Kinderhook, Martin Van Buren and the First Lady Who Never Was

Martin Van Buren purchased his 137-acre estate, Lindenwald, in 1839. (National Park Service)

Martin Van Buren purchased his 137-acre estate, Lindenwald, in 1839. (National Park Service)

As you drive north through Columbia County, you reach Kinderhook, home to the eighth president of the United States, Martin Van Buren. Just outside of town is the Kinderhook Cemetery, where, next to his wife Hannah, you will find the president’s final resting place. You are to be excused if, when thinking of a presidential family from the Hudson Valley, you thought solely of the Roosevelts. You would be further excused if you assumed that Hannah Van Buren served along side her husband as first lady of the land; after all, there she is on the official White House website. Truth be told, to the life-lasting sadness of the president, Hannah Van Buren would never set foot in the White House nor spend a single night under its roof.

Rising through both state and national levels of government, Martin Van Buren, integral to the creation of the Democratic Party, served as attorney general of New York, US senator, governor of New York, secretary of state, ambassador to Great Britain, vice president of the US under his mentor Andrew Jackson and, in 1836, was elected as the eighth president and the first to be born in the US.

Rising through both state and national levels of government, Martin Van Buren, integral to the creation of the Democratic Party, served as attorney general of New York, US senator, governor of New York, secretary of state, ambassador to Great Britain, vice president of the US under his mentor Andrew Jackson and, in 1836, was elected as the eighth president and the first to be born in the US.

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Born in 1782, the future president was raised by Dutch parents, with Van Buren receiving his early schooling at the Kinderhook Academy. A young Martin also received an early political education by virtue of the fact that his father’s tavern often served as a local center for the sometimes-raucous political debate that befitted a new nation.

Van Buren couldn’t afford to attend college, so he began an apprenticeship with a local lawyer, Francis Sylvester, and, in 1803, passed the bar and took up practice as a lawyer. Having achieved some stability, Van Buren asked his childhood sweetheart (and distant cousin) Hannah for her hand in marriage in 1807. Seeking a private ceremony away from their large families and collection of friends, the couple slipped across the Hudson River to Catskill to be married in the home of Hannah’s sister by her husband, judge Moses Cantine. The house in which they were married still stands on West Main Street in Catskill.

Van Buren called his new bride Jannetje: Dutch for Hannah. Within a year of their marriage, the political world began to call to Van Buren, and the couple moved to Hudson, where Van Buren took a post in county government. By 1812, with his election to the first of two terms as state senator, Van Buren’s political career was on the rise. As a result, home became Albany.

An adherent to the Jeffersonian philosophy of limited government, Van Buren, as he rose through the ranks of state government, began to build his own version of an early political machine. Through the careful construction of political alliances and patronage, the Van Buren home, much like his father’s tavern back in Kinderhook, became an active gathering point for political acquaintances, government aides and members of his law firm.

Hannah Van Buren

Hannah Van Buren

Throughout those early years of marriage and away from the only home that she had known, Hannah endeavored to fill her role as a 19th-century wife and mother. As is the case with so many women whose lives were eclipsed by the public careers of powerful husbands in the 1800s, information about her life is limited. We do know that Hannah was a pious woman with blue eyes and blonde hair who gave what time she could to the church. Raised under the Dutch Reformed Church, she dedicated herself to the Presbyterian Church following the couple’s move to Albany.

The major portion of her day, however, was given to raising her children. Hannah gave birth to six children – four of whom would live. A son, Winfield Scott Van Buren, died in 1814, while an earlier child, a girl, was stillborn.

It was in 1819, pregnant with her sixth child in ten years, that Hannah contracted tuberculosis. Though she delivered a healthy son, the strain of the pregnancy only complicated her condition. With Hannah unable to rise from her bed and finding difficulty in the simple act of breathing, her niece was eventually brought in to aid in her care and to help with the children.

Hannah Hoes Van Buren died on February 5, 1819, just shy of her 36th birthday. On her deathbed she asked only that the custom of purchasing scarves for her pallbearers be disregarded and that the money be used instead to aid the poor. In an obituary that appeared in the Albany Argus, simple-yet-dignified words were printed in honor of Hannah’s shortened life: “Humility was her crowning grace; she possessed it in rare degree; it took root and flourished full and fair, shedding over every act of her life its general influence. She was an ornament of the Christian faith.”

It is said that the future president would never speak of Hannah again. In fact, though he later wrote an 800-page autobiography, Hannah’s name does not appear on a single page. Lest you think of him as cold or insensitive, such was not the case. It has been offered that the grief borne by Van Buren was simply far too painful. While he carried a locket of her hair, the suffering that she endured became a memory that he could not revisit with others.

Now a widower with four sons, Van Buren went on to build a remarkable career that few have equaled in service to their country. Rising through both state and national levels of government, Van Buren, integral to the creation of the Democratic Party, served as attorney general of New York, US senator, governor of New York, secretary of state, ambassador to Great Britain, vice president of the US under his mentor Andrew Jackson and, in 1836, was elected as the eighth president and the first to be born in the US.

It was during his presidency that Van Buren’s thoughts returned to Kinderhook. In 1839, Van Buren purchased his 137-acre estate, Lindenwald. Though it was originally contemplated as a place for “retreat” during his presidential years, circumstances conspired to limit Van Buren to serving only one term as president. Within three months of his inauguration, the country was plunged into a devastating financial panic as banks and businesses failed. To complicate matters for his administration, the divisive debate over the expansion of slavery that would engulf the nation in the years ahead began to take on increasing momentum. His refusal to annex Texas, seeing it as an extension of slavery, further cost him politically.

With his loss in the 1840 election to William Henry Harrison, Van Buren returned to Lindenwald. Having expanded his holdings to include a total of 225 acres, Van Buren took up the occupation of “gentleman farmer” while also plotting unsuccessful attempts to regain the presidency in 1844 and 1848. Van Buren began converting Lindenwald – originally constructed in 1797 as a two-and-a-half-story Georgian-style home – by removing the original staircase, expanding rooms and hanging the scenic French wallpaper that still greets visitors today.

In 1849, noted architect Richard Upjohn was brought to Kinderhook. Under Upjohn (whose countless contributions to American architecture include Wall Street’s Trinity Church and, locally, the James and Mary Forsyth home in Kingston and the Church of the Holy Comforter in Poughkeepsie), work began to transform Lindenwald even further. In his renovations Upjohn added a central gable, dormers and a four-story brick tower. Expanding the home to 36 rooms, Upjohn also added a front porch while the original brick received the yellow coat of paint that is presented today.

The interior, despite the large number of rooms, offers an intimate setting where the president entertained guests (Henry Clay being one of the more notable visitors), worked in his study and enjoyed his ten grandchildren. A number of Lindenwald’s original pieces remain. Lindenwald boasted one of the earliest forms of central heating in the area, indoor running water, a “flush toilet,” and a 19th-century version of a coffeemaker. Upstairs includes a number of bedrooms where his sons and their wives would stay, including Angelica Singleton Van Buren who, as Van Buren’s daughter-in-law, had served as the president’s White House hostess in Hannah’s absence.

The upstairs also includes the bedroom of the former president. In the very bed that is there today, Martin Van Buren, suffering from bronchial asthma, died of heart failure on July 24, 1862. Van Buren’s body lay in state at Lindenwald for three days. Following his funeral he was laid to rest a short distance from his treasured Lindenwald in the Kinderhook Reformed Church Cemetery. There, as the visitor can solemnly observe today, he rests next to Hannah, whose body was returned to Kinderhook in 1855 from her original burial site in Albany.

Martin Van Buren had risen from relative obscurity to sit at the pinnacle of power in what was then a relatively new experiment in government. While his presidency is often looked upon as failing in many respects, the man from Kinderhook symbolized the very heart of what many believed the nation should and could be: a place where anyone bearing the desire, passion and honesty required to succeed could do so. Though his life was marred by tragedy, including the death of his beloved Hannah, Van Buren persevered. And, while historians may long argue over the merits of his presidency, Van Buren left us with words that still echo over the years – especially in our era of instant gratification: “The government should not be guided by temporary excitement, but by somber second thought.”

 

Lindenwald will remain open through October 31. Tours are conducted daily. The site and area also include a number of trails that visitors can enjoy year-round. Lindenwald will also open for one day on December 5 (Van Buren’s birthday) for a “winter celebration” sponsored by the Garden Club of Kinderhook. For more information on Lindenwald, go to www.nps.gov/nr/travel/presidents/van_buren_lindenwald.html.

 

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