The Anti-Rent Era in New York Law and Politics, 1839-1865

By Charles W. McCurdy | Go to book overview

Preface

The most spectacular tenant rebellion in United States history began on the 726,000-acre Manor of Rensselaerwyck in 1839 and gradually engulfed the other great estates of eastern New York. At its height in 1845, the uprising involved approximately 10,000 tenant families in eleven counties with a total of 1.8 million acres under lease for lives or forever. An archaic legal form, unique to the Hudson-Mohawk region, lay at the root of the revolt. Lawyers called it a “lease in fee.” Tenant farmers had other words for the contractual relation this legal form established and sustained. They described themselves as a people enmeshed in “feudal servitude interminable,” an “unhallowed bondage” that amounted to “voluntary slavery.” Emancipation was their goal. The rent strike was the instrument they chose to unify their communities and dramatize their plight for the general public.

Tenant resistance to rent collections vexed landlords and embroiled New York politics for more than a decade. Armed bands of anti-renters intimidated sheriffs who tried to serve process and terrorized neighbors who subverted the cause by word or deed. Three people were killed. Although state governors sent the militia into Anti-Rent counties three times between 1839 and 1845, the tenant agitation always resumed after the troops departed. Landlord responses to the rent strike varied from county to county and over time. On the Manor of Rensselaerwyck, the proprietors offered to sell their interest in tenant farms before the strike began. Their tenants, however, claimed that the terms were unacceptable. As the Anti-Rent movement grew larger and its threat to rights of property and contract more alarming, the Van Rensselaers dug in their heels and refused to compromise. The majority of landlords went the other way. Dozens of great proprietors with no intention of selling changed their minds in the face of Anti-Rent resistance and hostile public opinion. They eventually accepted offers, proposed from the outset by the Anti-Rent associations, that converted covenants for rents and services into mortgages. Most tenant families bought their farms during the late 1840s and early 1850s. But the rent strike on the Manor of Rensselaerwyck did not come to an end until 1865, when state militiamen returned with orders from New York's highest court and crushed the last pocket of tenant resistance. Many manor families lost their homes; many others remained mired in “voluntary slavery.” Liability for perpetual rent is attached to scattered parcels of real estate in eastern New York to this day.

-xiii-

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The Anti-Rent Era in New York Law and Politics, 1839-1865
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Studies in Legal History *
  • Title Page *
  • For Sharon *
  • Contents vii
  • Tables and Maps *
  • Preface xiii
  • The Anti-Rent Era in New York Law and Politics, 1839–1865 *
  • 1 - Governor Seward and the Manor of Rensselaerwyck 1
  • 2 - Whig Reconnaissance 32
  • 3 - The Politics of Evasion 56
  • 4 - The Trouble with Democrats 78
  • 5 - Depression-Era Constitutionalism 104
  • 6 - Signs of War 128
  • 7 - Resistance and Reform 156
  • 8 - Political Crossroads 182
  • 9 - A Cacophony of Voices 205
  • 10 - Democratic Futility 234
  • 11 - Whig Resolution 260
  • 12 - Enmeshed in Law 287
  • 13 - The End of an Era 316
  • Notes 337
  • Index 387
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