New York's Anti-Rent War 1845-1846

Article excerpt

OCCUPYING today only a minor place in American history, the Antirent War of 1845-46 aroused bitter controversy at the time and is not without relevance as an early example of today's direct action with violent protests ranging from animal rights and GM research to global warming and international capitalism.

This curious episode in the evolution of American democracy had its origins deep in the seventeenth century when English, French, Dutch and Spanish Governments contended for a presence on the American eastern seaboard. Early on the scene were the Dutch in New Amsterdam, later New York, where, around 1629, large grants of land along the Hudson River were made to leading Dutch citizens who became lords of the Manor, or 'patroons', who lived in almost feudal style leasing their land, usually in parcels of around a hundred acres, to tenant farmers.

Tenants paid rent in kind, for example, an annual ten bushels of winter wheat, four fat hens and a day's labour from an able-bodied man and team of horses. Rent was not demanded for the first few years to enable new tenants to build houses and barns before crops could be planted.

Patroons often reserved the right to extract minerals and set up mills on the tenants' land and to cross it in order to cut timber on other parts of the landlord's extensive holdings. When the English took over the colony from the Dutch in 1664, the patroon system was continued and, indeed, large manors were allotted to English settlers.

Initially, all went well as the virgin soil produced good crops to take advantage of prevailing high wheat prices but, when unscientific cultivation methods and ignorance of the use of fertilisers resulted in falling productivity, outbreaks of discontent occurred as the tenants blamed their problems on the evils of the leasehold system. As early as 1755 and 1766 there were local agrarian revolts and again in 1790. It was a foretaste of things to come when the Antirent 'War' erupted in the mid 1840s.

It is a complex story, made more difficult to interpret because of the scarcity of reliable evidence. An exception is the well-researched treatment of the subject in Landlords in the Hudson-Mohawk Region 1790-1859 (David Maldwyn Elliss, Cornell University Press, 1946). In contrast to this scholarly account, the evocatively-entitled Tin Horns and Calico (Henry Christman, Hope Farm Press, Cornwallisville, New York, 1978) is a lively account, based on anecdotal information and data from private sources.

Although recapturing much of the colour and drama of the period, it over-sentimentalises the antirenters' struggles and has been accused of serious historical inaccuracies, but, used judiciously in tandem with David Maldwyn Elliss's book, it certainly brings this remarkable event to life.

Although all the patroons in the region were the targets of the antirenters, the full force of the revolt was directed against the van Rensselaers, far and away the biggest landowners, whose estate covered three-quarters of a million acres, extending twenty-four miles along the Hudson and twenty-four miles inland on both sides of the river.

Ironically indeed, it was the latest head of the family, Stephen Van Rensselaer III, who, after earning the title of 'The Good Patroon', because of his benevolent attitude towards his tenants, was, inadvertently, after his death on 26 January 1839 to provoke the revolt. Because of his humanitarian treatment of his three thousand tenants, postponing, or even waiving the rents of those who had fallen on evil times, it was widely expected that he would confirm this policy in his will.

Great was the indignation when the will, under which the estate passed to the two sons, directed that all unpaid rents should be collected immediately. Any lingering hopes that the elder son who became Stephen Van Rensselaer IV and his bother William would follow the 'Good Patroon's' example and interpret the will liberally were immediately dashed as notices and handbills were issued demanding instant repayment of all outstanding debts. …