Martin Van Buren

Martin Van Buren (Dutch: Maarten van Buren pronunciation ; December 5, 1782 – July 24, 1862) was the eighth President of the United States (1837–1841). A member of the Democratic Party, he served in a number of senior roles, including eighth Vice President (1833–1837) and Secretary of State (1829–1831), both under Andrew Jackson. Van Buren's inability as president to deal with the economic chaos of the Panic of 1837 and with the surging Whig Party led to his defeat for re-election in 1840.

Of Dutch descent, Van Buren learned early how to coordinate multiple ethnic and political groups. A meticulous dresser, he could mingle in upper class society as well as in saloon environments such as the tavern his father ran. A delegate to a political convention at age 18, he quickly moved from local to state politics, gaining fame both as a political organizer and an accomplished lawyer. Elected to the Senate by the state legislature in 1821, Van Buren supported William H. Crawford for president in 1824, but by 1828 had come to support General Andrew Jackson. Van Buren was a major supporter and organizer for Jackson in the 1828 election. Jackson was elected, and made Van Buren Secretary of State.

During Jackson's eight years as president, Van Buren was a key advisor, and built the organizational structure for the coalescing Democratic Party, particularly in New York. In 1831, Jackson gave him a recess appointment as American minister to Britain, but Van Buren's nomination was rejected by the Senate, cutting short his service in London. He was successful in the jockeying to become Jackson's picked successor, and was elected vice president in 1832. Van Buren faced several Whig opponents in his presidential bid in 1836, and was elected.

As president, he was blamed for the depression of 1837; hostile newspapers called him "Martin Van Ruin." He attempted to cure the economic problems by keeping control of federal funds in an Independent Treasury, rather than in state banks, but Congress did not pass this until 1840. In foreign affairs, he did not want the United States to annex Texas, an act which John Tyler would achieve eight years after Van Buren's initial rejection. Between the bloodless Aroostook War and the Caroline Affair, relations with Britain and its colonies in Canada also proved to be strained.Van Buren was voted out of office in 1840, losing to Whig candidate William Henry Harrison. He was the leading candidate for the Democratic nomination in 1844, but lost to James K. Polk, who went on to win the election. In the 1848 election Van Buren ran unsuccessfully as the candidate of the Free Soil Party. Van Buren supported fellow Democrats Franklin Pierce (1852), James Buchanan (1856), and Stephen A. Douglas (1860) for the presidency, but his increasingly anti-slavery views and support for the Union led him to support Abraham Lincoln's policies after the start of the American Civil War. Van Buren's health began to fail in 1861, and he died in July 1862 at the age of seventy-nine. Although he served in many high offices, 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.

By Dean Hanley

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