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

By Reeve Huston | Go to book overview

Chapter 6
THE PARTIES
AND “THE PEOPLE, ”
1844–1846

Articulating a vision of freedom was one thing; achieving it was another. Since 1840, the anti-renters had known that winning freedom required access to the power of the state. Although their early attempts to enlist the government in their cause had failed, their newfound strength after 1844 gave them a far better chance at success. Their renewed efforts to win political power reveal a relationship with political leaders that was far more complex than historians of Jacksonian politics have suggested. Party leaders and tenants belonged to distinct but overlapping political subcultures, with different social ideals, conflicting political practices, and incompatible definitions of “democracy. ” Whig and Democratic activists did not simply represent tenants' views, nor did they simply coopt and silence them. Instead, their relationship with militants was a dialectical one, marked by conflict and reciprocal influence. This relationship, moreover, contained the seeds of change. Between 1845 and 1846, anti-renters, Whigs, and Democrats began a process that would transform both popular politics on the estates and party politics throughout New York.


“The People Rule”

Whether they participated in the rent boycott, donned the “Indian” garb, or voted for anti-rent candidates, leasehold militants acted on a conception of democracy that they had learned from the Democrats and adapted to their own purposes: the unqualified sovereignty of the people. Insurgents believed that a single popular will existed, separate from and above the clash of personal, group, or local interests. This will, when not distorted by corrupt influences, always pointed to the best interests of a community. From this point of view, government appeared as nothing more than an extension of the will of the citizenry. George W. Lewis of Sand Lake summarized this view well: “The people rule in this country, and they can make any laws they are a mind

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