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

By Reeve Huston | Go to book overview

Chapter 4
ORIGINS OF THE ANTI-RENT
MOVEMENT, 1839–1844

The Committee
and the Landlord

On May 22, 1839, twenty-five men, respectfully dressed in their Sunday best, met in the Hudson River town of Watervliet. When their horses and carriages had been stowed at Dunbar's tavern, they walked together to the manor office of Stephen Van Rensselaer IV, the new proprietor of the West Manor of Rensselaerwyck. They were expected. Earlier in the month, one of their members, Egbert Schoonmaker of Knox, had written to request a meeting with the young proprietor. Douw Lansing, Van Rensselaer's agent, had replied that this would be a convenient time for the patroon to meet. 1

The men had come to negotiate a compromise in the looming crisis between Van Rensselaer and his tenants. They were from the five hill towns of the West Manor, where relations between the Van Rensselaers and their tenants were most volatile. In these towns, resistance to the Van Rensselaers had been most intense since 1820, and it was there that tenants' debts to the patroon were greatest. 2

The death of Stephen Van Rensselaer III in January had shattered any hope that the growing conflict over back rents, quarter sales, and timber rights would subside. The patroon's will had saddled his heirs, William and Stephen IV, with $400,000 in debts. By year's end, Stephen raised $35,000 by mortgaging the manor house at Watervliet. With this money, he paid some of the most urgent debts of the estate but left a mass of creditors unsatisfied. William's finances tottered on the edge of collapse. Whenever one of his many notes fell due, he sent his agent, Casparus V. Pruyn, scurrying in search of a new loan to pay off the old one. When the property taxes on the East Manor came due in early 1839, Pruyn was forced to sell a hoard of gold to pay them, for no cash or credit could be found. 3

The new loans merely bought William and Stephen time. The only way to end the cycle of indebtedness was to dun the tenants for their back rents—

-87-

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