A Troublesome Son: John Van Buren's College Years
John Van Buren, the second of Martin Van Buren’s four children, was quite the headache. Financial issues plagued the father-son relationship during John’s years at Yale College, when he spent much of his time, at least in his father’s eyes, squandering money. For example, in 1826, John reported, “I have just received your letter containing the checks. My expenses last term were considerable. I had to get a great many things new.” When Martin asked his son for the receipts from his purchases, John replied, “I did not Keep an account of the money.” The younger Van Buren was crafty, however, and often managed to explain his financial miscalculations. In a letter to his father, John wrote, “I can assure you it [i.e., the money] was spent for absolute necessaries. I am practicing a rigid economy. You say that I have nothing to do with the expenses of other boys. It is only from them that you can see what my expenses ought to be.”
John Van Buren’s vices encompassed more than financial ineptness; he also happened to be lazy. While a student at Yale College, he skipped compulsory worship services. The president of the college, Jeremiah Day, was concerned that the faculty would push for the young man's suspension because of his continued absences and wrote Martin Van Buren in May 1828 to warn him of John’s transgressions. “Your conduct in not attending at the chapel in the morning was cause of dissatisfaction,” Martin told his son, and Day thought “it would be necessary to encrease your exertions greatly to enable you to succeed with any thing like credit at the examination in July.”
Two months later, John informed his father that he had been officially put on notice by the faculty regarding his attendance issues and was told he must attend worship services if he wished to avoid further repercussions. President Day had personally spoken to John about his absence at morning prayers, to which John replied, “I stated to him it was almos[t] impossible for me to rise so early in the morning as I had been in the habit all my life of sleeping till breakfast but, however, I would try and if I should accidentally sleep over, of course I wd expect the indulgence of the faculty.” John went on to explain, “I was at the time weak & sick and when I rose at five in the morning, I was hardly able to stand during the day. Besides all this, there were only two weeks more of the term remaining, and I thought it hardly worth while that this small inconvenience should be made up at the expense of my health.”
In an attempt to meet that stipulation, the younger Van Buren reported that he had enacted a plan to wake up in time for Sunday service. Unfortunately, his plan failed. As he told his father, “Altho’ I had engaged two men to pull me out of bed in the morning, from some reason or other, they neglected to do it; and, of course, I could not attend prayers those mornings.” Consequently, John Van Buren was suspended from Yale, and his degree was held at the mercy of the faculty. As John quipped to his father, the faculty dared not refuse him his degree over something that he and his fellow students considered “not only foolish but unjust and tyrannical.”
John was correct. He graduated from Yale College that same year and began studying law in Albany. He abandoned his extravagant spending in favor of an active political career and became a key player in Albany’s political sphere. In 1845, John Van Buren became the attorney general for the state of New York. Despite John’s financial transgressions and his collegiate mishaps, Martin Van Buren favored him over his other children and valued John’s political advice.
Quinlan Day Odom, Middle Tennessee State University
John Niven, Martin Van Buren: The Romantic Age of American Politics (Newtown: American Political Biography Press, 1983), 272-91, 544-45.