John Van Buren

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John Van Buren
John Van Buren (photo between 1855 and 1865)
21st Attorney General of New York
In office
February 3, 1845 – December 31, 1847
GovernorSilas Wright
John Young
Preceded byGeorge P. Barker
Succeeded byAmbrose L. Jordan
Personal details
Born(1810-02-18)February 18, 1810[1]
Hudson, New York, U.S.
DiedOctober 13, 1866(1866-10-13) (aged 56)
Near Cape Race, Newfoundland
Resting placeAlbany Rural Cemetery, Menands, New York
Political partyDemocratic Party
Other political
Free Soil Party
Elizabeth Vanderpoel
(m. 1841; died 1844)
RelationsAbraham Van Buren II (brother)
ChildrenAnna Van Buren
Parent(s)Martin Van Buren
Hannah Hoes
Alma materYale College (1828)

John Van Buren (February 18, 1810 – October 13, 1866) was an American lawyer, official and politician. In addition to serving as a key advisor to his father, President Martin Van Buren, he was also Attorney General of New York from 1845 to 1847.

A son of Hannah (née Hoes) and Martin Van Buren, John Van Buren graduated from Yale University, studied law, and attained admission to the bar in 1830. He served as secretary of the U.S. legation when Martin Van Buren was US Minister to Britain in 1831 and 1832, after which he practiced law in Albany, New York. He returned to England in from 1838 to 1839, and attended the Coronation of Queen Victoria. Van Buren served as New York's attorney general from 1845 to 1847, and was the chief prosecutor of the leaders of the Anti-Rent War.

Van Buren later practiced law in New York City, where he developed a reputation as an effective trial attorney, with his memory for details and oratorical skills making him a formidable courtroom advocate. In 1848, Van Buren led the Barnburners—New York Democrats opposed to the election of Lewis Cass as president on the grounds that he was too friendly to the slaveholding South. Van Buren persuaded his father to run as the candidate of the Barnburners and the Free Soil Party in order to defeat Cass; Martin Van Buren won enough votes in New York to enable Zachary Taylor to defeat Cass and win the presidency.

In Van Buren's later years he traveled extensively; he died aboard ship while en route from England to New York, and was buried at Albany Rural Cemetery.

Early life[edit]

He was born on February 18, 1810, in Hudson, Columbia County, New York, the second son of President Martin Van Buren and Hannah Hoes Van Buren.[2] (Some sources list his birth date as February 10.[3]) He graduated from Yale College in 1828, studied law with Benjamin F. Butler and Aaron Vanderpoel, and attained admission to the bar in 1830.[4] In 1831, when Martin Van Buren was appointed U.S. Minister to Britain, John Van Buren accompanied him as secretary of the American Legation in London.[4] Both returned in 1832 after Congress failed to confirm the appointment.[4]

John Van Buren then opened a law practice with James McKown in Albany.[5] Contemporaries said he had a remarkable memory and that "his success at the bar was great, but his fame as a lawyer has been dimmed by his wit and his wonderful ability as a politician."[6] He returned to England on his own from 1838 to 1839.[7] He had seats at Queen Victoria's coronation, attended the Queen's prorogue of Parliament, and earned the nickname "Prince John" from newspaper reporters after he danced with her at an 1838 ball.[7]

On June 22, 1841, he married Elizabeth Vanderpoel (b. May 22, 1810), his childhood sweetheart and the niece of Aaron Vanderpoel.[8] They had one daughter, Anna (1842–1923).[8] Elizabeth Vanderpoel died on November 19, 1844,[8] and Van Buren never remarried.[9]

Attorney General of New York[edit]

From 1845 to 1847, he served as New York State Attorney General, the last holder of that office elected by joint ballot of the Assembly and Senate, under the provisions of the state Constitution of 1821.[10] In 1845, he conducted the prosecution of some leaders of the Anti-Rent War at their trial for riot, conspiracy and robbery in protest of attempts by the wealthy owners of Van Rennsselaer Manor and other large upstate New York land grants to collect overdue rents, which Stephen Van Rensselaer and other patroons had long deferred.[10] Ambrose L. Jordan led for the defense.[11] At the first trial the jury was deadlocked.[11] At the re-trial, in September 1845, the two leading counsel started a fist-fight in open court, and were both sentenced by the presiding judge, Justice John W. Edmonds, to solitary confinement in the county jail for 24 hours.[11] Governor Silas Wright refused to accept Van Buren's resignation, and both counsel continued with the case after their release from jail.[11] The defendant, Smith A. Boughton ("Big Thunder"), was sentenced to life imprisonment.[10] At the next state election Governor Wright was defeated by John Young, who had the support of the Anti-Renters, and pardoned Boughton.[10]

In December 1845, Governor Wright charged Van Buren to work on an act to limit the tenure of the manor lords.[12] The bill was the most radical reform considered by the New York State Legislature during the Anti-Rent years.[12] After its passage, the death of a manor landlord extinguished a renter's lease.[12] As a result, the landlords subdivided their large manor holdings for sale to individual farmers and homeowners or commercially developed them.[12]

John Van Buren also prosecuted the case of William Freeman, who murdered four members of the Van Nest family of Cayuga County, New York on March 12, 1846.[13] The defense, led by William H. Seward, tried to prove that Freeman was insane and therefore could not stand trial, but a jury empaneled to consider the question disagreed.[14] Another jury was then empaneled and the murder trial began.[10] Freeman was found guilty on July 23, 1846, and the next day the judge sentenced him to hang on September 18.[14] The execution was stayed, and in January 1847, an appeals court granted Freeman a new trial.[14] Freeman died in his jail cell of tuberculosis on August 21, 1847, weeks before the retrial was to begin.[14]

After the Freeman trial, Van Buren moved to New York City and formed a partnership with Hamilton W. Robinson.[10] He acted as counsel for actor Edwin Forrest during Forrest's highly publicized divorce case, bringing Van Buren to public attention again.[10]

Free Soil Party leader[edit]

Van Buren was an effective campaign speaker, especially with urban working class audiences.[15] In his speeches Van Buren frequently argued against slavery, calling it a degrading influence on free labor.[15]

In 1848, Van Buren was the leader of the Barnburner faction of the Democratic Party, which repudiated the 1848 Democratic National Convention's selection of Lewis Cass, who was perceived as too friendly to slaveholders' rights.[16] The Barnburners met for a State Convention in Utica, New York on June 22 and nominated Martin Van Buren as their presidential candidate.[17] On August 9, the National Convention of the Free Soil Party, held in Buffalo, New York, endorsed this nomination.[17] Martin Van Buren had no expectation of winning, but his increasingly anti-slavery views caused him to oppose Cass, and he also hoped to exact a measure of revenge, since Cass was instrumental in denying Martin Van Buren the Democratic nomination in 1844.[16] Martin Van Buren failed to win a single state, but won enough votes in New York to tip the state to Zachary Taylor, who won the White House as a result.[16]

Many Free Soil members joined the Republican Party when it was formed in the mid-1850s, and in 1860 former Free Soiler Hannibal Hamlin was the successful Republican candidate for vice president.[18] Though most former Free Soil members became Republicans because of the slavery issue, many including Martin and John Van Buren chose to return to the Democratic fold.[19]

Death and burial[edit]

In 1865, John Van Buren again ran for New York state Attorney General on the Democratic ticket, and was defeated by Republican John H. Martindale.[20] After Van Buren's election defeat, he visited Europe accompanied by his daughter and niece. "They traveled extensively in England, Sweden, Norway and Russia."[6] On October 13, 1866, Van Buren died from kidney disease while at sea near Cape Race, Newfoundland as he traveled from Liverpool to New York City aboard the steamship Scotia.[21] A storm set in after his death, and believing it was an omen, the Scotia's sailors tried to cast his body into the sea, but the captain would not allow it.[22]

After the ship arrived in Manhattan, funeral services were held at Grace Church, where pallbearers included Samuel J. Tilden, Gouverneur Kemble, Alonzo C. Paige, Edwin W. Stoughton, Samuel L. M. Barlow, and James T. Brady, and mourners included Peter Cooper and Gulian C. Verplanck.[23][24] A second service took place at St. Peter's Church in Albany.[25] Van Buren was buried at Albany Rural Cemetery, Section 62, Box 28.[26]

The other John Van Buren[edit]

John Van Buren, the son of Martin Van Buren, is sometimes confused with judge and congressman John Van Buren of Kingston, Ulster County, New York.[27][28] President Van Buren's son was born in 1810 and died in 1866.[29] John Van Buren of Kingston was born in 1799 and died in 1855.[30] While both John Van Burens were active in New York's Democratic Party, President Van Buren's son never lived in Kingston, served as a judge, or was elected to Congress.[31][32]


Van Buren was a man surrounded by innuendoes, even after his death. According to a legend still repeated in upstate New York, Van Buren lost $5,000,[33] and with it, his father's home Lindenwald, as well as a mistress, the very popular Elena "America" Vespucci, descendant of Amerigo Vespucci, to George Parish of Ogdensburg, New York in a card game at the LeRay Hotel in Evans Mills, New York.[34] This story is almost certainly untrue, but it has remained associated with Van Buren.[35]

Van Buren has also been credited (possibly apocryphally) with a semi-humorous expression related to ballot stuffing, "Vote early and vote often".[36]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Youngs, Florence E. (1905). Genealogical Record of the Saint Nicholas Society of the City of New York. Vol. 1. New York, NY: Saint Nicholas Society. p. 166.
  2. ^ Raymond, William (1851). Biographical Sketches of the Distinguished Men of Columbia County. Albany, NY: Weed, Parsons and Company. p. 97.
  3. ^ Brogan, Hugh; Mosley, Charles (1993). American Presidential Families. Stroud, Gloucestershire, UK: Alan Sutton. p. 309. ISBN 978-0-02-897305-0. John Van Buren, b. Hudson, New York, 10 or 18 Feb 1810.
  4. ^ a b c Biographical Sketches of the Distinguished Men of Columbia County.
  5. ^ Proctor, L. B. (1892). "Biographical Department: John Van Buren". Albany Law Journal: Supplement. Vol. XLV. Albany, NY: Albany Law School. pp. 31–37.
  6. ^ a b Miller, Peyton F. (1904). A Group of Great Lawyers of Columbia County, New York. Privately Printed. pp. 184–196.
  7. ^ a b Watterson, Henry (1915). History of the Manhattan Club: A Narrative of the Activities of Half a Century. New York, NY: The Manhattan Club. p. xxvii – via Google Books.
  8. ^ a b c Talcott, Sebastian Visscher (2001) [1883]. Genealogical Notes of New York and New England Families. Vol. I. Bowie, MD: Heritage Books. pp. 333–334. ISBN 978-0-7884-1956-0 – via Google Books.
  9. ^ National Park Service. "John Van Buren". Martin Van Buren NHS. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of the Interior. Retrieved April 10, 2021.
  10. ^ a b c d e f g "John Van Buren, 1810-1866". Legal History, 1847-1869. White Plains, NY: Historical Society of the New York Courts. Retrieved April 8, 2021.
  11. ^ a b c d Chester, Alden (1925). Courts and Lawyers of New York: A History 1809-1925. Vol. III. New York, NY: American Historical Society. pp. 1031–1032 – via Google Books.
  12. ^ a b c d Huston, Reeve (2000). Land and Freedom: Rural Society, Popular Protest, and Party Politics in Antebellum New York. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. pp. 155–158. ISBN 978-0-1980-3109-3 – via Google Books.
  13. ^ "Cayuga County Courthouse and the Case that Helped Establish the Insanity Defense in New York". Benchmarks: Journal of the New York State Unified Court System. Spring 2007. Archived from the original on February 2, 2014. Retrieved August 5, 2013.
  14. ^ a b c d "People v. William Freeman". Legal History, 1777-1846. White Plains, NY: Historical Society of the New York Courts. Retrieved April 8, 2021.
  15. ^ a b Earle, Jonathan Halperin (2004). Jacksonian antislavery & the politics of free soil, 1824-1854. UNC Press. pp. 167–168.
  16. ^ a b c Harris, Alexander (1970). A Review of the Political Conflict in America. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. pp. 119–121. ISBN 9780837135991 – via Google Books.
  17. ^ a b Shepard, Edward Morse (1888). American Statesmen Series: Martin Van Buren. Cambridge, MA: Riverside Press. pp. 362–365 – via Google Books.
  18. ^ Historian of the U.S. Senate. "Hannibal Hamlin, 15th Vice President (1861-1865)". United States Senate: Senate Historical Office. Washington, DC: U.S. Senate. Retrieved April 8, 2021.
  19. ^ Shepard, Edward Morse (1916). America Statesmen: Martin Van Buren. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin. pp. 434–439 – via Google Books.
  20. ^ "The New York Election -- Official Returns of the State". Buffalo Courier. Buffalo, NY. December 19, 1865. p. 2 – via
  21. ^ "Death of John Van Buren". New-York Tribune. New York, NY. October 17, 1866. p. 4 – via
  22. ^ "Superstition at Sea". Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Brooklyn, NY. November 9, 1866. p. 4 – via
  23. ^ "Funeral of John Van Buren". Tiffin Weekly Tribune. Tiffin, OH. October 25, 1866. p. 2 – via
  24. ^ "Funeral of John Van Buren". Buffalo Courier. Buffalo, NY. October 20, 1866. p. 7 – via
  25. ^ Lemire, Paula (April 6, 2012). "Prince John Van Buren". Albany Rural Cemetery - Beyond The Graves. Albany, NY: Paula Lemire. Retrieved April 10, 2021.
  26. ^ "Search Results: John Van Buren". Albany Rural Menands, NY: Albany Rural Cemetery. Retrieved March 20, 2020.
  27. ^ Wead, Doug (2003). All the Presidents' Children. New York, NY: Atria Books. p. 69. ISBN 978-0-7434-4631-0. (Note: This reference is included as an example of how the John Van Buren who was Martin Van Buren's son is mistaken for the John Van Buren who was a Congressman from New York.)
  28. ^ Quinn-Musgrove, Sandra L. (1995). America's Royalty: All the Presidents' Children. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. pp. 40–42. ISBN 978-0-313-29535-5. (Note: This reference is included as an example of how the John Van Buren who was Martin Van Buren's son is mistaken for the John Van Buren who was a Congressman from New York.)
  29. ^ Miller, Richard F. (August 5, 2014). States at War, Volume 2: A Reference Guide for New York in the Civil War. Lebanon, NH: University Press of New England. p. 383. ISBN 978-1-61168-266-3.
  30. ^ Napton, William Barclay (2005). The Union on Trial: The Political Journals of Judge William Barclay Napton, 1829-1883. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press. p. 145. ISBN 978-0-8262-1571-0.
  31. ^ "Obituary: Death of John Van Buren" (PDF). New York Times. October 17, 1866.
  32. ^ John Van Buren at Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress Archived April 23, 2010, at the Wayback Machine
  33. ^ equivalent to $99,932 in 2022
  34. ^ John Harwood (September 1982). "National Register of Historic Places Registration: LeRay Hotel". New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. Archived from the original on October 3, 2012. Retrieved December 10, 2009.
  35. ^ Wallechinsky, David; Wallace, Irving (2013). "Biography of Adventurer Elena America Vespucci (Part 2)". Trivia Library. Retrieved August 5, 2013.
  36. ^ "Flooring an Adversary". The Youth's Companion. Boston, MA: Perry, Mason & Co.: 61 February 15, 1883.


External links[edit]

Legal offices
Preceded by New York State Attorney General
Succeeded by