“Ornament of the Christian Faith”
It is not often that we see the full extent of the influence of those around us upon the lives of others, or even of the influence of our own lives upon others. The most we can do is live our lives by faith in God’s grace and His Word. Such a one was Hannah Hoes.
Little is known about the woman who was to become the wife of Martin Van Buren, the eighth President of the United States. Hannah was a blond-haired, blue-eyed girl of Dutch descent, whose family ancestors had immigrated to the new world in the Seventeenth Century. She was raised in the Dutch Reformed community in Kinderhook, New York on her family’s farm. Her parents were Johannes Dircksen Hoes and Maria Quackenbush. Martin Van Buren grew up in the same community as Hannah Hoes. They attended the local village school together and were childhood sweethearts. When he went to New York City to train in law and clerk at an attorney’s office, she stayed with her family until he returned to marry her. Born in 1783, Hannah had the distinction of being the first President’s wife born as a United States citizen and not as a subject of the British crown.
Martin and Hannah Van Buren lived in Kinderhook for about a year after their marriage took place, in which time their first son Abraham was born. They then moved to Hudson, where Martin was appointed as county attorney and became involved in local politics. When he was elected to the New York State Senate in 1812, they moved to Albany.
In Kinderhook, Hannah had been a member of the Dutch Reformed congregation. In both Hudson and Albany, as there were no Dutch Reformed churches, she joined the local Presbyterian churches. In both the church in Hudson and in Albany, she was under the pastoral care of the Reverend John Chester. In Albany, she supported charitable and outreach works of the church that more “fashionable” ladies objected to because of the society such outreach might bring into the church.
In addition to being a dutiful mother and active church member, she was also a welcoming hostess. The Van Buren home not only contained Martin and Hannah and their children but also Martin’s law partner and clerks who resided with the family. Regular visitors included relatives, political associates, and other acquaintances who might be in town.
Though Martin was a successful lawyer and New York Senator, Hannah would not know that one day her husband would become President of the United States. She died of tuberculosis at a young age, eighteen years before he was elected to the Presidency. They had been married for about twelve years. Of the five sons and one daughter she had given birth to, four sons had survived. She is not mentioned in President Van Buren’s autobiography and only few contemporary letters mention her. While we cannot know all of the influences she exerted over her husband, her children, and her
community, the records that do remain indicate that she was a faithful and loving wife and mother.
One of the customs in Albany at the time of her death was for the family of the deceased to provide scarves for the pallbearers to wear. Hannah requested that the money which would have been used for this custom instead be set aside for the poor. This act of charity, even in her death, is exemplary of her entire life. Her obituary, most likely written by her pastor, Reverend Chester, appeared in the Albany Argus in February, 1819. Its testimony leaves the greatest insight into the character of this marvelous woman:
As a daughter and a sister, wife and a mother, her loss is deeply deplored, for in all these varied relations, she was affectionate, tender and truly estimable. But the tear of sorrow is almost dried by the reflection that she lived the life and died the death of the righteous. Modest and unassuming, possessing the most engaging simplicity of manners, her heart was the residence of every kind affection, and glowed with sympathy for the wants and sufferings of others. Her temper was uncommonly mild and sweet, her bosom was filled with benevolence and content. No love of show, no ambitious desires, no pride of ostentation ever disturbed its peace. . . . Humility was her crowning grace; she possessed it in rare degree; it took root and flourished full and fair, shedding over every act of her life its general influence. She was an ornament of the Christian faith…. Doubtless, twas gain for her to die. Doubtless, she is now enjoying that rest which remaineth for the people of God. Precious shall be the memory of her virtues, sweet the savor of her name, and soft her sleeping bed.
Boller, Paul F. Presidential Wives: An Anecdotal History. Oxford University Press, 1998.
MacGregor, Jerry and Marie Prys. Faith of the First Ladies. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2006.
National First Ladies’ Library website: www.firstladies.org.
Waldrup, Carole Chandler. Wives of the American Presidents. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2006.
Watson, Robert P., ed. American First Ladies. Pasadena, California: Salem Press, 2002.
The White House website: www.whitehouse.gov
Whitton, Mary Ormsbee. First Ladies, 1785-1865: A Study of the Wives of the Early Presidents. New York: Hastings House, 1948.