Born in Kinderhook, New York, Martin Van Buren was the first President of the United States who was an American citizen by birth. He belonged to a struggling family but managed to become a successful lawyer eventually serving as the Attorney General of New York. Van Buren joined politics in his teens and by thirty he was in the New York State Senate. He had a close relationship with Andrew Jackson and he served as Secretary of State and Vice President during Jackson’s presidency. Van Buren was known for his uncanny political acumen and he was given a number of nicknames including “Little Magician” and “Sly Fox”. The best known of these nicknames, “Old Kinderhook”, popularized the term OK. Van Buren married his childhood sweetheart and cousin Hannah Hoes. Unfortunately she died due to tuberculosis and he never remarried. Know more about the family, life, career and death of President Martin Van Buren through these 10 interesting facts.

 

#1 He is the only American president who spoke English as a second language

Martin Van Buren was born on December 5, 1782 in the village of Kinderhook, New York, U.S. He was the third child born to Abraham Van Buren and his wife Maria Hoes Van Alen. Abraham Van Buren was a farmer and also a tavern keeper. During the American Revolution, he was a Patriot who rebelled against British control. Maria Hoes was the widow of Johannes Van Alen with whom she had three children. After her marriage to Abraham, the couple went on to have five children. Martin’s forefathers had migrated from Netherlands. Her mother also had Dutch ancestry. Martin spoke Dutch as his primary language and learned English at school. He is the only American president who spoke English as a second language.

Martin Van Buren birthplace
Plaque commemorating birthplace of Martin Van Buren

 

#2 Martin Van Buren was a successful lawyer

With six surviving children in the household, the Van Burens were a struggling family. Abraham Van Buren owned a tavern whose guests included politicians like Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. This gave Martin his first glimpse of American politics. Till the age of 14, Martin attended a one-room schoolhouse in Kinderhook. He didn’t go to college. Instead, his father used political favor to place his son in a lawyer’s office as a law clerk. Martin severed as a clerk for 7 years, sweeping floors or running errands by day and studying law at night. In 1803, at the age of twenty one, Martin Van Buren became a lawyer. He returned to Kinderhook to open his own law practice with his half-brother James Van Allen. He achieved considerable success as a lawyer, both financially and in reputation. Later, Van Buren would serve as Attorney General of New York.

Martin Van Buren
Portrait of Martin Van Buren

 

#3 He lost his wife to tuberculosis and never remarried

At the age of 24, Martin Van Buren married the 23 years old Hannah Hoes. The marriage took place on February 21, 1807, at the home of the bride’s sister in Catskill, New York. Hannah was a daughter of Martin’s first cousin. She and Martin had been childhood sweethearts. The couple went on to have five children, four of whom lived to adulthood. Hannah Van Buren contracted tuberculosis and died on February 5, 1819, at the age of 35. Martin Van Buren never remarried. Abraham Van Buren, the eldest son of Martin Van Buren, married Angelica Singleton in 1838. As Martin was a widower when he became President, he installed his daughter-in-law as his hostess. Angelica van Buren livened up the presidential parties. However, she was influenced by European court life and Martin’s opponents used this to accuse the president of living a royal lifestyle.

Hannah Van Buren
Hannah Van Buren – Martin’s wife

 

#4 He had a close political relationship with Andrew Jackson

Van Buren became involved in politics by the age of 18 when he helped John Peter Van Ness win the party nomination for the election to New York’s 6th congressional district. Van Buren’s first major breakthrough came in 1812 when he won the election to the New York State Senate. Van Buren entered into national politics in 1821 when the state legislature elected him to represent New York in the United States Senate. He served as US Senator from New York from March 4, 1821 to December 20, 1828. Van Buren established friendships with prominent politicians and quickly became an influential political figure. He developed an extremely close relationship with Andrew Jackson. Among other things, he strongly supported and helped Jackson win the United States presidential election of 1828. Van Buren went on to serve as the 10th Secretary of State and the 8th Vice President during the presidency of Andrew Jackson.

 

#5 Martin Van Buren built the modern Democratic Party

In 1824, Andrew Jackson ran for presidency against John Quincy Adams but although he won the popular vote, Jackson was not able to establish an electoral majority and the result was determined by the House of Representatives. In what is referred to as the Corrupt Bargain, Quincy Adams was made the President in exchange for Henry Clay becoming Secretary of State. Martin Van Buren led the opposition to the administration of Quincy Adams in the Senate and helped form a coalition that backed Andrew Jackson in the 1828 election. This coalition soon emerged as a new political entity, the Democratic Party. Van Buren’s role as a political organizer who built the modern Democratic Party is considered his most lasting achievement. He also guided it to dominance in the new Second Party System. Historians thus consider him as integral to the development of the American political system.

Democratic Party logo
Logo of the Democratic Party of the United States

 

#6 He resigned as Secretary of State to end a scandal known as the Petticoat affair

John Eaton, the Secretary of War of Andrew Jackson, married a woman of low social status named Margaret O’Neale, who became better known as Peggy. Peggy is said to have begun her relationship with John Eaton while she was still married to her first husband. The elevation of Mrs. Eaton into the social circle of Andrew Jackson’s Cabinet was resented by the wives of several members due to their disapproval of the circumstances surrounding her marriage. They snubbed Mrs. Eaton socially and this turned into a major scandal known as the Petticoat affair or the Eaton affair. As a widower, Martin Van Buren was unaffected by the position of the cabinet wives. He devised a plan to quell the scandal. Van Buren resigned from his position of Secretary of State giving Andrew Jackson an opportunity to reorganize his cabinet and appoint new senior administration officials. Van Buren had a major role in shaping the new cabinet.

Peggy O'Neal Eaton
Cigar box image of Peggy O’Neal Eaton

 

#7 His presidency was marred by a financial crisis known as the Panic of 1837

With the support of Jackson, Van Buren won the Democratic nomination for the presidential election of 1836. He won the election with 764,198 popular votes, 50.9 percent of the total, and 170 electoral votes. Martin Van Buren served as the 8th President of the United States from March 4, 1837 to March 4, 1841. The major issue during his presidency was a financial crisis known as the Panic of 1837, which set off a major recession that lasted until the mid-1840s. President Andrew Jackson had destroyed the Second Bank of the United States leading to the existence of only state-chartered banks. Van Buren’s opponents proposed rechartering the national bank. However, Van Buren refused to do so and instead established the Independent Treasury to manage the money supply of the nation. Van Buren was widely blamed for the recession and it was one of the primary reasons behind his losing the next election. However, modern economists generally view his deregulatory economic policy as successful in the long term.

Panic of 1837 cartoon
A cartoon on the Panic of 1837

 

#8 The term OK was popularized due to his nickname “Old Kinderhook”

Born in Kinderhook, New York, Van Buren carried the nickname “Old Kinderhook”. During the United States presidential election of 1840, the supporters of Van Buren used the initials of his nickname O.K. to form the OK Club and marched with placards marked OK. The abbreviation came into great usage during the election and ultimately took the world by storm. Thus the popularity of the term OK is attributed to Martin Van Buren and his supporters. However, Van Buren was trounced in the 1840 presidential election by Whig nominee William Henry Harrison. Harrison won a majority in the popular vote and 234 of the 294 electoral votes. Other nicknames given to Van Buren include “Little Magician”, “Sly Fox” and “Red Fox of Kinderhook” for his skills as a politician, less-than-intimidating stature and reddish-blond hair.

Martin Van Buren presidential portrait
Official White House Portrait of Martin Van Buren

 

#9 He ran for presidency again in 1848 but as a third party candidate

Autobiography of Martin Van Buren
Cover of the Autobiography of Martin Van Buren

Van Buren remained involved in politics after leaving office. He had blocked the annexation of Texas in 1837 as it would have been a state with slavery. His continued opposition to Texas annexation led to his losing the Democratic party nomination to James K. Polk for the 1844 presidential election. Texas ultimately became the 28th state of America in 1845. Post presidency, Van Buren became more and more opposed to slavery. The Democratic party became split in two opposing factions known as Barnburners and Hunkers. The issue of contention was slavery with Barnburners being the anti-slavery faction. Before the 1848 presidential election, the Barnburners organized a third party and Martin Van Buren was chosen as its presidential candidate. Though he finished a distant third, Van Buren won 10.1% of the popular vote, a strong showing for a third party candidate.

#10 Martin Van Buren wrote an autobiography

After the 1848 presidential election, Martin Van Buren retired and never sought public office again. However, he continued to closely follow national politics. When the American Civil War began in 1861, he made public his support for the Union and Abraham Lincoln. In late 1861, Van Buren’s health began to fail and he was bedridden with pneumonia. Martin Van Buren died of bronchial asthma and heart failure at his Lindenwald estate in Kinderhook on July 24, 1862. He was 79 years old. His home in Kinderhook is now the Martin Van Buren National Historic Site. Counties, a mountain, a ship, three state parks and numerous towns have been named after him. Van Buren wrote two books titled Inquiry into the Origin and Course of Political Parties in the United States and The Autobiography of Martin Van Buren. Both these books were published posthumously.

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