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John Van Buren (February 18, 1810 Hudson, Columbia County, New York - October 13, 1866) was an American lawyer and politician.

Life

John Van Buren (foto between 1855 and 1865)

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.

He opened a law practice with James McKown in Albany when he returned from England. 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."[1] He returned to England on his own in 1838-39(While his Father was President) he met Queen Victoria early in her long reign and attended her Coronation and had spectacular seats. He dined with the who’s who of 19th century England, Ireland and Scotland. He also attended Queen Victoria’s prorogue to Parliament, met with King of France, Louis-Philippe, met with the King of Belgium, Leopold I,and met with King of the Netherlands, William I, (Prince William IV of Orange). The nickname of “Prince John” was created after he danced with Queen Victoria in 1838.[2]

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, John never remarried.

He served as New York State Attorney General from 1845 to 1847. He was the last NY state attorney general elected by the joint ballot of Assembly and Senate, under the provisions of the State Constitution of 1821. In 1845, he conducted personally the accusation 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 disagreed. 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 who was released from jail.

In December, 1845 Governor Wright charged Attorney General John 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”. It was the most radical reform bill considered by the New York State Legislature during the Anti-Rent years. It, basically, said that the death of a landlord ended a lease.

The William Freeman case was prosecuted by John Van Buren. On March 12, 1846, William Freeman murdered four members of the Van Nest Family of Cayuga County New York. The Defense tried to prove he was insane and therefore could not stand trial but a local jury said he was fit to stand trial 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 Prosecution consisted of the local District attorney, Luman Sherwood and John Van Buren. Both fought vehemently against the Defense’s strategy of saying Freeman was insane at the time of the killings. John Van Buren believed that the legal system rested on the fact that law breakers were punished and finding a man innocent by 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 racist society these claims did not fall on deaf ears. The jury deliberated for two hours before finding Freeman guilty on July 23. At 6:30 am July 24 William Freeman was sentenced by Judge Whiting to hang on the afternoon of Friday September, 18, 1846. In January 1847, the Supreme Court reverses the decision of the Cayuga County Court of Oyer and Terminer. Freeman was granted a new trial. Freeman died August 21, 1847 of tuberculosis in his jail cell, weeks before his new trial was to begin.

Later in 1847 John moved to New York City and formed a partnership with Hamilton W. Robinson. A suit for the divorce of Edwin Forrest, an actor, brought him 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, John Van Buren was the leader of the Barnburner faction of the Democratic Party which repudiated the Democratic National Convention held in Baltimore. They met for a State Convention in Utica, New York on June 22 and nominated his father as the presidential candidate of the Barnburners. On August 9, the National Convention of the Free Soil Party, held at Buffalo, New York, endorsed the nomination of the ex-president. Cass ended up on the official ticket which forever incensed John and Martin, who felt Martin had been robbed of the position. Martin failed to win a single state and Taylor won the presidency. But Martin’s votes in New York cost Cass the election.

Jon Earle argues that “Prince John” Van Buren was the “most effective campaign speaker”. He also states, “He was especially effective with the urban working- class audiences. In his speeches he took Jacksonian antislavery arguments to new rhetorical height, excoriating the slave conspirators, ridiculing comprising doughfaces and meddlesome Whigs, and above all, emphasizing the degrading influence of slavery on free labor.” (167). “John Van Buren often stressed the new party’s plank calling for free homesteads in his appeals to workingmen and freeholders, reminding them that reserving the public lands for settlers kept them out of the hands of speculators and land monopolies, as well as slaveholders.”[3] Although the Free Soil Party was anti-slavery it wasn’t for racial reasons- they believe slavery promoted laziness and went against free land/labor ideas- these men were usually racist, to a degree. As strong supporter of the Free Soil Party, he convinced his father to run on the third party platform in 1848. The Party completely split with the Democratic Party which came to stand for the white elite slaveholders. Many of their members became part of the new Republican Party in 1860 when Abraham Lincoln ran for office, 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, he ran again for the office of NY state attorney general on the Democratic ticket, but was defeated by Republican John H. Martindale. After his political defeat he traveled to Europe (1866) accompanied by his daughter and niece. “They traveled extensively in England, Sweden, Norway and Russia.”(195)[4] He died from the cold on the return journey from Liverpool to New York City aboard the Scotia. A storm set in after his death, feeling it was an omen the sailor’s tried to cast his body to the sea, but the captain would not allow it.

When they arrived in New York there was a funeral service at Grace Church and another held in Albany at St. Peter’s Church. His grave is located in the Albany Rural Cemetery. “He was the president of the St. Nicholas Society of New York and of the Manhattan Club and there is in the house occupied by the club a portrait of him, which is valued as a striking likeness of one the ablest, best and most attractive men this country has produced.”[5]

John was a man surrounded by innuendoes, even after his death rumors of impropriety abounded. He is rumored to have lost his Father's home, Lindenwald in a poker game as well as a mistress. It was rumored the very popular Elena America Vespucci, descendent of Amerigo Vespucci, was John's mistress. He supposedly lost her and $5000 to George Parish of Ogdensburg, New York in a card game at the LeRay Hotel in Evans Mills, New York.[6] This story has not been verified, but it has been a rumor that has plagued John's reputation.[7]

References

  1. ^ Miller, Peyton F. A Group of Great Lawyers of Columbia Country, New York. Privately Printed, 1904. Pages 184-196.
  2. ^ Diary of John Van Buren
  3. ^ Earle, Jonathan Halperin, Jacksonian antislavery & the politics of free soil, 1824-1854. UNC Press, 2004, p. 167-168.
  4. ^ Miller, Peyton F. A Group of Great Lawyers of Columbia Country, New York. Privately Printed, 1904. Pages 184-196.
  5. ^ Miller, Peyton F. A Group of Great Lawyers of Columbia Country, New York. Privately Printed, 1904. Pages 184-196.
  6. ^ John Harwood (September 1982). "National Register of Historic Places Registration: LeRay Hotel". New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. http://www.oprhp.state.ny.us/hpimaging/hp_view.asp?GroupView=3004. Retrieved 2009-12-10.  
  7. ^ Trivia-Library.com

Sources

  • USgennet.org, NY history
  • PoliticalGraveyard.com Political Graveyard
  • Miller, Peyton F. A Group of Great Lawyers of Columbia Country, New York. Privately Printed, 1904. Pages 184-196.
  • PGVhosting.com, Van Buren Genealogy
  • Earle, Jonathan Halperin, Jacksonian antislavery & the politics of free soil, 1824-1854. UNC Press, 2004.
  • NYtimes.com, an account of the altercation at the trial.
  • Arpey, Andrew W. The William Freeman Murder Trial: Insanity, Politics and Race. Syracuse University Press: Syracuse, New York. 2003.
  • USgennet.org, History of Columbia County, New York by Captain Franklin Ellis (Everts & Ensign, Philadelphia PA, 1878)
  • NTimes.com, Obit in NYT on October 17, 1866
Legal offices
Preceded by
George P. Barker
New York State Attorney General
1845 – 1847
Succeeded by
Ambrose L. Jordan
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