Obscure Presidents – Volume 1 - Martin Van Buren

After Andrew Jackson left office in 1837, the country seemed to go into an inevitable slide towards the Civil War twenty-four years later.  There were eight Presidents during that time, all of whom tried, but none of whom could arrest this inexorable disaster. Perhaps it was inevitable by that time.

Van Buren and Lincoln

Van buren and lincoln.jpg

The first of these eight was Jackson’s successor, Martin Van Buren, elected as a Democrat in 1836.  Even while still alive, he was forgotten.  Except by President Lincoln.  When Van Buren died in 1862, Lincoln ordered military officers to wear black crepe armbands to honor him.  They had met once, in 1842. As former President, Van Buren took a nationwide trip.  While in Rochester, Illinois, Van Buren's hosts enlisted Illinois State representative Lincoln, who was known as a raconteur, to entertain the former President. Apparently, they talked well into the night.  Must have been an interesting contrast, Lincoln one of the taller Presidents, was a somewhat shabby dresser, and Van Buren, one of the shortest Presidents, a very natty dresser.


Van Buren was born and raised in Kinderhook, NY, near Albany. He left school at age thirteen and became an attorney. He met both Hamilton and Aaron Burr, and later there were some unfounded rumors that he was Burr’s son.  Van Buren then worked his way into New York politics.  There he supported the expansion of the right-to-vote to all (white) males, not just property holders.

Van Buren organized the Democratic party in the mid-1820’s. The election of 1828 brought Andrew Jackson into power as the leader of that party. In that same election, Van Buren won the governorship of New York but left to become Secretary of State in Jackson’s cabinet.  After several disputes with Vice President Calhoun, Jackson replaced him with Van Buren as Vice President for his second term.

Election of 1836

Van Buren was Jackson’s preferred successor. Enemies of Jackson attacked Van Buren leading up to the 1836 election. Davy Crockett, of all people, who opposed Van Buren, wrote a book called “The Life of Van Buren: Heir Apparent to the Government and the Appointed Successor of General Andrew Jackson”, an attack on everything about him. Crockett calls Van Buren ‘the perlitest creetur amongst the wimmen’. The book states that - “Every thinking man...must see that Van Buren is as opposite to General Jackson as dung is to a diamond.”  The opposing Whig party ran four separate regionally based 'favorite son' candidates in hopes of denying Van Buren a majority, which would throw the election into the House of Representatives. Nonetheless, Van Buren won an easy victory in 1836. He was helped by a power shift in the country. At the time of the country's founding, Virginia was the largest state in the Union, with more people than New York and Pennsylvania combined. By the time Van Buren ran in 1836, New York was almost double the population of Virginia. He set several firsts. Van Buren was the first President born after independence.  He was the first President from New York. Of Dutch origin, he was the first ‘ethnic’ President, with English as his second language.

After Van Buren, it took 152 years for another incumbent Vice President to succeed the President under which he had served - George Bush 41, following Ronald Reagan in 1988. Van Buren’s Vice Presidential candidate, Richard Mentor Johnson became the first (and only) Vice President to be elected by the U.S. Senate instead of the Electoral College.  You may be aware that if no Presidential candidate wins a majority of the electoral votes, the House selects the next President.  In a more obscure provision, if no Vice President candidate wins more than half of the electoral votes, the Senate selects the next Vice President.  All twenty-three Electors from Virginia who voted for Van Buren for President refused to support Johnson for Vice President denying him a majority. Johnson had an open and apparently loving relationship with his slave who was one-eighth black. He treated her as his wife and had children by her whom he raised and educated. For this reason, the Virginia Electors refused to support Johnson, hence his election by the Senate to the office of Vice President.

Van Buren’s Presidency was doomed from the start.  Shortly after taking office, the country experienced the Panic of 1837. There were a variety of causes ranging from land speculation in the West, overbuilding of railroads and credit tightening by banks.  Prices, wages and profits fell, while unemployment rose. Van Buren was blamed, although the Panic started less than two months after he took office. Criticizing him for the panic, his opponents called him ‘Martin Van Ruin’


After losing re-election in 1840, Van Buren was considered the likely Democratic nominee in 1844. But, due to his position on Texas, he lost the nomination. Texas at the time was an independent republic but wanted to join the Union. Since Texas allowed slaves, large parts of the Union opposed annexation, causing a heated debate.  Former President Jackson, still popular, came out publicly in support of annexation. Van Buren came out against annexation ‘at this time’. This was not popular with the Southern Democratic delegates and Van Buren was unable to reach the then needed two-thirds vote to be nominated. Eventually James Polk, a dark horse candidate was nominated and won the 1844 election. 

In 1948 Van Buren ran on the ‘Free Soil’ third-party ticket for President. This party opposed expansion of slavery into new states. He won 10% of the popular vote, including over 25% in several key states such as New York.  The Free Soil party also won some representation in both the Senate and House.  Along with the Whig party, the Free Soil party became the foundation of the Republican party.  

Here is a unusual item about Van Buren. There is a universal word across almost all languages that means approval, agreement, acknowledgement, everything is going well. That word is ‘OK’.  The etymology of that word, believe it or not, is due to Van Buren. The most common explanation is that supporters of Van Buren in the 1840 election said you should vote for ‘Old Kinderhook’ (his home town), perhaps trying to play off the popularity of Jackson and his ‘Old Hickory’ nickname. This got abbreviated down to ‘Vote for OK’, and his supporters were called members of the ‘OK club’.

Martin Van Buren was President during a trying time, as the country experienced a severe depression and was splitting apart over the slavery issue.  You might not say that he was an excellent President.  But perhaps he was OK.