Martin Van Buren (1782-1862) was the eighth president and the first to take office who was born an American citizen. He was born to Dutch parents on December 5, 1782 – just six years after the colonists declared independence from Britain. His father was a farmer and tavern keeper in Kinderhook, New York. Van Buren stood about five feet six inches tall. His nickname was “the Little Magician,” though his enemies also referred to him as “the Fox” due to his sly political maneuvers.
As a young adult, Van Buren studied and practiced law. He opened his own practice in 1803 and then, four years later, married his childhood sweetheart – and cousin – Hannah Hoes. The couple had four sons, but Hannah died of tuberculosis in 1819.
Van Buren believed in the same type of politics as Thomas Jefferson, favoring states’ rights over a strong federal government. He began his political career by serving two terms from 1812 to 1820 in the New York State Senate. From there, he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1821. In 1824, John Quincy Adams won the presidency and sparked a lot of controversy. Van Buren helped to form a coalition of Jeffersonian Republicans that supported Andrew Jackson during the election, and this new group became the Democratic Party.
In 1828, Van Buren became the governor of New York, but he resigned when Jackson became president and made him the secretary of state. In 1832, he ran for vice president on the ticket with Jackson, and their platform centered around opposing the recharter of the Bank of the United States, something that would later haunt Van Buren’s presidency.
Van Buren won the presidential election in 1836, but the nation had become immersed in a financial panic that was partially caused by the now-defunct bank. This drove the nation to its worst depression in history. His office was also hurt because of a long and very expensive war with the Seminole Indians of Florida.
In 1844, Van Buren tried to get re-elected but was beaten by James K. Polk. Van Buren lost a lot of support due to his refusal to endorse the annexation of Texas, so many people turned to Polk, who campaigned to annex both Texas and Oregon.
But Van Buren wasn’t done with politics yet. He helped form the Free Soil Party. Democrats who were against slavery were known as “Barnburners” (after a Dutch farmer who had burned his farm to get rid of rats), and this group backed the former president in creating the new party. In 1848, Van Buren ran for president as a Free Soil candidate. Charles Francis Adams, son of former president John Quincy Adams, was the vice-presidential nominee. Their platform centered on the problems of slavery, but after the votes were tallied, Van Buren only received 10% of the votes and lost to Zachary Taylor.
After another loss at the presidential seat, Van Buren retired to his Kinderhook estate. He continued to oppose slavery, and wrote an autobiography. He died in July 1862, just a year after the Civil War broke out.