Although several American presidents have Dutch ancestors, most notably the two Roosevelts, Martin van Buren is the only one who was 100% Dutch.
For more in-depth coverage of Martin van Buren and his hometown of Kinderhook, New York, read our four part series 'In the Footsteps of Martin van Buren', in issues 26, 27, 28 and 29 of Dutch the magazine or Hiding in Plain Sight by Tom Bijvoet..
Van Buren is the only president who could not trace any of his ancestry back to the British Isles, a matter of some pride to himself. In his autobiography he wrote: “My family was from Holland, without a single intermarriage with one of different extraction from the time of arrival of the first emigrant to that of the marriage of my eldest son, embracing a period of over two centuries and including six generations.”
Van Buren was also the only president thus far, whose native tongue was not English. He grew up in the rural New Netherland village of Kinderhook, speaking Dutch. It is reported by contemporaries that he had a marked Dutch accent when he spoke English.
But if those characteristics would make him less American in some way, the opposite seems true. He was the first president to be a ‘natural born citizen’ of the United States.
Until the late 19th century, Van Buren’s achievements, and his pivotal role in the establishment of the American two-party system, were highly regarded. But eventually his life and work slipped into obscurity.
Maybe Van Buren’s most lasting legacy is that the quintessential American word ‘okay’, was introduced into the language, or at least popularized, because of him. During the 1840 election campaign Van Buren used the nickname ‘Old Kinderhook’, abbreviated to O.K. to indicate that a vote for him would be, well, okay. Many conflicting etymologies for the expression have been suggested, but this one is widely accepted by historical linguists as one of the more credible ones.
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