Van Buren was the first president born a citizen of the United States, as all previous presidents were born before the American Revolution. His great-great-great-grandfather Cornelis Maessen van Buren had come to the New World in 1631 from the small city of Buren, Dutch Republic, in present day Netherlands. Van Buren grew up in a Dutch-speaking community. His native language was Dutch, and he was the only President who spoke English as a second language.
Van Buren received a basic education at a poorly lit schoolhouse in his native village and later studied Latin briefly at the Kinderhook Academy and at Washington Seminary in Claverack. He excelled in composition and speaking. His formal education ended before he reached 14, when he began studying Law at the office of Francis Sylvester, a prominent Federalist attorney in Kinderhook. After six years under Sylvester, he spent a final year of apprenticeship in the New York City office of William P. Van Ness, a political lieutenant of Aaron Burr. Van Buren was admitted to the bar in 1803.
Van Buren married Hannah Hoes, his childhood sweetheart and first cousin once removed, on February 21, 1807, in Catskill, New York. Like Van Buren, she was raised in a Dutch home and never lost her distinct Dutch accent. The couple had four sons and one daughter: Abraham (1807–1873) a graduate of West Point and career military officer; John (1810–1866), graduate of Yale and Attorney General of New York; Martin, Jr. (1812–1855), secretary to his father and editor of his father's papers until a premature death from tuberculosis; Winfield Scott (born and died in 1814); and Smith Thompson (1817–1876), an editor and special assistant to his father while president. Their daughter was stillborn. After 12 years of marriage, Hannah Van Buren contracted tuberculosis and died on February 5, 1819, at the age of 35. Martin Van Buren never remarried.
Van Buren joined the opposition party in 1813, and was a member of the New York State Senate from 1812 to 1820, and New York Attorney General from 1815 to 1819. He was a presidential elector in 1820, voting for James Monroe and Daniel D. Tompkins.
At first he opposed Clinton's plan for the Erie Canal, but later supported it when the Bucktails were able to gain a majority in the Erie Canal Commission, and supported a bill that raised money for the canal through state bonds.
In 1817 Van Buren's connection with so-called "machine politics" started. He created the first political machine encompassing all of New York, the Bucktails, whose leaders later became known as the Albany Regency. The Bucktails became a successful movement that emphasized party loyalty; they captured and controlled many patronage posts throughout New York. Van Buren did not originate the system, but gained the nickname of "Little Magician" for the skill with which he exploited it. He also served as a member of the state constitutional convention, where he opposed the grant of universal suffrage and tried to maintain property requirements for voting.
He was the leading figure in the Albany Regency, a group of politicians who for more than a generation dominated much of the politics of New York and powerfully influenced the politics of the nation. The group, together with the political clubs such as Tammany Hall that were developing at the same time, played a major role in the development of the "spoils system", a recognized procedure in national, state and local affairs. He was the prime architect of the first nationwide political party: the Jacksonian Democrats. In Van Buren's own words, "Without strong national political organizations, there would be nothing to moderate the prejudices between free and slaveholding states.
In the presidential election of 1824, Van Buren supported William H. Crawford and received the electoral vote of Georgia for vice-president, but he shrewdly kept out of the acrimonious controversy which followed the choice of John Quincy Adams as President. Van Buren had originally hoped to block Adams' victory by denying him the state of New York (the state was divided between Van Buren supporters who would vote for William H. Crawford and Adams men). However, Representative Stephen Van Rensselaer swung New York to Adams and thereby the 1824 Presidency. After the lost election, Van Buren dropped Crawford, and instead supported Andrew Jackson to be the next presidential candidate.
Always notably courteous in his treatment of opponents, he showed no bitterness toward either John Quincy Adams or Henry Clay, and he voted for Clay's confirmation as Secretary of State, notwithstanding Jackson's "corrupt bargain" charge. At the same time, he opposed the Adams-Clay plans for internal improvements and declined to support the proposal for a Panama Congress. As chair of the Judiciary Committee, he brought forward a number of measures for the improvement of judicial procedure and, in May 1826, joined with Senator Thomas Hart Benton in reporting on executive patronage. In the debate on the "tariff of abominations" in 1828, he took no part but voted for the measure in obedience to instructions from the New York legislature, an action which was cited against him as late as during the presidential campaign of 1844.
Van Buren was not an orator, but his more important speeches show careful preparation and his opinions carried weight; the oft-repeated charge that he refrained from declaring himself on crucial questions is hardly borne out by an examination of his senatorial career. In February 1827, he was re-elected to the Senate by a large majority. He became one of the recognized managers of the Jackson campaign, and his tour of Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia in the spring of 1827 won support for Jackson from Crawford. Martin Van Buren sought to reorganize and unify "the old Republican party" behind Jackson. At the state level, Jackson's committee chairs would split up the responsibilities around the state and organize volunteers at the local level. "Hurra Boys" would plant hickory trees (in honor of Jackson's nickname, "Old Hickory") or hand out hickory sticks at rallies. Van Buren even had a New York journalist write a campaign piece portraying Jackson as a humble, pious man. "Organization is the secret of victory," an editor in the Adams camp wrote. He once said to a group of lobbyists the famous quote and "By the want of it we have been overthrown." In November 1828, Van Buren was elected Governor of New York for the term beginning on January 1, 1829, and resigned his seat in the Senate.
On March 5th, 1829, President Jackson appointed Van Buren Secretary of State, an office which probably had been assured to him before the election, and he resigned the governorship on March 12th. He was succeeded in the governorship by his Lieutenant Governor, Enos T. Throop, a member of the regency. As Secretary of State, Van Buren took care to keep on good terms with the Kitchen Cabinet, the group of politicians who acted as Jackson's advisers, and did not oppose Jackson in the matter of removals from office but was not himself an active "spoilsman."
He won the lasting regard of Jackson by his courtesies to Peggy Eaton, wife of Secretary of War John H. Eaton, with whom the wives of the cabinet officers led by Vice President Calhoun's wife, Floride Calhoun had refused to associate in the Petticoat Affair. Aside from the Petticoat Affair, he skillfully avoided entanglement in the Jackson-Calhoun imbroglio.
No diplomatic questions of the first magnitude arose during Van Buren's service as secretary, but the settlement of long-standing claims against France was prepared and trade with the British West Indies colonies was opened. In the controversy with the Bank of the United States, he sided with Jackson. After the breach between Jackson and Calhoun, Van Buren was clearly the most prominent candidate for the vice-presidency.
In December 1829, Jackson had already made known his wish that Van Buren receive the nomination. In April 1831, Van Buren resigned as Secretary of State as a result of the Petticoat affair - though he did not leave office until June. Van Buren still played a part in the Kitchen Cabinet. In August 1831 Van Buren was appointed Minister to the United Kingdom and he arrived in London in September. He was cordially received, but in February, he learned that his nomination had been rejected by the Senate on January 25th, 1832. The rejection, ostensibly attributed in large part to Van Buren's instructions to Louis McLane, the American minister to Britain, regarding the opening of the West Indies trade, in which reference had been made to the results of the election of 1828, was the work of Calhoun, the vice-president. When the vote was taken, enough of the majority refrained from voting to produce a tie and give Calhoun his longed-for "vengeance." No greater impetus than this could have been given to Van Buren's candidacy for the vice-presidency.
After a brief tour through Europe, Van Buren reached New York on July 5, 1832. The 1832 Democratic National Convention, the party's first and held in May, had nominated him for vice-president on the Jackson ticket, despite the strong opposition to him which existed in many states. Van Buren's platform included supporting the expansion of the naval system. His declarations during the campaign were vague regarding the tariff and unfavorable to the United States Bank and to nullification, but he had already somewhat placated the South by denying the right of Congress to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia without the consent of the slave states.
Van Buren advocated lower tariffs and free trade, and by doing so maintained support of the South for the Democratic Party. He succeeded in setting up a system of bonds for the national debt. His party was so split that his 1837 proposal for an "Independent Treasury" system did not pass until 1840. It gave the Treasury control of all federal funds and had a legal tender clause that required (by 1843) all payments to be made in specie, but it further inflamed public opinion on both sides.
In a bold step, Van Buren reversed Andrew Jackson's policies and sought peace at home, as well as abroad. Instead of settling a financial dispute between American citizens and the Mexican government by force, Van Buren wanted to seek a diplomatic solution. In August 1837, Van Buren denied Texas' formal request to join the United States, again prioritizing sectional harmony over territorial expansion.
In 1839, Joseph Smith, Jr., the founder of the Latter Day Saint movement visited Van Buren to plead for the U.S. to help roughly 20,000 Mormon settlers of Independence, Missouri, who were forced from the state during the 1838 Mormon War there. The Governor of Missouri, Lilburn Boggs, had issued an executive order on October 27th, 1838, known as the "Extermination Order". It authorized troops to use force against Mormons to "exterminate or drive [them] from the state". 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." Van Buren took the blame for hard times, as Whigs ridiculed him as Martin Van Ruin. Van Buren's rather elegant personal style was also an easy target for Whig attacks, such as the Gold Spoon Oration. State elections of 1837 and 1838 were disastrous for the Democrats, and the partial economic recovery in 1838 was offset by a second commercial crisis in that year. Nevertheless, Van Buren controlled his party and was unanimously renominated by the Democrats in 1840. The revolt against Democratic rule led to the election of William Henry Harrison, the Whig candidate.
Though he did vote against the admission of Missouri as a slave state, and though he would be the nominated presidential candidate of the Free Soil Party, an anti-slavery political party, in 1848, there was no ambiguity in his position on the abolition of slavery during his term of office. Van Buren considered slavery morally wrong but sanctioned by the Constitution. When it came to the issue of slavery in DC and slavery in the United States, he was against its abolition, and said so in his Inaugural Address in 1837: "I believed it a solemn duty fully to make known my sentiments in regard to it [slavery], and now, when every motive for misrepresentation has passed away, I trust that they will be candidly weighed and understood.
In 1848, he was nominated by two minor parties, first by the "Barnburner" faction of the Democrats, then by the Free Soilers, with whom the "Barnburners" coalesced. He won no electoral votes, but took enough votes in New York to give the state—and perhaps the election - to Zachary Taylor. In the election of 1860, he voted for the fusion ticket in New York which was opposed to Abraham Lincoln, but he could not approve of President Buchanan's course in dealing with secession and eventually supported Lincoln.
Martin Van Buren then retired to his home in Kinderhook. After being bedridden with a case of pneumonia during the fall of 1861, Martin Van Buren died of bronchial asthma and heart failure at his Lindenwald estate in Kinderhook at 2:00 a.m. on July 24, 1862. He was 79 years old. He is buried in the Kinderhook Cemetery along with his wife Hannah, his parents, and his son Martin Van Buren, Jr. A cenotaph to him is located near the parking lot of the Kinderhook Reformed Dutch Church. Van Buren outlived his four immediate successors as President (William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, James K. Polk and Zachary Taylor).
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