asher63 (asher63) wrote,

Martin Van Buren

... wasn't a great President.

But he was OK.

Contrary to the line in "James K. Polk" by They Might Be Giants, Van Buren was not an abolitionist (as the TMBG wiki recognizes). He was the first President of non-English and non-English-speaking background. An able lawyer, he was one of very few Presidents to attain the office with neither a university degree nor a military background. He was noted, and sometimes ridiculed, for his refined tastes and manner of dress.

White House: Martin Van Buren.
Van Buren devoted his Inaugural Address to a discourse upon the American experiment as an example to the rest of the world. The country was prosperous, but less than three months later the panic of 1837 punctured the prosperity.

Basically the trouble was the 19th-century cyclical economy of "boom and bust," which was following its regular pattern, but Jackson's financial measures contributed to the crash. His destruction of the Second Bank of the United States had removed restrictions upon the inflationary practices of some state banks; wild speculation in lands, based on easy bank credit, had swept the West. To end this speculation, Jackson in 1836 had issued a Specie Circular requiring that lands be purchased with hard money--gold or silver.

In 1837 the panic began. Hundreds of banks and businesses failed. Thousands lost their lands. For about five years the United States was wracked by the worst depression thus far in its history.

Programs applied decades later to alleviate economic crisis eluded both Van Buren and his opponents. Van Buren's remedy--continuing Jackson's deflationary policies--only deepened and prolonged the depression.

Wikipedia: Martin Van Buren.
Martin Van Buren announced his intention "to follow in the footsteps of his illustrious predecessor," and retained all but one of Jackson's cabinet. Van Buren had few economic tools to deal with the economic crisis of 1837. 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 legal tender rather than in state bank notes. But the act was repealed in 1841 and never had much impact. Foreign affairs were complicated when several states defaulted on their state bonds, London complained, and Washington explained it had no responsibility for those bonds. British authors such as Charles Dickens then denounced the American failure to pay royalties, leading to a negative press in Britain regarding the financial honesty of America. The Caroline Affair involved Canadian rebels using New York bases to attack the government in Canada. On December 29, 1837, Canadian government forces crossed the frontier into the US and burned the Caroline, which the rebels had been using. One American was killed, and an outburst of anti-British sentiment swept through the U.S. Van Buren sent the army to the frontier and closed the rebel bases. Van Buren tried to vigorously enforce the neutrality laws, but American public opinion favored the rebels. Boundary disputes in May brought Canadian and American lumberjacks into conflict. There was no bloodshed in this Aroostook War, but it further inflamed public opinion on both sides.

In a bold step, Van Buren reversed Andrew Jackson's policies and sought for 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. Also, in August of 1837, Van Buren denied Texas's formal request to join the United States. "Van Buren gave a higher priority to sectional harmony than to territorial expansion" ("Martin Van Buren" 103-114). In the Amistad Case Van Buren sided with the Spanish Government to return the kidnapped slaves. Also, he oversaw the "Trail of Tears", which involved the expulsion of the Cherokee tribe in 1838 from Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, and North Carolina to the Oklahoma territory. Van Buren was determined to avoid war.

Ted Widmer: Martin Van Buren.
Approximately six generations ago, it was impossible not to have an opinion about Martin Van Buren. And these opinions were not for the faint of heart. In certain quarters, Van Buren was the most hated man in America. He was pilloried in cartoons (where his size and baldness made him an easy target), attacked in speeches on the floor of Congress, and privately despised by millions. At the same time, he was defended by his stalwart friends, and admired, if not exactly loved, by millions more - particularly the small freeholders who felt threatened by the incursions of new elites - callous bankers, wanton plantation owners, greedy merchants and factory owners. He was accused of being noncommittal (a word he is said to have invented), but in truth it was America that had trouble making up its mind about him.

It was Van Buren's lot to assume the Presidency at the moment when "slavery came out of the shadows and into the daylight of American politics" (Widmer, p. 111). In this above all, Van Buren set the tone for the times: evasion and compromise. "In truth, it is difficult to pin down exactly where Van Buren stood on the topic." The casual student of history is bewildered by the seemingly endless - and tedious - succession of futile attempts to find a "magic formula" that would resolve the issue of slavery to everyone's satisfaction.

Van Buren's reputation for foppishness, even effeminacy, provided the ground for his successor, William Henry Harrison, to campaign as a "real man" in contrast to Van Buren. Perhaps Harrison took it a bit too far ... but that's a tale for the next post.
Tags: history

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