Feudal Lords On Yankee Soil


The landlords found a gifted spokesman in their own ranks in James Fenimore Cooper, squire of Otsego Hall and a considerable landholder himself. Cooper devoted three polemic novels, most notably The Redskins , to attacks on the rent strikers. The lowly motive of the anti-rent movement, he concluded, was that “the interests and wishes of numbers are to be respected, though done at a sacrifice of the clearest rights of the few.” In Cooper’s view the Van Rensselaers, Livingstons, and their class were simply an early abused American minority.

In 1842 the state legislature again named a special committee to hear the tenants’ grievances. But Stephen Van Rensselaer managed to get the issue transferred to the judiciary committee, something of a partly owned subsidiary of the manor. The judiciary committee promptly reported that “time will cure the evil” of tenantry but that the state had no power to hasten the cure.

Many farmers were ready to concede defeat and pay the rent. The movement might have died then had it not been for men like a certain country doctor with a passion for heroic causes. Smith Boughton had been born on a leasehold farm on the Van Rensselaer manor. As a boy he helped his father, a veteran of the Revolution, scratch a living from the land and watched the elder Boughton send off part of his hard-won harvest to the lord of the manor.

At Middlebury College in Vermont, Smith Boughton staged his first insurrection by organizing his fellow students to break a school rule requiring them to attend church services. He won.

A few years before anti-rentism erupted, Boughton had been attracted to a movement in Canada to overthrow English rule. He slipped into Canada to fight alongside Canadian rebels in a struggle called the Patriot’s War. The swift defeat of this revolt sent him back to the tiny New York community of Alps, in the East Manor, penniless, sick, his hair prematurely white.

At twenty-eight Boughton married and settled in Rensselaer County. His adventuring now consisted of setting a broken leg, pulling a tooth, or racing the stork along country roads. But the compulsion to crusade proved too strong. Smith Boughton began calling anti-rent meetings in the East Manor towns. He and other Rensselaer County leaders began to lay the groundwork for a permanent organization. The usually reserved, softspoken country doctor became evangelical on the stump. His speech soared, his eyes flashed, his arguments convinced as he flailed the evils of patroonery.

On New Year’s Day, 1844, Smith Boughton set out for the state capitol loaded down with petitions to the legislature signed by thousands of tenant farmers protesting their semifeudal servitude. The legislature was sufficiently impressed to name still another select committee. Stephen IV ’s agents descended on the capitol and managed to squelch this committee’s report, which favored the tenants, before it ever reached the floor. Instead the judiciary committee issued a stern denunciation of the anti-rent movement, ending on the inflammatory charge that the tenants’ hardships “exist but in the imagination.”

The tenants had reached a turning point. Negotiations had collapsed. The legislature had failed them. The landlords still held the trump legal cards and were relentlessly pressing their hand, using the law-enforcement establishment as their personal rent collector.

In May anti-rent leaders met in East Berne, in the Helderberg Mountains, to map a strategy. Their primary objective was to block the landlords from collecting rents or repossessing farms. This stance required unity. The East Manor Tenant Association swelled to over four thousand members and the West Manor to even more. Little Schoharie County boasted several thousand members. Anti-rent organizations sprang up in Delaware, Greene, and Sullivan counties. An assessment of up to two cents an acre put the movement on a sound financial basis.

Next the movement needed muscle. The calico Indians were tightly organized as the militant wing of the rent strikers, although any open connection between tenant farmers and calico Indians was always publicly denied. The Indians divided into platoons of ten to fifteen men each, their identity known only to the unit chief, all sworn to secrecy and pledged to drop everything and rendezvous at prearranged points at the first blast of the tin horn. This guerrilla army grew to a peak strength of ten thousand. The Indians’ mission was to halt distress sales and block eviction. Boughton became the chief of all the Indian chiefs and adopted the name Big Thunder.

The rent strikers were roundly condemned in prolandlord quarters for their “cowardice” in hiding behind Indian disguises to achieve their ends. “When these disreputable disguises were first used, we have not been able to ascertain,” one critic later complained. Perhaps the Boston Tea Party provides the answer.

Guile was another effective anti-rent weapon. When the sheriff sought to sell off a delinquent farmer’s livestock in the Helderbergs, city bidders would find the auction dominated by tenant farmers, who would bid the price of a cow up to thousands of dollars until finally the sheriff had to give up in exasperation. If a sale was completed, the buyer might find his new heifer stampeded by frightening noises or simply shot dead.