So who was Hannah Van Buren?
She is a mysterious presence in the story of Martin Van Buren, a crucial piece of his life reduced to a shadow—mostly because of Martin’s silence. Van Buren famously did not mention her in his autobiography, an omission that has long confounded historians. It is believed that he destroyed all their correspondence. We arguably know less about her than any other president’s wife. Contemporaries described her as “mild,” “unassuming,” and “shy.” Martin’s longtime law partner Benjamin F. Butler added that Hannah was “a woman of sweet nature but few intellectual gifts.” Many said she was much like Martin’s mother. The few portraits of her show that she was attractive and petite, with curly red hair, blue eyes, fair skin and high cheekbones.
It was customary to describe the wives of famous figures as pious and dutiful, but Hannah was certainly more complicated than these hoary stereotypes. It is difficult to imagine that someone of Van Buren’s intelligence and curiosity would have chosen a simpleton for a spouse. Her strenuous childhood must have steeled her. If Hannah was indeed much like Martin’s mother—and there is reason to suspect that she was—then we can assume that Hannah Van Buren was a more substantial woman than history has acknowledged.
Martin and Hannah’s courtship suggests that for all of Van Buren’s yearning for a world bigger than provincial Kinderhook, he wanted something very different in his private life. Conflict was constant and inevitable at work, but he longed for serenity at home. In his first quarter century Van Buren had often resisted the trappings of history. He had left Kinderhook at the first opportunity. He was determined to leave his mark on the law. By marrying Hannah, however, he was continuing the conventions of his ancestors. He still cared about tradition—at least when he was twenty-four.