Martin Van Buren was born in Kinderhook, New York on 5th December, 1782. A lawyer, Van Buren was elected to the New York Senate (1812-20) and served as the state attorney general (1816-19). A founder member of the Democratic Party, Van Buren became a national figure when he became Secretary of State (1829-31) and Vice President of the United States (1833-37).
Van Buren was elected president in 1837 during a financial crisis and his decision to remove government funds from state banks to put them in an independent treasury, lost him the support of many Democrats. An expensive war with the Seminoles in Florida and his policies on the proposed annexation of Texas, also reduced his popularity.
Van Buren also created controversy by his policy of moving Native Americans to Indian Reservations. In 1835 some leaders of the Cherokee tribe signed the Treaty of New Echota. This agreement ceded all rights to their traditional lands to the United States. In return the tribe was granted land in the Indian Territory. Although the majority of the Cherokees opposed this agreement they were forced to make the journey by General Winfield Scott and his soldiers.
In October 1838 about 15,000 Cherokees began what was later to be known as the Trail of Tears. Most of the Cherokees travelled the 800 mile journey on foot. As a result of serious mistakes made by the Federal agents who guided them to their new land, they suffered from hunger and the cold weather and an estimated 4,000 people died on the journey. The soldiers refused permission for the Cherokee to stop and bury family members and warned them they would be shot if they tried to do this. They were therefore forced to carry the dead bodies until they reached that night's camp. Van Buren claimed in Congress that: "The measures of the Removal have had the happiest effect... the Cherokee moved without apparent reluctance."
Opposed to the extension of slavery, Van Buren became presidential candidate of the Free-Soil Party in 1848. Although he won only 10 per cent of the vote, he split the traditional Democratic support and enabled the Whig candidate, Zachary Taylor, to win.