A Hudson Valley native of Dutch extraction, Van Buren worked his way up through New York state politics to win a seat in the U.S. Senate in 1821. Together with Andrew Jackson, Van Buren helped establish the Democratic Party and, thus, the so-called Second Party System. The 1832 election that brought Jackson to the White House, earned Van Buren the vice presidency and, at the end of Jackson’s term, he endorsed Van Buren as his successor. At the 1835 Democratic National Convention, he was unanimously nominated to be the party’s candidate. The Whig Party, formed in 1834 in opposition to Jackson and the Democratic Party, ran four candidates against him: William Henry Harrison, Daniel Webster, Hugh Lawson White, and Willie Pearson Magnum. Van Buren was victorious with 50 percent of the popular vote and received 170 of 294 electoral votes. Harrison came closest to defeating him with 36 percent of the popular vote and 73 electoral votes.
“Both states have done themselves infinite honor, and the results in each conclude as in so many of their sister states will, I trust, effectually relieve the character of the American people from the deep stain which was made upon it by the foolishness & frauds of last year.“
However, in 1840, Harrison again challenged Van Buren with different results. The latter’s popularity had been affected by the Panic of 1837 and the resulting depression, which lasted his entire presidency, and his subsequent changes to monetary policies were controversial. The Whigs dubbed him “Martin Van Ruin.” Nonetheless, he again received the unanimous nomination of his party. Harrison’s 1840 campaign presented him as a war hero, featuring the famous slogan “Tippecanoe and Tyler too,” which emphasized his successful role in Tecumseh’s War and leadership at the Battle of Tippecanoe. After a newspaper tried to paint Harrison as a rustic, content to sit in his log cabin with a barrel of cider, Harrison supporters used that comment as part of their campaign, distributing log cabin shaped bottles of whiskey instead of cider. This campaign gimmick was successful and, along with voter organization techniques learned from Van Buren, resulted in the highest turnout of new voters in history. Harrison won the electoral vote by a landslide, despite a slim margin in the popular vote. Incidentally, Harrison only served for 32 days, dying of pneumonia, which tradition states he contracted while delivering the longest inauguration speech in American history despite inclement weather. He was succeeded by John Tyler on April 4, 1841.
Martin van Buren photographed by Matthew Brady
After his defeat, Van Buren returned to Lindenwald, his estate in Kinderhook, New York and began to plan his comeback. “After losing the election of 1840, Van Buren still didn’t regard Lindenwald as a retirement home. The popular vote had been close. He still had thousands of zealous supporters. He was still the nominal leader of the Democratic Party and the likeliest choice of the party to run for president in 1844. And from Lindenwald he worked diligently to maintain control of the party. He dispatched hundreds of letters, nearly all dealing with party matters, most dealing with upcoming 1844 campaign,” (A Return to His Native Town: Martin Van Buren’s Life at Lindenwald, 1839-1862; Richards, et. al.).
His optimism increased after our letter’s recipient, Hastings, informed him about the state of Ohio politics in a letter of October 23, 1841 – presumably the letter to which he is replying. “The fall elections of 1841 gave the Democrats control of both branches of the [Ohio] State Legislature. The Whig Ohio State Journal attributed the results to ‘apathy and discontent.’ Senator Allen, a Democrat, declared that ‘the sober second thought’ of the people had asserted itself, and that the election was a vindication of the Van Buren administration and a tribute to the personal popularity of the ex-President among Ohio Democrats… Finally, a reaction had set in against the excessive emotionalism of 1840,” (“Party Politics in Ohio, 1840-1850,” Ohio History, Holt). In particular, “John Hastings, a Democratic leader, of Salem, saw in it not only a vindication of the Democratic position on the banks, but a tribute to Van Buren and Van Buren policies,” (ibid.). The “pipe-layers,” referred to in our letter, was an anti-Masonic party that achieved some success in the 1841 Ohio and Pennsylvania state elections.
Similar victories were seen in New York, leading Van Buren to declare, “Our success here is complete in all its parts.” Although only one of two vacancies in the state’s Senate was filled by Democrats, it was enough to give the Democrats a majority. Ten Democrats were also elected to the Assembly during the November 1-3, 1841 election while only three Whigs won seats. Additionally, New York’s Whig secretary of state resigned to become Tyler’s secretary of war, and was replaced with an unaffiliated candidate.
In 1844, Van Buren again sought the Democratic nomination but, unlike the past, he only controlled the support of a minority of delegates. His popularity had been affected, in part, by his opposition to Texas’ annexation into the Union. Once he saw that winning the nomination was hopeless, he put his support behind James K. Polk, who defeated the Whig candidate, Henry Clay.
Despite his assertion that the Whig’s “overthrow is at last for many years to come final,” a Whig, Zachary Taylor, won the presidency in 1849 and was succeeded, upon his death, by fellow Whig Millard Fillmore. The party was, however, dissolved shortly thereafter in 1860 after it became divided over the slavery question. Written eight months after he left the White House. Folded and in very good condition.