The nation’s eighth president was the first commander in chief not born a British subject. Martin van Buren was a Democrat who served from 1837 to 1841. The seven men who held the country’s highest political office prior to him all were born before 1776, when the 13 American colonies declared their independence from Britain. Van Buren arrived in the world six years later, in 1782.
Raised in the Dutch community of Kinderhook, New York, Van Buren spoke Dutch as his first language; to date, he’s the only president to learn English as a second language. He also was the first native New Yorker elected to the White House; As of 2017, four other presidents have been born in the Empire State: Millard Fillmore, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and Donald Trump. (While not born there, Chester Arthur, a Vermont native, was heavily involved in New York’s Republican Party before he won the White House, and Grover Cleveland, a native of New Jersey, was governor of New York prior to his first term as president.)
After serving in the New York Senate and the U.S. Senate, Van Buren, dubbed the Little Magician for his political savvy, was U.S. secretary of state from 1829 to 1831 under President Andrew Jackson. Van Buren was Old Hickory’s vice president during his second term in office, starting in 1833. Three years later, Kinderhook’s favorite son was elected president; he was the last sitting VP to ascend to the job this way (rather than as a result of his predecessor’s death or resignation) until George H.W. Bush did so in 1988.
Van Buren’s time in office was marked by a national economic depression, and in 1840 he lost his bid for re-election to William Henry Harrison. A contender for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1844, Van Buren was bested by James Polk. He made a final run for the presidency in 1848, as the Free Soil Party candidate, but was defeated by Zachary Taylor. Van Buren, who was born during the Revolutionary War, died in Kinderhook in 1862 during another pivotal period in American history, the Civil War.
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