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It was during the presidency of Martin Van Buren (1841-45) that the land ultimately called Nevada began to experience travelers of European extraction.
The first “American-born”, although English-as -a-second-language speaker, Martin Van Buren was known as a great orator and political organizer. He came to the presidency having been a New York state senator, New York governor, US senator, US secretary of state and vice president during Andrew Jackson’s second term.
Van Buren inherited slaves. Twenty years before he became president his only slave ran away. When the slave was caught eight years later he offered him for sale. His entire life was filled with slavery dichotomies.
In 1821 during a convention to create a new constitution for New York that proposed forbidding free blacks from voting, Van Buren fought that but approved a compromise that allowed only blacks who possessed $250 to vote. He said this “held out inducements to industry” despite the fact that free blacks had been voting in New York for years.
When he succeeded Henry Clay as secretary of state, Van Buren allowed Charlotte Dupuy, a slave fighting her return to Clay’s Kentucky, to live in the Secretarial House as a wage earner while she pursued her case through the courts.
In 1837: “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.
“I desire to declare that the principle that will govern me in the high duty to which my country calls me is a strict adherence to the letter and spirit of the Constitution as it was designed by those who framed it.”
The year of 1840 was pivotal. Van Buren ordered a federal marshal to bring the Amistad prisoners to a Navy ship to be returned to their Spanish (alleged) owners. The courts ruled against Van Buren and, a year later, the prisoners (whose attorney had been John Q Adams) went free.
He then got in trouble with the South for supporting his Navy secretary’s decision that black witnesses could testify in a court martial, even though the alleged crime took place in North Carolina which forbid such testimony.
Vigorous opposition to the expansion of slavery cost him nomination for a second term.
By 1848 Van Buren was the presidential nominee of the Free Soil Party, accepting a platform that called for keeping slavery out of the territories. He announced that, if elected, he would not veto a law that forbid slavery in the District of Columbia.
For the years 2012-2013, Our Story, Inc. will be be celebrating the 150th Anniversary of the Emancipation Project and its legacy in Nevada. This article is part of a series to be published during that time. The first part of the series covers the Presidencies leading up to Lincoln in order to review national policy and experience leading to Emancipation. Please feel free to circulate and share (credited), comment or submit your own articles.
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