GHENT—The Columbia County Library Association sponsored the webinar “Martin Van Buren and the Politics of Slavery” Monday, November 14. Zachary Anderson, a Georgia native and 3rd-year park guide at the Martin Van Buren National Historic Site in Kinderhook, led the Zoom presentation, which included timeline slides of Van Buren’s life.
Mr. Anderson identified slavery as “the leading social and political subject” of the 8th president’s lifetime (1782-1862). He said that visitors to the historic site think that Van Buren was an abolitionist due in part to his nomination for president by the Free Soil Party in 1848 and his endorsement by Frederick Douglass, the preeminent African American of that time. Mr. Anderson admitted to “bursting their bubble” when he described Van Buren to visitors as a “northern man with southern principles.”
Van Buren grew up in Kinderhook, which had the largest population of enslaved persons in Columbia County at 32%, and was second only to Brooklyn in numbers of enslaved persons in all of New York, according to the 1790 U.S. census.
Van Buren’s parents owned six slaves and a letter from Alonzo Hammond of Rensselaer County, dated December 1824, implies than Van Buren had enslaved a man, named Tom, who self-emancipated from Van Buren. In the letter Hammond tells Van Buren that Tom has been seen, 10 years after his self-emancipation, in Worcester, MA, and inquires if Van Buren would be willing to sell Tom to him. Van Buren agrees to sell Tom for $50 if he could be recaptured without violence.
According to Mr. Anderson, Van Buren was the first president to acknowledge slavery in his inaugural address, “recognizing it and promising to maintain it.” He added that for Van Buren the issue of slavery was a “battle between morality and legality.”
Mr. Anderson sited several examples of Van Buren’s opposing views of enslaved persons status in New York and the country. In 1819 Van Buren opined, “Slavery is a moral evil.” Yet in that same year regarding New York’s Constitution, Van Buren, who was then state attorney general, allowed that the word “citizen” was not intended to include African Americans.
At the 1821 state constitutional convention that extended the right to vote to all white men without property, Van Buren supported the caveat that free blacks must have $250 in property in order to vote.
While serving in the House of Representatives in 1836, Van Buren supported the Gag Rule, which forbade any debate of laws regarding slavery.
In 1839, as president, Van Buren supported the return to Cuba of 53 Africans, who had mutinied against their captors, were intercepted off Long Island and tried in New Haven in the Amistad case. Fearing trouble with Spain if the Africans should win their case, Van Buren ordered a ship to the port of New Haven to seize the men. However the Supreme Court, in a 7-1 decision ruled in favor of the Africans, five days after Van Buren’s term ended.
Although Van Buren opposed the western expansion of slavery, he aligned with Senator Henry Clay, who championed self-determination for territories seeking statehood. The Compromise of 1850 admitted California as a free state, granted self-determination to New Mexico and Utah, and allowed slave owners in Texas to retrieve escapees.
Van Buren, also, supported the Dred Scott decision of 1857, whereby the U.S. Supreme Court upheld slavery in the U.S. territories, denied the legality of black citizenship in America, and declared the Missouri Compromise to be unconstitutional.
Van Buren supported Stephen Douglas over Abraham Lincoln in the 1860 presidential election and favored a “peaceful” secession for South Carolina.
“What is morally right is not necessarily politically practical.” Mr. Anderson attributed the quote to Van Buren as a fitting summary of the 8th president who was also known as a consummate politician.
A recording of the presentation is available at:
https://columbiacountylibraries.org/programs/past-programs/. Also, “Martin Van Buren and the Politics of Slavery,” can be found at nps.gov.