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

By Reeve Huston | Go to book overview

Chapter 3
THE FALL OF THE HOUSE
OF VAN RENSSELAER,
1819–1839

Sitting at his desk at Clermont in 1834, Robert L. Livingston confided his worries to his diary. “My income being insufficient for my establishment—and for my children—and poor Relatives, ” he wrote, “I am busy employed in making my real estate more productive. ” 1 With this plain notation, Livingston summarized a new dynamic in landlord-tenant relations, one that was eating away at the stability of the leasehold system. Attempting to maintain old standards of living by depending on estates that were getting smaller with each generation, landlords sought to squeeze more income from their tenants. Their demands threatened the economic security of numerous farmers, at the very moment that proprietors' political power was in decline. Thus the twin buttresses to social peace on the estates—the benevolence and the overwhelming political power of the landlords—began to crumble at the same time. With their erosion, tenants began to grope toward a new way of dealing with their superiors. At first, they intensified old strategies, turning individual wheedling and avoidance into outright obstructionism. But they haltingly began to abandon the habits that had worked under the old regime; in growing numbers, they publicly challenged the proprietors' claim to the land.


The Crackdown

The panic of 1819 threw Stephen Van Rensselaer's finances into shambles. In that year, he withdrew as the principal benefactor of the Rensselaer School, and he began a new campaign to press tenants to pay their back rents. His agents combed the estate, pressuring tenants to pay their debts, promising lenience if they paid, and threatening lawsuits if they did not. 2 Although Van Rensselaer had made similar threats and promises of lenience since the 1790s, the context of his demands had changed. His campaign for payment came during the depression of 1819–1823, when merchants and other cred-

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