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Martin Van Buren


When Captain Henry Hudson came, in his ship the Half Moon, to Manhattan Island in 1609, he brought there a sturdy stock of people which has not yet died out. These were the Dutch, a race of strong fibre and shrewd brain. The English came, but the Dutch remained. Their descendants remain to-day, and we owe to this good old Holland stock two of our Presidents, Martin Van Buren and Theodore Roosevelt. It is the first of these we have before us now

Martin came into the world in a lucky time, just as the British were letting go their hold on the fighting colonies.   He was born December 5, 1782, when the war had ended and the treaty of peace between the United States and England was being considered. He was born in a little town with a strong Dutch name, Kinderhook. His mother's name was Hoes and his father's was Van Buren, both good Dutch names.

Kinderhook is a little town still, on the Hudson River, about sixteen miles below Albany. Here his father, a shrewd, thrifty, good-natured Dutchman, kept the village tavern and worked a small farm, and made both pay him well. His mother was pious and sensible. Both parents had good qualities, and Martin got his share of them. He was an active little lad, with the shrewdness and sense of his parents, and plenty of his father's good nature.

The boy was sent to the best schools of the old town. And there was a school of politics inside his father's hostelry, where the neighbors gathered to talk over the events of the day, and where no doubt the quick-witted boy picked up many useful lessons: for there is often much sense in what the common people say.

His father did not send him to college. Perhaps he thought too much learning would do more harm than good. He wanted to give him knowledge that would pay, so he set him at studying law when he was fourteen and kept him at it till he was twenty-one. His last year of study was spent in New York City, under William P. Van Ness, who was a friend of Aaron Burr, and was to be his second in his famous duel with Alexander Hamilton.

The boy from up the Hudson saw much of Burr, who was one of the most brilliant men of his time. He was what we would call to-day a party boss. He could talk over anybody to his side and knew all about the art of handling parties, and it is very likely Van Buren learned many lessons from him, for in later years he showed that he was well up in this art.

He went home in 1803 and began practicing law. Very likely he expected to be a country lawyer all his life. He could not know how splendid a gift fortune had in hand for him. But he was bright and quick-witted enough to take all the chances that came and make the best of them.

In the village academy he had learned some Latin, and was very fond of preparing declamations, and reciting them before the school. He made the very best use of his advantages, and it was well he did so, for he had to fight his way to the top of the ladder of fame.

There is an interesting story told of him while he was studying law at Kinderhook. In those clays the old lawyers often gave their students a chance to try small cases, where they had a chance to talk before juries. This was very good practice for them.

When he was only sixteen years old little Van Buren was given a case to be tried before a Justice of the Peace and a jury in his native village of Kinderhook. Against him was an old lawyer of great experience and ability who had won almost every case he had undertaken; but Martin, nothing daunted, went into court, and caused a great deal of amusement and fun at the trial. When the trial came on he was such a little fellow that his friends got a table and lifted him up on it to address the jury. You can imagine this boy of sixteen addressing a jury of gray-headed men; but he had thoroughly prepared his case, and spoke so eloquently that he won it. No doubt the tall platform and his youthful appearance gained for him much better attention than he would otherwise have had. The court-room was crowded, and the trial gave the lookers-on a great deal of amusement.

When he got through his law studies Martin began to practice in his native town of Kinderhook. Here he stayed for six years and was very successful. Then he moved to the city of Hudson. But before he left his native town he married Miss Hannah Hoes, an old playmate, and a relative of his mother. For twelve years they lived happily together. Then she died. Her husband kept her memory green in his heart and never married again.

The young lawyer, like many other lawyers before him, quickly went into politics. The Federal party was the strong one in his neighborhood, and his friends blamed him for joining the Democrats, saying that he could never be elected to any office by that party. He told them plainly that he was going to live up to what he thought right if he never got into office.

But the young man was born to win success. He had a good nature and a smiling and kindly manner that brought him plenty of friends. He was very industrious, and he was very fond of books, reading everything that came in his way. In those days books were not so plentiful as they are now, but he managed to learn a good many things outside of the law. After his six years' practice at Kinderhook Mr. Van Buren removed to the city of Hudson, where he had the chance to come in contact with the best lawyers of the State. Here he gained a wide legal reputation, and grew so popular among the people that in 1812 he was elected to the Senate of New York State. The war with England began that year. He did not believe in the war, but he worked for it, and helped pass a law for raising troops. This made him very popular with many people. After General Jackson's great victory at New Orleans, he offered a resolution in the Senate to give the thanks of the State to that famous general. You will learn later on how well Jackson paid him for that resolution. 

As time went on Van Buren became very popular with his party. In 1818 the New York. Democratic party was reorganized by him, and his power in it became so great that "he held absolute control for twenty years." He had made himself what we call to-day a " Party Boss." Nothing was done in the party except at his command.

New honors came to him fast. In 1821 he was sent by the Legislature of New York to the Senate of the United States. In the next Presidential election he fought hard against John Quincy Adams and for Andrew Jackson, and in 1829, when Jackson was elected, many people said that he owed his election to Martin Van Buren, who had shown a wonderful power in managing political movements. He did not forget the lessons he had learned from Aaron Burr, the first great party manager.

When Jackson became President Van Buren was Governor of the State of New York, to which he had been elected after he left the Senate. But the new President, who was very thankful to Van Buren for what he had done for him, asked him to give up his high office and come into his Cabinet as Secretary of State. Many people were surprised that Mr. Van Buren would give up the greatest position that he could hold in his native State to become a member of the President's Cabinet, but he understood thoroughly what he was doing. To many people this would not have been a promotion, but to him it certainly was, for it kept for him the friendship of Andrew Jackson; other Secretaries of State had been made Presidents and he might be. No doubt he looked that far ahead.

After he had acted as Secretary of State for a short time, President Jackson sent him to represent his government in England as Minister of the United States. This was a very important position, and he hurried to London. But he was not there long before he met with a great disappointment, for the United States Senate refused to approve his appointment. When he heard of it he was at a great banquet given by the famous Talleyrand, the French Minister. Everybody looked at Van Buren to see how he would bear the news. But if they expected to see a gloomy and sour face they were mistaken, for he was as gracious, smiling and courteous as ever, and acted as if it was an every-day affair.

When he came back he was a greater favorite with President Jackson than ever. He had always known how to rub down the old war-horse the right way, and no matter what question Jackson brought up, whether wise or unwise, Van Buren gave it his full support. That was what we call currying favor. Jackson paid him well for it, for when the next election came he used his great influence to have Van Buren made Vice-President. The smiling lawyer from Kinderhook had made his sharp practice in politics pay.

The Vice-Presidency was the stepping-stone to a still higher honor, for in 1836, when Jackson's second term was near its end, he used all his vast influence to have his friend Van Buren nominated for President. The Whigs nominated General Harrison to run against him, but the Democratic party won, and the lawyer from Kinderhook was now lifted to the highest position in the nation, that of President of the United States. That was a great raise for the man who had made his way upward, first by managing a party then by managing a President.

On March 4, 1837, an immense crowd collected to see his inauguration. A striking scene it was when he rode side by side with Andrew Jackson in a phaeton drawn by four grays to take the oath of office. They were both uncovered and bowing to the cheers of the crowd. But the gaunt, iron, face of " Old Hickory " was in strange contrast with the shrewd, smiling, handsome countenance of the man beside him.

But Jackson, while he had made Van Buren President, had left plenty of trouble for him. By ruining the United States flank, and by other acts, he brought a great business panic on the country, which lasted through all of the new President's term. So in 1840, when the time for an election again came round, the people wanted a change, and the Whigs won by a large majority. Van Buren was badly beaten, and General Harrison was elected in his place. Of course, Van Buren would have liked to hold the Presidency for a second term ; but he bore his disappointment with his usual good nature and dignity, and retired to his New York home. But he had been a politician so long that it was not easy for him to withdraw entirely from taking a part in the great questions of the day, and there was not much went on that he did not have a hand in.

He had lost favor with the South because he was not in favor of extending slavery into new territory, so he could not expect any further honors from his old party; yet he had a great many friends who believed in him still, and who chose him to be their candidate in 1848. They were called Free-Soilers, and by some were called Barn-Burners ; but when the election came on he had a very small vote.

In 1853 Mr. Van Buren decided to take a tour of Europe in company with one of his sons. This was the first time an Ex-President of the United States had visited a foreign country. He had never been in the army, and therefore could not wear a uniform. Many questions arose as to how he should be received by the royalty abroad and what rank they would give him in their receptions. Mr. Van Buren made himself very agreeable and popular wherever he went, and did much to do away with any embarrassment.  He visited England, Ireland, Scotland, and the principal countries and cities of Europe.

The remainder of his days he passed quietly at his beautiful home, which he called Lindenwald, and where he ended his long and busy life on July 24, 1862. He was born just as the war of the Revolution came town end. He lived to see the opening of the great Civil War, dying at eighty years of age.


Source:  "The Lives of the Presidents and How They Reached the White House"   by Charles Morris, LL.D., 1903.

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