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Martin Van Buren: The Little Magician with Big Dreams

December 07, 20237 min read

“The government should not be guided by Temporary Excitement, but by Sober Second Thought.” - Martin Van Buren

Martin Van Buren was the eighth president of the United States, serving from 1837 to 1841. Born on December 5, 1782, in Kinderhook, New York, he was the first president who was born after the United States declared independence.

Kinderhook was a Dutch community, so young Martin’s first language was Dutch. He worked hard on his family's farm. Even though his family didn't have much money, he loved to read and learn new things. That curiosity would come in handy later in life.

Martin Van Buren had several nicknames: Some called him "The Red Fox of Kinderhook" because of his red hair and where he grew up. Likewise, some just called him, "Old Kinderhook." But, his political friends called him the "Little Magician" because he was great at working behind the scenes in politics. He knew how to make things happen and get people to agree on important decisions.

A Life of Politics

Martin didn't let growing up in a small town stop him. First, he became a lawyer. Martin worked hard, and soon, he got involved in politics. Like many former presidents, he went from reading about the laws to making them!

In the early 1800s, Van Buren started working in the New York state government. He wasn't the president yet, but he was making a name for himself by being smart and knowing a lot about how the government works. He went from working in the New York government to the big leagues—Washington, D.C. He became the Secretary of State under President Andrew Jackson and helped with foreign affairs and important decisions.

Martin Van Buren played a big role in creating a new political party called the Democratic Party to oppose the Whigs and replace the Anti-Masonic party. The Democratic party has gone through many changes over the years, but still exists today.

Before he became president, Van Buren was the Vice President under Andrew Jackson. He was Jackson’s primary advisor and confidant and together they toured states in the northeast in 1833. He was so popular as a vice president, that when Jackson declined to run again, Van Buren was nominated to represent the Democratic party in the next election.

The Panic of 1837

During the early 1830s, people were buying and selling lots of things, and it felt like everyone was getting rich. The country was in an economic boom.

The economy got bigger and bigger, but the bubble burst and that's when the Panic of 1837 happened. People lost their jobs, businesses struggled, and families had a tough time making ends meet.

President Van Buren had to work hard to find a solution. His idea was to establish a new treasury so they could store government funds (gold and silver) in government vaults instead of private banks. Also, there were rules about how much new money could be printed. The law passed in 1840, but after his presidency, the Whig party abolished it a year later.

Trail of Tears

Another important and unfortunate part of Martin Van Buren's presidency was the Trail of Tears. In the southeastern part of the United States, there were many Native American tribes, like the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole. They had been living on their lands for generations, and it was home to them.

In 1830, the Jackson Administration passed the "Indian Removal Act.” This allowed the government to make the tribes move away from their ancestral lands to an area they called “Indian Territory”, which is now part of Oklahoma.

The Cherokee tried to fight against being forced to leave their homes. They even took their case to the Supreme Court, the highest court in the land. The court said they didn't have to move, but the government didn't listen.

In 1838, Van Buren sent the U.S. Army to make the Cherokee and other tribes move west. The journey they had to take became known as the Trail of Tears because it was a long, difficult journey, and many people suffered and even died along the way.

It's important for us to remember this sad chapter in history so that we can learn from it and treat everyone with kindness and fairness. History helps us understand the world around us and the importance of standing up for what is right.

The Amistad

By Van Buren’s presidency, the United States, Britain, Spain and other European powers had long since abolished the slave trade. But the trade continued illegally and Havana, Cuba, was a place where many slaving ships took the stolen people.

The Amistad was a ship that was illegally carrying African people against their will in 1839. These people who were going to be slaves decided they had enough. They bravely stood up for their freedom and fought against those who tried to keep them enslaved. They took control of the ship and sailed it to the United States.

When the ship arrived in the U.S., a big legal puzzle began. The people on the Amistad were arrested because, at the time, there were laws saying they were property, not free individuals. President Van Buren was in a tough spot. He had to decide what should happen to the people on the Amistad. Some people wanted them to go back to being slaves, but others believed they deserved their freedom. President Van Buren had to consider the laws of the time. He wanted to send the Africans to Cuba to make Spain happy.

A group of abolitionists hired a lawyer to help defend the Africans. Since they were captured illegally, they should be set free. They even brought in a former U.S. President, John Quincy Adams, to help argue for the Africans. Adams was an old man by that time, but he was against slavery and had a strong voice in Congress.

Eventually, the case went to the Supreme Court and the decision was out of Van Buren's hands. In the end, it was the Supreme Court who ruled that the people on the Amistad were free!

Life After the Presidency

After finishing his time as president, Martin Van Buren said, “As to the presidency, the two happiest days of my life were those of my entrance upon the office and my surrender of it.”

While his presidency saw some challenges that made him unpopular, Van Buren will always be remembered as a president who built the Democratic Party and made it big. He played an important role in creating the American political system as we know it today.

Recommended Reading

The Story of the Amistad book cover

The Story of the Amistad by Emma Gelders Sterne

This gripping, fast-paced book tells the dramatic story of the epic 1839 voyage of the schooner Amistad and her cargo of Africans bound for slavery in the New World. Under the leadership of Cinque, a young African farmer, the Africans revolt and seize the ship. They start for home, but instead of reaching Africa, they wind up in New England. The story of these events and the resulting trial of the captured Africans was front-page news at the time. Ages 8 to 14.

Africa is my Home book cover

Africa Is My Home: A Child of the Amistad by Monica Edinger

Inspired by a true account, here is the compelling story of a child who arrives in America on the slave ship Amistad--and eventually makes her way home to Africa. Narrated in a remarkable first-person voice, this fictionalized book of memories of a real-life figure retells history through the eyes of a child. Ages 10 to 13.

Mary and the Trail of Tears book cover

Mary and the Trail of Tears: A Cherokee Removal Survival Story by Andrea L Rogers

Twelve-year-old Mary and her Cherokee family are forced out of their home in Georgia by U.S. soldiers in May 1838. From the beginning of the forced move, Mary and her family are separated from her father. Facing horrors such as internment, violence, disease, and harsh weather, Mary perseveres and helps keep her family and friends together until they can reach the new Cherokee nation in Indian Territory. Featuring nonfiction support material, a glossary, and reader response questions, this Girls Survive story explores the tragedy of forced removals following the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Ages 8 to 12.

Free Activity

Martin Van Buren Word Search Puzzle

Download and print this FREE Martin Van Buren Word Search puzzle to help students remember words and phrases from this article.

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