Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Martin Van Buren and Slavery

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.


Scott said...

Why should it surprise you that a career politician acts like a politician?

While many of your posts are good, there is a superficial nature to them. Most posts discuss the presidents and their spouses in the context of their presidency. However, most of these old men had a significant political career before becoming president. As someone who grew up in public school on Long Island, I learned about how Martin Van Buren, a former governor, would change his opinions based on the crowd he was standing in front of.

When MVB ran for governor and, subsequently, senator, he was well known for giving one speech upstate and another downstate and sometimes a third in Tamany Hall.

But MVB was typical for his day. Since communications was very slow, people would not learn the differences until much later. It wouldn't be until "national" publications like Harpers or Saturday Evening Post picked up the stories and published some very cunning cartoons about the pols.

Nineteenth century politics can be seen as a rogues gallery of politicians. It's amazing how this country survived that century!

Anonymous said...

Wow, what an interesting post. I've always had a soft spot in my heart for Martin Van Buren since I had to do a report about him in the 5th grade. "The Little Magician" certainly did know how to play all sides against the middle.

So often history turns out to be more complex than we learn back in our school days. Your post reminded me of my surprise when I learned that Margaret Sanger and much of the birth control movement were motivated not by women's health but by anti-immigrant sentiment. Less inspirational but more interesting.