James C Curtis. Presidents: A Reference History. Editor: Henry F Graff. 3rd edition. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2002.
The inauguration of Martin Van Buren on 4 March 1837 would long live in the memory of his contemporaries. The thousands who jammed Washington’s avenues had come not so much to greet their new leader as to catch a final glimpse of the departing president, Andrew Jackson. They stood respectfully while the new president read his inaugural address and took the oath of office. As the inaugural party began its descent from the platform, the crowd unleashed a thunderous ovation “such as power never commanded, nor man in power received.” “For once,” recalled Senator Thomas Hart Benton, “the rising was eclipsed by the setting sun.”
No one was more keenly aware of the significance of this transition than Martin Van Buren himself. He regarded Jackson as the last of the great revolutionary heroes. “I feel that I belong to a later age,” Van Buren told the inaugural crowd, “and that I may not expect my countrymen to weigh my actions with the same kind and partial hand.” Within weeks an unprecedented economic depression would cause Van Buren’s countrymen to judge him harshly. Historians have been equally severe in their assessment. Depression victim though he would become, Martin Van Buren was superbly qualified for the White House.
More than any other statesman of the age, Van Buren devoted himself to the perfection of party politics grounded on principle and maintained by discipline. His career in both state and national government exemplified a professionalism that would shape the modern two-party system. If Andrew Jackson was the symbol of a political renaissance in the United States, Martin Van Buren was its chief architect and prime beneficiary. Lacking prestigious family connections, martial fame, or substantial wealth, he worked within the party to gain advancement. He was the first professional politician to become president.
Born on 5 December 1782 in the small Hudson River community of Kinderhook, New York, Martin Van Buren grew up in an era of political confusion and intense party rivalry. He rose through the ranks of New York Republican (Democratic-Republican) politics in direct opposition to the policies and paternal-istic tactics of the state’s popular Republican governor, De Witt Clinton. Van Buren and his fellow “Bucktails” (anti-Clintonian Republicans) rebelled against Clinton’s favoritism and arbitrary use of appointment powers. They created an efficient organization, known as the Albany Regency. This prototype of the modern political machine based its power on a widespread correspondence network that included local committees, state officeholders, and an aggressive newspaper, the Albany Argus.
By the early 1820s, the Albany Regency was a powerful state organization with national ambitions. Van Buren went to Washington in 1821 as New York’s junior senator, hoping to create an effective alliance between the states based on a shared commitment to the principles of limited government. To Van Buren, traditional Jeffersonian concepts of states’ rights promised an ideal framework for a modern party that would encourage state activism by restraining the power of the federal government. Thus, he favored expansion of the economy through internal improvements like the Erie Canal but insisted that the states should build and finance such projects. Similarly, Van Buren wanted regulation of the nation’s currency and improved conditions for the workingman under state, not federal, regulation.
This Jeffersonian outlook endeared him to such prominent southern politicians as Virginia editor Thomas Ritchie, leader of the Richmond Junto, an organization as powerful as the Regency. Ritchie looked to states’ rights to protect against federal interference with slavery. These two astute and ambitious politicians failed in 1824 to forge an alliance grounded on states’ rights; three years later they endorsed Andrew Jackson, a southerner by birth and a candidate of proven popularity.
Van Buren committed the Regency to the Jacksonian cause with enthusiasm and misgivings. He applauded Jackson’s willingness to rely on professional politicians to conduct his campaign. Still, Van Buren worried that “Old Hickory” would win election in 1828 not as champion of states’ rights but as a retired military hero. Jackson’s triumphant election in 1828 magnified Van Buren’s fears. “I hope the General will not find it necessary,” Van Buren said, referring to the inaugural message, “to avow any opinion upon Constitutional questions at war with the doctrines of the Jefferson School.” Throughout Jackson’s two terms as president, Van Buren struggled to balance his own ambitions with his commitment to political orthodoxy.
The standard interpretation of Van Buren as loyal lieutenant and architect of Jacksonian reform has little basis in fact. Awed by Old Hickory’s commanding presence, Van Buren never became a close personal friend. Jackson rewarded Van Buren’s loyalty by appointing him secretary of state but turned to trusted western colleagues for advice on such matters as the Indian Removal Act, passed by Congress in 1830. This was the only piece of important legislation to emerge from Jackson’s first term of office. His strongest acts were those of defiance. At Van Buren’s urging, he used the veto power to restrain congressional appropriations for internal improvements.
By defending limited government, Van Buren retained his southern support during the opening years of Jackson’s first term when the Eaton affair destroyed party harmony. Angered at the ostracism of Peggy Eaton, the wife of his secretary of war, Jackson embarked on a lengthy campaign to uphold her virtue, in the process reorganizing his cabinet to oust supporters of John C. Calhoun, whose wife was one of Peggy’s detractors. Van Buren stepped down as secretary of state to go abroad as minister to England; he departed in the certain knowledge that Calhoun was no longer a threat to his further advancement in the party.
Van Buren did not play such a commanding role during the bank war. Andrew Jackson attacked the Second Bank of the United States and its president, Nicholas Biddle, for personal and political reasons. Habitually suspicious of paper money, Jackson became convinced that the bank was speculating with government deposits, abusing its congressional charter, and working to defeat his bid for reelection. Key western advisers, such as Amos Kendall, supported Jackson’s beliefs and in July 1832 convinced him to veto a bill to renew the bank’s charter. Replacing Calhoun as Jackson’s running mate, Van Buren dutifully supported the veto message without endorsing its antibank animus or hard-money leanings. Van Buren favored state controls to encourage sound banking practices, establish a reliable paper-money system, and curtail excessive note issues.
Van Buren maintained a similar detachment during the three months of the nullification crisis. Despite his long-standing rivalry with Calhoun, the main theorist of nullification, Van Buren urged a moderate presidential response to avoid offending key southern Democrats. Jackson ignored this advice and abandoned states’ rights principles in his proclamation denouncing nullification. The president’s failure to work for a legislative compromise weakened Democratic control in Congress and strengthened opponents like Henry Clay, whose compromise tariff bill ended the constitutional crisis. Jackson further undermined Democratic unity by contemplating a new political alliance that would bypass Van Buren to include former opponents like Daniel Webster. This realignment never materialized; Van Buren rescued his credentials as heir apparent by agreeing to a removal of deposits from Biddle’s bank, an action that drove a permanent wedge between the president and such bank supporters as Webster.
By selecting Van Buren as his running mate in 1832, Jackson in effect anointed his successor. A man given to anger and strong emotions, Jackson could never have tolerated a successor with a similar temperament or independent spirit. Herein lay the source of his difficulties with prospective allies John C. Calhoun and Daniel Webster. Van Buren was much their opposite, so much so that even friends expressed the fear that the portly New Yorker “lacked the moral courage to meet those exigencies which might require bold and decisive action.”
In accepting the Democratic nomination in 1835, Van Buren did not delude himself. He realized full well that he lacked the kind of popular appeal Jackson had brought to American politics. Indeed, his running mate, Richard M. Johnson of Kentucky, was chosen to give the ticket another military hero from the War of 1812. While Van Buren appreciated the need to leaven politics with popularity, he had seen Democratic leadership stray too far from principle during the nullification crisis. As the campaign began, he tried to bring the alliance back to its philosophical base.
Van Buren first sought to reassure his southern supporters. In accepting the nomination, he restated his commitment to states’ rights and stood by these principles when abolitionists flooded southern mails with literature denouncing slavery. Van Buren arranged for the Regency to denounce abolitionist extremism first in the columns of the Albany Argus and then in the governor’s annual message. In the spring of 1836, the Democratic nominee declared that while he recognized the right of Congress to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia, he would “go into the White House the inflexible and uncompromising opponent” of such legislation. Van Buren would not carry his prosouthern sentiments to extremes. He refused to support the Texas Revolution despite appeals from key southern leaders like Thomas Ritchie. Van Buren feared that the Texas question would create sectional discord, and he convinced Jackson to delay any official action until after the election.
Financial fluctuations added to sectional unrest. By removing government deposits and placing them in state banks, Jackson weakened Biddle’s political power but destroyed the control the Bank of the United States once exercised over the nation’s monetary exchanges. By 1836, the economy was in an inflationary spiral, fueled by an increase in specie and excessive note issues by state banks. Jackson’s Treasury Department could not regulate this expansion without assuming powers and functions just stripped from Biddle. In the face of mounting fiscal instability, Jackson issued the Specie Circular in July 1836, requiring that all public lands be paid for in gold and silver. This was a first step in the direction of the hard-money policy that radical Democrats had long been urging. Although uncertain how to supervise state banks without violating precepts of limited government, Van Buren did not believe that his party could survive as antibank champions of a metallic currency. States were too dependent on their financial institutions and the Democrats too committed to states’ rights. Van Buren was fortunate that his political opponents lacked the solidarity to capitalize on the unstable economy and the disagreement in Democratic ranks.
Emerging during the early stages of the bank war, the Whig party was still in an embryonic state during the election of 1836. Jackson’s bank veto and his defense of executive privilege provided the only substantive issues for Whig candidates. Whig power lay more in Congress than in the countryside. Unable to unite on principle or to find a leader who could appeal to all sections of the country, Whig strategists decided to run several sectional candidates. This strategy allowed Hugh Lawson White, William Henry Harrison, and Daniel Webster to appeal to local constituencies and helped establish strong Whig organizations in Tennessee, New York, Virginia, and Georgia. These state machines were to exert a strong influence on political developments over the next four years.
Van Buren built winning margins in such crucial Democratic strongholds as Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Virginia, and New York. In the final balloting, Van Buren received 170 electoral votes to his opponents’ 124. While comfortable, the margin was not cause for self-congratulation. Whig triumphs in Georgia and Tennessee and the close contest in Pennsylvania loomed as large clouds on the political horizon.
Administration and Cabinet
Van Buren hoped that his cabinet appointments would stop Whig momentum in the South and restore confidence in the Democrats as a party of sectional unity, but a legacy of administrative turbulence limited Van Buren’s freedom of choice. Indeed, Andrew Jackson had never managed to create a workable relationship with his formal cabinet. During Jackson’s first year in office, cabinet factionalism had proved so disruptive that the president ceased formal meetings. He turned instead to a coterie of western advisers, prompting opponents to brand this group a “kitchen cabinet” and charge the president with violating constitutional customs. The president continued to rely on informal advice but resumed regular cabinet meetings in 1831, if only to silence his critics. While Van Buren intended to restore the cabinet to its rightful place in the executive branch, he could not appoint men of his own choosing without removing Jackson’s appointees, thereby deepening suspicions of Democratic instability.
As a former secretary of state, Van Buren realized the importance of this premier cabinet post. Georgia’s John Forsyth was the last of Jackson’s four secretaries of state. A staunch presidential supporter during the nullification crisis, Forsyth had served in both the House and the Senate. Although he decided to retain Forsyth, Van Buren was suspicious of the Georgian’s political orthodoxy. The president-elect received numerous letters urging appointment of another southerner to the cabinet to redress Jackson’s long neglect. Van Buren tried to satisfy this demand by asking Virginia’s senator William C. Rives, disappointed aspirant for the Democratic vice presidential nomination in 1835, to head the vacant War Department. Maintaining that only the State Department interested him, Rives declined and thus made an open break with Van Buren that would have a significant impact on relations with Congress.
Rather than offend Rives further by turning to another Virginian, Van Buren convinced South Carolina’s Joel Poinsett to become secretary of war. Whatever gain Van Buren made by adding a second southerner was offset by Poinsett’s political views. Like Forsyth, the native of Charleston had been a strong supporter of Jackson’s nullification policies.
The retention of Jackson’s secretary of the treasury, Levi Woodbury, and postmaster general, Amos Kendall, preserved a sense of continuity and sectional balance, which Van Buren considered essential for party cohesion. New Hampshire’s Woodbury had been a cabinet member since 1831, initially as secretary of the navy. Although friendly to Van Buren, he leaned toward the hard-money policies that had become dominant in the last year of Jackson’s’ presidency. Kentucky’s Kendall represented the West and had been the most powerful of Jackson’s cabinet members. A skilled political journalist, he had been a key member of the Kitchen Cabinet and instrumental in directing the attack on the bank. Appointed postmaster general in 1834, Kendall had remained fiercely loyal to Jackson and openly suspicious of Van Buren. Like Woodbury, Kendall expected to maintain his status as a member of the inner circle and architect of both fiscal and political strategy.
Van Buren exerted more personal control over the two remaining cabinet posts. He convinced his friend and former law partner, Benjamin F. Butler, to continue as attorney general, a post Butler had accepted at Van Buren’s urging in 1833. Van Buren was well aware that Butler felt uncomfortable in Washington and longed to return to Albany. The resignation of a former member of the Albany Regency at the outset of his administration would have embarrassed Van Buren and fed rumors of serious Democratic dissension. While succeeding in his entreaties with Butler, Van Buren failed in his efforts to convince Secretary of the Navy Mahlon Dickerson to retire to a diplomatic post in Belgium. Van Buren would have preferred to replace the sixty-six-year-old New Jerseyite with a younger man.
Despite the political pressures created by the Panic of 1837, Van Buren managed to restore the cabinet’s traditional role. He continued weekly meetings and discontinued the informal gatherings of advisers that had attracted so much attention during Jackson’s presidency. Van Buren solicited advice from department heads, especially during times of domestic and foreign turmoil. In such emergencies, the cabinet met daily. Van Buren tolerated open and even frank exchanges between cabinet members, perceiving himself as “a mediator, and to some extent an umpire between the conflicting opinions” of his counselors. Such detachment allowed the president to reserve judgment and protect his own prerogative for making final decisions. These open discussions gave cabinet members a sense of participation and made them feel part of a functioning entity, rather than isolated executive agents. Always an astute politician, Van Buren realized that the cabinet could communicate official decisions to the states and work to ensure party cohesion.
In his efforts to restore party harmony, Van Buren worked closely with key Democrats in Congress, where divisiveness had reached alarming proportions during the nullification crisis. New York’s Churchill Cambreleng, chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee and long an intimate friend, took an active role in fashioning legislation to respond to the Panic of 1837. Van Buren’s protégé Silas Wright performed similar duties in the Senate, where he chaired the Finance Committee and was floor manager for Democratic legislation. Cambreleng and Wright were extremely effective leaders. A study of congressional voting behavior in the first two sessions of Congress during Van Buren’s administration shows a partisan coherence in both houses of better than 85 percent. Van Buren rarely quarreled with the Senate over appointments, unlike his predecessor. Having assembled a compatible cabinet and a group of advisers with control in Congress, Van Buren looked forward to a cessation of the open political warfare of the past decade.
Panic of 1837
The worst depression the nation had suffered shattered these hopes within weeks of the inauguration. Neither the president nor the American people were prepared for the financial panic that swept across the country in May 1837. Warnings of a major crisis had been in the air since the beginning of the campaign. Storm signals came from the nation’s banking institutions and took the form of extreme pressure on the money market. Discount rates approached 25 percent. Inflation soared, fed by a marked increase in cotton prices. On the eve of the inauguration, workers in New York City rioted to protest the price of food. Newspapers contained ominous reports of potential bank closings. Van Buren was inundated with urgent requests that he act to halt the inflationary spiral. Most correspondents urged the new president to reconsider the Specie Circular of 1836.
Van Buren responded with a thorough reconsideration of Jackson’s hard-money order. As he had done so often in the past, he asked his closest confidants to solicit advice from state leaders. This style of decision making was thorough but time-consuming. More than a month elapsed before replies reached Washington. All the while, the financial crisis worsened, so much so that Silas Wright contended it was “nonsense to talk any longer” of the Specie Circular “or any action of the sectional or state governments as either having occasioned the mischief, or as being able to furnish the remedy.” Similar sentiments came from Cambreleng, who blamed speculators and friends of a new national bank for manufacturing the crisis. Convinced by these letters that repeal would not alleviate the emergency but would only break with previous policy, Van Buren decided to retain the circular.
On 10 May 1837 the storm struck: New York banks, unable to meet continuing demands for specie, suspended payments, and financial houses across the country quickly did the same. Debtors struggled to meet obligations with depreciated currency. Urban workers, already hurt by rising food prices, now faced the prospect of unemployment. “It would be difficult to describe, or render intelligible in Europe,” wrote the British minister, Henry Fox, “the stunning effect which this sudden overthrow of the commercial credit and honor of the nation has caused. The conquest of the land by a foreign power could hardly have produced a more general sense of humiliation and grief.”
Van Buren was more disoriented than grief-stricken. On 15 May, with state banks in disarray and government deposits in jeopardy, the president finally issued the call for a special session of Congress to meet in September. Throughout the steamy summer months, Van Buren made preparations for this extraordinary meeting. Never before had his party been called upon to develop a legislative program; the chief executive was accustomed to cautious, deliberate action, not to crisis management. Furthermore, he had always been able to depend upon the support of the press to clarify and explain federal policy.
In the spring and summer of 1837, Democratic newspapers were themselves in a panic. Francis P. Blair, editor of the Washington Globe, the Democrats’ national newspaper, lashed out at New York merchants; Thomas Ritchie’s Richmond Enquirer rushed to the defense of state banks and refused to consider the president’s problems. Even the editor of the Albany Argus refrained from printing editorials supporting Van Buren, fearing that such statements would constitute an attack on New York’s beleaguered banks. By his failure to restrain Blair and his inability to rally state editors, Van Buren approached this special session deprived of the normal channels of political communication and persuasion.
The Independent Treasury
The president’s primary concern was for the safety of government funds entrusted to state banks. When Congress convened, his opponents would demand new safeguards and, if none were forthcoming, would undoubtedly move to dismantle the entire deposit system, leaving the door open for recharter of a national bank. To foreclose this possibility, Van Buren advocated a separation of government funds from state banks and control of these monies by designated federal agents.
The advantages of a separation of bank and state were several. By removing its funds from state banks, the federal government would avoid association with institutions instrumental in bringing on the panic. The government would collect, store, and disburse public revenue through Treasury agents and postal employees and not be open to the charge that these funds were the basis for unchecked speculation. While economically feasible, this plan contained numerous political pitfalls. Even though requiring a minimum of enabling legislation, an independent treasury, or subtreasury, as it would soon be known, carried an implicit criticism of state banks. According to one proponent, these institutions would henceforth be “left to their fate.” Furthermore, as Silas Wright warned, the divorce of bank and state would make the president vulnerable to charges that he wanted to “extend executive patronage and power.” Although disappointed by the waverings of state leaders, Van Buren realized that he needed their support to succeed in the special session of Congress that convened on 4 September 1837.
In recommending the creation of an independent treasury, the president invoked Jeffersonian rhetoric in an attempt to disguise the radical aspects of his program. He cautiously explained the origins of the panic, being careful not to blame state banks for the collapse. “All communities are apt to look to government for too much,” the president told the special session. “If, therefore, I refrain from suggesting to Congress any specific plan for regulating the exchanges of the country, relieving mercantile embarrassments, or interfering with the ordinary operations of foreign or domestic commerce, it is from a conviction that such measures are not within the constitutional province of the General Government.” But the government was obliged to safeguard its own funds. It was in this context that Van Buren recommended an independent treasury. In so doing, he was careful to point out that such a program required no increase in government patronage.
Although cautious and couched in familiar terms, the president’s proposals constituted a radical departure from the premise upon which the Democratic party was built. As a loose and often factious coalition of state interests, the Jacksonian alliance functioned smoothly so long as state leaders could interpret federal policy to suit their own interests. Van Buren’s proposal for an independent treasury contained no encouragement for state initiative. Quite the contrary, the president placed the needs of the federal government ahead of those of the states. He reversed the delicate balance of political priorities that he had struggled so long to maintain. No matter how careful his wording, how respectful his tone, the president had created a dilemma from which there would be no easy escape.
The Congress that listened respectfully to Van Buren’s message was fully under Democratic control. The president’s supporters had majorities on all twenty-two standing committees in the Senate and on eighteen of thirty committees in the House, where they had only a sixteen-vote advantage. Democrats enjoyed a two-to-one majority on the crucial committees in both houses that would consider the president’s financial proposals. In a normal congressional session, such organization would have given the Democrats firm control of the legislative process. But these were extraordinary circumstances. Conservative Democrats, deeply committed to state banks, threatened to rebel on the subtreasury issue.
This revolt fed on disagreements between the president and his state supporters. Governor William Marcy of New York, once a loyal member of the Regency, refused to endorse Van Buren’s special session proposals, despite the pleadings of the attorney general, who made a special visit to Albany. In an angry exchange with Butler, Marcy came right to the heart of the party’s dilemma. He asked “if the men at Washington expected that I was to proclaim a divorce between the government of the state and the banks.” Butler said no. In that case, Marcy continued, “what sort of supporters of Mr. V. B. shall we be if we repudiate his doctrines as applicable to the states?” To this pointed question, there was no reply. In Virginia, Thomas Ritchie remained outspoken in his criticism of an independent treasury and his defense of the state-bank deposit system.
Despite the growing influence of the conservative cause, the president’s legislative spokesmen pushed ahead with their relief proposals. Wright and Cambreleng were able to secure passage of bills postponing the final distribution of surplus revenue, establishing a schedule for recovery of government deposits, granting leniency in the collection of customhouse bonds, and authorizing an issue of Treasury notes to cover government expenses. In both houses, Democrats united to enact these measures after a minimum of debate.
Democratic unity evaporated during the debates on an independent treasury. Pennsylvania’s James Buchanan claimed that the president’s proposal was perfectly consonant with Jeffersonian principles of limited government. Silas Wright echoed these sentiments. The new voices were those of conservative Democrats who urged reform, not abandonment, of the state banks. Borrowing rhetoric from the Whigs, they charged the president with seeking to enlarge executive patronage and wield new power by the act of collecting and storing revenue. Despite these strong criticisms, Wright’s leadership prevailed and the Democrats, on 3 October 1837, secured Senate approval for creation of an independent treasury by the narrow margin of twenty-five to twenty-three.
In the House, Cambreleng lost control of the debate, allowing South Carolina’s Francis Pickens to speak on behalf of an independent treasury only to launch into a diatribe against northern capitalism and its war on slavery. Such emotionalism proved infectious. When Cambreleng made his long-awaited defense of the president’s proposal, he lashed out against all banks, arguing that an independent treasury “would be a steady and salutary check, in preventing the excess and unwarrantable issues” of these institutions. Cambreleng concluded with a bold declaration: “We fear not the results of this experiment.”
By opposing an independent treasury as a radical experiment, conservatives claimed to be the true champions of states’ rights and limited government. Their obstructionist strategy proved successful. On 14 October 1837, by a vote of 120 to 107, the House postponed consideration of an independent treasury. The circumstances surrounding this critical vote added to the president’s disappointment. John Clark, a congressman from Van Buren’s home state, introduced the motion to postpone, reminding his colleagues that even the Albany Argus had failed to endorse an independent treasury.
As soon as the special session adjourned, Van Buren tried to allay fears created by the angry congressional debates. Secretary of the Treasury Woodbury wrote to friends in the New York financial community, asking how the administration could make clear that it did not intend to suppress banks or introduce a metallic currency. All the replies sounded the same disturbing theme. “The divorce of Bank and State is a Manifesto from the highest authority in the country,” wrote one New York banker, “proclaiming that the State Banks are unsafe as depositories.” Whatever gains Van Buren made by such private inquiries were immediately undercut by a series of devastating editorials in the Washington Globe denouncing the conservatives and striking at banks in general. This harangue occurred shortly before the fall elections in New York, where Whigs gained sixty-seven seats in the state assembly, thereby establishing a clear majority and destroying a pillar of Regency power.
Although alarmed by the defeat in New York, Van Buren continued to concentrate on what he perceived as a crisis for the federal government alone. In December 1837 he again proposed the subtreasury system, this time adding a special deposit feature to please the conservatives. The president’s calm and deliberate message drew praise from all segments of the party but could not overcome the emotionalism generated by the panic.
No sooner had Democrats organized themselves in Congress than a heated sectional debate ensued, caused by John C. Calhoun’s introduction of six pro-slavery resolutions. Van Buren appreciated Calhoun’s support for the subtreasury bill at the special session but was not about to let the South Carolina senator disrupt Democratic unity. The president remained firm in his commitment to Jeffersonian principles as they applied to all state issues, including slavery. In accord with this philosophy, Van Buren’s Senate supporters modified the resolutions so that the final wording enjoined the government against interfering with states’ rights, whereas Calhoun wanted a pledge of federal protection for slavery. Not until early February 1838 did the Senate begin debate on the subtreasury system, only to be interrupted a second time by an oratorical fight between John C. Calhoun and his archrival, Henry Clay. Finally, on 26 March 1838, the Senate approved the independent-treasury bill by twenty-seven to twenty-five.
The narrow margin of victory did not augur well for deliberations in the House. Conservatives picked up support with each delay and took further encouragement from spring elections in Virginia. For the first time in more than a decade, the Richmond junto faced the prospect of an opposing party in control of the state legislature. In May 1838, Congress repealed the Specie Circular of 1836 and New York banks resumed specie payments, thereby increasing conservative momentum. Van Buren realized that the resumption damaged chances for House approval of an independent treasury, but he continued to press the measure as the only alternative to a national bank. Indeed, Nicholas Biddle wrote to a member of Van Buren’s cabinet claiming that his bank was ready to resume its role as exclusive depository for government funds. “Its whole machinery can be re-mounted in twenty-four hours,” Biddle claimed.
Cambreleng pushed for passage of the subtreasury bill in mid-June, and this time maintained tight control of debate. He prevented key Democrats from abstaining as they had at the special session and added strength from South Carolina without allowing any of Calhoun’s followers to raise the question of slavery. Although highly disciplined, House Democrats could not overcome the results of electoral losses in New York and Virginia. Where once these two state machines had worked closely with members of their congressional delegations, the Whig triumphs made state Democrats reluctant to speak out against their banks and eager to avoid a definite stand on an independent treasury. Once again their wavering had a telling impact: on 25 June 1838, by a vote of 125 to 111, the House defeated the bill.
The resumption of specie payments and the failure of the president’s program placed Democrats on the defensive in the fall elections. In New York, under the skillful leadership of Thurlow Weed, the Whigs developed a political organization as sophisticated and extensive as the Regency. Whig editors promised that their gubernatorial candidate, William H. Seward, would restore financial order. These well-orchestrated appeals prompted a huge voter turnout and a Whig victory that captured the legislature and placed Seward in the governor’s mansion. Disconsolate, the Democrats blamed their loss on the panic and the federal government. In leaving office, Marcy concluded that “the election was conducted chiefly with reference to the policy of the federal government. If we had had nothing but our own policy to vindicate, I cannot bring myself to doubt that we should have had a different result.”
The Whig triumph came as a bitter blow to Van Buren. The Albany-Richmond axis, once the backbone of the Jacksonian alliance, had been broken by the Whigs, who would remember the lesson well. In celebrating their stunning sweep of the Empire State, they were already looking ahead to the next presidential campaign. “Mr. Van Buren’s chances for reelection may now be considered desperate,” wrote one political observer.
Bowed but not broken, the president continued his efforts to refine his economic proposals. In his second annual message, on 3 December 1838, he argued that an independent treasury would eliminate the possibility of fraud such as the one that had recently occurred when Samuel Swartwout had absconded with over a million dollars in government revenue from the New York Customhouse. Van Buren’s congressional opponents seized on this scandal to investigate the handling of Treasury funds. In a lengthy report in late February 1839, a special House committee concluded that Swartwout’s defalcation had been aided by a Democratic fiscal policy that had discontinued “the use of banks as depositories.”
Having consumed much of their energy on this investigation, Whigs moved for adjournment. Realizing that it would take months to clear the air, House Democrats agreed and abandoned efforts to pass the independent-treasury bill. This truncated session of Congress came to a close on 4 March 1839, the second anniversary of Van Buren’s inauguration. The administration was hardly in a mood to celebrate. “We have at last got rid of Congress,” wrote the secretary of the treasury, “and a most disreputable one in many respects it has been.”
Before the fall elections could bring the president a more cooperative Congress, another financial crisis struck the country. The resumption of specie payments in 1838 triggered an expansion of credit and borrowing that in turn fed an inflationary economy. State governments again promoted internal improvements, often by borrowing from abroad to raise funds. Biddle’s bank in Philadelphia, now under Pennsylvania charter, led this expansionist surge, only to be hard hit by sudden credit restrictions in England in 1839. In October 1839, the bank suspended specie payments; nearly half of the nation’s 850 banks followed suit. The political consequences were immediate. The fall elections destroyed the conservative Democrats, especially in New York and Virginia, leaving Van Buren in control of a weakened but united party.
The president seized the advantage. In recommending an independent treasury to the new Congress, he abandoned the conciliatory language of the past. He blamed renewed financial failures on foreign investors and state banks, urging Congress to adopt measures to safeguard the country from further speculative crazes. For the first time, he urged that all government revenue be collected and disbursed in gold and silver. This provision, coupled with the proposed subtreasury system, would have “a salutary influence on the system of paper credit with which all banks are connected.” Although careful to recognize that some banks were already “sound and well managed,” Van Buren advocated the subtreasury system as a mechanism for reform and regulation of the nation’s economy. He told supporters that he had taken “strong ground” that he hoped would break the congressional deadlock.
While the president was in a bold mood, his congressional managers were disorganized. Democrats retained control of the Senate, where they passed the subtreasury bill on 23 January by a vote of twenty-four to eighteen. Their margin in the House was so small that they had to await the outcome of six disputed elections before pressing Van Buren’s program. In the meantime, the Whigs captured the powerful position of Speaker of the House and, with it, control of a majority of standing committees. Nearly three months elapsed before the House resolved the disputed elections, adding five seats to the Democratic total. Still, floor managers hesitated to close off debate, fearing that defeat of the subtreasury bill would destroy Van Buren’s remaining chances for reelection.
The Whigs took advantage of delays to assail Democratic fiscal policy in speeches that were quickly converted into campaign circulars. Finally, on 30 June 1840, the Democrats closed debate and pushed for a vote. Van Buren won his long-awaited victory 124 to 107. At 3:00 P.M. on 3 July 1840, the president received the subtreasury bill. He decided to wait twenty-four hours before signing what the party would thereafter call a “second Declaration of Independence.” The president was at last free from a measure that had become an obsession.
The president demonstrated much more certain control over foreign relations than over financial affairs. Although preoccupied with the panic, Van Buren proved to be a shrewd diplomat, preventing the Texas Revolution from inflaming sectional tensions in the United States. Van Buren inherited a Texas policy not totally to his liking. Having avoided a stand on the Texas question during the election, he was disappointed when Jackson, a day before leaving office, recognized the new regime. In the summer of 1837, the Texans went a step further by pressing for annexation. Their formal request appealed to American nationalism, characterized Mexico as a society of “barbarians,” and argued that the president should move quickly or Texas would sign treaties with foreign powers that might injure the United States.
At that time, Van Buren was trying to prepare his proposals for the special session and was in no mood to be rushed or pressured. After consulting the cabinet, he decided to reject the proposal. In his reasoned reply, Van Buren argued that there was no constitutional precedent for annexation of a sovereign state; annexation might be construed as an act of war against Mexico. The president concluded that the United States had no objection to commercial treaties between Texas and European powers. The Texans bristled at the reply, threatening to take their cause directly to Congress and venturing the opinion that had Jackson been president, the United States would have welcomed annexation. Van Buren ignored this tactless reply and kept the Texas question out of the special session. By the time Congress convened in regular session, in December 1837, annexation had become intertwined with a dispute between the United States and Mexico over injury claims by American citizens against the Mexican government.
A by-product of the Texas Revolution, the Mexican claims dispute could have propelled the two nations into war. Throughout the first year of his presidency, Van Buren tried to reach agreement on the claims dispute, to no avail. In his first annual message, the president reported the negative results of a special mission to Mexico City and then referred the entire controversy to Congress for it “to decide upon the time, the mode, and the measure of redress.” This action alone was a sharp contrast to Jackson’s earlier request for force, but Van Buren went further, expressing his confidence that congressional action would be marked by a “moderation and justice which will, I trust, under all circumstances govern the councils of our country.”
The president’s opponents took advantage of even this pacific passage to charge the Democrats with a secret conspiracy. “The annexation of Texas and the proposed war with Mexico are one and the same thing,” claimed former president John Quincy Adams, now a congressman from Massachusetts. Adams privately speculated that annexation was designed to increase the extent of slavery and commit the North to a permanent defense of southern institutions. According to the National Intelligencer, the Whig newspaper in Washington, the president sought war with Mexico to divert national attention from the panic.
Although a war might have provided a diversion, the president had no intention of abandoning his quest for a peaceful solution to the claims dispute, one that would avoid sectional discord. By the spring of 1838, Texas realized that it could not outflank the president by going directly to Congress. The waning of annexationist ardor convinced the Mexican government that Van Buren was sincere in his expressed desire for peace. Mexico admitted the legitimacy of the claims and proposed third-party arbitration to reach a final solution. On 11 September 1838, the president signed a convention to this effect.
Van Buren refused to indulge expansionist Democrats, because he wanted to avoid further damage to the North-South axis of the party, which he considered the bulwark of the Union. Ironically, the Texans saw this most clearly. “Many of our friends as well as enemies in Congress dread the coming of the question at this time,” wrote the Texan emissary, Memucan Hunt, in 1838, “on account of the desperate death-struggle, which they foresee, will inevitably ensue between the North and the South, a struggle involving the probability of a dissolution of this Union.”
A rebellion on the nation’s northern border coincided with the Mexican crisis and compounded the president’s political problems. The revolt centered in southern Canada, where dissatisfaction with British rule reached a peak in the fall of 1837. William Lyon Mackenzie led an uprising that enlisted American citizens who joined the Canadian rebels in their stronghold on Navy Island, in the Niagara River. Since New York officials seemed unable to restrain their own people, British authorities decided to disarm the outpost. They sent a raiding party to attack the steamship Caroline, a forty-six-ton vessel used to supply Navy Island. The British found the Caroline at a pier in Schlosser, New York. Ignoring the international boundary, the party boarded the ship, set it aflame, and cast it adrift. The Caroline sank before reaching Niagara Falls. In the ensuing confusion, one American died and several were wounded.
Rumors of the raid spread quickly and exaggerated the outcome. “It is infamous,” wrote one observer; “forty unarmed Americans butchered in cold blood, while sleeping, by a party of British assassins, and the living and dead sent together over Niagara.” The president dispatched General Winfield Scott to Buffalo with strict instructions to call out the militia but employ it only as a last resort and then to avoid placing arms in the hands of border residents who might join the rebellion. The president then issued a neutrality proclamation calling for strict adherence to the law. Senate Democrats overcame Whig attempts to capitalize on the crisis and, in early March 1838, passed a new neutrality law. This measure was to run for two years and empowered civil authorities to prevent border excursions in the future. The president’s proclamation, the Senate bill, and the Scott mission combined to defuse the border crisis.
Early in 1839, another conflict arose in a remote area of northern Maine known as the Aroostook Valley. The Peace Treaty of 1783 had left in doubt the exact location of the international boundary dividing Maine from New Brunswick. By the 1830s, American and British citizens alike wanted to develop the more than seven million acres of virgin timber that lay in this disputed territory. Clashes between Maine and New Brunswick developers were inevitable. In January 1839, Canadian authorities arrested a Maine land agent and took him to a New Brunswick jail. New Brunswick’s lieutenant governor, Sir John Harvey, justified the arrest and issued a proclamation calling for withdrawal of all American forces from the disputed region. Maine’s governor, John Fairfield, assembled nearly a thousand men and asked the state legislature for money and authority to call out another ten thousand. When the president heard of these measures, he appealed directly to the British minister, Henry Fox, and together they drew up a memorandum calling for all parties to withdraw from the Aroostook Valley.
The calm that prevailed in Washington had little impact in Maine. Fairfield denounced peace proposals. “Should you go against us on this occasion,” he warned the president, “or not espouse our cause with warmth and earnestness and with true American feeling, God only knows what the result would be politically.” Van Buren had dealt with too many professional politicians to be upset by the threats of an amateur. Again he turned to Winfield Scott, sending him to Augusta with instructions to calm the angry governor and prevent any warlike actions by the assembled Maine militia. While Scott journeyed north, Congress contributed to the war fever by granting the president more authority and funds than he requested. The legislature that refused to pass a subtreasury bill to safeguard government money gave Van Buren authority to spend $10 million and the power to mobilize fifty thousand militia for defense of the frontier. Once in Augusta, Scott worked swiftly and surely to disarm the crisis.
As president, Martin Van Buren established a solid record as a statesman, acting swiftly and surely in times of international tension. His handling of crises on the northern and southern borders of the country demonstrated a sincere and consistent commitment to neutrality and peaceful settlement of disputes. He displayed none of the aggressive behavior that marred the record of his predecessor. Van Buren passed up several opportunities to embrace expansionist ideology for political advantage. The nation’s prolonged and severe financial crisis obscured this record of accomplishment. By the time Van Buren finally earned the respect of foreign governments, his term was nearly over and he was fighting for his political life.
Campaign of 1840
The campaign of 1840 had its origins in the Panic of 1837. Throughout four turbulent sessions of Congress, the Whigs sought every opportunity to strengthen their cause. Whig victories in the Democratic strongholds of New York and Virginia were more than reflexive reactions to the financial chaos. They stemmed from substantial political networks and a sophisticated style of electioneering. Whig managers like New York’s Thurlow Weed and Pennsylvania’s Thaddeus Stevens were ready to wage an extensive grassroots campaign to capitalize on public excitement aroused by the panic.
The president misread these political signs. He developed a stereotypical view of the Whigs as disorganized and amateurish. Van Buren had tolerated his own party’s mass rallies in 1828 as manifestations of the public’s fascination with Andrew Jackson. Van Buren intended to take higher ground in his own campaign.
Early in 1840, the president developed a detailed plan for the coming campaign, concentrating on restoring the Regency to power in New York as an example for Democrats nationwide. He drew up a seventy-five-page document, directing his New York supporters to renew their efforts at the grassroots level. He urged them to reestablish local committees of correspondence that could once again serve the vital function of circulating campaign documents. This part of the electoral blueprint showed the Van Buren of old, a man sensitive to the need for discipline, organization, and attention to fine detail. The remainder of this campaign manual revealed an anxious politician struggling to rally the faithful behind traditional principles, all the while fearful that his opponents would succeed by stealth and subversion. Van Buren exhorted his fellow Democrats to attend to the history of political parties, to recognize the Whigs as the Federalists of old. Armed with history, the voters could make informed choices, provided that the polls remained pure. At no point in his outline of campaign plans did the president refer to current economic conditions. Neither did he repeat arguments from his annual message on the use of the subtreasury to reform the banking structure. By charting a strategy that avoided all contemporary issues, especially those that had stimulated voter interest, the president severely limited his own campaign.
Divided between sectional candidates in 1836, the Whigs were united in 1840. To oppose Van Buren, they chose William Henry Harrison, whose southern birth and record of military heroism (especially his 1811 victory over Tecumseh at Tippecanoe) proved malleable elements in a campaign designed to first mobilize and then unleash popular frustrations pent up during the panic. The choice of Virginia’s John Tyler as Harrison’s running mate enabled the Whigs to continue their siege of the Old Dominion, thereby demonstrating that the Democratic alliance was crumbling at its strongest point.
Despite the lavish attention he paid to the coming campaign, Van Buren could not bring unity to a party badly divided by economic disagreement. The Democratic convention at Baltimore on 5 May 1840 selected Van Buren but failed to nominate a vice presidential candidate, deciding to leave this selection to the states. This decision was the product of a lengthy disagreement between Van Buren and Jackson. Never the closest of friends, the two men drifted even further apart during the panic. The “Old Hero” confined his criticisms to private correspondence, often lecturing Francis P. Blair on the decline of Democratic solidarity.
As a remedy Jackson proposed that Tennessee’s James K. Polk be the vice presidential candidate. Jackson argued that Polk had more appeal in the West than incumbent Richard M. Johnson. While recognizing Polk’s admirable record as Speaker of the House, Van Buren was reluctant to drop Johnson from the ticket because the Kentuckian had a martial reputation to rival that of Harrison and strong support in Pennsylvania and New York. With the subtreasury bill still in the House, the president did not want to anger congressional delegations from these key states. Polk eventually withdrew his name, as did several other hopefuls.
The economic wars of the present, not the military campaigns of the past, provided the real issues in the election. Early in 1840, the Whigs added a new dimension to their fiscal attacks by personally ridiculing the president as a dandy and a spendthrift. Congressman Charles Ogle of Pennsylvania spent three days during debate on routine appropriation bills describing the “Regal Splendor of the President’s Palace.” Ogle maintained that the portly Van Buren had gained weight at public expense by routinely eating off gold plate in the executive mansion.
The charge of executive excess was hardly new. Van Buren had fallen heir to the Whig attacks on “King Andrew,” and repeatedly during debates on the subtreasury bill, critics had charged the president with seeking to enlarge his power by manipulation of the nation’s currency. Ogle’s assault was neatly designed to simplify and personalize the complex economic and constitutional issues generated by the panic.
By contrast, the Whigs portrayed their own candidate as a man of modest means, who was born in a log cabin and imbibed nothing more aristocratic than native cider. At rallies more extensive than those introduced by the Democrats in 1828, Whig managers fed their eager converts a steady diet of such partisan fare.
The president was not so much a victim of such rhetorical assaults as he was a prisoner of his own principles. Having spent a political life denying the power of the federal government to manage domestic affairs, he could hardly have made an abrupt about-face and claim to be a savior of the nation’s finances. Such a strategy would have fed the popular fear of executive usurpation. While bound by tradition to eschew offensive tactics, the president might have been more sensitive to the strength of Whig organization and the new party’s ability to take advantage of the slightest miscalculation. In 1840, Van Buren erred badly by allowing his secretary of war to propose a thorough reform of the nation’s militia system. While designed to place the militia more firmly under state control, Poinsett’s proposal generated a storm in the press, where Whig propagandists charged that Van Buren wanted to raise a standing army.
Even after passage of the subtreasury bill, the president failed to change his electioneering strategy. He remained committed to a reasoned defense of Democratic principles, circulated in newspaper editorials and through campaign documents. His followers did their best to match Whig efforts on the campaign trail. For each log cabin the Whigs erected at mass rallies to symbolize Harrison’s humble origins, Democrats erected hickory poles at their own gatherings to recall the martial exploits of “Old Hickory.” Van Buren viewed these electioneering efforts with a measure of detachment, believing that Whig rhetoric was unprincipled and the precursor of a massive conspiracy to steal the election. He wrote to Jackson of the potential of vote fraud, warning “the mischief will be done before you are apprised of the danger.” Van Buren initiated an election-eve investigation of previous state contests, trying to document Whig chicanery.
While the president remained in Washington dutifully answering innumerable requests for policy statements, his opponent took to the stump. Old Tip was by no means a stunning orator, but his appearances created a new bond with the expanding electorate. Here was a man willing to go to the people, to converse with them in simple, understandable language, to recount his military exploits, and to speak out against executive excess in Washington. Harrison’s campaigning combined with other Whig innovations paid handsome dividends in the fall election. The party received 234 electoral votes to Van Buren’s 60. The popular outpouring, stimulated by the panic, broke all election records. Van Buren actually received 400,000 more popular votes than he had in 1836. But the Whigs proved more adept at recruiting new voters, winning nineteen of twenty-six states. The Democrats’ strongest showing came in the South, where they recaptured Virginia and won contests in Alabama, Arkansas, and Missouri. “Never in my experience of twenty-seven years,” the Regency’s Azariah Flagg wrote Van Buren, “have I seen the rank and file show so much spirit and zeal.”
Blinded to these realities, the president accepted defeat calmly but with obvious bitterness. He called the election a “catastrophe,” resulting from Whig fraud rather than Democratic collapse. “Time will unravel the means by which these results have been produced,” he wrote to Andrew Jackson, “and then the people will do justice to all.”
Martin Van Buren looked forward to a vindication that never came. Perhaps the cruelest irony of his presidency was not that he fell victim to a partisan process he helped perfect but that in response to the Panic of 1837, he proposed legislation that violated the cherished concept of states’ rights, which he had long insisted was the foundation of the Democratic alliance. Where Jackson had been the target of political charges that he was usurping power, Van Buren acted the part of a strong president. Neither his party nor his contemporaries were prepared for such executive initiative. “Van, Van’s a used up man,” the Whigs cried during the election of 1840. Stinging though the cry was, it contained elements of truth. Martin Van Buren used all his political prowess while president and still he could not hold together the party he had so carefully constructed. The inauguration in 1841 would usher in the new Whig alliance and herald the arrival of the modern two-party system. That day dawned bright and clear, but not for Martin Van Buren, who left Washington for retirement in his native New York.
Despite the bitter defeat, Van Buren remained active in politics, guarding the principles that had guided his career. In 1844, he once again opposed the annexation of Texas, costing him the Democratic nomination. In 1848, Van Buren deviated from his party by accepting nomination on a free-soil ticket, but only to assist long-time New York allies. The former president devoted his final years to his Autobiography, which remains one of the most valuable sources on the development of American political parties. Van Buren died quietly on 24 July 1862, having seen the sectional crisis he had worked so long to prevent become a bloody reality.