John Van Buren

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John Van Buren
John Van Buren.jpg
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)
At sea
Resting placeAlbany Rural Cemetery, Menands, New York
Political partyDemocratic Party
Other political
Free Soil Party
Elizabeth Vanderpoel
(m. 1841; her death 1844)
RelationsAbraham Van Buren (brother)
ChildrenAnna Van Buren
ParentsMartin Van Buren
Hannah Hoes
Alma materYale College (1828)

John Van Buren (February 18, 1810 – October 13, 1866) was a United States 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 slavery. 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. 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] He is said to have possessed a "remarkable memory", "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 in 1838-39 (during his father's Presidency). He had spectacular seats at Queen Victoria's coronation, also attended the Queen's prorogue to Parliament, and earned his nickname of "Prince John" after he danced with her in 1838.[7] Van Buren dined with the who's who of 19th century England, Ireland and Scotland. He also met with the King of France, Louis Philippe I, the King of Belgium, Leopold I, and the King of the Netherlands, William I, (Prince William IV of Orange).

On June 22, 1841, he married Elizabeth Vanderpoel (May 22, 1810 – November 19, 1844), his childhood sweetheart and the niece of Aaron Vanderpoel. They had one daughter, Anna (1842-1923), and after Elizabeth's death, Van Buren never remarried.

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. 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 rents, which Stephen Van Rensselaer and other patroons had long deferred. Ambrose L. Jordan led for the defense. At the first trial the jury was deadlocked. 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." Governor Silas Wright refused to accept Van Buren's resignation, and both counsel continued with the case after their release from jail. The defendant, Smith A. Boughton ("Big Thunder"), was sentenced to life imprisonment. At the next state election Governor Wright was defeated by John Young, who had the support of the Anti-Renters, and pardoned Boughton.

In December 1845, Governor Wright charged Van Buren to work on an act to limit the tenure of the manor lords. The bill, "An Act to amend the Statute of Devices and Descents, and to extinguish certain Tenures" was the most radical reform considered by the New York State Legislature during the Anti-Rent years. Under its provisions, the death of a landlord extinguished a renter's lease, which resulted in the large manor holdings being resold to individual farmers and homeowners or commercially developed.

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.[8] The defense, led by William H. Seward, tried to prove that Freeman was insane and therefore could not stand trial, but a local jury disagreed and the trial began after days of jury selection. Because it was a capital case, Quakers (Anti-death penalty) were dismissed from the jury panel. The local District Attorney, Luman Sherwood, also served as a prosecutor. He and Van Buren fought vehemently against the defense's insanity strategy. Van Buren believed that the legal system rested on lawbreakers being punished and that finding a man innocent because of insanity would cause the system to crumble. In his addresses to the jury, he explained the cause and effect of finding Freeman guilty. The prosecution did everything they could to show the jury that Freeman was in fact sane and should be found guilty and face the death penalty. Race was a huge factor: Freeman's mother was Native American and his father was black. It was argued he was a product of the mixing of two inferior races and that this was one reason for his actions. In a society in which racism was common, these claims did not fall on deaf ears. The jury deliberated for two hours before finding Freeman guilty on July 23, 1846, and at 6:30 AM the next day, William Freeman was sentenced by Judge Whiting to hang on the afternoon of September 18, 1846. In January 1847, however, the Supreme Court reversed the decision of the Cayuga County Court and granted Freeman a new trial. Freeman died on August 21, 1847 of tuberculosis in his jail cell, weeks before that trial was to begin.

Democratic party leader[edit]

Later in 1847, Van Buren moved to New York City and formed a partnership with Hamilton W. Robinson. He acted as counsel for actor Edwin Forrest during Forrest's highly publicized divorce case, bringing Van Buren to public attention again. He was asked to run for various offices but always declined, stating he had been far too close to the seats of power to seek them out.

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 seen as friendly to slavery. The Barnburners met for a State Convention in Utica, New York on June 22 and nominated Martin Van Buren as their presidential candidate. On August 9, the National Convention of the Free Soil Party, held in Buffalo, New York, endorsed this nomination. 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. 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 presidency as a result.

Jon Earle argues that "Prince John" Van Buren was a "most effective campaign speaker" and that he was especially effective with urban working-class audiences. In his speeches Van Buren "took Jacksonian antislavery arguments to new rhetorical height, excoriating the slavery conspirators, ridiculing comprising "doughfaces" and "meddlesome Whigs," and above all, emphasizing the degrading influence of slavery on free labor." (p. 167). "John Van Buren often stressed the Free Soil Party plank calling for free homesteads in his appeals to workingmen and freeholders, reminding them that reserving the public lands for settlers kept [the lands] out of the hands of speculators and land monopolies, as well as slaveholders."[9] The Free Soil Party was anti-slavery because it believed that slavery promoted laziness and went against free land/labor ideas. As a strong supporter of this third party, Van Buren convinced his father to run on its platform in 1848. The Free Soil Party completely split with the Democratic Party, which came to be influenced by elite slaveholders. Many of the Free Soil members joined the Republican Party in 1860 when Abraham Lincoln ran for President, even nominating one of their own, Hannibal Hamlin to the vice presidency. Many, if not most of the Free Soil Party's ideals were appropriated by the Republican Party. Martin Van Buren, John Van Buren and most of their followers in New York chose to remain in the Democratic fold.

Death and burial[edit]

In 1865, John Van Buren again ran for the office of New York state Attorney General on the Democratic ticket, but was defeated by Republican John H. Martindale.

After Van Buren's political defeat, he visited Europe (1866) accompanied by his daughter and niece. "They traveled extensively in England, Sweden, Norway and Russia."(195)[6] Van Buren died from exposure on the return journey from Liverpool to New York City aboard the Scotia. A storm set in after his death, and feeling that was an omen, the sailors tried to cast his body into the sea, but the captain would not allow it. After the ship arrived in New York, funeral services were held at that city's Grace Church and in Albany's St. Peter's Church. John Van Buren's grave is located in the Albany Rural Cemetery.


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,[10] 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.[11] This story is almost certainly untrue, but it has remained associated with Van Buren.[12]

Van Buren has also been credited (possibly apocryphally) with the semi-humorous saying, "Vote early and vote often".[13]

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.[14][15] President Van Buren's son was born in 1810 and died in 1866.[16] John Van Buren of Kingston was born in 1799 and died in 1855.[17] 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.[18][19]


  1. ^ Youngs, Florence E. (1905). Genealogical Record of the Saint Nicholas Society of the City of New York. 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 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. ^ Diary of John Van Buren
  8. ^ "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. Retrieved 5 August 2013.
  9. ^ Earle, Jonathan Halperin (2004). Jacksonian antislavery & the politics of free soil, 1824-1854. UNC Press. pp. 167–168.
  10. ^ equivalent to $85,557 in 2018
  11. ^ 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 2012-10-03. Retrieved 2009-12-10.
  12. ^ Wallechinsky, David; Wallace, Irving (2013). "Biography of Adventurer Elena America Vespucci (Part 2)". Trivia Library. Retrieved 5 August 2013.
  13. ^ "Flooring an Adversary". The Youth's Companion. Boston, MA: Perry, Mason & Co.: 61 February 15, 1883.
  14. ^ 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.)
  15. ^ 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.)
  16. ^ Miller, Richard F. 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.
  17. ^ 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.
  18. ^ "Obituary: Death of John Van Buren" (PDF). New York Times. October 17, 1866.
  19. ^ John Van Buren at Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress Archived April 23, 2010, at the Wayback Machine


External links[edit]

Legal offices
Preceded by
George P. Barker
New York State Attorney General
Succeeded by
Ambrose L. Jordan