EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the eighth in a series of articles by historian Bruce Gourley on the religious faith of U.S. presidents. Gourley is online editor and contributing writer for Baptists Today and executive director of the Baptist History & Heritage Society. His latest book, Baptists and the American Civil War: Crucible of Faith and Freedom, a compilation of articles from the recent series on Baptists and the American Civil War, is now available from Nurturing Faith.
Born in 1782 in Kinderhook, N.Y., Martin Van Buren entered a sheltered world in a Dutch household in a small Dutch village. Learning English as a second language, the young boy attended the village schoolhouse and sometimes worshiped with his family in the community congregation, the Dutch Reformed Church.
His father, a farmer, inn owner and slave owner, fought in the American Revolution and afterward served in local politics and government, his sentiments those of a Jeffersonian Republican.
Young Martin, evidencing little if any interest in religion or farming, turned toward law, beginning his studies at the age of 14 under a local attorney. Upon the advice of his tutor he cultivated fine taste in clothing, a helpful trait in business and politics.
His political leanings gravitated toward Democratic-Republicans, and at the age of 20 he moved to New York City to finish his law internship. Admitted to the bar in 1803, four years later he married Hannah Hoes, his childhood sweetheart and first cousin once-removed. The couple raised five children.
A lucrative law practice and good connections led to state politics and service in the state Senate from 1812 to 1820. During this time the 5’ 6” Van Buren engaged with “machine politics” and became known as the “Little Magician” for exploiting the “spoils system.” Slavery emerged as a nationally divisive issue during this time, and Van Buren opposed the admission of Missouri into the Union as a slave state.
National politics came next with his election to the U.S. Senate in 1821, and re-election in 1827. Allying with Andrew Jackson, Van Buren worked to garner support for the Tennessean in the North. Immensely popular in his home state of New York, the senator in 1828 ran for governor in an effort to help Jackson win the state.
Van Buren won the governorship, Jackson the presidency, the latter the first Democrat to hold office. Following three months in the governor’s mansion, Van Buren resigned to accept the position of secretary of state in the first Jackson administration, thereafter serving as vice president during Jackson’s second term.
Positioned as Jackson’s successor in the 1836 presidential election, Van Buren, long ambivalent regarding slavery yet ever politically adept, courted Southern votes by voicing opposition to abolition. With Southern support he easily defeated four Whig Party candidates, becoming the first president with no personal memory of the American Revolution.
Recognizing the milestone he represented, the new president in his inaugural address declared: “Unlike all who have preceded me, the Revolution that gave us existence as one people was achieved at the period of my birth; and whilst I contemplate with grateful reverence that memorable event, I feel that I belong to a later age and that I may not expect my countrymen to weigh my actions with the same kind and partial hand.”
In the same address Van Buren touched on religion, a subject largely foreign to him. Recognizing that many citizens expected a reference to religion, he obliged, albeit ever so lightly in his closing comment:
Beyond that [the justice and kindness of country] I only look to the gracious protection of the Divine Being whose strengthening support I humbly solicit, and whom I fervently pray to look down upon us all. May it be among the dispensations of His providence to bless our beloved country with honors and with length of days. May her ways be ways of pleasantness and all her paths be peace.
Retaining all but one of Jackson’s cabinet members, the new president’s prospects looked bright. Within weeks, however, an unexpected financial panic swept across the nation. Banks collapsed, businesses failed, and unemployment soared as high as 25 percent in some locales. A divided Congress and inadequate financial safeguards protracted a deep depression, but the public blamed the president.
Apart from economic travails, Van Buren gamely continued Jackson’s policies. Perhaps most notably, he executed his predecessor’s plans for removing southeastern Indian tribes to Oklahoma territory, and continued the Second Seminole War in Florida.
Personally opposed to slavery, he nonetheless deemed it constitutionally fixed and politically toxic, and thus resisted mounting abolitionist calls to interfere with the practice in the Southern states and abolish the D.C. slave trade.
Although fervent Christian convictions growing out of the Second Great Awakening fueled the abolitionist movement, Van Buren’s back-and-forth regarding slavery remained a matter of politics rather than faith or morals.
Rarely turning to religious language or imagery, in his annual address to Congress in 1838 he nodded to religious freedom, noting that in America “All forms of religion have united for the first time to diffuse charity and piety, because for the first time in the history of nations all have been totally untrammeled and absolutely free.”
Van Buren’s vice-president, Kentuckian and Baptist layman Richard M. Johnson, embodied religious liberty. Earlier in the decade as a congressman and U. S. Postmaster General, Johnson, allied with the nation’s Baptist leaders, successfully rebuffed a campaign by conservative Christians to transform, in their minds, the secular government into a Christian nation by forcing Congress to declare the Christian Sabbath a holy day.
Otherwise, religion rarely emerged during Van Buren’s presidency. Instead, the floundering economy consumed the president, mocked by his critics as “Martin Van Ruin.” Defeated in his attempt to win a second presidential term, Van Buren afterward declared “As to the presidency, the two happiest days of my life were those of my entrance upon the office and my surrender of it.”
Returning to his hometown of Kinderhook, the former president remained a part of the nation’s political scene. A campaign for the presidency in 1844 ended in failure as Van Buren, increasingly more vocal in his anti-slavery views, mustered no support from the Southern states.
An 1848 nomination for the presidency by the abolitionist Free Soil Party garnered no electoral votes. While many abolitionist Democrats defected to the upstart Republican Party in the 1850s, Van Buren held to his views but remained Democratic. Opposed to Southern secession in 1860, when the Civil War began he publicly threw his support to the Union and, finally, to Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party.
Throughout his life in public and private, including in his autobiography, Martin Van Buren rarely referred to God, and never in a personal manner. At his estate in Kinderhook, Van Buren died of bronchial complications on July 24, 1862, six months prior to the Emancipation Proclamation.
His burial in the cemetery of the Dutch Reformed Church of his childhood brought to a close the life of a man and a politician largely void of religious influence. BT
By Bruce Gourley