Feudal Lords On Yankee Soil

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On Election Day the tenant farmers elected an impressive block of fourteen state legislators. Just as important, anti-rent votes helped put across the referendum for a convention to rewrite the state constitution. The strikers now had a chance to root out the vestiges of landlord privilege still embedded in the state’s fundamental law.

Governor Wright, declaring that the violent upheaval had largely been quelled and perhaps keeping an eye on next year’s election, commuted the death sentences of Van Steenbergh and O’Connor just days before the two men were to hang. In his second annual message to the legislature, delivered in January of 1846, Wright now recommended relief for the tenant farmers.

An anxious Stephen Van Rensselaer IV applied the pleasurable poultice of good food and wine to legislators at his manor house, but to little avail. In May of 1846 the state legislature sank its first axe into the roots of patroonery. The lawmakers passed a tax on landlord income from farm leases and outlawed the seizure and sale of tenant property for nonpayment of rent.

Landlord-novelist Cooper was aghast. The taxes on the landholders were, in his view, “far more tyrannical than the attempt of Great Britain to tax her colonies, which brought about the Revolution.”

The new state constitution that emerged from the convention a few months later sent great cracks running through the manor walls. It outlawed all future feudal leases, any farm leases running over twelve years, and the obnoxious quarter sale. But existing leases stood.

Silas Wright had high stakes riding on the election of 1846. Two terms as New York’s governor, following his earlier distinguished service in the United States Senate, would make him a strong candidate for the Democratic Presidential nomination in 1848. Wright swept to his party’s renomination, and the Whigs picked John Young, a state legislator regarded as something of a man of the people, to oppose him.

Wright still did not court anti-rent favor openly, but one story has it that he secretly promised Boughton’s wife he would pardon her husband if she could get Big Thunder to endorse him. The governor visited Clinton Prison, where he told the anti-renters he regarded them not as felons but as political prisoners. He promised to free the men as soon as public opinion allowed. However, Wright’s firm allegiance to law and order first and tenant relief second cost him dearly. The anti-renters gave their scaletipping support to John Young.

On Election Day, Young routed Silas Wright. Underscoring the political muscle of the tenant farmers, Wright’s Democratic running mate for lieutenant governor, who ran with an anti-rent endorsement, scored a solid victory.

Soon after John Young took office in 1847, Smith Boughton, old Moses Earle, and the other prisoners walked out of Clinton Prison under the governor’s pardon, though their citizenship was not restored. They raced joyously in their carriage over the frozen crust of Lake Champlain, heading home to a hero’s welcome.

The rent strikers won their next victories in court. In a landmark decision the state’s highest tribunal unanimously upheld in 1852 a lower court ruling outlawing the quarter sale. The tenants reasoned that since they no longer had to pay the manor lord a quarter of the sale price every time a lease changed hands, then transfer of a lease actually constituted a final sale. Therefore no further rents were due on the property.

Many landlords had already foreseen their bleak future. As early as 1845 seventeen major landholders started to sell farms to their tenants. After the 1852 court decision both Van Rensselaers, Stephen IV and his brother William, disposed of their entire holdings to farmers and, unfortunately, to speculators who found legal loopholes through which to harass some farmers for rent for another twenty years. Feudalism in New York died a lingering rather than an instant death.

After the 1852 ruling a Van Rensselaer lawyer conceded: “The Anti-Renters are proved to have been right in their hostility to the system. I do not regret their success, for it is, after all, another step in human progress.” From then on the Van Rensselaers and Livingstons could raise their own chickens.

Recalling his role in the struggle nearly thirty years after he left prison, seventy-year-old Smith Boughton wrote: “… The man who attempts to overthrow an existing wrong … that is tyrannical must not expect to reap any reward only in conscience and the satisfaction of knowing that his individual efforts bring a benefit to thousands. In this I am fully rewarded.”

 

Where are they today, the heirs of the lords of the manor? What became of the kingdoms on the Hudson?

Livingston Manor is long gone, as are most Livingstons. Some of the land is still in family hands. One direct descendant of the last lord of the manor, a New York securities analyst, still weekends in the only manorial home still in family possession, a handsome place built in 1795 near Hudson, New York. The older, best-known Livingston Manor house, Clermont, is today a state-owned historic site.

Van Cortlandt Manor now is down from eighty-six thousand acres to twenty acres. And the manor house, now part of Sleepy Hollow Restorations, echoes with the shuffle of thousands of tourists every year.