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.