Our 8th President of the United States: Martin Van Buren
You can blame Martin Van Buren for all those pesky career politicians out there. Historians claim him as the first ever professional politician. He started it all. Thanks, President Van Buren!
Also, there’s a phrase that thanks to this guy became a household saying. You probably say it half a dozen times a day. At least. Do you want to know what it is? Keep reading to find out.
For those of you new to our blog, this post is part of our U.S. Presidents 101 series. If you’ve been following along with us, you may remember one of my goals this year is to learn all the U.S. Presidents, some facts about each one, and to teach it all to my kids. Here are our previous presidents: George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, and Andrew Jackson, if you’d like to follow along.
The Facts: Martin Van Buren served from 1837-1841. He was 54 years old when he was elected. He’s from a little Dutch farming community in New York name Kinderhook. His parents didn’t have a lot of money and couldn’t afford to send him to college, so when he was 14 he secured an apprenticeship with a town lawyer and his career took off from there.
In addition to farming, his father ran a tavern. It was at this tavern that young Martin supposedly learned the wheeling and dealing that comes with being a politician.
He served in the New York state senate, as NY’s Attorney General. During his second term as a senator, his wife Hannah died of tuberculosis, leaving him a single parent with four children. It didn’t slow him down though.
A few years later he was elected to be a U.S. Senator then gave that seat up to become the Governor of New York. That was short lived because just a few months later, Andrew Jackson recruited him to be his secretary of state. The rest is history . . . kind of. In a series of little twists and turns, Van Buren eventually became Jackson’s vice president–In 1832, he was unanimously nominated Jackson’s running mate at the first ever Democratic Convention.
Marin Van Buren was Andrew Jackson’s hand-picked heir to the presidency. He was the reason Jackson was elected twice to the presidency and as a way to thank him, Jackson made sure Van Buren was next. This was both a blessing and a curse.
The blessing was that because he was Andrew Jackson’s protege, he was destined to win the presidency. That was because at the time of election, Jackson had left Van Buren with an excellent economy. Beyond good even. In fact, it was the first time EVER (and since) that the U.S. hadn’t been in debt.
The curse was that thanks to Jackson’s fiscal policies (namely shutting down the National Bank which forced money to be distributed to reckless state banks), the economy was also destined to come crashing down. And that economic collapse, the Panic of 1837, landed right in Van Buren’s lap almost immediately after inauguration and set the course for the rest of his presidency.
Van Buren loved the good life. He was considered quite the fashionable dresser, witty, but a poor decision maker. He had a reputation for being a wannabe aristocrat, decorating the White House with gold, etc. (not true, but his personality suggested otherwise). There were rumors floating around that he perfumed his whiskers and wore a corset which didn’t sit well with a lot of men at the time.
“Martin van Ruin” was the slogan his opponent’s threw at him in his re-election campaign and, not surprisingly, with the state of the economy, Van Buren lost big time.
Political Party: Democrat. He is considered the father of the democratic party (which was a bit different at the time. It was founded on principles of a minimalist government) but four years after he lost his re-election bid, he ran again as a member of the Free Soil Party.
Problems facing his presidency: His entire presidency was nothing but problem after problem. Poor guy.
Van Buren was clueless on how to handle the panics. There was no longer a National Bank to make things stable since Jackson had got rid of it the year before in what was known as the “Bank War.” Van Buren’s policies did nothing to help rebound the suffering economy. In fact, they made it worse with another panic in 1839, that was even worse than the previous one. This was the first economic crisis of its kind in our new country and Van Buren was the unfortunate president who had to deal with it.
He initially proposed that the funds from the banks be transferred to a U.S. Treasury, but he was a poor decision maker and it wasn’t implemented until years later.
How bad were these panics? 618 banks closed during this time, businesses failed, and thousands lost their land. It caused a major depression–the worst ever in our country’s history.
He failed to make a decision on the annexation of Texas. He thought it would only make for a larger slave territory, so he let it go.
Why he’s cool: Martin Van Buren was the first president to be born an American citizen. Since every other president was born prior to the revolution, technically they were considered British-born subjects. His parents were immigrants from the Netherlands and his first language was Dutch.
He was a super skilled politician and had many nicknames. One of them was the “little magician.” He magically appeared to pull political deals out of thin air. Too bad his magic skills didn’t transfer over to his presidency.
And now, for your daily tribute to him… There are several theories out there, but most historians agree that it was President Van Buren that helped popularize a certain word. His most famous nickname that you never even knew about, but that you use multiple times a day, was “Old Kinderhook”–a reference to his hometown. When he ran for president, and throughout his career, his supporters would wear shirts that said “OK”–standing for “Old Kinderhook.” The word “OK” eventually morphed into part of their every day language, meaning “right on” or “yes.” It was a phrase that was carried on by members of the democratic party and very much lives on to this day all over the world. Even people who don’t speak English generally know what “OK” means, though the actual word is spelled “okay.” You can thank Old Kinderhook for the abbreviated “OK” usage!
First Lady: His wife was Hannah Hoes Van Buren. She died nearly 20 years before he became president though and he never remarried. Angelica Singleton Van Buren, his daughter-in-law served as his hostess. There’s a beautiful portrait of her hanging up in the White House. At 20 years old she was the youngest woman ever to serve as a First Lady/hostess. Fun story about her: Dolly Madison, the former first lady, was apparently quite the match maker. Madison set her up with one of Van Buren’s sons right after Van Buren was elected president.
Vice President: Richard M. Johnson (the first of three vice presidents with the last name of Johnson). He was the first vice president to be chosen by the Senate (Back then, the vp ran on a separate ticket from the presidency. None of the vp nominees had achieved a majority of the electoral votes).
Sources: History Channel has an awesome documentary on our U.S. Presidents. You can watch portions of it on YouTube but you can get all of it on Amazon. There’s a shorter version, here that is also fascinating.
For Kids: If your kids are anything like mine, they probably use the word “OK” a lot. Do they ever think about where certain words come from? What they mean? Give them the history of the word “OK” by telling them about President Van Buren and his nickname.
Former White House and Capitol Hill staffer, wife, and mom.