Presidential Life in Brief: Martin Van Buren said that the two happiest days of his life were his entrance into the office of President and his surrender of the office. While his political opponents were glad to see him go - they nicknamed him "Martin Van Ruin" - many Americans were not. Even though he lost the 1840 presidential election, Van Buren received 40,000 more votes than he had in his 1836 victory. In subsequent years, historians have come to regard Van Buren as integral to the development of the American political system. Van Buren was also the first President not born a British subject, or even of British ancestry.
Van Buren won the presidential election of 1836 by promising to carry on the policies of Andrew Jackson. Unfortunately, Van Buren took office as the booming U.S. economy of the early and mid-1830s began to slow down. The so-called "Panic of 1837" was followed by the worst depression yet faced by the young nation. These economic troubles quickly became Van Buren's main concern.
Van Buren's response to the crisis revealed his belief in the principles of a limited federal government, defense of states rights, and protection of the "people" from the "powerful." Thus, Van Buren rejected his Whig opposition's suggestion that he support a National Bank, which the Whigs believed could oversee and stabilize the nation's economy. Instead, the President blamed the depression on powerful monied interests at home and abroad, and proposed that the federal government deposit its funds in an independent treasury, rather than in state banks, While Van Buren and Congress argued about the merits of the independent treasury -- which Congress finally authorized in the summer of 1840 -- the nation's economic troubles continued.
Van Buren confronted several other potentially divisive issues while President. He managed to quiet talk of annexing Texas by steadfastly announcing his opposition to such a move. His main foreign policy concerns were the growing tensions between the United States and Great Britain over the border between the United States and Canada. Van Buren ignored calls from some Americans to respond to Canadian and British provocations with force, working instead successfully through diplomatic channels to calm tensions in the region. Van Buren's measured approach to the northern border problems, however, only earned him the enmity of those who urged a more aggressive response.
Martin Van Buren's wife, Hannah, died twelve years after their marriage, leaving him a widower with four sons to raise by himself. Though Van Buren never remarried, his eldest son's wife, Angelica Singleton Van Buren, served as official White House hostess during the last two years of his presidency. His sons, moreover, emerged as some of his father's most important aides and advisers; Abraham and Martin Jr. served as personal secretaries to their father when he was President.
Facing criticism at home for both the economic depression and his handling of foreign affairs, Van Buren's re-election chances suffered even more in the face of an inspired campaign offered by the Whigs and their candidate, William Henry Harrison. In only four years, the Whig party had matched the savvy and organization of the Democrats -- if not their shear numbers and ideological unity. The Whigs portrayed Harrison as the rough and tumble "Log Cabin and Hard Cider" candidate and ridiculed Van Buren as fussy, aristocratic, and unmanly. There was little truth in these images -- in reality, it was Van Buren who came from a modest background, while Harrison was from a ruling-class Virginia family -- but the charges, coupled with dissatisfaction over Van Buren's governance, proved too much for the sitting President to overcome. Van Buren lost the election, failing even to carry his home state of New York.
Martin Van Buren served only one term as President, and those four years were marked as much by failure and criticism as by success and popular acclaim. Van Buren's troubled presidency, though, should not overshadow his significant contributions to American political development. Van Buren played key roles in the creation of both the Democratic Party and the so-called "second party system" in which Democrats competed with their opponents, the Whigs. In these ways, Van Buren left an indelible mark on American politics.
Van Buren came into the presidency and had to deal with the Panic of 1837. The Panic was followed by a five-year depression, with the failure of banks and high unemployment levels.
He oversaw the "Trail of Tears," which involved the expulsion of the Cherokee tribe in 1838 mostly from Georgia to the Oklahoma territory, resulting in the deaths of over 4000 Cherokee indians.
He was also president during the famous Amistad case involving a slave ship revolt.