Profile - Martin Van Buren
Martin Van Buren (December 5, 1782-July 24, 1862), the eighth president, was the first to actually be a natural-born American citizen, rather than a former British subject; that is, he was the first person to become president who had been born after the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. He was also, after Jackson, the second president not born in either Virginia or Massachusetts, and the first president from New York.
Van Buren came from an old Dutch family, long established in New York. Both his grandfathers served in the militia, fighting in several Indian wars. During the Revolutionary War, New York’s Governor George Clinton offered the president’s father, Abraham Van Buren, a captain’s commission in the militia, but he declined. Van Buren’s two younger brothers, Abraham and Lawrence, both served as officers in the New York State Militia during the War of 1812.
As a young man Van Buren studied law and became active in politics in his native state. Although New York had a compulsory militia service law, no record of military service has been found for Van Buren. To be sure, he may have avoided service by paying a fine, but no record of such has been found either. Thus, it seems very likely that he did not serve.
Despite this, during the War of 1812 Van Buren performed important duties for the army and the militia. As a member of the New York State Senate, he worked hard to organize and prepare the state and the militia for the war. In addition, although a civilian, from January 3rd through April 25th of 1814, he served as a judge advocate during the court martial of Brig. Gen. William Hull, who had commanded American forces in the Michigan Territory early in the war, and had surrendered Detroit to the British without a fight. In the end, the court found Hull guilty of ineptitude and cowardice; he was sentenced to be shot, but this was reduced to a fine and expulsion from the army by the President. That same year Van Buren co-authored (with Aaron Burr) and led the fight for the adoption of the “Classification Bill” by the State of New York, a law that set up a draft to put 12,000 men on permanent active duty on the state’s payroll, who were scheduled to play a major role in a planned against Canada in 1815. Van Buren also supported increased pay for men in the state militia and the establishment of a fleet of state-owned gunboats to operate on rivers and lakes. For his efforts Van Buren was offered a commission in the Regular Army by Brig. Gen. Winfield Scott, but he declined.
Following the War of 1812 Van Buren became a dominant figure in New York State politics, and a key player in the movement to extend voting rights to all adult white men. He served as Secretary of State for President Andrew Jackson, and as Vice-President during Jackson’s second term, 1833-1837.
Van Buren’s lack of military distinction was of some concern during the presidential campaign of 1836. As a result, his choice for a vice-presidential running mate was Richard M. Johnson. A veteran Indian fighter, Johnson was widely credited with having slain the great Indian war chief Tecumseh in 1813 (oddly, Johnson himself expressed doubt about the matter). Given that the opposition was split among three major candidates, and that the nation’s most famous veteran, President Jackson, supported him, Van Buren’s fears were probably misplaced and he was elected handily in November of 1836.
The principal military undertaking during Van Buren’s presidency was the Second Seminole War. The war had actually begun in 1835, during the Jackson administration, when the Seminoles, led by the great Osceola, resisted efforts to “relocate” them west of the Mississippi. It dragged on until after Van Buren left the White House, not ending until 1842, with the Seminole giving as well as they took, despite the efforts of the best officers in the army, the loss of some 5,000 troops, mostly to tropical disease, and the expenditure of enormous sums of money.
Tensions with Britain regarding incidents and disputes on the Canadian border were handled more deftly by Winfield Scott, averting a possible military confrontation.
Soon after Van Buren assumed office, the Panic of 1837 occurred, initiating a devastating depression. As a result, he lost the election of 1840 to William Henry Harrison. Leaving the White House, Van Buren remained active in politics, attempting a return to the presidency in 1844 and again in 1848, when he actually ran as a minor party candidate.
Van Buren’s eldest son, Abraham (1807-1873), graduated from West Point in 1827, 37th in a class of 38, among whom were numbered Pierre G.T. Beauregard and Irvin McDowell. By the time his father was elected president, in 1836, Abraham had seen active service on the frontier and in the Second Seminole War, while rising to captain. On March 3, 1837, the day before his father’s inauguration, Abraham resigned from the army to serve as the President’s secretary. Abraham Van Buren re-entered the army on the outbreak of the Mexican War in 1846. Although officially only a paymaster, he managed to get into combat, earning a brevet – honorary – promotion for “gallant and meritorious conduct” in the battles of Contreras and Churubusco. He left the army in 1854 to prepare his father’s papers for publication. Abraham’s younger brothers, John, Martin, Jr., and Smith Thompson Van Buren saw no military service.
The famous illustrator and cartoonist Raeburn Van Buren, was a distant cousin of the President. Raeburn, the creator of the newspaper cartoon “Abbie and Slats,” which was very popular early in the twentieth century, served as an enlisted man during World War I, in the 107th Infantry (New York’s “Silk Stocking” 7th Regiment), and took part in some of the heaviest fighting by American troops during the war.