- Historic Sites
Feudal Lords On Yankee Soil
October 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 6
Outside, winter rains pelted the hard earth and frozen waters where the Hudson and Mohawk rivers meet. Inside the magnificent manor house a sick old man sat with his son. The son noticed the old man’s stillness and tried his pulse. Stephen Van Rensselaer in, seventh lord of the manor of Rensselaerwyck, a rich, semifeudal prince in a young democracy, was dead. The date: January 26, 1839.
As the rains continued to fall that day and into the next the ice in the Mohawk broke up, and great jagged chunks spilled into the already swollen Hudson, which leapt its banks, leaving destruction in its wake, just as Van Rensselaer’s death would smash and sweep away an old social order.
The petty kingdom of Stephen Van Rensselaer m centered approximately at the city of Albany. His manor ran twenty-four miles along the Hudson River and spread over its banks twenty-four miles in each direction, engulfing two counties and totalling at its peak some seven hundred thousand acres. From sixty thousand to a hundred thousand people lived on these lands and paid for the privilege in feudal rents of crops, fowl, and labor for the lord of the manor.
When Stephen in died, the manor of Rensselaerwyck had been in the Van Rensselaer family for over two hundred years. The Dutch West India Company had deliberately planted a feudal aristocracy in America as one of its schemes to draw more settlers to its sparsely settled colony, New Netherland. More colonists meant more profits, the company reasoned, and Dutch settlers would help discourage a land grab by neighboring English colonies.
The feudal system the company directors tried was called patroonship: a member of the company who could settle fifty colonists within four years was granted a large tract in New Netherland over which he ruled as patroon, wielding the powers and privileges of a feudal baron. The patroon held all civil and military authority and administered justice both for the pettiest offenses and for crimes punishable by death. The colonists were his subjects and vassals.
Among the company directors was Kiliaen Van Rensselaer, an Amsterdam pearl and diamond merchant who in 1630 acquired the patroonship where the two rivers meet from four Indian chiefs—not for gems but for a basketful of baubles.
Kiliaen Van Rensselaer was an absent but attentive landlord. He never saw his kingdom on the Hudson but kept his managers on a taut leash. “I am far from my property,” he wrote, “and must therefore pay close attention so as to prevent losses.” Van Rensselaer made sure the patroonship was generously supplied with horses, cattle, tools, and skilled hands but kept the bookkeeping to himself. As he wrote to the director of New Netherland, “I would not like to have my people get too wise and figure out their master’s profit.”
The English seized-New Netherland in 1664, but the Van Rensselaer patroonship survived intact. Rensselaerwyck was by then the only patroonship still existing. The two others— Pavonia , “land of the peacocks,” in New Jersey, and Swaanendael , “valley of the swans,” in Delaware—had already failed.
On taking power the English governor simply renewed the Van Rensselaer grant and restyled the patroonship as the “manor” and the patroon as “lord of the manor.” The English then proceeded to hand out huge land tracts themselves. In the latter years of the seventeenth century English colonial governors granted manors and land patents to families whose names reverberate through NewYork’s history and dot the state’s geography—Livingston, Fell, Philipse, Morris, Schuyler, and Van Cortlandt among them.
The Revolution was sixty-odd years past, and still the farmers of upstate New York were treated like serfs—until they decided to fight the Establishment
Livingston Manor occupied a hundred-and-sixty-thousand-acre chunk of New York running from the Hudson River to Massachusetts. Van Cortlandt Manor covered some two hundred square miles of what is today choice Westchester County real estate. The vast Hardenbergh patent sprawled over 1,500,000 acres of the Catskill Mountains and surrounding lowlands. Johannis Hardenbergh and his partners had received the grant from the corrupt and exotic governor, Lord Cornbury, whose custom it was to take a daily stroll dressed in silk gowns like a fashionable lady. Cornbury did this, his friends said, to demonstrate his resemblance to his cousin, Queen Anne.
As Governor William Tryon, who ruled New York in the 1770’s, later explained English colonial philosophy, it was “good policy to lodge large tracts of land in the hands of gentlemen of weight and consideration.” This aristocracy cemented its grip on the life of the colony, and later the state, through an elaborate filigree of intermarriage. Stephen Van Rensselaer n, for example, sixth lord of the manor of Rensselaerwyck, married Catherine, daughter of Philip Livingston, signer of the Declaration of Independence, Stephen Van Cortlandt, mayor of New York City, married the sister of Peter Schuyler, mayor of Albany. The Schuylers were, in turn, related to the Van Rensselaer, the Van Cortlandt, and the Livineston families.
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.
Stephen Van Rensselaer in was a respected, gentle, and apparently benevolent landlord. His numerous good works and amiable nature won Van Rensselaer the name the Good Patroon. But his most appealing quality to his tenants was his laxity in collecting rents.
When Stephen III died, Rensselaerwyck was divided between his two eldest sons. The portion west of the Hudson, the West Manor, went to Stephen IV . The East Manor, east of the Hudson, went to William. The old man also left approximately four hundred thousand dollars in debts. By chance his uncollected back rents also totalled about four hundred thousand dollars. The Good Patroon’s will stated that his debts were to be paid by collection of the back rents.
Word of the patroon’s will sent a shiver through the manor farms. Some back rents on farms in the rockbound Helderberg Mountains, near Albany, had been accumulating for twenty years. Farmers in the hill towns knew that Van Rensselaer’s will, if carried out, would destroy them.
Stephen Van Rensselaer IV , now lord of the West Manor, was not even a sliver off the old block. As a youth he was shipped off to Princeton to cure him of “volatility and arrogance.” Apparently the Princeton cure did not take. The overbearing youth grew to overbearing manhood. In the spring of 1839, as farmers forced their plows through the stony Helderberg fields, Stephen IV issued his first order as lord of the manor. Back rents were to be paid at once in full.
The landlord’s agents dutifully trooped off to the Albany County towns of Berne, Westerlo, Rensselaerville, and Knox, but for the most part they returned to the manor house empty-handed. Instead of paying the rents Stephen IV ’s tenants offered a deal. They asked for the right to buy their farms outright. Stephen IV answered that he would sell some farms—but only in four of the least productive townships and for double the price offered by the tenants. As for the back rents, they must be paid.
Farm leaders called their neighbors to a mass meeting on July 4, 1839, in the town of Berne. In their own declaration of independence the tenants branded Stephen IV the “pretended proprietor” of their lands. “We will take up the ball of the Revolution where our fathers stopped it,” they declared. They would not pay the rent.
Van Rensselaer had the sheriff draw up writs of ejectment against the tenant leaders. The first deputy to serve these papers had his wagon wrecked. The next agent was forced by the farmers to burn the writs. A five-hundred-man posse, led personally by the sheriff, ran into a wall of nearly twenty-four hundred tenants armed with pitchforks and clubs. Finally Governor William Seward dispatched the state militia against the farmers.
Governor Seward was no partisan of the landed aristocracy. But the rent strikers had thrust him into the ageold choice between justice and the law. The Van Rensselaers had the law. Seward told the farmers that if they would cease their resistance, he would recommend that the legislature grant relief from their “odious” condition.
The state legislature appointed a committee to investigate the patroon system. The committee found that Stephen III , “the Good Patroon, had induced poor and illiterate men to enter upon and cultivate the lands by promises which have not been fulfilled and by misrepresentations as to the nature of the leases.” The committee condemned the quarter sale and said the state could use its power of eminent domain to force landlords to sell to tenants at a just price. Strong language, but the legislature’s action fell short of the committee’s fervor. The lawmakers created a two-man commission to negotiate voluntary settlements between the landlord and the tenants, a function in which the commission compiled an unspotted record of nonachievement.
In March of 1840 Stephen IV again dispatched the sheriff to auction off a farmer’s livestock to satisfy unpaid rent. The blast of a tin dinner horn heralded a new form of tenant resistance. Farmers dressed in ludicrous Indian disguises suddenly appeared, their faces concealed by war paint and sheepskin masks. Loose-fitting pantaloons and tunics cut from vivid calico completed their disguises. The “calico Indians” blocked the sheriff’s sale by driving off prospective buyers.
Songs, slogans, and poetry soon became part of the strikers’ arsenal, too. Calico Indians beat up Bill Snyder, a hard-drinking deputy sheriff who enjoyed bullying the farmers, thus inspiring a ballad of many verses to the tune of “Old Dan Tucker,” which ended
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.
Anti-rentism was a key issue along the Hudson in the election for governor in 1844. But it was an issue that produced more artful dodging than articulation. Both Whigs and Democrats were split on the question. To politicians and the press the rent strike was either a holy cause or a holy terror in direct ratio to anti-rent strength in an area.
The Whig candidate for governor, an ambitious Buffalo lawyer named Millard Fiilmore, managed a masterful silence on anti-rentism. The Democrats nominated Silas Wright as their standard-bearer, highly esteemed as the Cato of the United States Senate, a man of liberal bent but stern will. Wright had no more to say directly about the incendiary issue than Fillmore. But Wright’s agents talked “down-rent” in tenant country and “up-rent” where that worked.
Though Wright’s election left the strikers with an uncertain quantity in the state capitol, they had reason to celebrate on election night. Horns blared and bonfires burned in the hill country when they learned that the four legislative candidates they supported had won.
On December 18, 1844, anti-renters began arriving in Smoky Hollow in Columbia County to hear Boughton speak. Thousands gathered around Barn’s Tavern while the Indians, including Big Thunder, switched into calico disguises inside. The Indians began filing out, shouting, shooting, and weaving about with cow horns thrusting from their fiercely painted masks and animal tails bobbing on their backs. Amidst the war whoops and wild posturing a young spectator slipped to the ground almost unnoticed. Blood bubbled from a wound in the boy’s chest, the result, probably, of a stray shot. Big Thunder appeared on the second-floor balcony of the tavern. But in place of the searing denunciations of the landlords that the crowd had come to hear he had to dismiss his audience out of respect for the dead youth.
Sheriff Henry Miller heard of the killing and dashed to Barn’s Tavern. He arrested Boughton, who had earlier shed his Indian disguise, and a lesser calico Indian called Little Thunder. Boughton was thrown into a carriage and hauled off to jail in the nearby city of Hudson and initially charged with manslaughter, the theft of legal papers, assault, riot, and conspiracy.
From the surrounding hills came the incessant wail of tin horns. Torches lit up the night sky across the Hudson River as anti-rent forces mobilized. The strikers sent an ultimatum: free the prisoners or a thousand calico Indians would march on Hudson and burn the place down. Five hundred volunteers were called to duty and strengthened later by the arrival of troops from Albany and New York City. The mayor of Hudson spoke at a public meeting and fuelled everyone’s anxiety by warning, “Remember, citizens, no pplicy of Insurance will cover losses by Fire when caused by Invasion or Insurrection or Civil Commotion.”
As time passed, fear of an attack faded, and the troops were sent home shortly after New Year’s Day, 1845. Fear of Boughton’s incendiary oratory, however, remained high. Antirent lawyers went to Hudson with pledges of two hundred thousand dollars, but bail was denied him.
Soon after the Boughton arrest Governor Wright delivered his first message to the legislature. It was a stern warning to the strikers that they could expect no relief as long as they followed the lead of dangerous men of violent methods. To combat those methods Wright asked for and the legislature approved a law making it a crime to appear disguised and armed.
Back in Hudson the Boughton trial ended that March, when not enough witnesses could be produced to identify the defendant as Big Thunder. Boughton was finally released on bail in July, after more than six months in jail, pending a second trial.
The Independence Day celebrations of 1845 revealed the swelling strength of the anti-rent movement. Five thousand farmers gathered in Delaware County to hear Erastus Root, an old militia general and bitter landlord foe, declare: “Franklin and Washington were great men. They broke the sceptre of a great tyrant. Let us little folk try to break the sceptres of little tyrants.”
Schoharie County roads were clogged that Fourth of July with farmers who came to watch fifteen hundred calico Indians drill and to hear a new ballad that went
The sensation of the Albany County celebration was a mammoth platform said to cover almost an entire acre and drawn by eleven yoke of oxen, carrying a hundred strikers from Clarksville.
The spring and summer of 1845 were the hottest and driest in memory. In Delaware County, amid the Catskill Mountains, tenant farmers like old Moses Earle watched the grass wither and pastures turn brown. Earle, who had spent fifty years tilling the soil his father had originally leased, fell two years behind in his rent to Charlotte Verplanck. She was a descendant of Gulian Verplanck, who had acquired 280,000 acres of the Hardenbergh patent about a hundred years before.
The first week of August, 1845, the Delaware County sheriff, Green More, set out with the landlord’s agent to collect Charlotte Verplanck’s sixtyfour dollars from Moses Earle by auctioning off some of Earle’s cows and hogs. Before the sheriff reached Earle’s farm, over two hundred calico Indians had gathered and mapped their strategy in the woods around the Earle place.
Sheriff More was joined later by his deputy, Osman Steele, the arch tenantbaiter in Delaware County, and another deputy. Steele arrived at the Earle farm well fortified. He had stopped on the way for 3 few drinks, including one said to be concocted of gunpowder and brandy, which Steele downed with the toast “Lead can’t penetrate Steele.”
At the Earle place the Indians came out of the woods and formed a protective square around the cattle in a pasture next to the farmhouse. Trouble flared when the sheriff’s party tried to break through the cordon and drive the cattle into the road for the sale.
What happened next would be argued later in court. Most accounts agree, however, that the Indians shot the horse from under one of the deputies. Osman Steele then pressed his horse forward against the Indians, raised his arm, and fired into their ranks. The Indians answered with another volley, and Steele slipped slowly from his mount with three bullet wounds in his body.
As the deputy lay dying he said to Earle, “Old man, if you had paid your rent, I would not have been shot.” The farmer replied, “If you had stayed home and minded your own business, you would not have been shot.”
Steele’s death sent the Indians fleeing into the hills. Within a week five hundred men were under arms pursuing the fugitives. Governor Wright moved decisively to stem the collapse of public order. He declared Delaware County in a state of insurrection. Three hundred militiamen were dispatched to occupy Delhi, the county seat. Arrests piled up into the hundreds until the local jail was full, and troops had to throw together temporary log pens to hold the prisoners.
By stretching unmercifully the new law forbidding disguised persons to bear arms the prosecution was able to indict ninety-four persons for the murder of Osman Steele. An additional 148 men were charged with lesser crimes.
The first defendant tried was John Van Steenbergh, a young hired hand who had appeared disguised and armed at the Earle farm. In his charge to the jury Judge Amos J. Parker instructed the jurors that a man armed and disguised was liable to a year in prison. Furthermore, any crime punishable by confinement in a state prison was considered a felony. Moreover, any death resulting from the commission of a felony was murder. Therefore the jury had only to satisfy itself that Van Steenbergh was armed, disguised, and on the scene in order to find him guilty of murdering Osman Steele, whether he had fired or not. The jurors were troubled by the fact that Van Steenbergh had not fired. But they yielded to the judge’s logic and found the defendant guilty. Parker sentenced the twenty-one-year-old Van Steenbergh to be hanged.
Within three weeks the judge also condemned Edward O’Connor, another calico Indian leader, to death and sentenced four men to life imprisonment and nine to lesser terms. Fifty-one others were fined or received suspended sentences. Moses Earle, a meek and incidental bit player in the drama, was convicted of manslaughter and was one of those sentenced to life in prison.
On September 3, 1845, the second trial of Smith Boughton opened. In his opening remarks the presiding judge, John W. Edmonds, denounced lawbreakers who rose against the manor lords. He had observed, the judge said, the superiority in intelligence, morals, and industry of those who owned their own land over their tenants. Edmonds promised a conviction of Boughton in short order.
The prosecution’s key witness against Boughton was Abram Carle, a calico Indian, who said he knew Big Thunder was indeed Boughton because he had helped him take off his disguise at Barn’s Tavern. The defense sought to discredit Abram’s testimony by calling his mother to the stand. She swore her son had been hit on the head by a ninepin ball as a child and had not been right since.
After spending some time deliberating, the jury requested to be discharged for being unable to agree, but Edmonds refused. “Agree!” the judge ordered, and went off with a lady for a long ride in the country. The jurors found Smith Boughton guilty of robbery for stealing a sheriffs legal papers.
In his closing address the judge accused Boughton not of robbery but of high treason. Almost spitting out the words, he stunned the courtroom by sentencing Boughton to prison “for the term of your natural life.”
With so many leaders behind bars and with the calico Indians scattered, the strikers’ fortunes may have seemed at low ebb as the election of 1845 rolled around. Instead the vindictive character of the trials closed and stiffened anti-rent ranks.
That Boughton’s punishment was harsh in the extreme and that Van Steenbergh and O’Connor had been random choices for the noose was all too clear. Even close associates of Governor Wright urged him to commute the two death sentences. Petitions poured in from all over the state demanding that the condemned men be spared.
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.
The male Van Cortlandt line is extinct. The Verplancks, who owned the land where Moses Earle farmed and Osman Steele died, have perished, too. But across the Hudson River another branch of the Verplanck family still owns land purchased from the Wappingers Indians and other tribes in 1683.
The intertwined lineage of these families is still evident today in the names of men like Cortlandt Van Rensselaer Schuyler, West Pointer, four-star general, one-time NATO chief of staff, and long a key figure in the administration of former Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller.
As for the heirs of Stephen Van Rensselaer III , the nominal fifteenth lord of the manor is a New Hampshire antiques dealer, Charles Augustus Van Rensselaer II , manorless in all but the honorific. Mr. Van Rensselaer concludes, “It wasn’t right for one family to hold land forever, anyway.” Next in line as honorary lord of the manor is his son, Charles in, a Florida society columnist who wrote for a time for the old New York Journal American under the by-line “Cholly Knickerbocker.”
As for the magnificent manor house of Rensselaerwyck, events crowded in on it. By the latter part of the nineteenth century the grounds near the manor house had become a lumberyard. The New York Central Railroad passed perilously close by, creating the dreadful prospect that the Van Rensselaers might have wound up on the wrong side of the tracks. In 1893 the proud old place was torn down and shipped, stone by stone, to Massachusetts, where it was partly reassembled and served for seventy years as a fraternity house at Williams College. The house had an imminent date with the wrecker when some history-minded private citizens from Albany County moved to its rescue. The building was again dismantled and this time brought home. The remaining bones of the Van Rensselaer manor house are now scattered in several Albany storage sites until an appropriate place is found to resurrect this monument to an age now vanished.