Martin Van Buren: The American Presidents Series by Ted Widmer:
Much better, from the Slave Power’s perspective, and much worse from our own, was Van Buren’s performance during the celebrated Amistad case. In 1839, slaves had revolted and taken control of the schooner Amistad off Cuba. Attempting to return to Africa, they had instead landed at Long Island, and they were soon imprisoned in Connecticut. Van Buren issued an executive order demanding that the slaves be taken to a naval vessel, to hasten their return to their Spanish owners, but the case ground its way slowly through the courts. Finally, in the last days of the Van Buren administration, in February 1841, the seventy-three-year-old John Quincy Adams delivered a stirring defense of the slaves before the Supreme Court, winning their freedom and his glory. An abolitionist wrote that Van Buren’s executive order ought to be “engraved on his tomb, to rot only with his memory.”
About the worst thing that can happen to your reputation is to be cast as the villain in a popular Steven Spielberg film. Undeniably, Van Buren’s actions in the Amistad case deserve censure. But it is difficult to imagine any president between John Quincy Adams and Abraham Lincoln acting differently, and it helps to understand that Van Buren was fighting several difficult battles at the same time. Without Southern support in 1840, Van Buren had no chance to pass his economic program, recover from the Panic of 1837, or win reelection. As I hope I have made clear, he was not consistently pro-slavery and often enraged the South with his tacit support for certain African-American rights. In 1848, he would go quite a bit further.