Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

The Panic of 1837 and the Presidency of Martin Van Buren


The Lesson


Martin Van Buren—8th President of the United States—took office at a turbulent  time for America's economy.

Martin Van Buren—8th President of the United States—took office at a turbulent time for America's economy.

Credit: Image courtesy of American Memory at the Library of Congress.

… the less Government interferes with private pursuits, the better for the general prosperity.
— President Martin Van Buren to Congress
Journal of the House of Representatives of the United States, TUESDAY, September 5, 1837,
EDSITEment resource American Memory Project

President Martin Van Buren inherited “the severe downturn in the American economy that began in 1836.”

… [It] became Van Buren’s primary concern during his presidency. Historians have identified three causes of the depression that wracked the American economy during the late 1830s. First, English banks—responding to financial troubles at home—stopped pumping money into the American economy, an important reversal since those funds had financed much of the nation’s economic growth over the preceding two decades. Second, U.S. banks, which had overextended credit to their clients, began to call in loans after British banks cut their money supply. Third, President Andrew Jackson’s “hard” money policies, especially the 1836 Specie Circular that aimed to stabilize what Jacksonians saw as an out-of-control economy by requiring that all purchases of federal land be made with precious metal (i.e. “hard” money) rather than paper (“soft”) money, only exacerbated the credit crunch.
— From Van Buren’s Domestic Affairs
in EDSITEment resource The American President

In this lesson, students will analyze period political cartoons as they study the causes of the economic downturn, Van Buren’s response as president, and the reaction to his measures.

Guiding Questions

  • What were the causes of the Panic of 1837 and the economic downturn that lasted from 1836 to 1843?
  • How was criticism of Van Buren an extension of criticism of Andrew Jackson, his predecessor?
  • What effect did the downturn have on working Americans?
  • How did Van Buren respond to the economic downturn? Why did he respond in that way? How effective was his response?
  • To what extent did party politics affect Van Buren’s response to the Panic of 1837? In turn, how did Van Buren’s policies affect party politics?

Learning Objectives

  • After completing this lesson, students will be able to:
    List the principal causes of the Panic of 1837.
  • Discuss President Van Buren’s response to the Panic of 1837 and its aftermath. What did he do? Why did he respond as he did? What were the results of his policies?
  • Reflect on the use of archival political cartoons in the study of history.
  • Analyze cartoons about the Panic of 1837. What important issues can be identified through the cartoons? In what ways did bias or the passage of time affect the use of the cartoons?

Preparation Instructions

  • Review the lesson plan. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and other useful websites. Download and print out documents you will use and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing.
  • Prepare copies of the cartoons from HarpWeek (listed below), but without the explanations provided. Students will be shown the explanation after they have learned about the period and analyzed the cartoons on their own.
  • It should be noted that some elements in early archival cartoons have become obscure over time. Even so, such cartoons can be a rich source for classroom discussion.
  • One can better understand Martin Van Buren’s response to the Panic of 1837 with some appreciation of the Democrats and Whigs and the rivalry between these two major parties in this period sometimes called “The Second American Two-Party System.” Lesson 3 offers a brief, optional look at the parties and their rivalry, especially as reflected in the election campaign of 1840, which took into account the reaction to Van Buren’s response to the Panic of 1837. Classes that have studied the rivalry between the parties may not need Lesson 3. Information about the positions of the parties is also found in Lesson 1 and 2.

    Throughout this unit, students will read and analyze a variety of primary documents. The following materials from EDSITEment resources may be useful to teachers seeking expert advice on the use of primary documents:

The following materials from EDSITEment resources may be helpful to students preparing to interpret primary documents:


Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Background on the Issues and the Interpretation of Political Cartoons

1. Ask the students to think about how historians interpret and learn from primary source material such as political cartoons. In guiding the students through this preliminary activity, you might need to offer a few clues. They should, for example, consider:

  • The subject selected
  • The particular message about that subject
  • Artistic style and how that contributes to the message
  • Use of specific images and/or caricatures
  • The simplicity or complexity of the cartoon
  • The “tone” of the drawing
  • The anticipated audience

You might also ask students to think about the difference between a visual and a “verbal” document and, in particular, what advantages the visual has over the “verbal.” In what ways does the visual have an advantage over the “verbal” from the historian’s point of view?

Use one or more of the following cartoons in a whole class lesson or assign one cartoon to each of as many as six small groups. All of the cartoons are thought to be from 1837 except “Sober Second Thoughts,” which is probably from 1838.

For now, ask each group to scan its cartoon quickly to list the historical events, people, and terms one would need to understand to interpret the cartoon. Note that each of the chosen cartoons has a different focus, although there is overlap in information. Tell the students that they will return to an analysis of these same cartoons after reading secondary material on related historical events and working with relevant cartoons.

When the groups have made their lists, compile a comprehensive class list.

2. Provide background for the class on events during President Jackson’s second term that continued to be important during Van Buren’s term in office. Share a secondary account such as The Celebrated Bank War from the EDSITEment resource Digital History.

3. In the whole-class setting, model the interpretation of primary sources using either or both of the following:

Activity 2. The Panic of 1837 in Political Cartoons

1. Share with the class a secondary account of the Panic of 1837 and President Van Buren, such as the section “Economic Panic of 1837” in Martin Van Buren: Domestic Affairs from the EDSITEment resource The American President.

2. Return to the cartoons about the Panic of 1837 with the whole class or small groups. Using the Cartoon Analysis Worksheet from Digital Classroom, the whole class or each group should prepare an analysis of the cartoon(s).

Each group should briefly share its cartoon with the class. Once the students have discussed the cartoons using the background provided and their own interpretations, distribute to each group the explanation of the cartoon provided by Harp Week.

Guided Discussion Questions

Suggested whole group discussion questions for the cartoons:

  • What important individuals, terms, and/or events are prominently mentioned in the cartoons? Which of these were mentioned in the secondary accounts? Which items still seem in need of further research to aid in understanding the cartoon?
  • What reasons do those against Van Buren’s policies give for their opposition?
  • What reasons do those in favor of Van Buren’s policies give for their support?
  • What “propaganda techniques” are used in the cartoons?
  • What factors that also contributed to the downturn in the American economy and the Panic of 1837 are ignored in the cartoons?
  • Why did the artists focus on certain factors and ignore others when drawing their cartoons?
  • What kind of information can a historian learn from a cartoon that is/may not be apparent in traditional written sources? Of what importance are visual materials to the study and understanding of history?

And when the content discussion is through, do some self-evaluation on the process:
These questions may be raised with the class as well

  • What was the process of interpreting the cartoon like for the students? What elements of any of the cartoons are still obscure? Is it possible to learn from the cartoons without understanding those elements?
Activity 3. A Primer on Party Politics in Jacksonian America

1. The Whigs and the Democrats

Share with the class a secondary account (or information from a secondary account) of the two parties, such as the following essays from Getting the Message Out, an exhibit of the Abraham Lincoln Historical Digitization Project, a link from EDSITEment resource American Studies at the University of Virginia.

2. Martin Van Buren: Jacksonian Democrat

Van Buren inherited the conditions that caused America’s first great depression, The Panic of 1837. According to the article Martin Van Buren: Domestic Affairs from the EDSITEment resource The American President, “The question for the new president was how—and whether—to respond. Van Buren followed a course of action consistent with his Jacksonian belief in the limited powers of the federal government and a suspicion of paper money and easy credit.” The belief that the federal government should only do that which is specifically enumerated in the Constitution can be traced back to Thomas Jefferson.

Share with the students—and discuss--the Jacksonian core of Van Buren’s remarks to Congress in his message of September 5, 1837 (from the Journal of the House of Representatives of the United States, TUESDAY, September 5, 1837 from EDSITEment resource American Memory Project):

All communities are apt to look to Government for too much. Even in our own country, where its powers and duties are so strictly limited, we are prone to do so, especially at periods of sudden embarrassment and distress. But this ought not to be. The framers of our excellent constitution, and the people who approved it with calm and sagacious deliberation, acted at the time on a sounder principle. They wisely judged that the less Government interferes with private pursuits, the better for the general prosperity. It is not its legitimate object to make men rich, or to repair, by direct grants of money or legislation in favor of particular pursuits, losses not incurred in the public service. This would be substantially to use the property of some for the benefit of others. But its real duty—that duty the performance of which makes a good Government the most precious of human blessings—is to enact and enforce a system of general laws commensurate with, but not exceeding, the objects of its establishment, and to leave every citizen and every interest to reap, under its benign protection, the rewards of virtue, industry, and prudence.

Van Buren’s political convictions prevented him from offering direct help to citizens and business interests in need. Rather, he initiated steps to reform government monetary policy, discussed in Activity 2.

The bitter rivalry between the two major parties guaranteed opposition from the Whigs to almost anything Van Buren proposed. Any changes the president made to Andrew Jackson’s policies (such as Van Buren’s proposal for a sub-treasury system) guaranteed opposition from members of his own party, the Democrats.

3. Some campaign songs from the 1840 election in which Van Buren was defeated by William Henry Harrison and the Whigs, shed light on the animosity between and positions of the Democrats and Whigs as they had developed beginning with Andrew Jackson’s tenure in office. The class will look at two songs (both Whig songs) and, if desired, should use the Song Analysis Sheet provided in the lesson Songs of the Times: American Concerns in 19th Century Campaigns by Jennifer Erbach (from Getting the Message Out, an exhibit of the Abraham Lincoln Historical Digitization Project, a link from EDSITEment resource American Studies at the University of Virginia).

The 1840 election is sometimes characterized as solely about image. That element of the campaign is borne out in the song Little Vanny (from Getting the Message Out). Click on the title to access the lyrics and a recording of the music. Work with the class in analyzing the song. What image of Harrison is being conveyed? What image of Van Buren?

But issues were important in 1840 in the rivalry between the parties. Van Buren’s Jacksonian views were at the core of his response to the Panic of 1837. Share with the class the lyrics to the Currency Song (also from Getting the Message Out, though no music is available unfortunately). What issues are mentioned in the song that relate to the Panic of 1837 and Van Buren’s response to it?

You might ask students a few general questions about songs as sources, particularly at a time in history when forms of mass communication were far fewer than they are now and not every one could read and/or afford a newspaper. One of the things you might help students understand with these questions is how tunes/songs have a tendency to replay in one’s thought until the ideas are imbedded.

4. The following electoral maps from EDSITEment resource Digital History demonstrate the rivalry between the parties and the change to national alliances. Note the change in dominance from Jackson’s landslide victory in 1832 to Harrison’s landslide in 1840. Which states swung from the Democrats to the Whigs between 1836 and 1840? Students can think about this information further by asking:

In 1844 James Polk won back the presidency for the Democrats. In 1848, Zachary Taylor, a Whig, became president. In other words, there was fierce competition between these two parties.


Give individuals or small groups the cartoon Treasury Note from the EDSITEment resource HarpWeek. Ask them to take a stand—with support—that the cartoon does or does not support the policies of Van Buren. You may want to divide the class in half and assign the halves opposing positions to defend in a class debate.

Extending The Lesson

  • A convention for marking that part of the boundary between the United States and the Republic of Texas which extends from the mouth of the Sabine to the Red River was concluded and signed at this city on the 25th of April last. It has since been ratified by both Governments, and seasonable measures will be taken to carry it into effect on the part of the United States.
  • The application of that Republic for admission into this Union, made in August 1837, and which was declined for reasons already made known to you, has been formally withdrawn, as will appear from the accompanying copy of the note of the minister plenipotentiary of Texas, which was presented to the Secretary of State on the occasion of the exchange of the ratifications of the convention above mentioned.

Interested students can research the history of Texas during the period including Van Buren’s changing position on its statehood.

  • Another important issue during Van Buren’s term in office was U.S. relations with Native Americans. According to EDSITEment resource The American President:

The Van Buren administration also proved particularly hostile to Native Americans. Federal policy under Jackson had sought, through the Indian Removal Act of 1830, to move all Indian peoples to lands west of the Mississippi River. Continuing this policy, Van Buren supported further removals after his election in 1836. The federal government supervised the removal of the Cherokee people in 1838, a forced stagger west to the Mississippi in which a full quarter of the Cherokee nation died.

Some Native Americans resisted the removal policy violently, however. In Florida, the Seminole people fought upwards of 5,000 American troops, and even the death of the charismatic Seminole leader Chief Osceola in 1838 failed to quell the resistance. Fighting continued into the 1840s and brought death to thousands of Native Americans. The protracted nature of the conflict had deleterious political consequences too. The Whigs, as well as a small number of Americans who believed the removal campaign inhumane, criticized the Van Buren administration’s conduct of the war.

A good place to begin research is through the search engine of the EDSITEment-reviewed Native Web. Search for a term such as “Trail of Tears.”

  • In 1839, 49 enslaved Africans aboard the ship Amistad freed themselves from their chains and revolted, taking over the ship. Eventually, their case was argued in the Supreme Court. The EDSITEment resource Exploring Amistad offers a detailed look into the incident. It describes President Van Buren’s role as follows:

Van Buren was not in Washington when the Amistad affair broke; he was campaigning in upstate New York. His cabinet therefore formulated the administration's initial response: meeting in mid-September, they took Forsyth's lead and arranged for federal authorities to support Spanish demands that the "slaves" be returned to Cuba to face trial as murderers and pirates. Van Buren soon returned to the capital, but he seems to have paid little attention to the matter, letting Forsyth continue to handle the situation. The president did not replace any judges in the case. But he did put federal attorneys on the case and he did sign off on an effort to have the Africans shipped immediately to Cuba if the court found for the administration, before any appeals could be filed. In sum, Van Buren wanted this problem to go away, cleanly and quietly. From his point of view, this was not only a potential diplomatic crisis with Spain, but more fundamentally a slave revolt—a dangerous provocation to southerners already unsettled by the rise of northern abolitionism.

  • Van Buren earned the nickname "The Little Magician” because of his height and his political shrewdness. According to the EDSITEment resource The American President, “between 1817 and 1821 he put together a political machine beyond anything that had ever existed in the United States.” Then, “in 1827, with a new presidential election approaching, Van Buren placed his powerful political machinery behind the candidacy of Andrew Jackson.” Students can research Van Buren’s role in the creation of an unprecedented political machine in New York and the organization of the Democratic Party.
  • Ask students to research the connection between our word “okay” and Martin Van Buren.
Selected EDSITEment Websites

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

3-4 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > Expansion and Reform (1801-1861)
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Debate
  • Discussion
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Historical analysis
  • Interpretation
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Using archival documents
  • Using primary sources
  • MMS (AL)


Student Resources