Martin Van Buren – 8th President, 1837-1841

Birthplace, Kinderhook, New York
Martin Van Buren was the first president not born a British subject. His birth on December 5, 1782 in Kinderhook, New York came just fourteen months after General George Washington trapped Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown-the battle that sealed the British fate in the Revolutionary War. Van Buren’s non-British ancestry (he had Dutch ancestry) would break one presidential mold, and his modest upbringing was preceded only by that of Andrew Jackson.

Both of Van Buren’s parents, Abraham and Maria, were of pure Dutch parentage. They lived in Kinderhook, New York, a town near Albany that was largely populated by others of the same descent. The Van Burens were a struggling family with six children in the household, Martin being the third oldest. His mother had been widowed with three children before marrying his father. Not rich by any means, they did owned six slaves. While the Van Burens were not in the upper class, it was politics that made them a living. Abraham owned a tavern and inn frequented by government workers traveling between Albany and New York City. He held the post of town clerk for extra money, and the tavern hosted political meetings or elections. Guests at the tavern, such as Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, offered young Martin a rare glimpse of glamour and the outside world. Their endless discussions and arguments amounted to a thorough political education for the boy.

Because Martin showed promise in Kinderhook’s one-room schoolhouse, his parents let him attend there until age fifteen-an unusually advanced education for a lower class child in the early 19th century. College was out of reach, but Abraham called in a political favor and managed to place his son with a lawyer’s office as a law clerk. Martin clerked for five years, sweeping floors or running errands by day and studying law at night. He moved to New York City-at that time inhabited by 60,000-for about a year, and gained admission to the state bar in 1803 at the age of twenty-one. He then returned to Kinderhook to open his own law practice. The easy money lay in representing large landowners, but Van Buren chose the side of smaller, less influential farmers and shopkeepers, often pitting himself against the wealthier leaders of the community. Before long, he had built a modestly successful practice.

Home, Decatur House, Washington, DC
Decatur House has been a monument on the northwest corner of Washington D.C.’s Lafayette Square since 1818. Designed by architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe for America’s greatest 19th century naval hero, Stephen Decatur, it was subsequently occupied by many of our nation’s most important political leaders. This unique history provides Decatur House an opportunity to tell a significant and interesting story about 19th century America–a world both familiar and distant from our own.

In 1829, Martin Van Buren left his post as governor of New York and arrived in Washington to serve as the Jackson administration’s first Secretary of State. Van Buren utilized Decatur House as a means of extending his political influence and ambition by holding lavish parties, which were observed by a contemporary as “not outdone by Mr. Clay in the style of his entertainments, which were handsome.” Van Buren’s involvement in the scandalous Eaton Affair compelled the statesman to resign his office in 1831. Six years later, he would be elected the eighth president of the United States.

Home, Lindenwald, Kinderhook, New York
Just south of Kinderhook, on land that once belonged to his ancestors, stood a dwelling that Martin Van Buren thought would make a fine home in which to live out his post-White House years. The large, two-story red brick house had been built by wealthy judge Peter Van Ness using local materials and following a simple square plan, which emphasized a Palladian window illuminating the second story hallway. The Georgian style carried over to the inside as well; pilasters and entablatures frames six-panel molded doors, and finely carved cornices edged the ceilings. Adorning the entrance was a silver-plated doorknocker inscribed with “1797,” the year the house was completed.

William Van Ness, Van Buren’s lifelong friend and former employer, inherited the house from his father but lost it to creditors in 1824. Fifteen years later, though neglect had rendered the building and grounds rather unattractive to a man who took pride in elegant surroundings, Van Buren paid owner William Paulding, Jr., $14,000 for the estate. Even before he moved in permanently Van Buren was anxious to begin what he called “improvements.” In accordance with his heritage he set about making his piece of the Hudson Valley into a working farm. Soon the place came back to life, by 1845 he could gaze proudly on more than 220 acres of cropland, as well as formal flower gardens, ornamental fish ponds, wooded paths, and outbuildings of all kinds.

Primarily concerned with the grounds, Van Buren also lavished attention on his new house. His most elaborate modification involved removing the central stairway in the entrance hall to create large rooms on both stories. Fifty-one vividly colored wallpaper panels, imported from France, formed a mural-like hunting scene in the downstairs hall. Underneath was a wallpaper balustrade design. Elsewhere he placed fine furniture and Brussels carpets, and hung portraits of some personal friends – Thomas Jefferson, Henry Clay, and Andrew Jackson. Van Buren described one “improvement” to a friend in 1846: “When you visit me again you shall wash off the impurities of Mammon in the Bath which has been put up.” Lindenwald was a source of great satisfaction to its owner.

“We are to undergo a great Revolution here,” Van Buren wrote in 1849. Because his son Smith agreed to move in and help manage the estate, Van Buren gave him license to make alterations in order to accommodate his growing family. Smith sought out Richard Upjohn, whom Van Buren referred to as the “great architectural oracle.” The new plan called for kitchen ranges, running water, a furnace, and many additional rooms. But is was the decorative features – a four-story brick tower, a central gable, attic dormers, and “as beautiful a Porch as you ever laid your eyes upon” – that transported Lindenwald from the 18th to the mid-19th century, an era when fashionable builders modeled their works after the grand villas of northern Italy. Finally, Lindenwald was painted yellow. The indulgent father explained that “the idea of seeing in life, the changes which my heir would be sure to make after I am gone, amuses me.”

The next decade few alterations to Lindenwald. Van Buren lived happily at his country seat until his death in 1862. Afterward, the house changed hands many times. Over the next century or so it served as a private residence, a tea house, a nursing home, and an antiques shop. The property became part of the National Park Service in the 1970s. Restored to the era of Van Buren’s occupancy, the mansion and grounds recall the time when this gentleman farmer “drank the pure pleasure of a rural life” at his Lindenwald.

Not until his defeat for the presidency in 1848 did Van Buren give up public life. President Van Buren retired to the Lindenwald estate. The 1850 census listed his occupation as “farmer”. Once settled at Lindenwald, he resisted all attempts to lure him back into politics.

Established by Congress on October 6, 1974, to commemorate the life and work of the eighth U.S. President, the Martin Van Buren National Historic Site preserves 22 acres of land from Van Buren’s original holdings, as well as the mansion that was built in the 1790s and renovated in the mid 19th century. Named for the linden.

Gravesite, Kinderhook Cemetery, Kinderhook, New York
When Martin Van Buren lost his 1840 bid for reelection, he did not consider his political career over. In fact, when the 1844 election came around many people considered him the Democratic favorite. But his opposition to Texas statehood weakened his support, both from his party and from Andrew Jackson. Old Hickory, now in retirement at his home, the Hermitage in Tennessee, still firmly held the Democratic reins. Jackson withdrew his support for Van Buren and turned to James Polk, who favored statehood for Texas. When Polk won the White House, he offered Van Buren an ambassadorship, but Van Buren refused it.

Four years later, the question of new states and slavery had grown even greater. Van Buren headed a splinter group of dissatisfied Democrats called the Free-Soil Party, which opposed allowing slavery in the new Western territories. Van Buren unsuccessfully ran as their candidate for president in 1848. In the early 1850s he wrote his highly regarded memoirs, as well as a milestone study of the organization of American political parties. After some years in Europe, he returned to his childhood home in Kinderhook, where he remained politically active, endorsing candidates and writing about slavery-related issues. He would live to see slavery’s terrible end, dying in 1862, the second year of the Civil War, at age seventy-nine.

Martin Van Buren died on July 24, 1862, at age 79 of his “old enemy,” bronchial asthma. He is buried in Kinderhook Reformed Cemetery along with his wife Hannah, his parents, and his son Martin Jr. The cemetery dates from 1817 and is located on Albany Avenue. Each December 5, the day Van Buren was born, a ceremony is held here in his honor.