Feudal Lords On Yankee Soil


The manor lords lived, as they intermarried, like the nobility. An eighteenth-century Englishman described his visit to the Van Rensselaer manorhouse. Nothing he had witnessed in Europe, he said, could excel the magnificence of the scene. John Jay, America’s first Chief Justice, and some twenty other distinguished guests were led from elegant drawing rooms through stately passages to the dining room. Behind every chair a Negro slave (“the blackest of the black”), attired in white vest and apron, stood ready to tend each guest. Slaves were common on the manors of New York. Sojourner Truth, who wrote a page in black history as an early agitator for abolition and women’s rights, was born Isabelle Hardenbergh, a slave of Johannis Hardenbergh.

Even the upheaval of revolution posed no threat to the vast holdings of the manor lords. One year after the Declaration of Independence the New York State legislature, in the firm grip of the Van Rensselaers, Schuylers, Jays, and Livingstons, declared that nothing in the state constitution should be construed to impair any land grants made by the king or his predecessors.

During the American Revolution the danger was not in being a landed aristocrat but in being one on the losing side. The only great landlord losers were the Tories—the Johnsons, Philipses, De Lanceys, and others who had their lands confiscated. The “patriot” landlords never lost an acre.

In 1787 New York State finally abolished further feudal tenures, feudal rents, entail, and primogeniture, the ancient practice of willing an entire estate to the eldest son in order to keep the property intact. But the current generation of landholders was largely unaffected.

Stephen Van Rensselaer III had succeeded as lord of the manor upon his father’s death in 1769. As a youth Stephen III revealed a romantic streak by eloping at eighteen. His impetuousity, however, did not extend to marrying a manor milkmaid. The young patroon took for his bride Margaret, daughter of General Philip Schuyler. Her sister Elizabeth was married to Alexander Hamilton.

Stephen III served both his state and his estate with equal energy. He was elected assemblyman, moved up to state senator, then lieutenant governor, was twice defeated for governor by respectable margins, and capped his political career as a three-term congressman. Stephen III won a footnote in Presidential history by casting the deciding vote for John Quincy Adams when the 1824 election was thrown into the House. One story has it that Daniel Webster and Henry Clay buttonholed Van Rensselaer and convinced him that Adams was the safest bet for the landholding class.

Rensselaerwyck was still lightly settled when Stephen III inherited the patroonship. To attract more tenants he became an early exponent of the free introductory offer. Van Rensselaer offered patriots of the Revolution a hundred and twenty acres of land rent-free for seven years. After that the tenant could sign a lease with the patroon and pay an annual rent figured in so many bushels of wheat per year, four fat fowl, and a day’s labor with horse and team. This offer attracted thousands of new tenants to Rensselaerwyck, especially as farmers fled rock-ridden New England for New York’s tillable and more fertile acres.

The leases, drawn by Alexander Hamilton, Stephen in’s property-minded brother-in-law, were a work of legal artistry. They skirted the state’s 1787 ban on feudal rents by making the deal not a rental but an “incomplete sale” that forever remained incomplete.

All taxes on the land were to be paid by the tenant. The tenant could only farm the land. All rights to water, wood, and minerals remained the landlord’s. If the tenant defaulted on his rent, the patroon’s word was enough to send off the sheriff to seize and sell the delinquent’s crops and livestock for the amount due. If the tenant wanted to sell his lease, he was subject to a “quarter sale”—one quarter of the sale price was to be paid to the landlord.

In short, a tenant farmer leased a tract of wilderness, cleared it, laid out his fields, and built his home and barns on the land. Generations later his descendants would still be paying the patroon rent. If the tenant wanted to sell out, he had to pay 25 per cent of the sale price for a now-developed property—the land, home, barns, and any other improvements—to a landlord who might never have seen the farm, tamed or wild.

Terms of the leases varied from manor to manor. Under the Van Rensselaers the lease was good as long as the tenant and his descendants paid the rent. But most of the Livingston and Schuyler leases allowed the landland to boot out the tenants after one, two, or even three generations. In the mid-1800’s the tightly knit manor families held 1.8 million acres with 260,000 persons living off them.

A clergyman passing through New York leasehold country early in the nineteenth century gave his view of the effects of tenantry on the farmers: The Americans never can flourish when on leased lands. They have too much enterprise to work for others or to remain tenants, and where they are under the necessity of living on such lands, I find that they are greatly depressed in mind, and are losing their animation.