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

By Reeve Huston | Go to book overview

Chapter 7
“A RIGHT TO THE SOIL”

In May 1845, as Indians confronted posses and anti-renters began to prepare for the fall elections, Thomas Devyr broke into open conflict with the Whig and Hunker allies of the anti-renters. At stake in the struggle was the very meaning of the movement. The breach between Devyr and his opponents brought two unresolved disputes into the open: the proper basis of property in land (and thus the distribution of the soil) and the anti-renters' relationship to the major parties. The outcome of the conflict would determine whether the anti-renters would endorse the rules of capitalist political economy and the second party system, or seek to transform them. This conflict reinforced the lessons learned in the battle over the “Indians” and in the anti-renters' efforts in the legislature and the constitutional convention. Leasehold militants had learned that well-organized popular movements could win a measure of political power and could change policy and political discourse, but could do so only by being transformed themselves. The growing struggle over politics and property rights replicated that dialectic, changing both the anti-rent movement and the ideology and policies of the tenants' allies.


A Break in the Ranks

Thomas Devyr's campaign for land reform at the state constitutional convention and his open efforts to forge an electoral alliance between antirenters and National Reformers ended his cooperation with the tenants' Whig and Democratic allies. Two months after he began his campaign, Robert Watson warned an audience of anti-renters against “agrarian, leveling doctrines. ” “The success of your cause … depends on the character of the papers that are your organs, and upon the men that you send to the legislative halls…. If either your papers or the organs of your sentiments assume extravagant, indefensible, unreasonable grounds, your cause is incalculably

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