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

By Charles W. McCurdy | Go to book overview

10
Democratic Futility

Elementary arithmetic told Silas Wright that his political future hinged on decisive action against manorial tenures during the state legislature's 1846 session. In the election of 1844, he ran up a 2,200 majority in the third (Albany) senate district and defeated Millard Fillmore, the Whig candidate for governor, by a 10,000 majority. The tenant vote wiped out both margins of victory in 1845. William H. Van Schoonhoven, the senate nominee of the Anti-Rent Party as well as of the third-district Whigs, beat his opponent by 7,000 votes. Unless thousands of tenant voters were brought back into the Democratic fold, then, the Whig Party was almost certain to win the statewide election in November 1846. Yet the taxation of rent charges, which had seemed so promising to Governor Wright in the spring of 1845, would no longer help the Democrats. Daniel Dewey Barnard had made it clear that new taxes would not change the buyout terms offered by the Van Rensselaers. Besides, Ira Harris and Van Schoonhoven backed the tax scheme too; so did Horace Greeley and Thurlow Weed. Democrats could roll back the Whig/Anti-Rent tide in eastern New York only by sponsoring land reform legislation altogether different from anything yet proposed. They needed a measure that would enable them to reach over the heads of Anti-Rent politicians and give the tenants something they could never get from the Whig Party. 1

Wright had known for some time what that measure must be, and he put Attorney General John Van Buren to work on it in December 1845. The result was the most radical land reform bill considered by the New York legislature during the Anti-Rent era. Entitled “An Act to amend the Statute of Devises and Descents, and to extinguish certain Tenures,” it set new regulations for the transmission of landlord interests from one generation to another. The bill provided that upon the death of any landlord whose tenants held “in fee, for life or lives, or for any period exceeding twenty-one years,” the tenants might petition the Court of Chancery “to ascertain the value of [all] rents, services, and privileges reserved to the lessor or grantor, and to convert the same into a

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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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