Van Buren was the third president to serve only one term, after John Adams and his son, John Quincy Adams. He also was one of the central figures in developing modern political organizations. As Andrew Jackson's Secretary of State and then Vice President, he was a key figure in building the organizational structure for Jacksonian democracy, particularly in New York State. However, as a President, his administration was largely characterized by the economic hardship of his time, the Panic of 1837. Between the bloodless Aroostook War and the Caroline Affair, relations with Britain and its colonies in Canada also proved to be strained. Whether or not these were directly his fault, Van Buren was voted out of office after four years, with a close popular vote but a rout in the electoral vote. In 1848 he ran for president on a third party ticket, the Free Soil Party.
Van Buren was educated at common schools and at Kinderhook Academy. In 1796, he began the study of law, completing his preparation in 1802 in New York City, where he studied under William Peter van Ness. In 1803, he was admitted to the bar and continued an active and successful practice for 25 years.
In 1817 Van Buren's connection began with so-called "machine politics". He created the first political machine encompassing all of New York, the Bucktails, whose leaders later became known as the Albany Regency. The Bucktails became a loyal faction with a large amount of party loyalty, and through their actions they were able to capture and control many patronage posts throughout New York. Van Buren did not originate the system but gained the nickname of "Little Wizard" for the skill with which he exploited it. He served also as a member of the state constitutional convention, where he opposed the grant of universal suffrage and tried to keep property requirements.
He was the leading figure in the Albany Regency, a group of politicians who for more than a generation dominated much of the politics of New York and powerfully influenced those of the nation. The group, together with the political clubs such as Tammany Hall that were developing at the same time, played a major role in the development of the "spoils system" a recognized procedure in national, state and local affairs. He was the prime architect of the first nationwide political party: the Jacksonian Democrats. In Van Buren's own words: "Without strong national political organizations, there would be nothing to moderate the prejudices between free and slaveholding states"("Martin Van Buren" 103-114).
Van Buren's attitude towards slavery at that time was shown by his vote, in January 1820, for a resolution opposing the admission of Missouri as a slave state (though he himself was a slave owner). In the same year, he was chosen a presidential elector.
In the presidential election of 1824, Martin Van Buren supported William H. Crawford and received the electoral vote of Georgia for vice-president, but he shrewdly kept out of the acrimonious controversy which followed the choice of John Quincy Adams as President. Martin Van Buren had originally hoped to block Adams' victory by denying him the state of New York (the state was divided between Martin Van Buren supporters who would vote for William H. Crawford and Adams' men). However, Representative Stephen Van Rensselaer swung New York to Adams and thereby the 1824 Presidency. He recognized early the potential of Andrew Jackson as a presidential candidate.
After the election, Martin Van Buren sought to bring the Crawford and Jackson followers together and strengthened his control as a leader in the Senate. Always notably courteous in his treatment of opponents, he showed no bitterness toward either John Quincy Adams or Henry Clay, and he voted for Clay's confirmation as Secretary of State, notwithstanding Jackson's "corrupt bargain" charge. At the same time, he opposed the Adams-Clay plans for internal improvements and declined to support the proposal for a Panama Congress. As chairman of the Judiciary Committee, he brought forward a number of measures for the improvement of judicial procedure and, in May 1826, joined with Senator Thomas Hart Benton in presenting a report on executive patronage. In the debate on the "tariff of abominations" in 1828, he took no part but voted for the measure in obedience to instructions from the New York legislature—an action which was cited against him as late as the presidential campaign of 1844.
Martin Van Buren was not an orator, but his more important speeches show careful preparation and his opinions carried weight; the oft-repeated charge that he refrained from declaring himself on crucial questions is hardly borne out by an examination of his senatorial career. In February 1827, he was re-elected to the Senate by a large majority. He became one of the recognized managers of the Jackson campaign, and his tour of Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia in the spring of 1827 won support for Jackson from Crawford. Martin Van Buren sought to reorganize and unify "the old Republican party" behind Jackson. Van Buren helped create a grassroots style of politicking that is often seen today. At the state level, Jackson's committee chairmen would split up the responsibilities around the state and organize volunteers at the local level. "Hurra Boys" would plant hickory trees (in honor of Jackson's nickname, "Old Hickory") or hand out hickory sticks at rallies. Martin Van Buren even had a New York journalist write a campaign piece portraying Jackson as a humble, pious man. "Organization is the secret of victory," an editor in the Adams camp wrote. He once said to a group of lobbyists the famous quote and "By the want of it we have been overthrown." In 1828, Van Buren was elected governor of New York for the term beginning on January 1, 1829, and resigned his seat in the Senate.
Martin Van Buren's tenure as New York governor is the second shortest on record. While his term was short, he did manage to pass the Bank Safety Act (an early form of deposit insurance).
No diplomatic questions of the first magnitude arose during Van Buren's service as secretary, but the settlement of long-standing claims against France was prepared and trade with the British West Indies colonies was opened. In the controversy with the Bank of the United States, he sided with Jackson. After the breach between Jackson and Calhoun, Van Buren was clearly the most prominent candidate for the vice-presidency.
After a brief tour on through Europe, Van Buren reached New York on July 5, 1832. The 1832 Democratic National Convention, the party's first and held in May, had nominated him for vice-president on the Jackson ticket, despite the strong opposition to him which existed in many states. Van Buren's platform included supporting the expansion of the naval system. His declarations during the campaign were vague regarding the tariff and unfavorable to the United States Bank and to nullification, but he had already somewhat placated the South by denying the right of Congress to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia without the consent of the slave states.
In the election of 1832, the Jackson-Van Buren ticket won by a landslide. When the election of 1836 came up, Jackson was determined to make Van Buren, his personal choice, president in order to continue his legacy. Martin Van Buren's only competitors in the 1836 election were the Whigs, who ran several regional candidates in hopes of sending the election to the House of Representatives, where each state delegation would have one vote. William Henry Harrison hoped to receive the support of the Western voters, Daniel Webster had strength in New England, and Hugh Lawson White had support in the South. Van Buren was unanimously nominated by the 1835 Democratic National Convention at Baltimore. He expressed himself plainly on the questions of slavery and the bank at the same time voting, perhaps with a touch of bravado, for a bill offered in 1836 to subject abolition literature in the mails to the laws of the several states. Van Buren's presidential victory represented a broader victory for Jackson and the party. Van Buren entered the White House as a fifty-five year old widower with four sons.
In a bold step, Van Buren reversed Andrew Jackson's policies and sought for peace at home, as well as abroad. Instead of settling a financial dispute between American citizens and the Mexican government by force, Van Buren wanted to seek a diplomatic solution. Also, in August 1837, Van Buren denied Texas' formal request to join the United States. "Van Buren gave a higher priority to sectional harmony than to territorial expansion" ("Martin Van Buren" 103-114). In the Amistad Case Van Buren sided with the Spanish Government to return the kidnapped slaves. Also, he oversaw the "Trail of Tears", which involved the expulsion of the Cherokee tribe in 1838 from Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, and South Carolina to the Oklahoma territory. Van Buren was determined to avoid war.
In 1839, Joseph Smith, Jr., the founder of the Latter Day Saint movement visited Van Buren to plead for the U.S. to help roughly 20,000 Mormon settlers of Independence, Missouri (which would become the hometown of future President Harry S Truman), who were forced from the state during the 1838 Mormon War there. The Governor of Missouri, Lilburn Boggs, had issued an executive order on October 27, 1838, known as the "Extermination Order". It authorized troops to use force against Mormons to "exterminate or drive [them] from the state". In 1839, after moving to Illinois, Smith and his party appealed to congressman and to President Van Buren to intercede for the Mormons. According to Smith's grand-nephew, Van Buren said to Smith, "Your cause is just, but I can do nothing for you; if I take up for you I shall lose the vote of Missouri.
Van Buren took the blame for hard times, as Whigs ridiculed him as Martin Van Ruin. Van Buren's rather elegant personal style was also an easy target for Whig attacks, such as the Gold Spoon Oration. State elections of 1837 and 1838 were disastrous for the Democrats, and the partial economic recovery in 1839 was offset by a second commercial crisis in that year. Nevertheless, Van Buren controlled his party and was unanimously renominated by the Democrats in 1840. The revolt against Democratic rule led to the election of William Henry Harrison, the Whig candidate.
On the expiration of his term, Van Buren retired to his estate, Lindenwald in Kinderhook, where he planned out his return to the White House. He seemed to have the advantage for the nomination in 1844; his famous letter of April 27, 1844, in which he frankly opposed the immediate annexation of Texas, though doubtless contributing greatly to his defeat, was not made public until he felt practically sure of the nomination. In the Democratic convention, though he had a majority of the votes, he did not have the two-thirds which the convention required, and after eight ballots his name was withdrawn. James K. Polk received the nomination instead.
In 1848, he was nominated by two minor parties, first by the "Barnburner" faction of the Democrats, then by the Free Soilers, with whom the "Barnburners" coalesced. He won no electoral votes, but took enough votes in New York to give the state and perhaps the election to Zachary Taylor. In the election of 1860, he voted for the fusion ticket in New York which was opposed to Abraham Lincoln, but he could not approve of President Buchanan's course in dealing with secession and eventually supported Lincoln.
Martin Van Buren then retired to his home in Kinderhook. After being bedridden with a case of pneumonia during the fall of 1861, Martin Van Buren died of bronchial asthma and heart failure at his Lindenwald estate in Kinderhook at 2:00 a.m. on July 24, 1862. He is buried in the Kinderhook Cemetery.