Martin Van Buren - His Presidential Years 1837 to 1841
HY 201, section 2

April 4, 2004

The Eighth President of the United States

In the election of 1836, Van Buren won easily with 170 electoral votes against 73 for Harrison, 26 for White, 14 for Webster and 11 for Mangum. In popular votes Van Buren received a total of 764,176 votes compared to 550,816 for Harrison, 146,107 for White and 41,201 for Webster.

Major Issues of the Election of 1836

Van Buren disagreed with Whig candidate William Henry Harrison\'s revenue-sharing scheme that would return federal surplus from the proceeds of federal lands directly back to the states. Harrison was willing to revive the Bank of the United States if the economy got out of control, while Van Buren opposed the Bank in all circumstances. While Harrison called for a number of internal improvements, while Van Buren only intended on federally funding projects that were truly national in scope.

Van Buren\'s major political opponents were:

William Henry Harrison (Whig)

Hugh Lawson White (Whig)

Daniel Webster (Whig)

Vice President: Richard Mentor Johnson (1780-1850)

Martin Van Buren\'s expertise as a political strategist which earned him the name "little magician" was used to promote Andrew Jackson, but it was of no use to him in furthering his own career as President. The main problem was the economic depression that persisted throughout most of his administration. He was further hampered by his taste for the finer things in life, which caused his critics to portray him as a dandy, indifferent to the country\'s sufferings. He was dubbed “Martin Van Ruin “for these economic problems, even though they were already on the scene before he took office.

Almost at once a financial panic struck the nation. Bankers begged Van Buren for aid, but he pointed out that the crisis was due to ruinous speculation. He insisted that government manipulation would only further weaken the economic structure. As a step to guard the nation\'s own money, he repeatedly pressed Congress to set up an independent treasury. It was voted in 1840 but repealed in 1841. Van Buren attributed the Panic of 1837 to the overexpansion of the credit and favored the independent treasury. In 1840, he established a 10 hour day on public works.

Van Buren also inherited from former president Jackson the Seminole Indian War in Florida. The conflict, during which thousands of lives on both sides were lost, cost the government between 40 and 60 million dollars. Meanwhile Van Buren had to handle the undeclared Aroostook War, a dispute between Maine and New Brunswick, Canada, over Maine’s northeast boundary on the Aroostook River. Maine called out troops in 1839, but Van Buren managed to have the quarrel settled by Britain and the United States. Van Buren\'s calm approach to problems angered people who demanded quick action. Despite heated public opinion he carefully weighed both sides of any question. Today he is regarded as having been a sound statesman in a troubled era. Martin Van Buren was among the first American politicians to understand the role of political parties in a democracy. Before him, parties were viewed disdainfully as dangerous factions threatening the unity of society. The party competition of an earlier era, between the Federalists and Democrat Republicans, was barely tolerated, with those in power tending to view the opposing party as traitors and often subjecting them to persecution. Van Buren saw parties as salutary institutions within a working democracy, and as a New York state politician, he built the first real political party apparatus in the United States.

The popular image of Andrew Jackson as the backwoods representative of the people was largely Van Buren\'s invention, and Jackson\'s electoral victories owed as much to Van Buren\'s organizational skills as they did to Jackson\'s charisma. In turn, Van Buren\'s election in 1836 owed everything to Jackson. Van Buren was Jackson\'s hand-picked successor, and he rode that endorsement into office. But Jackson\'s reputation could not help Van Buren solve the economic depression that plagued his years in office. In the end, the genteel Van Buren became a victim of the very political techniques he had developed for Jackson. In 1840 he was defeated for reelection by Whig candidate William Henry Harrison, a backwoods Indian fighter who portrayed himself (falsely) as a Jacksonian log-cabin