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President Martin Van Buren: Defender of the "Morally Wrong"

Martin Van Buren was born in 1782 in the small New York Dutch village of Kinderhook. His father, Abraham, owned six slaves and operated a farm and a tavern while serving as a minor local politician and father of eight. Young Martin Van Buren moved to New York where he rapidly rose in the world of New York politics eventually leading to national prominence. Although his family had a history of slaveholding, and he owned of at least one slave himself, Van Buren professed a belief in anti-slavery ideas. Through the two female blacks that his father enslaved, Martin Van Buren should have been more accustomed to close contact with blacks than most of his northern contemporaries. “Tom,” owned legally by Van Buren, escaped and stayed free for ten years before the future president located him. The man who captured him offered to purchase him for fifty dollars and Van Buren agreed stipulating that he be “taken without violence.” This is perhaps reflective of the severely compromised “liberalism” of Van Buren that, he would sell an African American into slavery providing that the purchaser would promise him that he would treat the slave well.

Early on Van Buren actually voted to extend suffrage to property-holding blacks in his own state of New York. He contended that slavery was “an evil of the first magnitude” and that, morally, he had a sacred obligation to fight against its growth. By the mid 1820s, following the lead of Massachusetts Senator Daniel Webster, Van Buren took the convenient political position that slavery was morally wrong but, nevertheless, the constitution prohibited tampering with it since this would violate states’ right. Van Buren, known as the “Little Magician,” carefully crafted this position and attempted to square his own lingering anti-slavery sentiments with what he concluded was the prevailing American popular mentality on race. For Martin Van Buren, the adherence to states’ rights as a doctrine effectively negated his opposition and allowed him to ally himself closely with Andrew Jackson. His early statement that “[N]o evil can result from its inhibition more pernicious than its toleration” was completely contradicted by his practical politics.

Prior to being nominated by the Democratic Party for president, Martin Van Buren’s crafty position on slavery left him vulnerable both in the North and the South. Under pressure from the Whig Party in the 1836 presidential campaign due to earlier liberal statements on blacks and slavery, Van Buren disavowed them. On the issue of abolition of slavery within the District of Columbia, he felt that the wisdom of Congress would never allow the alteration of “its social institutions” unless it was agreeable to the states of Maryland and Virginia. The "Little Magician" once wrote to a prominent Richmond, Virginia editor asserting that through the mechanisms of the national political parties the slavery issue could be maintained as a non-issue.

Van Buren attempted to quiet southern fears that he would tamper with their sacred institution. He took a position that assured the slaveowners that he and the entire northern white population, had no desire to intervene in their local affairs. This strategy proved successful enough to smooth the way for Van Buren to inherit of the mantle of Jacksonian Democracy and be elected the president of the United States. Taking office March 4, 1837 with Van Buren was his vice president, Richard Mentor Johnson of Kentucky. Johnson was engaged in a gross violation of contemporary racial norms by his marriage to Julia Chinn, a black woman. During the campaign his wife was the object of remarks reminiscent of the clamor surrounding Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings. One newspaper The United States Telegraph alerted readers to the Vice President’s relationship with “a jet-black, thick-lipped, odoriferous negro wench, by whom he has reared a family of children” who he tried to “force upon society as equals.” It seemed as if she, and not her slavemaster, was viewed as responsible for “degrading” a white man. Johnson’s capacity to successfully violate an aspect of American racial mores derived from his near mythical status as the “Slayer of Tecumseh,” the legendary Native American leader.

President Martin  Van Buren

Martin Van Buren, 8th President

1837 to 1841

Birth: December 5th, 1782, Kinderhook, New York

Death: July 24, 1862

Education: Minimal

Religion: Dutch Reformed

Profession: Lawyer, Politician

Political Party: Democratic

Primary Form of Relationship with African Americans: Politician

Secondary Form of Relationship with African-Americans: None

Important Online Works

The Autobiography of Martin Van Buren edited by John Clement Fitzpatrick

It was to Martin Van Buren’s credit, however, that the necessity of a New York-Virginia alliance was recognized as critical to both slaveholding interests and national survival. That generations of African Americans’ lives were sacrificed by his efforts, however, belies his transparent claims to have opposed slavery in principle. While Martin Van Buren, in the aftermath of the Missouri Compromise, avoided direct comment on the measure, it was generally understood that he and the faction he led, the Bucktails, were pro-slavery.

In a manner similar to John Quincy Adams, Van Buren had a second career following his administration. In his reincarnation, during the 1840s, Van Buren took positions on slavery that were the mirror opposite of his earlier ones. His new position on the Constitution concluded that congressional power did extend over the issue of slavery in the territories. Now, he also held that Congress enjoyed the power to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia.

Late in his career, Martin Van Buren was nominated in 1840 to head the presidential ticket of the Free Soil Party with Charles Francis Adams as his vice presidential running mate. Their slogan, “Free Soil, Free Speech, Free Labor and Free Men” accurately described their program as long as it is remembered that they referred solely to whites. The party failed to gain even one electoral vote, however. Former allies of Van Buren were dismayed by his drift away from political legitimacy by his abandoning of the posture that allowed no restrictions on slavery. President James Polk was so disgusted with Van Buren’s drift away from the Democratic Party he termed the “Little Magician,” “the most fallen man I have ever known.”