Martin Van Buren's Inaugural Address: Summary & Quotes

Instructor: Anthony Galouzis

Anthony has taught middle and high school History/Social Studies and holds two master's degrees in History and Education, focusing on U.S. History and online studies.

On March 4, 1837, President Martin Van Buren delivered his inaugural address. Facing a divided nation, Van Buren needed to appeal to the people, while laying out the ground work for his presidency.

Appeasing a Nation

President Martin Van Buren

Martin Van Buren was elected president of the United States in 1836. He represented a new type of leadership for the United States. Van Buren was the first president to be born an American citizen, and, despite carrying the endorsement of President Andrew Jackson, was only able to secure the southern states by a slim margin. Van Buren was aware of the reservations people had about him, stating,

Unlike all who have preceded me, the Revolution that gave us existence as one people was achieved at the period of my birth; and whilst I contemplate with grateful reverence that memorable event, I feel that I belong to a later age and that I may not expect my countrymen to weigh my actions with the same kind and partial hand.

Delivering his inaugural address on the steps of the Capitol building on March 4, 1837, Van Buren understood how important it was to appeal to the American people. Many Americans were concerned about the positions the New York-born president would take. How could he share the concerns of those who lived in the South or the West? Van Buren needed to ease the minds of those who questioned his ability to represent the entire nation. To be seen as a strong leader, he needed to address four points of interest:

  • The growth of the nation and the strength of its people;
  • The roles of federal and state authority;
  • Slavery; and
  • Foreign policy.

An 1841 Engraving of the Van Buren Inauguration at the Capitol

A Growing Nation

Van Buren used his inaugural address to promote the greatness of the United States, a nation that, he stated, ''stand(s) without a parallel in the world.'' He spoke of the struggles the nation had overcome during the last fifty years although many had predicted its ''rapid failure.'' Despite these struggles and ''the cost of two wars'' against Britain, first the Revolutionary War and then the War of 1812, the American people had shown an ability to endure and prosper in the face of opposition.

While the people had been able to overcome past challenges, they were no longer dealing with common problems. Instead, the nation was faced with regionally-based concerns. Van Buren spoke of this change in his address, stating,

Certain danger was foretold from the extension of our territory, the multiplication of States, and the increase of population. Our system was supposed to be adapted only to boundaries comparatively narrow. These have been widened beyond conjecture; the members of our Confederacy are already doubled, and the numbers of our people are incredibly augmented.

Van Buren claimed that it was the people's ''respect for its authority'' and the ''new and inexhaustible sources of general prosperity,'' that had enabled the people to pull together and remain united.

Federal vs State Authority

During the election, the issue of federal versus state authority had been a key factor driving political divisions. Van Buren turned his attention to these domestic concerns in his speech. He claimed that the federal government ''has successfully performed its appropriate function in relation to foreign affairs.'' It was the role of the states to protect and develop ''local interests and individual welfare.'' This standard was what the nation and the Constitution had been built upon; however, as Van Buren pointed out, it had been strained by the varying viewpoints of the growing population of a nation that had doubled in size over the last fifty years.

A Stand on Slavery

As Van Buren addressed the issue of slavery, he made his position clear. Basing his stance on that of his predecessors, Van Buren stated,

I must go into the Presidential chair the inflexible and uncompromising opponent of every attempt on the part of Congress to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia against the wishes of the slaveholding States, and also with a determination equally decided to resist the slightest interference with it in the States where it exists.

With that declaration, Van Buren's approach to slavery was made clear.

Free and slave states and territories at the beginning of the Van Buren administration

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