Some American presidents have their faces on currency; some get memorialized in films and sketches. Then there are the others, whose all-but-forgotten names are unceremoniously attached to middle schools and parks across the country—or forever linked to Seinfeld episodes. Here’s a look at some facts about the eighth U.S. president, Martin Van Buren.
1. HE RESIGNED AS SECRETARY OF STATE TO QUELL A MINOR SEX SCANDAL.
Tohma, Wikimedia Commons
Van Buren, who served as a state senator in New York for seven years, ran for Governor of New York in 1829 and helped build support in the state for Andrew Jackson’s run for the presidency. Van Buren’s term as governor lasted less than two months before Jackson appointed him Secretary of State.
Tensions within Jackson’s cabinet broke out, however, when his Secretary of War, John Eaton, married a woman of low social status who might have begun her relationship with Eaton while she was still married to her first husband. Vice President John Calhoun and his wife snubbed the Eatons socially, and Van Buren said the scandal left the government and Jackson’s cabinet in the “defiling clutches of the gossips.”
Van Buren, a widower, faced no reprisals for his kindness toward Mrs. Eaton. Still, he devised a plan to bring peace to the administration: he would resign, allowing Jackson to then dismiss the remainder of the cabinet and appoint new senior administration officials. President Jackson then guaranteed Van Buren a nomination for vice president in the following election.
2. HE WAS THE FIRST AMERICAN-BORN PRESIDENT.
Van Buren, baptized as Maarten van Buren in Kinderhook, N.Y. in 1782, became the first President who was born after the American Revolution. The first van Buren emigrated from Holland in 1633, and Martin spoke English as a second language, as his entire family and community spoke Dutch.
3. WILLIAM HENRY HARRISON TROUNCED HIM IN THE 1840 ELECTION.
Scewing, Wikimedia Commons
In his reelection bid, Van Buren garnered only 60 electoral votes to military hero Harrison’s 234 and failed to carry his home state of New York. After the panic of 1837, caused mainly by his predecessor’s disastrous economic policies, the U.S. was hit by a five-year depression and Van Buren won only seven states in the next election.
4. HE OPPOSED THE ANNEXATION OF TEXAS.
Although Jackson favored bringing Texas into the American fold as he finished his term, many northerners were leery of a “slave-owner conspiracy” in adding Texas, which would have been a slave state. Van Buren blocked the annexation in 1837, in part because of the slavery issue but also to avoid further tensions with Mexico, which controlled the territory until 1836. After his 1840 defeat Van Buren attempted to secure the Democratic nomination in 1844, but the party switched stances and favored annexation, while he said only that he supported the move at some future date. Van Buren did not make it onto the 1844 ballot, and Texas became the 28th state in 1845.
5. HIS NICKNAME "OLD KINDERHOOK" HELPED POPULARIZE THE EXPRESSION "OK."
A slight 5’6” tall, Van Buren garnered the nicknames “Little Magician,” “Sly Fox,” and “Red Fox of Kinderhook” for his skills as a politician, less-than-intimidating stature, and reddish-blond hair. Not all of his monikers were so kind—Whig representative Charles Ogle landed a vicious insult by tossing the nickname “Martin Van Ruin” at him on the floor of the House of Representatives in 1840.
In terms of lasting impact, it’s hard to top “Old Kinderhook,” a reference to the village of Van Buren’s birth in upstate New York. The term of endearment was utilized during the 1840 election by his supporters as they formed the OK Club and marched with placards marked OK. The Oxford English Dictionary notes that the abbreviation came into great usage at the time and its popularity can be attributed to Van Buren and his supporters.
6. HIS MASSIVE AUTOBIOGRAPHY FAILED TO MENTION HIS LATE WIFE OR HIS PRESIDENCY.
The first published edition of Van Buren’s autobiography came in at 776 pages and covered his life through 1834, three years before he was elected president. Though his wife, Hanna Hoes Van Buren, a first cousin once removed, died of tuberculosis in 1819, she was not included in the book. Van Buren also neglected to mention her in any speeches, an omission the White House’s website explains away as, “A gentleman of that day would not shame a lady by public references.” Van Buren, who died in 1862 at the age of 79, never remarried.
7. HE INSPIRED A FAKE GANG ON SEINFELD.
The Feb. 6, 1997 episode "The Van Buren Boys" was the handiwork of writer Darin Henry, who began his career as a writer’s assistant on the show. The eighth season episode features a story line where Kramer is confronted by a gang but accidentally flashes their secret sign and avoids a confrontation. The sign, eight fingers held aloft, referred to Van Buren being the eighth U.S. President, which saved Kramer from trouble.
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