrats like William Cabell Rives favoring repeal.[38] After a long period of consideration, Van Buren announced in May 1837 that he would not revoke the Specie Circular. Van Buren feared that revoking the Specie Circular would hurt western banks and was reluctant to depart from a Jacksonian policy so quickly after taking office.[39] Van Buren's decision to uphold the Specie Circular represented the first step in the central economic policy of his tenure, which was the separation of the government from all banking operations. During Jackson's presidency, the federal government had moved its funds from the Second Bank of the United States to so-called "pet banks." Both the Second Bank of the United States and the pet banks had used those federal deposits to engage in regular banking activities, specifically the extension of loans. Van Buren sought to fully divorce the federal government from banking operations by establishing the Independent Treasury system, essentially a series of vaults, to hold government funds.[40] The Independent Treasury took its name from its supposed independence from banks and British creditors, as British creditors had made large investments in the Second Bank of the United States.[41]

When the 25th Congress convened in September 1837, Van Buren introduced his legislation to create the Independent Treasury system.[42] The system would, he asserted, take the politics out of the nation's money supply, and would help prevent inflation.[43] Van Buren's plan allowed the government to accept paper money as payment, but the government would seek to convert that paper money to specie as quickly as possible.[44] State banking interests strongly opposed Van Buren's proposal, and an alliance of conservative Democrats and Whigs blocked the creation of the Independent Treasury System.[45] Although Clay continued to favor the creation of a new national bank, the Whigs focused their efforts on blocking Van Buren's proposal rather than on implementing their own ambitious legislative agenda.[42] As the debate over the Independent Treasury continued, Rives and some other Democrats defected to the Whig Party, which itself grew more unified in its opposition to Van Buren.[42]

Midterm elections and second downturn

The Panic of 1837 loomed large over the 1838 election cycle, as the carryover effects of the economic downturn led to Whig gains in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. The Democratic Party retained a majority in both chambers after the elections,[46][47] but a split among House Democrats led to the election of Whig Congressman Robert M. T. Hunter as Speaker of the House.[48]

In early 1838, most banks ended their moratorium on converting paper into money into gold or silver, temporarily bringing an end to the monetary crisis.[49] The economy began to recover, and an alliance of Democrats and Whigs repealed the Specie Circular that year. A second economic downturn, known as the Panic of 1839, began as the result of a cotton glut. With less income coming in from the cotton trade, land prices plummeted, industries laid off employees, and banks failed. According to historian Daniel Walker Howe, the economic crisis of the late 1830s and early 1840s was the most severe recession in U.S. history until the Great Depression.[50] Partly in response to this second economic downturn, Congress enacted Van Buren's Independent Treasury proposal in June 1840.[51] The Whigs would abolish the Independent Treasury system in 1841, but it was revived in 1846 and remained in place until the passage of the Federal Reserve Act in 1913.[52]

Indian removal

Federal policy under Jackson had sought, through the Indian Removal Act of 1830, to move all indigenous peoples to lands west of the Mississippi River. Continuing this policy, the federal government negotiated 19 treaties with Indian nations in the course of Van Buren's presidency.[53] By the time Van Buren took office, the Muscogee, Chickasaw, and Choctaw had been removed to lands west of the Mississippi River, but a large number of Cherokee were still in Georgia and the Seminole remained in Florida.[54] An 1835 treaty signed by U.S. government officials and representatives of the Cherokee Nation had established terms under which the entire nation would cede its territory and move across the Mississippi River, but many Cherokee viewed the treaty as fraudulent.[55] In 1838, Van Buren directed General Winfield Scott to forcibly move all those Cherokee who had not yet complied with the treaty.[56] The Cherokee were herded violently into internment camps, where they were kept for the summer of 1838. The actual transportation west was delayed by intense heat and drought, but in the fall, the Cherokee reluctantly agreed to migrate west.[57][58] During the Cherokee removal, part of the Trail of Tears, some 20,000 people were relocated against their will.[59]

A U.S. Marine boat expedition searching the Everglades during the Second Seminole War

In the Florida Territory, the Seminole engaged the army in a prolonged conflict known as the Second Seminole War.[53] The Seminole were more resistant to removal than other tribes of the South due in large part to the influence of hundreds of escaped slaves and other African Americans who lived among the Seminole. These escaped slaves feared that the departure of the Seminole would lead to their own re-enslavement.[60] Prior to leaving office, Jackson had placed General Thomas Jesup in command of all U.S. troops in Florida in order to force Seminole emigration to the West.[61] Forts were established throughout the Indian territory and columns of soldiers scoured the countryside. Feeling the pressure, many Seminoles, including head chief Micanopy, offered to surrender. The Seminoles slowly gathered for emigration near Tampa, but in June they fled the detention camps, driven off by disease and the presence of slave catchers who were hoping to take Black Seminoles captive.[62][63]

In December 1837, Jesup began a massive offensive, culminating in the Battle of Lake Okeechobee. Following the American victory in the battle, the war entered a new phase, a long war of attrition.[62] During this time, the government realized that it would be almost impossible to drive the remaining Seminoles from Florida, so Van Buren sent General Alexander Macomb to negotiate a peace with the Seminoles. It was the only time in U.S. history that a Native American nation had forced the United States to sue for peace. An agreement was reached allowing the Seminoles to remain in southwest Florida, but the peace was shattered in July 1839.[62] Fighting was not resolved until 1842, after Van Buren had left office. The United States spent over $30 million in the Second Seminole War, which also cost the lives of over 1400 American military personnel, dozens of civilians, and at least seven hundred Seminole.[64]

Slavery

Slavery policy

Van Buren viewed abolitionism as the greatest threat to the nation's unity. He opposed any attempt on the part of Congress to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia against the wishes of the slave-holding states, and to resist the slightest interference with it in the states where it existed.[65] Reflecting the increasing importance of slavery, Van Buren was the first president to make use of the word "slavery" in an inaugural address, and his stances led to accusations that he was a "northern man with southern feelings."[66] However, Van Buren was also sensitive to northern concerns about the expansion of slavery, and he opposed the annexation of Texas out of a desire to avoid sectional disputes.[67] Congress sought to avoid divisive debates over slavery through the "gag rule," an informal practice in which any attempt to discuss the abolition of slavery in Congress was immediately defeated. While the gag rule was largely successful in stifling the debate over slavery in the Senate, Congressman (and former President) John Quincy Adams earned notoriety for his efforts to resist the gag rule in the House of Representatives.[68]

Amistad case

Like the British and Americans, the Spanish had outlawed the importation of slaves from Africa, but high slave mortality rates encouraged smugglers to smuggle captured slaves from Africa into Spanish colony of Cuba. In June 1839, several recently-kidnapped Africans took control of La Amistad, a slave ship headed to Cuba. The Africans attempted to sail home, but were tricked by one of the crew members into heading towards the United States, where the Africans were apprehended and brought before the federal court of Judge Andrew T. Judson.[69] The Spanish government demanded that the ship and its cargo (including the Africans) be turned over to them. The Van Buren administration, hoping to minimize the political domestic and international fallout from the incident, supported Spain's position at trial.[70]

Judson was widely expected to rule that the defendants be returned to the Spanish, but he ruled that they were legally free. After the federal circuit upheld Judson's ruling, the Van Buren administration appealed the case to the Supreme Court. In March 1841, the Supreme Court upheld Judson's ruling, holding that the Africans had been kidnapped illegally. After the case, the abolitionists raised money to pay for the return of the Africans, and they departed from the United States in November 1841.[71] The unique nature of the Amistad case, involving international issues and parties, people of color testifying in federal court, and the participation of former president Adams and other high-profile lawyers, engendered great public interest. The Amistad case drew attention to the personal tragedies of slavery and attracted new support for the growing abolition movement in the North. It also transformed the courts into the principal forum for a national debate on the legal foundations of slavery.[72]

Mormons

In 1839, Joseph Smith, Jr., the founder of the Latter Day Saint movement, visited Van Buren to plead for the U.S. to help the roughly 20,000 Mormon settlers of Independence, Missouri, who had been forced from the state during the 1838 Mormon War. The Governor of Missouri, Lilburn Boggs, had issued an executive order on October 27, 1838, known as the "Extermination Order". It authorized troops to use force against Mormons to "exterminate or drive [them] from the state".[73][74] In 1839, after moving to Illinois, Smith and his party appealed to members of Congress and to President Van Buren to intercede for the Mormons. According to Smith's grandnephew, Van Buren said to Smith, "Your cause is just, but I can do nothing for you; if I take up for you I shall lose the vote of Missouri".[75][76]

Foreign affairs

Texas

The Republic of Texas had gained de facto independence from Mexico in the Texas Revolution, and Texans had subsequently voted overwhelmingly in favor of annexation by the United States.[77] Just before leaving office in March 1837, Andrew Jackson had extended diplomatic recognition to the Republic of Texas, and the possibility of annexation heightened sectional tensions at home while also presenting the possibility of war with Mexico. New England abolitionists charged that there was a "slaveholding conspiracy to acquire Texas", and Daniel Webster eloquently denounced annexation.[78] Many Southern leaders, meanwhile, strongly desired the expansion of slave-holding territory in the United States.[79]

Boldly reversing Jackson's policies, Van Buren sought peace abroad and harmony at home. He proposed a diplomatic solution to a long-standing financial dispute between American citizens and the Mexican government, rejecting Jackson's threat to settle it by force.[78] Likewise, when the Texas minister at Washington, D.C., proposed annexation to the administration in August 1837, he was told that the proposition could not be entertained. Constitutional scruples and fear of war with Mexico were the reasons given for the rejection,[77] but concern that it would precipitate a clash over the extension of slavery undoubtedly influenced Van Buren and continued to be the chief obstacle to annexation.[80] Northern and Southern Democrats followed an unspoken rule in which Northerners helped quash anti-slavery proposals and Southerners refrained from agitating for the annexation of Texas.[79] Texas withdrew the annexation offer in 1838.[77]

Relations with Britain

Canadian rebellions

British subjects in Lower Canada and Upper Canada rose in rebellion in 1837 and 1838, protesting their lack of responsible government. While the initial insurrection in Upper Canada ended with the December 1837 Battle of Montgomery's Tavern, many of the rebels fled across the Niagara River into New York, and Canadian leader William Lyon Mackenzie began recruiting volunteers in Buffalo.[81] Mackenzie declared the establishment of the Republic of Canada and put into motion a plan whereby volunteers would invade Upper Canada from Navy Island on the Canadian side of the Niagara River. Several hundred volunteers traveled to Navy Island in the weeks that followed, procuring the steamboat Caroline to deliver supplies to Navy Island.[81] Seeking to deter an imminent invasion, British forces crossed to the American bank of the river in late December 1837, and they burned and sank the Caroline. In the melee, one American was killed and others were wounded.[17] Considerable sentiment arose within the United States to declare war, and a British ship was burned in revenge.[82]

"Destruction of the Caroline", illustration by John Charles Dent (1881)

Van Buren, looking to avoid a war with Great Britain, sent General Winfield Scott to the border with large discretionary powers for its protection and its peace.[83] Scott impressed upon American citizens the need for a peaceful resolution to the crisis, and made it clear that the U.S. government would not support adventuresome Americans attacking the British. In early January 1838, the president proclaimed U.S. neutrality with regard to the Canadian independence issue,[84] a declaration which Congress endorsed by passing a neutrality law designed to discourage the participation of American citizens in foreign conflicts.[82]

Though Scott was able to calm the situation, a group of secret societies known as "Hunters' Lodges" continued to seek the overthrow of British rule in Canada.[85] These groups carried out several attacks in Upper Canada, collectively known as the Patriot War. The administration followed through on its enforcement of the Neutrality Act, encouraged the prosecution of filibusters, and actively deterred U.S. citizens from subversive activities abroad.[86] After the failure of two filibuster expeditions in late 1839, the Hunters' Lodges lost their popular appeal and the Patriot War came to an end.[85] In the long term, Van Buren's opposition to the Patriot War contributed to the construction of healthy Anglo–American and U.S.–Canadian relations in the 20th century; it also led, more immediately, to a backlash among citizens regarding the supposed overreach of federal authority.[86]

Aroostook conflict

A new crisis between Britain and the United States surfaced in late 1838 in disputed territory on the MaineNew Brunswick frontier.[87] Jackson had been willing to drop American claims to the region in return for other concessions, but Maine was unwilling to drop its claims to the disputed territory. For their part, the British considered possession of the area vital to the defense of Canada.[88] Both American and New Brunswick lumberjacks cut timber in the disputed territory during the winter of 1838–39. On December 29, New Brunswick lumbermen were spotted cutting down trees on an American estate near the Aroostook River.[82] After American woodcutters rushed to stand guard, a shouting match, known as the Battle of Caribou, ensued. Tensions quickly boiled over into a near war with both Maine and New Brunswick arresting each other's citizens, and the crisis seemed ready to turn into an armed conflict.[89]

British troops began to gather along the Saint John River. Governor John Fairfield mobilized the state militia to confront the British in the disputed territory[90] and several forts were constructed.[91] The American press clamored for war; "Maine and her soil, or BLOOD!" screamed one editorial. "Let the sword be drawn and the scabbard thrown away!" In June, Congress authorized 50,000 troops and a $10 million budget[92] in the event foreign military troops crossed into United States territory. Van Buren was unwilling to go to war over the disputed territory, though he assured Maine that he would respond to any attacks by the British.[93] To settle the crisis, Van Buren met with the British minister to the United States, and Van Buren and the minister agreed to resolve the border issue diplomatically.[90] Van Buren also sent General Scott to the northern border area, both to show military resolve, and more importantly, to lower the tensions. Scott successfully convinced all sides to submit the border issue to arbitration. The border dispute was put to rest a few years later, with the signing of the 1842 Webster–Ashburton Treaty.[82][84]

Presidential election of 1840

1840 electoral vote results

Van Buren easily won renomination for a second term at the 1840 Democratic National Convention, but he and his party faced a difficult election in 1840. Van Buren's term had been a difficult affair, with the U.S. economy mired in a severe downturn, and other divisive issues, such as slavery, western expansion, and tensions with Great Britain provided numerous for opportunities for Van Buren's political opponents to criticize his actions.[13] Although Van Buren's renomination was never in doubt, Democratic strategists began to question the wisdom of keeping Johnson on the ticket. Even former president Jackson conceded that Johnson was a liability and insisted on former House Speaker James K. Polk of Tennessee as Van Buren's new running mate. Van Buren was reluctant to drop Johnson, who was popular with workers and radicals in the North[94] and added military experience to the ticket, which might prove important if the Whigs nominated William Henry Harrison.[5] Rather than re-nominating Johnson, the Democratic convention decided to allow state Democratic Party leaders to select the vice-presidential candidates for their states.[95]

Van Buren hoped that the Whigs would nominate Henry Clay for president, which would allow Van Buren to cast the 1840 campaign as a clash between Van Buren's Independent Treasury system and Clay's support for a revived national bank.[96] Clay had the backing of most Southerners at the 1839 Whig National Convention, but most Northerners favored Harrison.[97] Harrison had served in various governmental positions during his career and had earned notoriety for his military leadership in the Battle of Tippecanoe and the War of 1812, and Northern leaders like William Seward and Thaddeus Stevens believed that Harrison's war record would effectively counter the popular appeals of the Democratic Party.[96] General Winfield Scott also had some support, and he loomed as a potential compromise candidate between Clay and Harrison. After Stevens maneuvered Scott's Virginia supporters into backing Harrison, Harrison triumphed over Clay on the third ballot of the convention. For vice president, the Whigs nominated former Senator John Tyler of Virginia.[97] Clay was deeply disappointed by his defeat at the convention, but he nonetheless threw his support behind Harrison.[96]

Whigs presented Harrison as the antithesis of the president, whom they derided as ineffective, corrupt, and effete.[13] Whigs depicted Van Buren as an aristocrat living in high style in the White House, while they used images of Harrison in a log cabin sipping cider to convince voters that he was a man of the people.[98] Issues of policy were not absent from the campaign; the Whigs derided the alleged executive overreaches of Jackson and Van Buren, while also calling for a national bank and higher tariffs.[99] Democrats attempted to campaign on the Independent Treasury system, but the onset of deflation undercut these arguments.[100]

The enthusiasm for "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too," coupled with the country's severe economic crisis, propelled Harrison to victory.[98] Harrison won the popular vote by a margin of 1,275,612 to 1,130,033, and he won the electoral vote by a margin of 234 to 60.[7] Eighty percent of eligible voters went to the polls on election day,[13] and Van Buren actually won more votes than he had in 1836, but the Whig success in attracting new voters more than canceled out Democratic gains.[101] The Whigs also won control of the House and Senate, making the 1840 election the only time in U.S. history that the Whigs won unified control of Congress and the presidency.[102]

Historical reputation

Historical 8-cent stamp with Van Buren's profile.
Martin Van Buren on the 8-cent U.S. Postage stamp of the 1938 Presidential Series

Van Buren's presidency is considered average, at best, by historians.[103] His time in office was dominated by the economic disaster of the Panic of 1837, and historians have split on the adequacy of the Independent Treasury as a response to that issue.[104] Van Buren's most lasting achievement was as a political organizer who built the Democratic Party and guided it to dominance in the Second Party System,[1] and historians have come to regard Van Buren as integral to the development of the American political system.[103]

A 2017 C-SPAN survey has Martin Van Buren ranked among the bottom third of presidents of all-time, right below George W. Bush and above Chester A. Arthur. The survey asked 91 presidential historians to rank the 43 former presidents (including then-out-going president Barack Obama) in various categories to come up with a composite score, resulting in an overall ranking. Van Buren was ranked 34th among all former presidents (down from 31st in 2009, and 30th in 2000). His rankings in the various categories of this most recent poll were as follows: public persuasion (30), crisis leadership (35), economic management (40), moral authority (33), international relations (26), administrative skills (26), relations with congress (28), vision/setting an agenda (33), pursued equal justice for all (30), performance with context of times (33).[105] A 2018 poll of the American Political Science Association's Presidents and Executive Politics section ranked Van Buren as the 27th best president.[106]

Several writers have portrayed Van Buren as among the nation's most obscure presidents. As noted in a 2014 Time Magazine article on the "Top 10 Forgettable Presidents":

Making himself nearly disappear completely from the history books was probably not the trick the "Little Magician" Martin Van Buren had in mind, but his was the first truly forgettable American presidency.[107]

References

  1. ^ a b Cole, p. 16.
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Works cited

  • Cole, Donald B. (1984). Martin Van Buren and the American Political System. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-04715-4.
  • Howe, Daniel Walker (2007). What Hath God Wrought: the Transformation of America, 1815–1848. Oxford, NY: Oxford University Press.
  • Morison, Samuel Eliot (1965). The Oxford History of the American People. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Nowlan, Robert A. (2012). The American Presidents, Washington to Tyler: What They Did, What They Said, What Was Said About Them, With Full Source Notes. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company. ISBN 978-0-7864-6336-7.
  • Silbey, Joel H. (2002). Martin Van Buren and the Emergence of American Popular Politics. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. ISBN 0-7425-2243-1.
  • Wilson, Major L. (1984). The Presidency of Martin Van Buren. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas.

Further reading

Books by Van Buren

Posthumously:

  • Van Buren, Martin (1867). Van Buren, Abraham; Van Buren, John, eds. Inquiry into the Origin and Course of Political Parties in the United States. New York: Hurd and Houghton. ISBN 1-4181-2924-0.
  • Van Buren, Martin (1920). Fitzpatrick, John Clement, ed. The Autobiography of Martin Van Buren. Annual Report Of The American Historical Association For The Year 1918. II. Washington D.C.: Govt. Print. Off. ISBN 0-678-00531-1.

Books about Van Buren

  • Alexander, Holmes (1935). The American Talleyrand: Martin Van Buren.
  • Curtis, James C. (1970). The Fox at Bay: Martin Van Buren and the Presidency, 1837–1841. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky. ISBN 978-0-8131-1214-5.
  • Henretta, James A. (2004). "Martin Van Buren". In Brinkley, Alan; Dyer, Davis. The American Presidency. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. pp. 103–114. ISBN 0-618-38273-9.
  • Holland, William M. (1836). The Life and Political Opinions of Martin Van Buren, Vice President of the United States. Belknap & Hammersley.
  • Lynch, Denis Tilden (1929). An Epoch and a Man: Martin Van Buren and His Times. New York: H. Liveright.
  • Niven, John (1983). Martin Van Buren: The Romantic Age of American Politics. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-503238-3.
  • Schouler, James (1889). History of the United States of America: 1831–1847. Democrats and Whigs. 4. Washington, D.C.: W. H. Morrison.
  • Shepard, Edward Shepard (1899). American Statesmen: Martin Van Buren. Houghton, Mifflin & Co.
  • Silbey, Joel H. (2009). Party Over Section: The Rough and Ready Presidential Election of 1848. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas. ISBN 978-0-7006-1640-4.
  • Silbey, Joel H. (2014). A Companion to the Antebellum Presidents 1837–1861. Wiley. pp. 109–154.

External links

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