Van Buren's Administration, 1837-1841
Martin Van Buren, eighth President of the United States, was born at Kinderhook, New York, on the 5th of December, 1782. After receiving a limited education he became a student of law. In his thirtieth year he was elected to the Senate of his native State; and in 1821 was chosen United States Senator. Seven years afterward he was elected governor of New York, but soon resigned to become Jackson's secretary of state. In 1831 he was sent as minister to England. The following year he returned and was elected Vice-President of the United States. Now he was called to the highest office in the gift of the people.
One of the first duties of the new administration was to finish the Seminole War. In the beginning of 1837 the command of the army in Florida was transferred from General Scott to General Jessup. In the following fall Osceola came to the American camp with a flag of truce; but he was suspected of treachery, seized, and sent a prisoner to Fort Moultrie, where he died in 1838. The Seminoles, though disheartened by the loss of their chief, continued the war. In December Colonel Zachary Taylor, with a force of over a thousand men, marched into the Everglades of Florida, determined to fight the savages in their lairs. After unparalleled sufferings he overtook them on Christmas day, near Lake Okeechobee. A hard battle was fought, and the Indians were defeated, but not until a hundred and thirty-nine of the whites had fallen. For more than a year Taylor continued to hunt the Red men through the swamps. In 1839 the chiefs sent in their submission and signed a treaty; but their removal to the West was made with much reluctance and delay.
In the first year of Van Buren's administration the country was afflicted with a monetary panic of the most serious character. The preceding years had been a time of great prosperity. The national debt was entirely liquidated and a surplus of nearly forty million dollars had accumulated in the treasury of the United States. By act of Congress this vast sum had been distributed among the several States. Owing to the abundance of money, speculations of all sorts grew rife. The credit system pervaded every department of business. The banks of the country were suddenly multiplied to nearly seven hundred. Vast issues of irredeemable paper money stimulated the speculative spirit and increased the opportunities for fraud.
The bills of these unsound banks were receivable at the land offices; and settlers and speculators made a rush to secure the public lands while money was plentiful. Seeing that in receiving such an unsound currency in exchange for the national domain the government was likely to be defrauded out of millions, President Jackson had issued an order called the Specie Circular, by which the land agents were directed henceforth to receive nothing but coin in payment for the lands. The effects of this circular came upon the nation in the first year of Van Buren's administration. The interests of the government had been secured by Jackson's vigilance; but the business of the country was prostrated by the shock. The banks suspended specie payment. Mercantile houses failed; and disaster swept through every avenue of trade. During the months of March and April, 1837, the failures in New York and New Orleans amounted to about a hundred and fifty million dollars. A committee of business men from the former city besought the President to rescind the specie circular and to call a special session of Congress. The former request was refused and the latter complied with; but not until the executive was driven by the distresses of the country.
When Congress convened in the following September, several measures of relief were brought forward. A bill authorizing the issue of treasury notes, not to exceed ten millions of dollars, was passed as a temporary expedient. More important by far was the measure proposed by the President and brought before Congress under the name of the Independent Treasury Bill. by theprovisions of this remarkable project the public funds of the nation were to be kept on deposit in a treasury to be estblished for that special purpose. It was argued by Mr. Van Buren and his firends that the surplus money of the country would drift into the independent treasury and lodge there; and that by this means the speculative mania would be effectually checked; for extensive speculations could not be carried on without an abundant currency. It was in the nature of the President's plan to separate the business of the United States from the general business of the country.
The independent treasury bill was passed by the Senate, but defeated in the House of Representatives. But in the following regular session of Congress the bill was again brought forward and adopted. In the mean time, the business of the country had in a measure revived. During the year 1838 most of the banks resumed specie payments. Commercial affairs assumed their wonted aspect; but trade was less vigorous than before. Enterprises of all kins languished, and the people were greatly disheartened. Discontent prevailed; and the administration was blamed with everything.
In the latter part of 1837 there was an insurrection in Canada. A portion of the people, dissatisfied with the British government, broke out in revolt and attempted to establish their independence. The insurgents found much sympathy and encouragement in the United States, especially in New York. The insurgents took refuge on Navy Island, in the Niagara River, above the great falls, and were supplied with food and arms by the Caroline, an American vessel. The loyalists of Canada one night approached the island with the intention of destroying the Caroline. But at that moment the boat was on the American side of the river. Determined not to be thwarted in their purpose, the Canadians crossed over, boarded the vessel, set her on fire, and sent her burning over the falls. These events created considerable excitement, and the peaceful relations of the United States and Great Britain were endangered. But the President issued a proclamation of neutrality, forbidding interference with the affairs of Canada; and General Wool was sent to the Niagara frontier with a sufficient force to quell the disturbance and punish the disturbers. The New York insurgents on Navy Island were obliged to surrender, and order was soon restored.
Otherwise, the administration of Van Buren was uneventful. He became a candidate for re-election, and received the support of the Democratic party. The Whigs again put forward General Harrison. The canvass was one of the most exciting in the history of the country. The leaders of the opposition poured out all their wrath upon the luckless and unprosperous administration of Van Buren; and Harrison was triumphantly elected. After controlling the government for forty years, the Democratic party was temporarily routed. For Vice-President, John Tyler of Virginia was chosen.
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