Land and Freedom: Rural Society, Popular Protest, and Party Politics in Antebellum New York

By Reeve Huston | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION

When he arrived in Sand Lake, a village in the foothills of the Tagkhanic mountains just east of Albany, Governor William Bouck was dismayed to find a crowd waiting for him. Brightly colored banners and transparencies filled the village square with strange icons, pictures of Indians, and mottoes like “Down with the Rent!” and “The Land is Mine, Sayeth the Lord. ” As the governor arrived, some of the celebrants began firing a six-pound cannon; between one and two thousand people greeted him, “in various ways demonstrat[ing] their high respect for their chief magistrate. ” Most distressing of all, at the edge of the crowd stood a hundred men dressed in pantaloons, calico gowns, and painted muslin masks. “Parti-colored patches, furs, etc. ” decorated their robes, and brass rings and strings of beads hung from their false ears and noses. The men carried “swords, knives, bits of scythes, … threatening looking cheese knives, … clubs … muskets, … [and] pistols. ” 1

The governor had expected his visit to be secret; the crowd's presence meant that news of his trip would get back to Albany, exposing him to political attacks for abetting lawless agrarians. The people who greeted him were anti-renters, tenants dedicated to destroying New York's leasehold estates and distributing the land to those who farmed it. More than a score of estates existed in New York, covering two million acres in the Hudson Valley and the surrounding hills, the Catskill piedmont, and the Mohawk and Susquehanna Valleys. Some 260,000 tenants—about a twelfth of New York's population— farmed on long-term leases in exchange for cash rents or payments in produce and labor. In 1839, tenants on the 750,000-acre manor of Rensselaerwyck began organizing to resist their landlords' demands. Sand Lake was on Rensselaerwyck; when the governor arrived there in August 1844, the movement was rapidly spreading to other estates. Within a year, it would claim between 25,000 and 60,000 supporters in 11 counties. Everywhere they organized, anti-renters initiated a rent boycott, began lobbying the legislature, and sought ways to challenge their landlords' titles in

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