Martin Van Buren was born in the village of Kinderhook, New York, on December 5, 1782. His father Abraham Van Buren was a farmer, the owner of six slaves, and a tavern-keeper in Kinderhook. Abraham Van Buren supported the American Revolution and later the Jeffersonian Republicans. Martin Van Buren's mother was Maria Van Alen Van Buren.
Van Buren was the first president born a citizen of the United States, as all previous presidents were born before the American Revolution. Van Buren grew up in a Dutch-speaking community. His native language was Dutch, and he was the only President who spoke English as a second language.
Martin Van Buren received a basic education at a poorly lit schoolhouse in his native village and later studied Latin briefly at the Kinderhook Academy and at Washington Seminary in Claverack. He excelled in composition and speaking. His formal education ended before he reached 14, when he began studying Law at the office of Francis Sylvester, a prominent Federalist attorney in Kinderhook. After six years under Sylvester, he spent a final year of apprenticeship in the New York City office of William P. Van Ness, a political lieutenant of Aaron Burr. Van Buren was admitted to the bar in 1803.
Martin Van Buren married Hannah Hoes, his childhood sweetheart and first cousin once removed, on February 21, 1807, in Catskill, New York. Like Van Buren, she was raised in a Dutch home and never lost her distinct Dutch accent. The couple had five sons and one daughter. After 12 years of marriage, Hannah Van Buren contracted tuberculosis and died on February 5, 1819, at the age of 35. Martin Van Buren never remarried.
Van Buren had been active in politics from at least the age of 17 when he attended a party convention in Troy, New York where he worked to secure the Congressional nomination for John Van Ness. However, once established in his practice, he became wealthy enough to increase his focus on politics. He was an early supporter of Aaron Burr. He allied himself with the Clintonian faction of the Democratic-Republican Party, and was surrogate of Columbia County, New York from 1808 until 1813, when he was removed.
Van Buren joined the opposition party in 1813, and was a member of the New York State Senate from 1812 to 1820, and New York Attorney General from 1815 to 1819. He was a presidential elector in 1820, voting for James Monroe and Daniel D. Tompkins.
Martin van Buren was the leading figure in the Albany Regency, a group of politicians who for more than a generation dominated much of the politics of New York and powerfully influenced the politics of the nation. He played a major role in the development of the "spoils system", a recognized procedure in national, state and local affairs. He was the prime architect of the first nationwide political party: the Jacksonian Democrats. In Van Buren's own words, "Without strong national political organizations, there would be nothing to moderate the prejudices between free and slaveholding states.
By 1827 he had emerged as the principal northern leader for Andrew Jackson. President Jackson rewarded Van Buren by appointing him Secretary of State. As the Cabinet Members appointed at John C. Calhoun's recommendation began to demonstrate only secondary loyalty to Jackson, Van Buren emerged as the President's most trusted adviser. Jackson referred to him as, "a true man with no guile."
The rift in the Cabinet became serious because of Jackson's differences with Calhoun, a Presidential aspirant. Van Buren suggested a way out of an eventual impasse: he and Secretary of War Eaton resigned, so that Calhoun men would also resign. Jackson appointed a new Cabinet, and sought again to reward Van Buren by appointing him Minister to Great Britain. Vice President Calhoun, as President of the Senate, cast the deciding vote against the appointment--and made a martyr of Van Buren.
The "Little Magician" was elected Vice President on the Jacksonian ticket in 1832, and won the Presidency in 1836. Martin Van Buren announced his intention "to follow in the footsteps of his illustrious predecessor", and retained all but one of Jackson's cabinet. Van Buren had few economic tools to deal with the Panic of 1837. The Panic was followed by a five-year depression, with the failure of banks and then-record-high unemployment levels. It was one of the worst economic crises in the nation's history. As a result Van Buren became very unpopular. Van Buren advocated lower tariffs and free trade, and by doing so maintained support of the South for the Democratic Party. He succeeded in setting up a system of bonds for the national debt. His party was so split that his 1837 proposal for an "Independent Treasury" system did not pass until 1840. It gave the Treasury control of all federal funds and had a legal tender clause that required (by 1843) all payments to be made in specie, but it further inflamed public opinion on both sides. In a bold step, Van Buren reversed Andrew Jackson's policies and sought peace at home, as well as abroad. Instead of settling a financial dispute between American citizens and the Mexican government by force, Van Buren wanted to seek a diplomatic solution. In August 1837, Van Buren denied Texas' formal request to join the United States, again prioritizing sectional harmony over territorial expansion.