He was the second son of President Martin Van Buren and graduated from Yale College in 1828. In 1831, when his father was appointed U.S. Minister to Britain, he accompanied him as secretary of the American Legation in London. Both returned in 1832 after Congress failed to confirm the appointment.
John Van Buren then opened a law practice with James McKown in Albany. He is said to have possessed a “remarkable memory”, “his success at the bar was great, but his fame as a lawyer has been dimmed by his wit and his wonderful ability as a politician." He returned to England on his own in 1838-39 (during his father's Presidency). He had spectacular seats at Queen Victoria's coronation, also attended the Queen's prorogue to Parliament, and earned his nickname of “Prince John” after he danced with her in 1838. Van Buren dined with the who’s who of 19th century England, Ireland and Scotland. He also met with the King of France, Louis-Philippe, the King of Belgium, Leopold I, and the King of the Netherlands, William I, (Prince William IV of Orange).
On June 22, 1841, he married Elizabeth Vanderpoel (May 22, 1810 - November 19, 1844), his childhood sweetheart. They had one daughter, Anna, and after her death, Van Buren never remarried.
From 1845 to 1847, he served as New York State Attorney General, the last holder of that office elected by joint ballot of the Assembly and Senate, under the provisions of the state Constitution of 1821. In 1845, he conducted the prosecution of some leaders of the Anti-Rent War at their trial for riot, conspiracy and robbery. Ambrose L. Jordan led for the defense. At the first trial the jury was deadlocked. At the re-trial, in September 1845, the two leading counsel started a fist-fight in open court, and were both sentenced by the presiding judge, Justice John W. Edmonds, to "solitary confinement in the county jail for 24 hours." Governor Silas Wright refused to accept Van Buren's resignation, and both counsel continued with the case after their release from jail. The defendant, Smith A. Boughton ("Big Thunder"), was sentenced to life imprisonment. At the next state election Governor Wright was defeated by John Young, who had the support of the Anti-Renters. Young pardoned Big Thunder.
In December 1845, Governor Wright charged Van Buren to work on an act to limit the tenure of landlords. The bill, “An Act to amend the Statute of Devices and Descents, and to extinguish certain Tenures” was the most radical reform considered by the New York State Legislature during the Anti-Rent years. It basically said that the death of a landlord ended a lease.
John Van Buren also prosecuted the case of William Freeman, who murdered four members of the Van Nest Family of Cayuga County, New York on March 12, 1846. The Defense tried to prove that Freeman was insane and therefore could not stand trial, but a local jury disagreed and the trial began after days of jury selection. Because it was a capital case, Quakers (Anti- death penalty) were dismissed from the jury panel. The local District Attorney, Luman Sherwood, also served as a prosecutor. He and Van Buren fought vehemently against the Defense’s insanity strategy. Van Buren believed that the legal system rested on lawbreakers being punished and that finding a man innocent because of insanity would cause the system to crumble. In his addresses to the jury, he explained the cause and effect of finding Freeman guilty. The Prosecution did everything they could to show the jury that Freeman was in fact sane and should be found guilty and face the death penalty. Race was a huge factor: Freeman’s mother was Native American and his father was black. It was argued he was a product of the mixing of two inferior races and that this was one reason for his actions. In a society in which racism was common, these claims did not fall on deaf ears. The jury deliberated for two hours before finding Freeman guilty on July 23, 1846, and at 6:30AM the next day, William Freeman was sentenced by Judge Whiting to hang on the afternoon of September, 18, 1846. In January 1847, however, the Supreme Court reversed the decision of the Cayuga County Court and granted Freeman a new trial. Freeman died on August 21, 1847 of tuberculosis in his jail cell, weeks before that trial was to begin.
Later in 1847, Van Buren moved to New York City and formed a partnership with Hamilton W. Robinson. A suit for the divorce of Edwin Forrest, an actor, brought Van Buren before the public once more. He was asked to run for various offices but always declined, stating he had been far too close to the seats of power to seek them out.
In 1848, Van Buren was the leader of the Barnburner faction of the Democratic Party, which repudiated the 1848 Democratic National Convention held in Baltimore. The Barnburners met for a State Convention in Utica, New York on June 22 and nominated Van Buren's father as their presidential candidate. On August 9, the National Convention of the Free Soil Party, held at Buffalo, New York, endorsed this nomination. Lewis Cass ended up on the official Democratic ticket, which forever incensed the Van Burens, who felt Martin had been robbed of the position. Martin Van Buren failed to win a single state and Zachary Taylor won the presidency. But Martin Van Buren’s votes in New York cost Cass the election.
Jon Earle argues that “Prince John” Van Buren was the “most effective campaign speaker" and that Van Buren was especially effective with urban working-class audiences. In his speeches Van Buren "took Jacksonian antislavery arguments to new rhetorical height, excoriating the slavery conspirators, ridiculing comprising "doughfaces" and "meddlesome Whigs," and above all, emphasizing the degrading influence of slavery on free labor.” (p. 167). “John Van Buren often stressed the Free Soil Party plank calling for free homesteads in his appeals to workingmen and freeholders, reminding them that reserving the public lands for settlers kept out of the hands of speculators and land monopolies, as well as slaveholders.” The Free Soil Party was anti-slavery because it believed that slavery promoted laziness and went against free land/labor ideas. As a strong supporter of this third party, Van Buren convinced his father to run on its platform in 1848. The Free Soil Party completely split with the Democratic Party, which came to be influenced by elite slaveholders. Many of the Free Soil members became joined the Republican Party in 1860 when Abraham Lincoln ran for President, even nominating one of their own, Hannibal Hamlin to the vice presidency. Many, if not most of the Free Soil Party’s ideals were appropriated by the Republican Party.
In 1865, John Van Buren again ran for the office of New York state Attorney General on the Democratic ticket, but was defeated by Republican John H. Martindale. After Van Buren's political defeat, he visited Europe (1866) accompanied by his daughter and niece. “They traveled extensively in England, Sweden, Norway and Russia.”(195) Van Buren died from exposure on the return journey from Liverpool to New York City aboard the Scotia. A storm set in after his death, and feeling that was an omen, the sailors tried to cast his body into the sea, but the captain would not allow it. After the ship arrived in New York, funeral services were held at that city's Grace Church and in Albany's St. Peter’s Church. John Van Buren's grave is located in the Albany Rural Cemetery.
Van Buren was a man surrounded by innuendoes, even after his death. He was rumored to have lost $5000, and with it, his father's home, Lindenwald as well as a mistress, the very popular Elena America Vespucci, descendent of Amerigo Vespucci, to George Parish of Ogdensburg, New York in a card game at the LeRay Hotel in Evans Mills, New York. This story has not been verified, but it has plagued Van Buren's reputation.
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