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Martin Van Buren (Museum Figure)

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Martin Van Buren (December 5, 1782 July 24, 1862) was an American statesman who served as the eighth President of the United States from 1837 to 1841. A founder of the Democratic Party, he served as the ninth Governor of New York, the tenth Secretary of State, and the eighth Vice President. Van Buren won the 1836 presidential election based on the popularity of outgoing President Andrew Jackson and the organizational strength of the Democratic Party. He lost his 1840 re-election bid to Whig Party nominee William Henry Harrison due in part to the poor economic conditions of the Panic of 1837. Later in his life, Van Buren emerged as an important anti-slavery leader, and he led the Free Soil ticket in the 1848 presidential election.


Van Buren was born in Kinderhook, New York to a family of Dutch Americans. Van Buren was raised speaking Dutch and learned English at school, making him the only president who spoke English as a second language. Van Buren trained as a lawyer and quickly became involved in politics as a member of the Democratic-Republican Party. He won election to the New York State Senate and became the leader of the Bucktails, faction of Democratic-Republicans opposed to Governor DeWitt Clinton. Van Buren established a political machine known as the Albany Regency and emerged as the most influential politician in home state in the 1820s. He was elected to the United States Senate in 1821, and supported William H. Crawford in the 1824 presidential election. After John Quincy Adams won the 1824 election, Van Buren opposed Adams's proposals for federally-funded internal improvements and other measures. Van Buren's major political goal was to re-establish a two-party system with partisan differences based on ideology rather than personalities or sectional differences. With this goal in mind, he supported Jackson's candidacy against Adams in the 1828 presidential election. To support Jackson's candidacy, Van Buren ran for Governor of New York. After Jackson took office in 1829, Van Buren resigned as governor to accept appointment as 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. After resigning from his position in order to help resolve the Petticoat affair, Van Buren briefly served as the American ambassador to Britain. At Jackson's behest, the 1832 Democratic National Convention nominated Van Buren for vice president, and Van Buren took office after the Democratic ticket won the 1832 presidential election. With Jackson's strong support, Van Buren faced little opposition for the presidential nomination at the 1835 Democratic National Convention, and he defeated several Whig opponents in the 1836 presidential election. Van Buren's response to the Panic of 1837 centered on his Independent Treasury system, a plan under which the federal government would store its funds in vaults rather than in banks. He also continued Jackson's policy of Indian removal. In foreign affairs, he maintained peaceful relations with Britain and, seeking to avoid heightened sectional tensions, denied the application of Texas for admission to the Union. In the 1840 election, the Whigs rallied around Harrison's military record and ridiculed Van Buren as "Martin Van Ruin," and a surge of new voters helped turn Van Buren out of office.


Van Buren was the leading candidate for the Democratic nomination in 1844, but his continued opposition to the annexation of Texas aroused the opposition of Southern Democrats and the party nominated James K. Polk. Van Buren grew increasingly opposed to slavery after he left office, and, motivated additionally by intra-party differences at the state and national level, he agreed to lead a third party ticket in the 1848 presidential election. Though he finished in a distant third nationally, Van Buren's presence in the race may have helped Whig nominee Zachary Taylor defeat Democrat Lewis Cass. Van Buren returned to the Democratic fold after the 1848 election, but he supported Abraham Lincoln's policies during the American Civil War. Van Buren's health began to fail in 1861, and he died in July 1862 at age 79. He has been generally ranked as a below-average U.S. President by historians and political scientists.



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