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

By Reeve Huston | Go to book overview

Chapter 2
TOWARD CRISIS, 1819–1840

Financial Troubles

When Robert Livingston, third proprietor of Livingston Manor, died in 1790, he divided the Manor among five sons. With this act, he abandoned family practice, rejected centuries of English and continental tradition, and endangered the economic power of the family line. Robert's father, Philip, and his father before him, had passed the estate to their eldest sons, bequeathing smaller parcels to their daughters and younger sons. Robert's grandfather had also entailed the estate, forbidding his heir from passing it to anyone but the “heirs male of ye name of Livingston” and enjoining him from selling it “to a Stranger. ” Other proprietors did the same, and for good reason. By preventing the division of their estates, they guaranteed the wealth and power of the lineage. 1

But landlords who lived through and supported the Revolution came to see such practices as aristocratic and unfair to younger children. Leasehold proprietors were as anxious as their fellow patriots to eradicate hereditary aristocracy; the elite they wished to create was a “natural” one, based on merit, not birth. Doing so, they believed, meant abolishing a wide range of legal and familial practices—including primogeniture and entail. At the same time, they fell under the influence of new ideals of family life that emphasized the uniqueness of each child. Like Robert Livingston, they began to treat their children equally in their wills. When Johannes Van Rensselaer died in 1784, he divided Claverack among his five children. A few years later, Margaret Beekman Livingston distributed the 753,000-acre estate of her husband, Robert, equally among her 10 offspring. By the 1830s, only Rensselaerwyck and the lands of George C. Clarke remained in the hands of a single proprietor. 2

To make matters worse, young landlords abandoned older practices of using marriage to buttress their families' wealth. Betrothals among colonial proprietors were rarely arranged; children chose their own mates, subject to

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