Martin Van Buren owned Slaves? #208

The Eighth President of the United States of America

Series on Presidential Slavery

Many tend to think that slavery was strictly a “southern” issue, this system of racial internment and abuse existed across the British colonies in a variety of forms during the eighteenth century. It thrived across North America, survived the American Revolution, and persisted through the creation of the Constitution.

Martin Van Buren was born in Kinderhook, New York; he witnessed and experienced slavery at an early age in his own house and community. His father, Abraham, owned a successful inn and small farm, along with six enslaved individuals.  According to the 1790 census, there were 638 enslaved people living in the town of Kinderhook, New York and only a handful of citizens.

When Van Buren begin to study law and explore a career in politics, the state of New York passed a gradual emancipation law in 1799 stipulating that any children born to enslaved mothers after July 4 of that year would be freed no later than July 4, 1827. Boys born after that 1799 date were enslaved until the age of 28, while girls remained in bondage until the age of 25.  I have a hard time wrapping my brain around this, if children were born free, why was their mother, father, siblings still slaves.  Because they needed the slaves to work the land, service to the house and take care of their children.  It’s simple, southerners did not invent slavery, and it was already in practice when the plantations came to be. 

Decatur House

Van Buren was rather quiet in regards to his views on slavery in his life. According to the 1830 census, there was one white woman, four enslaved women, and two free African-American women living in the Van Buren house.  It was speculated that his wife brought them with her from South Carolina.

Decatur House

 There are no documented evidence that Van Buren owned these four enslaved women, so it seems more likely that he hired free and enslaved workers at Decatur House. The lone white woman was likely his housekeeper, tasked with managing the domestic staff and running the household.  He may not have owned these people, however, he knew they were slaves and he hired them from a slave owner. 

He condoned slavery by hiring slaves from other slave owners; he appears a hypocrite in more than one way.  At one time he argued that “Congress has no right to interfere in any manner, or to any extent, with the subject of slavery in the States.”  

President Van Buren was unequivocal that any legislation attempting to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia or undermine the institution itself would receive neither his blessing nor his signature.

 While he was the first president to use the term “slavery” in an inaugural address, he did so to affirm his position on the issue and vowed to use presidential veto power if necessary to protect it.  This president was willing to protect slavery.

It was Van Buren who directed General Winfield Scott to forcibly move all Indians who had not complied with the Indian Removal Act.  He was also an individual that took freedom and land from the Native Americans.  My great-great-grandparents were on the Trail of Tears.  Van Buren a Northern resident believed in slavery and the removal and mistreatment of Native Americans.

Van Buren’s health began to fail in 1861, and he was bedridden with pneumonia during the fall and winter of 1861–1862.  He died of bronchial asthma and heart failure at his Lindenwold estate July 24, 1862, at the age of 79.   He is buried in the Kinderhook Reformed Dutch Church Cemetery, as are his wife Hannah, his parents, and his son Martin Van Buren Jr.

His actions making him nearly disappear completely from the history books was probably not the trick the “Little Magician” Martin Van Buren had in mind, but he was the first truly forgettable American president.


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5 thoughts on “Martin Van Buren owned Slaves? #208

  1. I have read that Martin Van Buren’s massive autobiography failed to mention his late wife or his Presidency. Which seems unusual. He was actually the first president to be born a citizen of the U.S. and not a British subject.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hannah Van Buren was the wife of Martin Van Buren she died before he became president. He never remarried and was one of the few presidents to be unmarried while in office. During his term, his daughter-in-law, Angelica, performed the role of hostess of the White House and First Lady of the United States. Yes, both were born in Kinderhook, NY.

      Liked by 1 person

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