Tuesday, January 31, 2012

10 Fun Facts About Martin Van Buren

Martin Van Buren, the 8th President of the United States

1. Born in New York in 1782, Martin Van Buren was the first U.S. president born as a citizen of the United States. All of his predecessors had been born as British subjects prior to the American Revolution.  His family was of Dutch ancestry, and Van Buren was the only president in U.S. history for whom English was a second language.

2. A lawyer by trade, Van Buren married Hannah Hoes in 1807.  The marriage produced five sons and one daughter.   Hannah Van Buren died in 1819, long before her husband's presidency, and he never remarried.   He became the second widower to assume the office of the president (his immediate predecessor, Andrew Jackson, had been the first).

3. As a New York state politician, Van Buren was instrumental in forming the first true "political machine" in U.S. history, helping to develop a political system in New York that virtually controlled all of New York politics.  Later, during the tenure of Andrew Jackson, for whom Van Buren served first as Secretary of State, and later as Vice-President, Van Buren was the primary leader in the formation of Jacksonian Democracy, the original Democratic Party.

4. During Van Buren's time as Secretary of State to Andrew Jackson, he became embroiled in the so-called Petticoat Affair.  This scandal occurred when a prominent Washington widow, Peggy Timberlake, married Andrew Jackson's Secretary of War, John Eaton.  Washington society women found this marriage scandalous because Peggy Timberlake had only been widowed for a short time, and her deceased husband had been a close associate of Eaton's.  The wives of Jackson's cabinent members shunned her, and the scandal intensified when Vice-President John Calhoun's wife, Floride, began leading a virtual witch-hunt against John Eaton and his new wife, calling for his resignation.  The scandal eventually caused such a rift in Jackson's cabinet that the entire cabinet resigned, including Martin Van Buren, though - as a widower - he had largely stayed out of the fray.  A year later, Andrew Jackson named Van Buren to be his running mate for re-election, replacing John Calhoun, who had also resigned.

5. Van Buren won the 1836 presidential election in an electoral college landslide, though he garnered only about 50% of the total popular vote.  Van Buren's victory is notable because no sitting vice-president would be elected to the presidency again until George H. W. Bush in 1988.  In the 1836 election, the Democrat Van Buren ran against a coalition of Whig Party candidates from different areas of the country - the only time in a presidential election when a major party ran more than one candidate.  The Whigs had hoped that by running multiple candidates, they would split the electoral vote sufficiently to force a run-off in the House of Representatives, which they believed they could win.  Their strategy failed; because so many Whig votes were split among the Whig candidates, Van Buren ended up winning states (particularly in the south) that he would likely have never won had the Whigs run a single man against him.

6. Within several months of taking office in 1837, an economic crisis known as the Panic of 1837 erupted, leading to an economic depression that lasted throughout Van Buren's presidency.  His political enemies would come to refer to him as Martin Van Ruin, blaming him not only for the economic depression in the first place, but for his failure to resolve it.

7. Van Buren served under Andrew Jackson as the 8th Vice-President of the United States.  Later, he became the 8th President of the United States.  After his presidency, he lived to see the election of 8 more presidents, each from 8 different states.  He was also the first in a consecutive string of 8 one-term presidents.  Earlier in his career, he had been the 8th elected governor of New York (one prior governor, John Taylor, had served only as Acting Governor for several months, following a the elected governor's resignation).

8. From early in his career, Van Buren had been known as "Old Kinderhook" (a reference to the New York city of his birth.)  In the 1840 election, one of the rallying cries of his supporters was "Vote for OK!"  The abbreviation "o.k.," meaning "all is well," had only just appeared in the 1830's, during a fad for humorous abbreviations - it stood for the phrase "Oll Korrect," spelled with Germanic inflections.  Van Buren's campaign quickly picked up on it, claiming it stood for "Old Kinderhook," and its widespread use in the 1840 election has been cited as the primary reason the word fell into general use in American English.

9. Because of the Panic of 1837 and the ensuing depression, Van Buren lost his re-election bid in 1840 to one of his opponents from 1836, William Henry Harrison.  Harrison, a war hero, had gotten the most votes among the various Whig candidates in 1836, and defeated Van Buren easily in 1840, thanks largely to a remarkably effective campaign.  After it was over, Van Buren was famously quoted as saying: "As to the presidency, the two happiest days of my life were those of my entrance upon the office and my surrender of it."

10. Despite his famous quip, Van Buren was not deterred by his defeat in 1840.  He ran for the Democratic nomination again in 1844, but eventually lost to James K. Polk.   In 1848, he ran on the ticket of the anti-slavery Free Soil party, but failed to win any electoral votes.  He lived out the remainder of his life at his home in New York, dying in 1862, having outlived four of his successors to the White House (Harrison, Tyler, Polk, and Taylor).

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