Michael posted a piece on “Which US Presidnets Owned Slaves?”. I don’t know about you, but as I looked over the list one named jumped out at me as being unexpected (except Grant, who we’ve already discussed, so that wasn’t a new surprise) – Martin Van Buren. I know Van Buren as an abolitionist who ran for under the Free-Soil Party. I had never associated Van Buren with slavery even though I knew he played the political game on the subject as President. Yet it turns out that this is not the entire story [this is the specific PDF on Van Buren, but this is from the New York State Council for Social Studies and they have entire section on New York and slavery that is very interesting], as Van Buren and his family personally owned slaves.
Van Buren’s father owned six slaves in Kinderhook, New York. Van Buren himself owned a slave named “Tom.” Tom escaped and was caught ten years later. When he was caught, Van Buren simply sold him to the captor for $50.
Later Van Buren would call slavery “an evil of the first magnitude,” but while running for President, he said he wouldn’t interfere with local politics – meaning slavery – and would protect slave-owners’ property rights.
It was after his defeat in 1840 that Van Buren became a “Free Soiler” and this was because he believed that white labor couldn’t compete with enslaved black labor, which I found very interesting as it paints a much different picture than simply being slavery was wrong because you shouldn't own other human beings.
This piece certainly paints an interesting picture of Van Buren as someone who obviously played many sides of this controversial field during his life.