Martin Van Buren
(President from 1836-1840)
By Richard E. Noble
Martin Van Buren a savvy, experienced, wily professional politician is credited with being the power behind the throne or the brains behind "country bumpkin," Andrew Jackson. He was so well liked by Andrew Jackson that Jackson actually suggested retiring and thus leaving the presidency to Van Buren without need for an election.
This didn't come about. In 1836, campaigning on the democracy versus aristocracy platform that he had done so well with when managing Jackson's campaign, Van Buren defeated his opponent William Henry Harrison. No sooner did he become president and take his seat from behind the throne, than the throne collapsed. The bank panic of 1837 finally set in and a depression ensued. The problem with the banks and the paper money controversy that had plagued Jackson's second administration finally come to a head. Jackson was a hard money man and Van Buren a tight fisted conservative. Between Jackson's demands for gold and silver, and Van Buren hoarding of federal funds, money in circulation dried up and a depression ensued. Gold and silver are harder to come by than paper, demanding it automatically cuts the money in circulation and undermines the value and trust in paper. Couple this with the notion that it is not the government's place to spend tax money on anything other than internal an external security and you have a severe money shortage.
Jackson saw the evils of having independent bankers printing up their own money and felt that the only solution was to go back to gold and silver or hard currency. Having the money supply in the hands of independent businessmen put them in charge of the nations economic security and undermined the power of government. But was his solution really any better? Who did he think would be in control of the gold and silver supply? And how would more money be put into circulation when population increased, and businesses needed to expand? There is only so much gold and sliver in the world. What if nothing could advance until more was discovered or dug up?
Van Buren had another idea, and in 1840, at the end of his term he finally got his idea of an independent federal treasury established. Now an independent government agency would determine how much paper would be in circulation. The only trouble with this idea, as we know today, is trying to keep the independent treasury truly independent.
Van Buren had been widowed before he got to the White House but that little ball of fire Dolly Madison found a honey for Van Buren's oldest son and the White House had a new hostess and female presence in the person of the former Angelia Singleton.
Van Buren, known often as "Old Kinderhook", formed the habit of signing his official papers with the initials of this favored nickname. Thus we have today the legacy of that Old Kinderhook signature of approval - O.K.
Old Kinderhook was defeated in his next bid for power by his very own campaign strategy. His opponent William Henry Harrison and the new Whig party, painted Old Kinderhook as a fancy-smancy with elegant ways and effeminate European tastes. A good American who ate fried meat and gravy, hominy and hog jowl washed down with hard cider, could no longer get into the White House for fear that his boots might be muddy. My oh my!