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

By Reeve Huston | Go to book overview

Chapter 1
LANDLORDS AND TENANTS,
1785–1820

In early November 1785, Stephen Van Rensselaer turned 21 and inherited the Manor House, a Georgian granite and marble structure overlooking the Troy Road in Watervliet. His father, who died when Stephen was five, had built the house in 1765 for his bride, the former Catherine Livingston. The issue of one of the colony's great families, Catherine had been no ordinary woman; and this was no ordinary house. The facade displayed a central, columned portico, bordered top and bottom with marble balustrades and fronted by a flight of steps that widened gracefully at the bottom. Two stories above lay a windowed gable, which was echoed gently by peaked cornices above the second-story windows; smaller gabled, columned, and balustraded porticoes at the front of each wing restated both gable and entryway more forcefully. Just inside the front door lay an entrance hall, 24 by 46 feet, its wallpaper covered with scenes copied by hand from Vernet, Lancret, and Pannini. Beyond lay a library, a massive reception room, several drawing rooms, and a dining hall capable of seating nearly a hundred guests. Everyone agreed that this was one of the grandest houses in the new republic. 1

What made such grandeur affordable was a small and more unassuming building just north of the house. The Manor House, of course, had a manor—750,000 acres in Albany and Rensselaer counties known as Rensselaerwyck. Every New Year's Day, the manor's thousand-odd tenants were required to visit the manor office and pay their rent. Stephen's father had commissioned both buildings during a period of rapid growth in the manor population and had funded their construction with his expanding rent income. The Revolution had halted the expansion of the estate, and most tenants had stopped paying rent. But in the peace following the treaty of Paris, Stephen forged plans to renew the manor's growth and to compel his tenants to resume their payments. Looking east or west from the upper stories of his home, Van Rensselaer could glimpse the hills that he planned to fill with loyal, paying tenants. 2

-11-

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