Welcome to the MAKING OF A NATION – American history
in VOA Special English.
Martin Van Buren was sworn-in as the
eighth president of the United States in eighteen thirty-seven. Not long after
he took office, the United States suffered an economic depression.
Many state banks had printed more money
than they could guarantee with gold or silver. As more paper money came into
use, the value fell. Prices rose sharply. Some people could not buy food or
other necessities. In a short time, the demand on banks to exchange paper money
for gold and silver grew too heavy. The banks halted such exchanges. They said
the situation was only temporary. But the crisis continued.
This week in our series, Harry Monroe and
Tony Riggs talk about the economic situation. And they discuss foreign affairs during
the Van Buren presidency.
the weaker state banks closed after gold and silver payments were suspended.
Those that stayed open had almost no money to lend. Businessmen could not pay
back money they owed the banks. And they could not get loans to keep their
businesses open. Many factories closed. Great numbers of people were out of
federal government itself lost nine million dollars because of bank failures.
Businessmen said the government was to blame for the economic depression. They
said the biggest reason was an order made by former president Andrew Jackson.
Jackson had said the government would not accept paper money as payment for the
purchase of government land. It would accept only gold or silver.
of the order said it had caused fear and mistrust. Even some of Jackson's
strongest supporters said the order should be lifted. They said it had done its
job of ending land speculation. Now, they said, it was hurting the economy.
President Van Buren's closest advisers urged him to continue the order. Lifting
it, they argued, would flood the federal government with paper money of
Buren was troubled about the government's money. He wanted to make sure the
government had enough money. And he wanted this money safe until needed.
same time, Van Buren did not believe the federal government had the
responsibility for ending the depression. And he did not believe the government
had the right to interfere in any way with private business. So Van Buren
decided to continue the order. No government land could be bought with paper
economy got worse. The president called a special meeting of Congress. In his
message to Congress, Van Buren said "over-banking and over-trading"
had caused the depression. He proposed several steps to protect the government.
asked Congress to postpone payment of surplus federal government money to the
states. He said the money would be needed to operate the federal government in
the coming year. He also asked Congress to pass a law permitting the government
to keep its own money in the Treasury, instead of putting it in private banks.
This was the so-called "independent Treasury" bill.
opposition Whig Party denounced the president's proposals. It criticized Van
Buren for thinking only of protecting the federal government -- and not helping
businessmen, farmers and the states.
opposition was not strong enough to defeat all the president's proposals.
Congress approved a bill to postpone payment of surplus federal government money
to the states. But the Whigs -- together with conservative Democrats --
rejected the proposal for an independent Treasury.
Treasury Department received money when it collected import taxes and sold
land. It used this money to pay what the government owed. The Treasury did not,
however, hold the money from the time it was collected to the time it was paid
Treasury put the money in private banks. President Van Buren wanted to end this
situation. He wanted a law to permit the Treasury to keep government money in
its own secure places.
Whigs argued that such a law would give presidents too much power over the
economy. Some Democrats who believed strongly in states' rights also opposed
it. Between them, they had enough votes in Congress to defeat the proposal.
Van Buren tried again the following year to get approval for an independent
Treasury. Again, the proposal was defeated.
in June, eighteen-forty, Congress passed a law permitting the Treasury
Department to hold government money itself. Van Buren signed the bill. The economic
depression of eighteen thirty-seven
lasted for six years. It was the major problem -- but not the only problem --
during Van Buren's one term as president.
foreign affairs, one of the chief problems Van Buren faced was a dispute with
Britain about Canada. Canadian rebels had tried two times to end British rule
of Canada. They failed both times. Rebel leaders were forced to flee to safety
in the United States. There they found it easy to get men and supplies to help
them continue their struggle.
rebels built a base on a Canadian island in the Niagara River which formed part
of the border between the two countries. They used an American boat to carry
supplies from the American side to their base. In December eighteen thirty-seven,
Canadian soldiers crossed the Niagara River and seized the boat. One American
was killed in the fight.
while, Canadian forces and Canadian rebels exchanged attacks on river boats. A
number of American citizens fought with the rebels. President Van Buren was
troubled. He declared that the wish to help others become independent was a
natural feeling among Americans. But, he said no American had a right to invade
a friendly country. He warned that citizens who fought against the Canadian
government, and were captured, could expect no help from the United States.
problem between the United States and Canada at that time concerned the border
along the state of Maine. That part of the border had been in dispute ever
since seventeen eighty-three when Britain recognized the independence of the
later, the king of the Netherlands agreed to decide the dispute. The king said
it was impossible to decide the border from words of the peace treaty between
Britain and the United States. So he offered what he believed was a fair
settlement instead: The United States would get about two times as much of the
disputed area as Canada.
accepted the proposal by the king of the Netherlands. The United States did
not. The United States refused, because the state of Maine would not accept it.
eighteen thirty-eight, Britain withdrew its acceptance of the proposal. And Canadians
entered the disputed area. The governor of Maine sent state forces to the area.
The soldiers drove out the Canadians and built forts. Canada, too, began to
prepare for war.
Van Buren sent General Winfield Scott to Maine. Scott was able to get the
governor to withdraw his forces from the disputed area. He also received
guarantees that Canadian forces would not enter the area. The danger of war
in the border area, however, were angry with President Van Buren. They believed
Van Buren was weak, because he did not want war. Not only in the Northeast was
the president losing support. People all over the country were suffering
because of the economic depression.
people believed Van Buren was responsible for their troubles, because he did
not end the depression. The economy had fallen apart because of the hard money
policies of former President Andrew Jackson, and the opposition to those
policies by businessmen and bankers. And Van Buren did nothing to change those
Buren had been a good political adviser to President Jackson. But he had not
been a strong president. He was unable to make the people understand his
policies. The opposition Whig Party was happy over these developments. It saw
an excellent chance to win the next presidential election.
issues in American politics before the election of eighteen forty will be our
story in the next program of THE MAKING OF A NATION.
Our program was written by Frank Beardsley. The narrators were Harry
Monroe and Tony Riggs. Transcripts, MP3s and podcasts of our programs can be
found, along with historical images, at voaspecialenglish.com. Join us again
next week for THE MAKING OF A NATION - an American history series in VOA
This is program #66 of THE
MAKING OF A NATION