The real Martin Van Buren please stand

I recognize that this is not really “news” to most folks but the more time I spend really studying the history of this country, the more I realize that what we are taught as history class is only a selective portrayal of a portion of the truth. Martin Van Buren, one of the United States presidents that I knew very little about, turns out to be the right person to study relative to the current status of our nation and the world.

Martin Van Buren was the eighth president, elected in 1836 to serve one term. As a quick history lesson, he was the first sitting president born in the U.S. and was founder of the Democratic Party.

What I found that sent me searching deeper was this:

"To avoid the necessity of a permanent debt and its inevitable consequences, I have advocated and endeavored to carry into effect the policy of confining the appropriations for the public service to such objects only as are clearly with the constitutional authority of the Federal Government."

First off, it is fitting to share that Van Buren grew up in New York, the son of a tavern owner and farmer who owned six slaves. It is widely recognized that he is one of the politicians of the day that grew up with poor humble beginnings instead of being born into wealthy aristocracy. In fact, his first job away from the home operation was in a law office running errands and sweeping the floor. I personally think that upbringing was character building.

By siding with the common people instead of the landed elite in these cases, Van Buren participated in—and indeed helped perpetuate—the ferment that helped redefine social and economic relations in the early years of the American Republic.

Most important, his decision to join the Jeffersonians marked the beginning of a commitment to Jeffersonian principles of limited federal government, defense of individual liberties, and the protection of local and state prerogatives in American politics.

Van Buren, it appears to me, was always willing to stand up to the establishment and sacrifice an elected career in order to do the right thing. He was part of some “fringe” groups that were unhappy with the status quo. One such group called themselves the “Bucktails” because they literally wore tails from deer on their hats to distinguish them as members of the movement.

“A collection of allies from Van Buren’s region and from the New York state senate, the Bucktails coalesced around a few principles and positions. First, they were committed to the defeat of the Federalists, who the Bucktails feared sought to establish a strong federal government”.

Van Buren went to the mat every single day to stand up for states rights, opposing both a federal-owned central bank and the expansion of slavery.

His presidency was marked with the worst depression of this young nation’s history. Some make the case that it was brought on because the establishment wanted to tarnish his principles of maintaining the power of the people. Clearly, he took on the Democratic elites of the day and they would not stand for that, which led to the birth of the Free Soilers party.

The Free-Soilers’ historic slogan called for “free soil, free speech, free labor, and free men” attracted small farmers, debtors, village merchants, and household and mill workers, who resented the prospect of Black-labor competition—whether slave or free—in the territories.

The Free Soilers party lasted about three years on the national scene but Van Buren’s vocal work on behalf of states rights and anti-slavery led to the formation of the Republican Party. No one can argue that the day of owning another human being had to end.

In reflecting on this lesser known history of our nation, it is quite clear to me the parallels we find ourselves in now. Sadly, today even more than in Van Buren’s day, the person who stands with conviction quickly becomes the target of an outright character assassination. But in the end, who really wins the battle? The lesson for me is this: The war is never over and may never be outrightly won but we must suit up each and every day to fight for what is right.

Editor’s note: The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not represent the views of High Plains Journal. Trent Loos is a sixth generation United States farmer, host of the daily radio show, Loos Tales, and founder of Faces of Agriculture, a non-profit organization putting the human element back into the production of food. Get more information at, or email Trent at [email protected].