Martin Van Buren spent a lifetime in politics. He felt the presidency was his reward. The economy collapsed a month after his inauguration. Instead of an easy presidency, Van Buren faced a crisis. The public blamed Van Buren for the five year depression. The new president dawdled as the economy continued to spiral. In the end, he did little to respond to the depression and became known as Martin Van Ruin.
Before the 1840 inaugural, dramatic inflation raised the price of cotton and food. New Yorkers protested the food price increases. At the time, people blamed Jackson’s Specie Circular. The executive order required people buying government land to use gold or silver as opposed to paper money or credit. Prior to the order, banks lent money to land speculators sparking a crisis. After the order, inflation increased.
Many asked Van Buren to reverse Jackson’s order. Van Buren wanted a consensus and asked for opinions from his advisors and party leaders. He spent a month collecting opinions while the economy collapsed. The banks suspended payments because they did not have the gold or silver on hand to make payments. The currency depreciated, unemployment skyrocketed, and food prices continued to rise.
Van Buren did not know what to do. On May 15, he called for a special session of Congress to meet in September. The president needed time to develop strategy. The federal government had never responded to an economic crisis before. Plus, Van Buren was deliberative by nature and took time to make decisions. However, people wanted help immediately as opposed to four months down the road.
The Democrats responded by blaming the banks. They needed to deflect attention from themselves and their policies. Plus, Jackson and Van Buren were Democrats. Not everyone followed the party line. Democratic newspapers ran from the president and began defending the banks. They were reflecting popular opinion as opposed to the party’s talking points. This reinforced the conventional wisdom and doomed Van Buren’s presidency in its infancy.
Van Buren lost the party newspapers and the people. He might have won them back with some action to help alleviate the situation. However, the best he could do was to advocate for free trade and low tariffs. This kept his southern base happy, but did little to inspire confidence. His opponents portrayed Van Buren as out-of-touch, uncaring, and aristocratic. This view dominated his failed re-election bid.
The Panic of 1837 struck about one month into Martin Van Buren’s presidency. Although the downturn was the latest in the boom and bust economic cycle, Van Buren received the blame. His lack of action further alienated himself from voters. He became known as Martin Van Ruin and lost the 1840 election. His reward for a lifetime of public service was a failed presidency.