Martin Van Buren's Obituary

Transcribed by Ted Diamond (thanks, Ted!)


Some Notice of His Public Life and Character

Kinderhook, N.Y., Thursday, July 24

     Ex-President Martin Van Buren died at his residence at Lindenwald, at 2 o'clock this morning, in the 79th year of his age. His health had been declining for the past year.
     The telegraph announces the death, at his seat in Columbia County, of Martin Van Buren, ex- President of the United States. The event occured yesterday morning at 2 o'clock, and was the close of a long and serious illness, orignally we understand, in a affection of the chest.
     Mr. Van Buren was born in Kinderhook, Columbia County -- the town where he breathed his last -- on December 5, 1782. His father, Abraham Van Buren, owned a farm near Kinderhook, and as his pecuniary means were quite limited, was unable to afford his boy any other than a common education; but the natural quickness and shrewdness of the latter displayed itself in the eagerness with which he availed himself of the limited opportunities of mental cultivation offered him. After mastering all that was taught in the village common school, he entered the academy with the higher English branches and acquired considerable knowledge of Latin. His fondness for argumentative discussions, the logical skill which he frequently displayed, and his ambitious desire to excel in extemporaneous speaking and English composition, distinguished him particularly from the rest of his fellow students. In 1796 -- at the early age of 14 years -- he was obliged to leave the Academy, and he at once commenced the study of law in the office of Francis Sylvester, a highly respectable lawyer, the practicing in Kinderhook. His term of clerkship, which extended through seven years until he attained his majority, was served here, with the exception of the last year, when Mr. Van Buren succeeded in obtaining a position better suited to his tastes, in the office of Mr. Wm. P. Van Ness, in this City. Young Van Buren had early displayed a predilection for political life, and while in Kinderhook took an active part in the campaign of 1800, espousing the cause of Mr. Jefferson in opposition to that of Mr. Adams. He was frequently called on to address public meetings, and to draft resolutions and addresses, and as a reward for his services, when less than 18 years of age, represented the Republicans of his native town in the Congressional Convention for the District. This bent was still further strengthened by the associations with which he found himself surrounded on coming to this City. Mr. Van Ness, whose office he entered, was a leading member of the Republican Party, and a warm friend of Aaron Burr, with whom Mr. Van Buren thus became acquainted. Nor was the attention with which he was treated diminished when Mr. Burr ascertained that the young lawyer had already taken a leading part in the political affairs of Columbia County. On his admission to the bar in 1803, just before he had completed his twenty-first year, Mr. Van Buren returned to Kinderhook to practice his profession. Soon afterward he formed a partnership with his half-brother, James I. Van Allen. The two were opposed politically, and great exertions were made to bring Mr. Van Buren to a Federal way of thinking, but he resisted all the pressure brought to bear upon him, and by his tact soon rallied around him the Republicans of the District, who gladly accepted him as their leader. In taking this course, he provoked a hostility which was exceedingly bitter and vindictive, for the Federalists counted in their ranks nearly all the wealth of the county.
     In 1806 Mr. Van Buren married Hannah Hoes, a distant connection on his mother's side. By her he had four sons, Abraham, John, Martin and Smith, and since her death which occurred in 1818, Mr. Van Buren has remained single. In 1804, notwithstanding his personal friendship for Mr. Burr, who was nominated for Goverrnor, Mr. Van Buren cast his vote against hin, and for Gen. Lewis, the Republican candidate. In 1807 he supported Mr. Tompkins, who was elected by the Republicans to the gubernatorial office, and on the 20th of March, 1808, for his services in the campaign, he was appointed Surrogate of Columbia County. In consequence of the appointment and with a hope of extending his practice, he determined to remove to Hudson, which he did toward the end of the same year. Much of his time, while living here, was occuped in a vigorous prosecution of study in those branches of his profession in which he had found himself deficient. In 1809, although his preferences were for Mr. George Clinton, as Mr. Jefferson's successor, he cheerfully acquiesced in Mr. Madison's nomination. In 1812 he opposed the proposition to charter the Bank of America and supported Gov. Tompkins' course in poroguing the State Legislature. In 1812 he was named as candidate for State Senate from the Middle district of Columbia County, and after an exceedingly close contest was elected over Edward P. Livingston by a majority of 200 in a total poll of 20,000. Elected as a Clintonian Republican, he of course supported Dewitt Clinton in the Presidential election of 1812 -- a step which his friends assert was an error, although it was impossible for him to take any other course and act consistently. Mr. Van Buren took his seat in the State Senate of the extra session in 1812, and was complimented with an appointment on the Committee to prepare an answer to the Governor's speech. This document he drew up and reported. He took a prominent part in the legislative caucus for the nomination of Presidential Electors, opposing the reelection of many of the friends of Mr. Madison. In the selection of candidates for the succeeding Gubernatorial election, he warmly urged Gov. Tompkins' claims, and was appointed to prepare the address to the electors of the State. In the exciting legislative session of 1814, Mr. Van Buren, still a member of the State Senate, took a prominent part, making every exertion to insure a vigorous prosecution of the war. In the session of 1815 he again took the lead in advocating and acquiring the adoption of earnest war measures.
     During all this time he continued the practice of his profession, and in 1815 was appointed Attorney-General of the State. In 1815 he was reelected to the Senate, and in the year succeeding forned a partnership with Benj. P. Boyles, afterward Attorney-General of the United States. This connection was confirmed until 1821, when Mr. Van Buren's election to the United States Senate compelled him to relinquish the practice of his profession to a great extent.
     Mr. Van Buren's second term as State Senate expired in 1820, when he declined a reelection, as he desired to give his whole time to the practice of the law in Albany, where he had become a resident, but these designs were frustrated by his election in the next year as United States Senator, to succeed Nathan Sanford. Very unexpectedly to himself, he was elected as a Delegate to the Constitutional Convention of 1821, in which he took a prominent part, steadily maintaining a conservative position on the important questions which were brought before that body. Soon after the adjourment of the Convention, Mr. Van Buren went to Washington to assume his new duties, and on Dec. 17 was appointed a member of the Committee on Finance, of which he afterward became Chairman. During this term he supported Mr. Monroe's Administration to its close, and in the contest for the succession earnestly urged Mr. Crawford's claims, and did everything in his power to secure his election. When the question of internal improvements came up he took strong ground against the constitutionality of their prosecution by the general Government. He advocated the establishment of a general system of bankruptcy in 1827, and in the same year opposed the retaliatory measures propoed against Great Britain, in consequence of the interruption of the trade with the West Indies. He was also committed at an early day against the policy of distributing the public lands in opposition to Mr. Clay, and took modified grounds against a high protective tariff. As his constituents, however, were in favor of protective duties, he voted for the tariffs laws of 1824 and 1828.
     In 1827 Mr. Van Buren was reelected to the Senate for another term of six years, but circumstances soon occurred which caused his resignation. He, as well as Gov. Clinton, had supported Gen. Jackson for the Presidency in 1828, in opposition to Mr. Adams. Gov. Clinton died suddenly in 1828, and Mr. Van Buren's friends at once determined to nominate him for the office of Governor. He was elected to this position in November, 1828, and entered upon its duties in January, 1829. His Message to the Legislature was largely devoted to the banks and to the currency question, and soon after he introduced to the notice of that body the celebrated Safety-Fund system, which originated with Hon. Joshua Forman. Mr. Van Buren held the office of Governor, but two or three months, for on March 12, 1829, he resigned the position to accept the Secretaryship of State tendered to him by Gen. Jackson. Although partially removed from the area of State politics, he left behind him a large number of devoted friends, among them W. L. Marcy, Silas Wright, Jr., A. C. Flagg, Edwin Crosswell, and a number of others equally distinguished, who formed that power in politics subsequently known as the Albany Regency. A strife in Gen. Jackson's Cabinet, which originated in the rival claims of Mr. Van Buren and Mr. Calhoun to the Presidential succession, ended to Mr. Van Buren's getting the upper hand; but he found his position so unpleasant that on April 11 he determined to resign. Gen. Jackson was very desirous to retain him as Secretary of State, that he might have the benefit of his diplomatic skill in adjusting the questions at issues with Great Britain, but as his determination to resign was fixed he concluded to place him in a position where he might still take a leading part in the pending negotiations, and accordingly sent him as Minister of England. He arrived at the scene of his labors in September, 1831, and soon after the meeting of Congress in December, Gen. Jackson sent in his nomination to the Senate. By the casting vote of Mr. Calhoun he was rejected, the alleged ground for this action being the Instruction which he had issued, while Secretary of State, to Mr. McLane, our Minister of England, in reference to the West India trade. This unusual act was denounced as a piece of political persecution, and, in reply to resolutions from the Democratic members of the New-York Legislature, Gen. Jackson assumed the entire responsibility of the instructions condemned by the Senate.
     The sympathy which was thus excited with Mr. Van Buren doubtless had much to do with his nomination for the Vice Presidency by the Democratic Convention which assembled at Baltimore in May, 1832, Gen. Jackson being named at the same time for President. Both were triumphantly elected, and on March 4, 1833, they were duly inaugurated. As presiding officer of the Senate, Mr. Van Buren discharged his duties with remarkable acceptability, using his entire influence to sustain the various measures which made Gen. Jackson's second term memorable.
     On May 20, 1835, the Jackson Democratic Convention assembled at Baltimore unanimously nominated Mr. Van Buren as Gen. Jackson's successor, with Col R. M. Johnson, of Kentucky, for Vice-President. The result of the vote of the Electoral College was 170 for Mr. Van Buren, including Michigan, (3) which was informal, and 124 for all other candidates. He was inaugurated on March 4, 1837, and in his inaugural took unequivocal grounds against the agitation of the Slavery question in any shape. Two months after his inauguration the terrible reaction of 1837 took place. The exigencies of the times seemed to demand an extra session of Congress, and on May 15 Mr. Van Buren issued his proclamation calling the body together. The independent Treasury system, which he so earnestly advocated, was approved by the Senate, but rejected by the House, and Congress adjourned without having accomplished anything to alleviate the public distress. Subsequently this scheme was adopted by the Twenty-fifth Congress, at the regular session of 1837 and 1838. During his administration Mr. Van Buren displayed great prudence and discretion in the management of our foreign affairs, and a number of important treaties were ratified. He declined the overtures mde by Texas for annexation, chiefly on the ground that her relations with Mexico prevented any such step. The civil war in Canada in 1837 also called for the exercise of great firmnes and prudence to prevent a rupture between Great Britain and this Government, but Mr. Van Buren carried the country safely through the crisis. But the many exciting political and financial questions which he had been called upon to settle, and the manner in which he had disposed of them, had provoked a bitter hostility against him. He was renominated for the Presidency in 1840, but in the succeeding election the Democratic Party sustained an overwhelming defeat. Of 294 electoral votes Mr. Van Buren received but 60; the rest, 234, were given to his single opponent, Mr. Harrison.
     In leaving the Presidential Chair, Mr. Van Buren announced to his personal friends his intention to withdraw from political life. The unexpected course of events defeated this resolution. The inexplicable dispensation of Providence which removed Gen. Harrison from the Presidential Chair, to make way for Mr. Tyler, rendered it practicable for the partisans of Mr. Calhoun to attempt the long-contemplated coup of bringing Texas into the Union as a compromise to the territorial greatness of the Free States and their influence in Federal legislation. Mr. Tyler lent himself heartily to the plan. Mr. Calhoun ruled the Cabinet. And in view of the combination of forces thus controlling the Government, and impelling it in this particular direction, it became obvious that the measure would be so pressed as to become the paramount issue in the ensuing Presidential contest. The Democratic Party, anxious to recover the prestige lost in the election of 1840, had generally fixed upon Mr. Van Buren as its candidate, and yielding with reluctance to the pressure of old adherents, that gentleman consented to the use of his name. He, too, was anxious to vindicate the policy of his administration by a resumption of the Chief Executive seat. The inevitable result of his candidacy was a demand for his view upon the subject of Texas, and in responding to this requirement, Mr. Van Buren fell in the mistake of believing that the supporters and opponents of annexation might be conciliated by a declaration of opinions not decisively favorable to the proclivities of either. His letter on annexation was therefore a long and obscure special pleading, balancing between the conflicting merits of the case with the nicest subtlety, that upon the whole inclining to the adverse side; a conclusion to which Mr. Van Buren was to come led by his unconquerable distrust of that ambitous man, and his recollection of the old quarrel of 1830-31, while as a politician he could hardly have failed to see that the only chance of nomination in a convention ruled by Southern Democracy ws unqualified support of the annexation measures. When the Convention met at Baltimore on the 27th of May, 1844, it was at once discovered that a majority of the delegates were favorable to the Ex-President, while unfortunately the majority fell short of the two-thirds required by a resolution of the Convention to elect. The principal competitor of Mr. Van Buren was Gen. Cass. A protracted contest satisfied the friends of both candidates that neither could secure the vote requisite to a choice; and yielding at last to the instances of the Southern members, the Cass men were induced to give their voices to James K. Polk, to save themselves. The supporters of Mr. Van Buren followed their example. The election of Mr. Polk followed, with the annexation of Texas, the Mexican war, and the repeal of the tariff of 1842. It is not to be disguised that this result was the source of profound mortification to Mr. Van Buren. He felt that he had been basely deserted by the conservative Democrats of the South, lured away by the artifices of the Cass Party; and that the party had been betrayed into the hands of the nullifiers, simply to gratify the malice of a disappointed faction. He knew, too, that the National Democracy, which, under Jackson, had been the bulwark of the Union, was thereafter to be carried all lengths in the service of Slavery, and that it must necessarily become a purely sectional party and the parent of incalculable danger to the country and the Government. The Adminstration of Mr. Polk was not to pass without justifying thses impressions. The Oregon bill gave occasion for the introduction of Mr. Wilmot's famous Proviso. The Democratic Party, as a body, opposed the proviso, and after sharp fighting the Senate was brought to strike out the proviso inserted by the House, and substitute the "Missouri Compromise." This change was insisted upon, because the immense territorial additions, anticipated as a result of the war, would so be assured to Slavery, along with the whole of Texas, which was to be the material of five Slave states. The House, however, adhered to the "proviso," and the Senate finally receding, the territorial bill became a law, with that feature on its face. The discussion of the exciting question in Congress caused the profoundest agitation throughout the country. As numbers of Northern Democrats had sustained the proviso in Congress, so a very large body of the party in the North took strong ground for it. Mr. Van Buren, and Mr. John Van Buren, his son, took an early opportunity to identify themselves with this minority, and declare against the extension of Slavery. The Democratic Nominating Convention of 1848 met at Baltimore, on the 22nd of May. Gen. Cass received the nomination for the Presidency, while the resolutions adopted leaned strongly to the prejudices of the South, and, in fact, originated the doctrine of Territorial Sovereignty. The Northern Barnburners were practically ejected from the party. They could not go the platform; they entertained a grudge which nothing could placate against Gen. Cass and his immediate partisans. As might have been expected, these malcontents resolved to have a candidate in the field, to weaken the chances of the Michigan statesman for an election, and also to vindicate the convictions of Northern Democrats adverse to the propagation of Southern institutions. A convention was therefore called at Buffalo, on the 9th of August. The present Minister to England presided, and was nominated for the Vice-Presidency, and Mr. Van Buren was unanimously named for the Presidency. The resolutions and address were decidedly Anti-Slavery in tone, and formed the platform on which was constructed what was known as the "Free-Soil Party." Mr. Van Buren never formally accepted the nomination. The canvass resulted in the choice of Gen. Taylor, the regular Democratic candidate, obtaining 127 electoral votes, while the Whig candidate had 163. Not one vote in the Electoral College was given to Mr.Van Buren, who, however, had a majority in his own State of 6,000 over the regular Baltimore nominee.
     The result was received by Mr. Van Buren with entire equanimity. He had neither sought nor declined the nomination; he took no part in the contest. His election, he knew from the outset, was an impossibility. The inconspicuous vote cast for him he knew to be the result of party drill on the one hand, and of strong Free Soil sentiment on the other; old Democrats who would have sustained him with enthusiasm had he been the regular candidate, yielding to the requirements of partisan unity by supporting Mr. Cass, while Free Soilers, who would have preferred the Buffalo nominee, felt constrained to vote for Gen. Taylor, as their Free Soil ballots would also be thrown away.
     Since that period, Mr. Van Buren has entirely withdrawn from public life, unless an occasional letter on public matters, elicited by personal friends, may be considered a departure from privacy. His time was mainly spent at Lindenwald, in his native town, with the rare variation of a visit to New-York. In 1853, declining health suggested a visit to Europe; where the ex-President remained until the summer of 1855. The effect of the journey, and residence among new scenes, was highly beneficial, but only temporary; symptoms of pulmonary disease returning and resulting in the more serious attack which closed his life. The deceased had nearly completed his eightieth year.
     In estimating at this early date the political career and character of Mr. Van Buren, the biographer can scarcely hope to escape the imputation of partiality and prejudice. It is safe, however, to say that nothing is probably further from the truth than the traditional conception of Mr. Van Buren, as a politician and statesman, a conception formed wholly in the alembic of violent partisan animosities. According to this popular creed, the Ex-President was the embodiment of self-seeking craft, a shrewd and unprincipled political manager; a thorough master of human nature, and with his knowledge of the sort, and his tact, address, and subtlety, rendering persons and events alike tributary to the promotion of his personal aspirations. A well-proportioned compound of Mephistophiles would represent the very general idea of his character. Nothing could be more exaggerated or more unjust. There is no doubt Mr. Van Buren pursued the political aims he marked out for himself with as much shrewdness as perserverance. His unvarying and imperturbable amiability, the uniform suavity of his manner, whatever the provocation to passion, are, however, answerable as much as anything else for the laborious duplicity ascribed to him; for to no excess of personal detraction or abuse did the good nature of the Ex-President succumb; and in the popular thought such masterly self-command could only result from profound dissimulation. Those who knew Mr. Van Buren intimately, knew now much real simplicity of nature was at the foundation of his character. All gentleness, kindness and thoughtfulness, his very virutes were represented by unbridled partisan hate as the masks of vices, and all there was good in his nature was transmuted into arguments of evil. The influence which Mr. Van Buren exercised in the councils of the Jackson Administration, and in the policy of the Democratic Party at that epoch, was owing not to craft, and sycophancy, and simulation, as the opposition Press of the day -- violent and scandalous as no Press, we hope, shall ever be again -- was accustomed to charge, but to the fact that abilities of Mr. Van Buren gave him a natural and proper weight in the deliberations of the Administration, while his urbanity of manner secured the esteem of his Chief and his associates, and made him an extremely agreeable advisor to consult. How far these points in his favor were made subsidiary to his own advancement we are not to decide; but no men are apt to omit the use of any weapon which experience his shown to be serviceable in the battle of life. And it can be said of Mr. Van Buren, as a sufficient answer to the charge of selfishness, that no public man of his time was so noted for devotion and adhesion to his friends. None was ever abandoned or permitted to go unrewarded. And to the last he retained the warm affection of those whose esteem he had won in the active years of his life. There is hardly a doubt that the political character of Mr. Van Buren suffered seriously from a mordid development of intellectual caution. This trait exhibited itself more palpably than any other to the public, simply because it marked all his writings and speeches, and it is only through such utterances of public men the people usually know them. Mr. Van Buren never approached a public question, pen in hand, without examining it, and traveling round it and through it so deviously, and raising so many conflicting views of it, merely to guard his conclusion from any imaginable forms of attack, and from the possibility of error, that the sense and reader were often lost in the maze of words and argument. Such overwrought caution looked painfully like casulstry, and the people, appalled at the tedious and involved discussion of the statesman, ascribed to dishonesty what was due to timidity.
     In summing up results of the political career of Mr. Van Buren, they will not be feared to place him in the first rank of our nation's political men. He has identified his name with no measure which entitled him to the permanent gratitude of our people; he did nothing distinguishable to advance the course of humanity and civilization; there is no period of his life we can single out as the era of some leadership service to the Republic. His place in our history is not in any way pronounced. He will be calendered as a President, and be characterised as a skilled and not unsuccessful politician, but not as an elevated statesman, or a benefactor of his country. His private virtues and social qualities will remembered perhaps longer than his public career.