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

By Reeve Huston | Go to book overview

Chapter 9
FREE LABOR

A Class Destroyed

In 1895, a small army of carpenters and teamsters converged upon the Van Rensselaer Manor House at Watervliet, dismantled it, and carted it off. One group took the great entrance hall, with its hand-painted wallpaper from the eighteenth century, to the new Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Another hauled the main body of the house over the Tagkhanic mountains to Williams College, where it became the new home of the Sigma Phi fraternity. 1 The workmen left the wings standing on the grounds, for they were no longer inhabitable.

No Van Rensselaer was present to see the house dismantled. Once the architectural embodiment of their wealth and power, the house had been uninhabited for more than 15 years. In the meantime, its former glories had been surpassed by financiers' and manufacturers' homes in Albany and Troy. The fading grandeur of the house mirrored the declining fortunes of the owners. By the time that the Court of Appeals vindicated his title to the West Manor in 1852, Stephen Van Rensselaer was already near bankruptcy. Together, the anti-renters'13-year boycott and the state's suits to recover the manor had brought him to the brink of ruin. His brother William's fortunes were even more hopeless. By 1848 his debts totaled half a million dollars, and he was forced to sign his lands, his manor house at Bath, and his yet-to-becompleted game park over to trustees. 2

To make matters worse, the anti-renters continued to hound the Van Rensselaers in court, foiling their hope to wrest more income from their estates. Worse still, they won a decision which significantly diminished the value of the brothers' property. In 1852, tenants' lawyers began to argue that, since all lands in the state were allodial, perpetual “leases” were not leases at all but grants of land. The original settlers and their successors were not “tenants” at all, but the owners of the land, subject to rents and reservations. Thus, the lawyers argued, the quarter sale was “repugnant to the estate in fee granted”

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