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While many tend to think that slavery was strictly a “southern” issue, this system of racial captivity and exploitation 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. That said, individual states began adopting policies of gradual emancipation as early as 1780. Two years later, Martin Van Buren was born in the rural town of Kinderhook, New York. Van Buren himself 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.1 According to the 1790 census, there were 638 slaves living in the town of Kinderhook, and only a handful of residents owned six or more—making Abraham one of the town’s largest slave owners. The Van Buren household consisted of fourteen people, which likely meant that Martin’s family and the enslaved lived and worked in close quarters with one another. The Van Buren tavern served as a hub of social activity for the town, and the constant coming and goings of travelers between New York City and the state capital of Albany brought all sorts of people—free and enslaved—into contact with young Martin.2

As Van Buren studied law and began exploring 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 25.3 A second emancipation act in 1817 made freedom possible for those born prior to 1799, putting slavery in New York on the road to extinction. By then, Van Buren had risen quickly through the ranks of New York’s Democratic-Republican Party, and he was serving as the state’s attorney general. Four years later, he and the Bucktail faction of the party challenged Governor DeWitt Clinton and his allies by calling for a new constitutional convention.4 A political struggle ensued, and ultimately major democratic changes were ratified the following year: the alteration of the election cycle; more offices were now elective than by appointment; a restructuring of veto power and the legislature’s ability to override the veto; and the expansion of white male suffrage by eliminating property requirements. African-American men were also granted suffrage but the law specifically imposed a $250 property requirement, preventing most from exercising their right to vote. Van Buren’s opponents and supporters would later dissect his opinions and votes on these measures as he set his sights on the highest office in the land. While he was representing New York in the United States Senate, Van Buren received this letter from a man named Alonzo G. Hammond in late December 1824.5

Dear Sir

I have assertained that “Tom” a black man who you purchaised of & who quit you some 10 years since is now in the neighbourhood of Worcester Ms. There is yet some time before he is free as he is of that class which will be free July 4th 1827. He was when young a slave of my father and I think I can induce him to be of some service to me if own him. I therefore take the liberty to inquire whether you will sell him for a smal compensation. I cant think of giving much as there is some considerable risque in geting him at all & if I should get him it is doubtfull whether his services wold be worth much, however if you will take the trouble to write me with terms I will then tell you whether I will purchaise him or not & make the necessary arrangements to complete it. Please direct to Berlin Rensselaer County N.Y.6

This letter, dated December 23, 1824, suggests that Martin Van Buren owned an enslaved man named Tom at some point during the 1810s. Alonzo Hammond offers to recapture Tom for Van Buren. Van Buren's shorthand reply is on the next page: “Wrote that if he could get him without violence I would take $50.”

The Martin Van Buren Papers, Library of Congress

While the senator’s reply is not in his papers, he did jot down a short note on the other side of the letter: “Wrote that if he could get him without violence I would take $50.”7 While it does not appear that Hammond ever made good on this offer, this letter suggests that Martin Van Buren purchased Tom rather than inherited him from his father or another Van Buren relative.8 Aside from this letter, Van Buren was rather quiet in regards to his views on slavery at this point in his life. In late 1828, he resigned from the U.S. Senate to briefly serve as governor of New York before accepting President Andrew Jackson’s offer to serve as secretary of state, which was at that time the springboard to the presidency.9

These pages from the 1830 census show that two free and four enslaved African-American women were at Decatur House, Secretary of State Martin Van Buren's residence. He was renting the Lafayette Square home from Susan Decatur. Charlotte Dupuy was one of the enslaved women listed.

National Archives, Records of the Bureau of the Census, Record Group 29

In 1829, Van Buren arrived in Washington, D.C. and established residency at the Decatur House on Lafayette Square that fall.10 Only a block from the North Entrance of the White House, the secretary of state was well positioned to influence the president and the Washington social scene.11 He brought three of his four sons with him—John, Martin, and Smith—while his eldest son, Abraham, was away serving in the United States Army. However, in order for Secretary of State Van Buren to host and entertain as a cabinet member was expected, he needed help to run the household.

The White House Historical Association

According to the 1830 census, there was one white woman, four enslaved women, and two free African-American women living in the house.12 There is no documented evidence that Van Buren owned these four slaves, so it seems more likely that he hired out 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.13 The enslaved women would have been hired out by their owners; and the two free African-American women would have been paid wages. One of the enslaved women was Charlotte Dupuy, who was allowed to stay in Washington while her court case against her owner, Henry Clay, was resolved by the U.S. Circuit Court of the District of Columbia.14 Regardless of whether or not Van Buren owned these slaves, he and many other politicians used enslaved labor to maintain their residences, feed their families, and entertain guests. You can read more about slavery at Decatur House here.

Van Buren continued his political ascent by siding with President Jackson, Secretary of War John Eaton, and Eaton’s wife Margaret during the scandalous Petticoat affair.15 As the president’s relationship with Vice President John C. Calhoun deteriorated, Van Buren was asked to serve as the U.S. Minister to the United Kingdom. During Van Buren’s confirmation hearing in the Senate, Vice President Calhoun delivered the decisive vote against the appointment, confident that it would destroy Van Buren’s career and sabotage his political ambitions. Instead, the vice president’s pettiness brought Van Buren closer to Jackson and elevated his reputation among Democrats. President Jackson asked Van Buren to join the 1832 ticket as his vice president, and after Jackson’s re-election became one of the president’s closest advisors and confidantes. When Jackson decided not to run for a third term, Vice President Van Buren was the natural choice to succeed him. At the same time, many southern Democrats feared the idea of someone from New York—which by this time had over 200 abolitionist societies and organizations—leading their party.16 Columnists and correspondents began publishing opinion pieces and letters from readers that questioned Van Buren’s commitment to Jacksonian principles, the Constitution, and his views on slavery. Vice President Van Buren tried to respond directly to these inquiries, but eventually there were too many to answer. Instead, his supporters disseminated a pamphlet to assuage the concerns of voters.17

In his Opinions of Martin Van Buren, Vice President of the United States, the vice president detailed his thoughts on the powers and duties delegated to Congress, internal improvements, the Bank of the United States, and the abolition of slavery. One reprinted letter from a North Carolina gentleman asked whether or not Congress had the authority to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia. Van Buren responded: “the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia, against the wishes of the slave-holding States (assuming Congress has the power to effect it) would violate the spirit of that compromise of interests which lies at the basis of our social compact; and I am thoroughly convinced, that it could not be so done, without imminent peril, if not certain destruction, to the Union of the States.”18 He argued that “Congress has no right to interfere in any manner, or to any extent, with the subject of slavery in the States.”19 Presidential candidate Martin Van Buren then made this promise:

I prefer that not only you, but all the people of the United States shall now understand, that if the desire of that portion of them which is favorable to my elevation to the Chief Magistracy, should be gratified, I must go into the Presidential chair, the inflexible and uncompromising opponent of any attempt on the part of Congress to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia, against the wishes of the slave-holding States; and also with the determination equally decided, to resist the slightest interference with the subject in the States where it exists.20

Van Buren’s written performance delivered electoral results, and true to his word, he repeated this pledge verbatim in his inaugural address. He also added the following: “It now only remains to add that no bill conflicting with these views can ever receive my constitutional sanction.”21 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.22 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.

These pages from the 1840 census show that five free and four enslaved African Americans were at the White House toward the end of Martin Van Buren's presidency. There is no documentary evidence that the president owned these four enslaved people, leaving two possible explanations. These four individuals were either hired out or they were brought to the White House by Angelica Van Buren, the president's daughter-in-law.

National Archives, Records of the Bureau of the Census, Record Group 29

During Van Buren’s time in the White House, the United States experienced one of the worst economic depressions in the young country’s history. As a result, critics accused the president of living lavishly while ordinary Americans struggled to make ends meet. Nonetheless, the social activities, formal dinners, and needs of the first family required a considerable household staff. According to the 1840 census, there were five free and four enslaved African Americans working at the White House. By comparing the 1830 census records, there is little evidence to suggest that these were the same individuals who worked at Decatur House.23 Three of the enslaved were between the ages of 10 and 24, and the fourth was a woman between 36 and 55. It is plausible that Joseph Boulanger, the steward of the White House, hired out these slaves from their owners in Washington. Another possible explanation is that these four individuals were a family, brought to the White House by its new hostess Angelica Singleton Van Buren.

On November 27, 1838, Abraham Van Buren married Sarah Angelica Singleton of South Carolina. Her father, Richard Singleton, owned land throughout the Sumter, Richland, and Orangeburgh Districts. Within the Richland District alone, there were three separate Singleton entries listed in the 1840 census—along with 209, 201, and 109 enslaved individuals.24 Abraham and Angelica tied the knot at the Singleton family plantation in Sumter County, where another fifty-seven enslaved people lived and worked—bringing the total to 576 slaves.25 It is quite possible that the enslaved woman and her children were gifted or loaned to the newlyweds by Richard Singleton, as was the custom at the time for affluent members of the slave owning gentry. Some political observers interpreted the marriage between the daughter of one of South Carolina’s wealthiest slave owners and the president’s son as further proof that President Van Buren and his family were indeed strong supporters of slavery; though many still doubted the president’s sincerity.26

The White House Historical Association

The Amistad case sheds greater light on President Van Buren’s political balancing act. Illegally seized by Portuguese slave hunters in Sierra Leone, a group of Africans were forcibly brought to Havana, Cuba. Pedro Montes and Jose Ruiz, two Spanish plantation owners, purchased fifty-three individuals and set off for home. The enslaved rose up in rebellion, killed the captain, and took control of the ship. They demanded that Montes and Ruiz return them to Africa but the two men steered northward. Eventually the Washington, an American brig, seized the schooner and escorted it to New London, Connecticut.27 President Van Buren believed that the Africans should be extradited to Cuba and hoped to do so quietly through the naval courts at the request of the Spanish government, but Northern abolitionists caught wind of the incident and began raising funds to defend the enslaved.

The key issue in the case was the status of the Africans on board—were they free or were they property? Montes and Ruiz argued that they were the rightful owners; Lieutenant Thomas R. Gedney, commander of the vessel that captured the Amistad, requested salvage rights as compensation; and legal counsel for the Africans maintained that these individuals were born free and illegally kidnapped. The District Court ruled that the Africans could not be considered property because their enslavement was illegal. The U.S. Attorney appealed the decision to the Circuit Court and later the Supreme Court on behalf of the Van Buren administration. Attorney General Henry D. Gilpin argued that the captives were Spanish property based on the documentation aboard the Amistad, and that they needed to be returned because of treaty obligations with Spain. Former President John Quincy Adams passionately defended the captives at the Supreme Court, and five days after Van Buren had left office, the court ruled in favor of the Africans. It was a remarkable moment for the abolitionist movement. For Van Buren—who had already been cast out of office by voters—the decision was disappointing because it gave credence to the idea that a New York Democrat could not adequately defend the institution of slavery.28

This portrait of Angelica Singleton Van Buren was completed by Henry Inman in 1842. Angelica Van Buren served as White House hostess after she married the president's son, Abraham Van Buren, in 1838. Angelica was also a member of one of South Carolina's most prominent slave-owning families, the Singletons.

White House Collection/The White House Historical Association

Van Buren temporarily retired to his Lindenwald estate in Kinderhook. In 1844, he was poised to reclaim leadership of the Democratic Party, but his opposition to the annexation of Texas ultimately hurt him with southern delegates and those that favored westward expansion. Multiple ballots resulted in the nomination of dark horse candidate James K. Polk, who went on to narrowly defeat Whig nominee Henry Clay for the presidency. Van Buren made one more attempt to return to the White House in 1848, but his party rejected him as their candidate. Undeterred, he ran as the presidential candidate for the Free Soil Party—a party that was formed to oppose the expansion of slavery into the western territories. Whig candidate and Major General Zachary Taylor won the 1848 election, but Van Buren’s presidential campaign—and his motivations for embracing anti-slavery measures—perplexed contemporaries and later historians. Van Buren likely reveled in the chance to help defeat the party that had rejected him, though he later returned to the fold and supported the Democratic presidential candidates in 1852, 1856, and 1860.29 The former president lived out the rest of his life at Lindenwald, where he died on July 24, 1862.

This satirical drawing of President Martin Van Buren was created by David Claypool Johnston around 1840. Holding a golden goblet with the initials "MVB," it shows the president enjoying "White House champagne." Critics of President Van Buren insisted he was living lavishly at the Executive Mansion while most Americans struggled during the economic depression of the late 1830s.

White House Collection/The White House Historical Association

Martin Van Buren owned at least one slave during his lifetime—not wholly uncommon for a man who was born and raised in a state that permitted slavery until 1827. He also hired out enslaved and free African Americans to work at Decatur House, and probably during his time in Albany. This pattern continued during his time at the White House, where five free African Americans and four enslaved people labored to maintain the Executive Mansion. While we may never know if President Van Buren himself hired out these individuals, he had few qualms when it came to supporting slavery for political gain or exploiting enslaved labor within his home. Despite all of these factors, southern Democrats and supporters of slavery criticized his northern roots and repeatedly questioned his willingness to defend the peculiar institution. While the Panic of 1837 and the Gold Spoon Oration by Pennsylvania Whig representative Charles Ogle hurt him politically, the underlying distrust of Van Buren within the Democratic Party grew stronger over time.30 As for his personal views on slavery, Van Buren wrote exceedingly little on the subject, but his career trajectory suggests that many of his positions were based more on political calculations rather than moral sentiments.

Thank you to Dr. Mark R. Cheathem, Professor of History at Cumberland University & Project Director of The Papers of Martin Van Buren, and Project co-editor James Bradley, for their contributions to this article. To learn more about The Papers of Martin Van Buren, please visit http://vanburenpapers.org/

This article was originally published November 27, 2019

Footnotes & Resources

  1. First Census of the United States 1790, Records of the Bureau of the Census, Record Group 29, Series M637, Roll 6, page 243-251. National Archives, Washington, D.C. The household total was 14, and six were recorded as slaves.
  2. Albany Journal, or, the Montgomery, Washington and Columbia Intelligencer, July 21, 1788; Federal Herald, July 28, 1788; Holmes Alexander, The American Talleyrand: The Career and Contemporaries of Martin Van Buren, Eighth President (New York: Russell & Russell, 1962, reissued 1968), 16-17; John Niven, Martin Van Buren: The Romantic Age of American Politics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983), 6.
  3. An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery, New York State Archives, New York (State). Dept. of State. Bureau of Miscellaneous Records. Enrolled acts of the State Legislature, 1778-2005. Series 13036-78, Laws of 1799, Chapter 62. For those born before July 4, 1799, they were omitted from gradual emancipation and expected to live the rest of their lives enslaved. However, the second Gradual Emancipation law passed on March 31, 1817, stipulated that slavery would terminate in New York on July 4, 1827, freeing also those who were born before July 4, 1799. http://pursuitoffreedom.org/gr...
  4. The “Bucktails” were one faction within the Democratic-Republican Party in New York State. Sometimes referred to as Anti-Clintonians, the Bucktails became a powerful and unified political force during the 1810s and 1820s. They took control of the state government in 1820 and pushed for greater democratic reforms at the 1821 state constitutional convention. The name itself is a reference to the hats that members wore, which featured a deer tail. See Joel Silbey, Martin Van Buren: Life Before the Presidency, https://millercenter.org/presi...
  5. Alonzo G. Hammond was originally from Berlin, New York. He moved to Brooklyn and was a legislator in the 51st and 56th New York legislative sessions. See the Papers of Martin Van Buren Project research files.
  6. A.G. Hammond to Martin Van Buren, December 23, 1824, Van Buren Papers: Series 2, General Correspondence, 1787-1868, Box 6, Reel 6, https://www.loc.gov/resource/mss43828.006_0408_0572/?sp=150&r=0.059,0.34,1.104,0.73,0; “Fesburgh” is likely a place, though such a town does not appear to exist today. It might be “Fallsburg”, but the handwriting does not suggest that. See also http://vanburenpapers.org/docu...
  7. A.G. Hammond to Martin Van Buren, December 23, 1824, Van Buren Papers: Series 2, General Correspondence, 1787-1868, Box 6, Reel 6, https://www.loc.gov/resource/m...
  8. Captain Abraham Van Buren died on April 8, 1817. See Edward Augustus Collier, A History of Old Kinderhook from Aboriginal Days to the Present Time (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1914), 521; John Niven, Martin Van Buren: The Romantic Age of American Politics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983), 384-385.
  9. Andrew Jackson to Martin Van Buren, February 15, 1829, The Andrew Jackson Papers, vol. 7, 1829 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 38); Martin Van Buren to Andrew Jackson, February 20, 1829, The Andrew Jackson Papers, vol. 7, 1829 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 52-53). Andrew Jackson nominated Van Buren on March 6, 1829. On March 12, Van Buren resigned his position as governor of New York. See Andrew Jackson Papers, vol. 7, 1829, xxvi.
  10. Cabinet, November 25, 1829.
  11. Hannah Hoes Van Buren contracted tuberculosis and died on February 5, 1819. She was buried in Kinderhook, New York at the Kinderhook Reformed Church Cemetery.
  12. The 1830 United States Federal Census, District of Columbia, Washington, Washington Ward 1, 57.
  13. Willie Graham and Dennis Pogue, “Physical Investigations of the Northeast Room (Room 107) at Decatur House, (Washington, D.C.: A Report for the White House Historical Association), November 8, 2015, 6-7, 35. In this report, Graham and Pogue argue that room 107 (Latrobe’s original kitchen) was turned into a parlor by the Russian Minister Baron de Tuyll’s steward in winter 1825-1826. Because of its proximity to the service spaces and staircase, it would make sense that Van Buren’s housekeeper would have resided in this private room as well. It was also recorded as the housekeeper’s room in 1844 after John Gadsby’s death. He purchased the home in 1836.
  14. https://www.whitehousehistory....
  15. Also known as the Eaton Affair, this was scandal that involved members of President Andrew Jackson’s Cabinet and their spouses. Floride Calhoun, the wife of Vice President John C. Calhoun, refused to socialize with Margaret Eaton, the wife of Secretary of War John Eaton. There were rumors and salacious gossip about the Eatons and their courtship, and as a result the Cabinet wives refused to embrace Margaret as one of their own. As a widower, it was an easy decision for Van Buren to side with President Jackson and support the Eatons. See Mark R. Cheathem, The Coming of Democracy: Presidential Campaigning in the Age of Jackson (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018), 65-66.
  16. Donald B. Cole, Martin Van Buren and the American Political System (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), 269-270.
  17. John Niven, Martin Van Buren: The Romantic Age of American Politics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983), 385; Robert Remini, Martin Van Buren and the Making of the Democratic Party (New York: Columbia University Press, 1951, 1959), 132.
  18. Opinions of Martin Van Buren...Upon the Powers and Duties of Congress, in Reference to the Abolition of Slavery either in the Slave-Holding States or in the District of Columbia (Washington, D.C.: Blair & Rives, 1836), 6. https://archive.org/details/op...
  19. Ibid, 4, https://archive.org/details/op...
  20. Ibid, 5, https://archive.org/details/op...
  21. Martin Van Buren Inaugural Address, March 4, 1837, https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/inaugural-address-28. John Niven, Martin Van Buren: The Romantic Age of American Politics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983), 410-411.
  22. Major L. Wilson, The Presidency of Martin Van Buren (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1984), 19; Donald B. Cole, Martin Van Buren and the American Political System (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), 270; Mark R. Cheathem, The Coming of Democracy: Presidential Campaigning in the Age of Jackson (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018), 122.
  23. Sixth Census of the United States, 1840. (NARA microfilm publication M704, 580 rolls). Records of the Bureau of the Census, Record Group 29, Roll 35, page 5-6.
  24. Sixth Census of the United States, 1840. (NARA microfilm publication M704, 580 rolls). Records of the Bureau of the Census, Record Group 29, Roll 514, Page 459.
  25. The Richmond Enquirer, December 14, 1838; Sixth Census of the United States, 1840. (NARA microfilm publication M704, 580 rolls). Records of the Bureau of the Census, Record Group 29. National Archives, Washington, D.C., Roll 515, Page, 15.
  26. Abraham and Angelica Van Buren left Washington and later ended up in New York. According to the 1850 census, they had three sons—Singleton, Martin, and an eight-month-old boy (Travis Coles)—and living in their residence were two women from Ireland, Margaret Potter and Rose Mooney. See Seventh Census of the United States, 1850. (NARA microfilm publication M432, 1009 rolls). Records of the Bureau of the Census, Record Group 29, Roll M432_557, page 128B. If the four enslaved individuals at the White House in 1840 were hired out, they would have been returned to their owners after President Van Buren left office. If they were brought to the White House by Angelica Van Buren, they would have likely been returned to the Singleton family in South Carolina, as New York did not allow slavery.
  27. https://www.archives.gov/educa...
  28. https://www.archives.gov/educa...; Mark R. Cheathem, The Coming of Democracy: Presidential Campaigning in the Age of Jackson (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018), 134-135.
  29. Major L. Wilson, The Presidency of Martin Van Buren (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1984), 415-418.
  30. For more on the impact of Charles Ogle’s Gold Spoon Oration, see White House History 10 (winter 2002), The White House Historical Association. This journal details different elements of the speech, and how Ogle used his time on the Floor of the House of Representatives to campaign for Whig presidential candidate William Henry Harrison by criticizing the inventories of the President’s House. Many of these things in the White House predated Van Buren’s time, and quite a few had been purchased by his predecessor, Andrew Jackson.

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