Albany Times Union November 27, 2011
Echoes of a New York revolt
Ignoring the public's grievances can wear down the government
By BRUCE W. DEARSTYNE, Commentary
Published 08:21 p.m., Saturday, November 26, 2011
The Hilltowns of western Albany County — Berne, Knox, Rensselaerville, Westerlo — usually are models of snow-covered fields, picturesque woods and charming rural life this time of year. But in December 1839, they were invaded twice — once by a sheriff's posse, once by the state militia — to suppress an armed rebellion of tenant farmers who were staging a rent strike and trying to pressure their landlord, Stephen Van Rensselaer IV, to sell them the farms they worked.
The anti-rent movement embroiled New York's political life for decades. Its historical insights about government failure to confront problems head on are relevant today.
The Van Rensselaers were one of several landed families, or "patroons," who held permanent title to thousands of acres in eastern New York through Dutch and English colonial land grants. Tenant resentment built up over many years. Tenants felt they paid too high rent and challenged the validity of the archaic colonial titles.
Stephen Van Rensselaer, who inherited lands that included much of Albany County when his father died in 1839, disavowed his father's policy of leniency for late or partial rent payments and demanded that the rent be paid in full. The farmers' pent-up anger exploded.
Soon, nearly 10,000 tenants in Albany, Rensselaer and other eastern counties began protesting and withholding rent. Farmers organized in secret and took to wearing disguises made of calico cloth. Calling themselves "Indians," they chanted "Down With the Rent!" at mass rallies and threatened the landlords' agents.
In the fall of 1839, they chased deputy sheriffs sent to evict tenants for nonpayment of rent out of the Hilltowns.
That December, the Albany County sheriff assembled a posse that included some of Albany's most prominent citizens, former Gov. William Marcy, and John Van Buren, son of President Martin Van Buren. An armed, jeering mob of more than a thousand farmers turned them back near Reidsville.
The alarmed Albany authorities appealed to Gov. William Seward. He dispatched the state militia and called for the farmers to disperse, but he also promised a study of the manorial system. Armed resistance melted away as the militia advanced into the hills.
But Seward's study committee dithered and the troubles resumed. An Albany County deputy was set upon by a mob of "Indians" near Rensselaerville in September 1841 and forced to hide in the woods for two days. In August 1845, a Delaware County deputy was killed. The violence tarnished the anti-rent cause and led to a number of arrests and stepped-up campaigns against the "Indians" by local authorities and the state militia.
The anti-renters escalated their appeals to the state. They argued that the manor system was a drag on New York's agricultural economy, endorsed political candidates who supported their cause and organized their own political party. But state government equivocated. The two major parties, Whigs and Democrats, postured for the tenants' votes but neither crusaded to end the patroon system. Seward soon lost interest.
His successor, Gov. William Bouck, met with a thousand angry tenants in West Sand Lake in August 1844 and offered to mediate. But the farmers mistrusted him and the landlords thought he was too soft on the lawless anti-renters.
Gov. Silas Wright (1845-1846) declared Delaware County in a state of insurrection after the murder of the deputy sheriff there, but also pardoned some of the convicted anti-renters. Gov. John Young (1847-1848) pardoned remaining imprisoned leaders but did not attack the manorial status quo.
The state Legislature voted to tax the landlords' manor income and restrict evictions for non-payment. But they banned armed, disguised people from public highways and authorized the governor to aid sheriffs overwhelmed by anti-rent forces. Proposals to end the patroon system were debated but never passed.
Court decisions shielded the landlords against initiatives to invalidate their titles or use state eminent domain authority to seize their land. An 1846 state constitutional convention added an amendment to restrict future — but not existing — long-term land leases.
The issue gradually died down, mostly through quiet compromises where resentful tenants bought their farms from weary landlords. But remnants of organized resistance continued to the late 1880s.
The lessons of the anti-rent movement resonate today.
History shows that government often procrastinates or chips away at contentious issues rather than addressing them head on. Cynical politicians hope the issue will fade or voters will blame their opponents for inaction.
But kicking the can down the road usually ill serves the public interest. People who feel they are denied justice over a long period of time may become confrontational and even resort to violence.
The issue may finally be resolved but it may take decades of agitation and dispute, and exact a heavy toll.
Today, the federal government is deadlocked over taxation, spending and other issues. The two major political parties undermine and discredit each other. Drift and uncertainty substitute for policy.
People take to the streets in the Occupy movement to demand government action. Police arrest unruly demonstrators. Reformers call for higher taxes on the rich.
Similar issues were simmering as the county and state armed forces made their way warily into the snowy Hilltowns 172 years ago.
Bruce W. Dearstyne, Ph.D., of Guilderland, is an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland. He previously was a professor at Maryland and a program director at the New York State Archives.