Introduction to the Anti-rent Wars

From Helderberg Hilltowns of Albany County, NY
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During the period of the war public improvements and important public acts, aside from war measures, almost wholly ceased in all Northern cities, while in villages and rural districts the frequent calls to arms, the great sacrifices demanded in men and money, and the sad news that came from scores of bloody battlefields, all served to distract public attention from the ordinary affairs of life. With the advent of peace all this was changed. The welcome event was properly celebrated in all communities, and the people, so long oppressed by the terrors of civil war, turned joyfully and full of hope to the energetic prosecution of public improvements and private business. In spite of the enormous cost of the war — a financial drain that reached every hamlet in the land — there was seeming prosperity throughout the North during the several years succeeding the close of the conflict. The great demands of the government for war materials, which had for five years promoted many industries and afforded various avenues for speculation and wealth-making, the abundance of money which had poured from the national treasury in payment for supplies, and for the vast armies whose rank and file seldom hoarded it, the high prices ruling for all products, created by an inflated currency, were all causes of an era of prosperity such as the country had not before experienced. Albany county had its share in this tide of prosperity, though not to the extent of many cities where manufacturing was more extensive. Many private projects of importance were launched, river commerce was active, building operations were extensive, mercantile business was greatly extended and banks and other institutions of financial character multiplied. The agricultural interests of the county shared also in the general prosperity; farmers realized high prices for their products, and many were led to purchase farms at prices which a few years later would have been ruinous.

It was inevitable that such a state of affairs could not long continue in a time of peace. With the gradual contraction of currency, the de- creasing demand for many kinds of products, with contemporaneous over-production, and the fear of financial disaster through anticipated return to specie payment, there came a reaction which culminated in


1872-3, causing much financial distress and many business failures. Albany county, however, as has been the case in all times of depression, suffered less than many other localities; the county had gained less and was not so much affected by the inflation caused by the war, and hence suffered less in returning to normal conditions.

To preserve its chronological place in this work, the subject of the anti-rent struggle should have been taken up in the preceding chapter, but as its effects were felt through the period of the war and even later, its brief consideration is left for this place. Anti-rentism came into existence very soon after the death of Stephen Van Rensselaer, the last holder of the Manor of Rensselaerwyck under the British crown. He died January 26, 1839. He had inherited the great manor under the law of primogeniture, as the eldest son, which had existed here through the colonial period. The American laws following the Revolution worked a radical change in this respect, and in order to keep his vast landed interests in possession of his sons and their descendants, Stephen Van Rensselaer, on arriving at his majority, adopted the plan of selling his land in fee, reserving to himself and his assigns all minerals, streams of water for mills, and some of the old feudal rents in wheat, fowls, service with horses, etc., and finally, the reservation of one-quarter of "the purchase price on every vendition of land. It is said that Alexander Hamilton drew this form of conveyance and advised his client that he could adopt it. But there was at that time an English statute in opposition to such a method of sale, such right belonging to the crown alone. It is believed that Mr. Hamilton assumed that the English statute had not been in force in this colony, and that therefore it had no real force here. In any event the patroon sold his lands, warranting the title, his deeds containing the feudal reservations above mentioned.

While this system of sale worked satisfactorily during his life and generally during the lives of the first purchasers, trouble began soon afterward. The patroon devised all his interest in the lands thus sold in fee to his two eldest sons, William P. and Stephen. To the latter, who was the older of the two, were given the rents in Albany county, and to the other those in Rensselaer county. The old patroon was a kindly man and doubtless his many favors to those who had purchased from him served to pacify them under the onerous burdens. But when the sons came into their estate, either their different treatment of the


landholders, or changes in the business and agricultural relations of the time, led to complaints and later to more serious trouble. Litigation began and continued many years. "The counsel consulted were either ignorant of that (English) statute or they dismissed consideration of it on the assumption that it was never the law of the colony or of the State. Had that statute, at the time of the anti-rent outbreak, been recognized as the law of the State, it is not too much, probably, to assert and believe that, before the distinguished judges who then adorned the bench, with the Senate composing the court of last resort — a popular as well as judicial body — the anti-rent controversy would have been spared more than a quarter of a century of political and legal conflict, and the feudal-burdened counties have become as enlightened, prosperous and free as their sister counties in the State."

Early in the spring of 1839 the anti-renters held a meeting for the purpose of deciding upon some equitable basis of settlement of the dispute. A committee was appointed to call upon Stephen Van Rensselaer, the elder son, and learn upon what terms they could purchase the soil outright. The committee was composed of the foremost men of the district involved ; they called at the manor office in Watervliet on May 22, 1839, and met Mr. Van Rensselaer, who refused to recognize them in any manner. They then passed into the inner office, occupied by the agent, Douw B. Lansing, while the latter held a lengthy conversation with Mr. Van Rensselaer, after which the committee were informed that they would be communicated with in writing. The committee felt that this was an insult, and went away. Subsequently Mr. Van Rensselaer sent a letter to Lawrence Vandusen, of Berne, who was chairman of the committee, in which he declined to sell on any terms; this letter was read throughout the manor during that year. The landholders now began active opposition to the collection of rents; agents were insulted and their personal safety endangered; bodies of masked men resisted and attacked sheriffs in discharge of their duties and other demonstrations of force were made in various localities. In December, 1839, Sheriff Michael Artcher called to his aid the posse comitatus; with a body of about 600 men he started from Albany on the 3d day of December, 1839, for Reidsville, in the Helderbergs. Arriving near the place, the sheriff selected about seventy-five of the most courageous of his men and continued towards Reidsville, where it was


known many of the anti-renters had gathered. Just before reaching the place they encountered a force of 1,500 mounted men, who barred the road and ordered the sheriff and his party back. There was no alternative but to obey, and the whole party hastened back to Albany. When, on the following day, the sheriff acquainted Governor Seward with the outcome of his brief campaign, the governor called out the military in numbers sufficient to have captured every person in the western part of the county. The military force comprised the Albany Burgesses Corps, Albany Union Guards, Albany Republican Artillery, First Company and Second Company Van Rensselaer Guards, Troy Artillery, Troy Citizens Corps, and the Troy City Guards. The command of this force was given to Major William Bloodgood, and, headed by Sheriff Artcher, the march was taken up towards Reidsville on December 9. No resistance was met with before Reidsville was reached, and even then no enemy was found. It was a ridiculous sight — a great body of armed troops upon a long and weary march, to meet not even a single landholder upon whom to expend their ardor. The return was made amid a pitiless rain storm. Resistance to rent collections continued against various methods of compulsion, without much advantage to either side. The landholders hoped by petty and threatened acts of resistance to force the proprietors into an acknowledgment of their position, while the latter seemed to think that by military and legal action they could compel the landholders to pay whatever was demanded. At last the controversy was made a political issue, and a paper, the Freeholder, was started in Albany in support of the cause of the land- holders. Both the Whig and the Democratic parties strove to obtain the advantage of alliance with the anti-renter's, but the former party had the largest number of them in its ranks. Their power was soon manifested in the political field. Eleven counties promptly elected representatives with anti-rent proclivities to the Legislature, and Albany county elected Ira Harris to the Assembly in 1845 by more than 3,000 majority. Silas Wright, who had been considered invincible, was defeated by John Young for governor in 1846 through the influence of the anti-renters, and the strife went on. As far as its political features were concerned, little was accomplished and in that respect the cause soon lost its influence.

Among the conditions of the manorial grants in fee was a provision that the grantee, or his heirs, was to pay to the proprietor on every sale of the land, ad infinitum, one-quarter of the purchase price ; so


that if a farm worth say $2,000, on which all the improvements had been made by the purchaser, was sold four times at that price, the proprietor would g-et the whole value of the farm, including the improvements, in four payments of $500 each. Litigation began in the courts on this quarter-sale provision in 1848 and in 1853 went to the Court of Appeals. Without here attempting to follow the details of the decision, let it suffice to say that it was in favor of the oppressed landholders. The Court of Appeals was then comprised of Charles H. Ruggles, chief judge, Addison Gardner, Freeborn G. Jewett, Alexander S. Johnson, John W. Edmonds, Malbone Watson, Philo Gridley, and Henry Welles. After this decision was rendered the manor proprietors were advised by counsel to sell, and this was done in some cases prior to 1852. With the changed conditions under the decision of the court, and the low prices at which lands were now offered by the proprietors, speculators, and adventurers came into the field and made many purchases. The principal buyer was Walter S. Church, then of Allegany county, who during the succeeding thirty or forty years, was responsible for end- less trouble for himself and the landholders. Litigation continued and in many instances families were dispossessed of their farms amid distressing conditions.

One of the first cases that went to the Court of Appeals after the decision in the quarter- sale case before described, was that of Van Rensselaer vs. Ball in 1858. In the decision in that case the right of the manor proprietors, or purchasers of their interest, to maintain actions of ejectment was put upon a statute passed by the Legislature in 1805, authorizing grantors of lands to have the same remedies for the recovery of rent as if the reversion had remained in them ; this opinion was written by Judge Denio, who then proceeded to apply the statutes of landlord and tenant to the cases. This decision so shocked the public conscience that the Legislature of 1860 repealed the statute of 1805, so far as conveyances executed after that time were concerned. After that statute was repealed the feudal rent litigation was renewed, and other cases which had passed through the lower courts were carried to the Court of Appeals where they were decided in 1863. That court then took new ground and held that the statute of 1805 was not necessary to the maintenance of the actions, but that the statute of 1840 abolishing distress for rent (a statute passed in the interest of landholders) supplied the place of the statute of 1805; this opinion was written by Judge Henry R. Seklen. After relying on the statute of 1846, as


Judge Denio had on that of 1805, to sustain the actions, Judge Selden undertook to uphold them on the strength of an opinion expressed by Sugden in his work on Vendors and Purchasers, and on a few controverted English cases. But neither Sugden nor the disputed cases even hint that there can be a forfeiture of land for non-payment of rent, out- side of the relation of landlord and tenant. It may be broadly and safely stated that no case can be found, English or American, where re entry, or ejectment for default in the payment of rent, has been had or allowed, except where the relation of landlord and tenant existed, or was supposed to exist. Of the eight judges of the Court of Appeals at the time Judge Selden wrote his opinion in 1863, it is noticeable that two of the most distinguished refused to share in the decision. Upon that remarkable decision hung all the later merciless exactions of the proprietors or purchasers of their interest, against the landholders and the many instances of dispossession and suffering with which citizens of Albany county are familiar, and for which space cannot here be spared. The working of this injustice has thus been pictured by Andrew J. Colvin, who has given much study to the matter:

Ejectment suits are brought to recover one year's rent claimed to be due — generally the last year — and recovery of possession of the farm for non-payment. The landholder, on prosecution, goes to the office in Albany to pay the year's rent sued for, and the costs of the action. Payment will not be accepted unless he will also pay all rents claimed to be in arrear; it may be for fifteen or twenty, perhaps thirty years. The landholder remonstrates on the ground, as often happens, that he has only owned the farm a few years, and should not be asked to pay longer than he has owned. He is told that that makes no difference ; the farm is liable, no matter who may have been the owner, and he must pay all rents claimed or lose the farm. On inquiry as to the amount claimed, he is startled to learn that it exceeds the value of the farm, perhaps, with all the buildings and other improvements. That result is brought about by charging the fullest prices for the wheat, the fat fowls, and the days' service with carriage and horses, with annual accumulations of interest on each. It is the old story; the successors of the old patroon chastised the landholders with whips; the adventurers chastise them with scorpions.

This depressing subject may be concluded with the following suggestive statement of claims made upon the Board of Supervisors for services in the anti-rent difficulties rendered as late as 1866:

Claimed Allowed

Leonard & Bradt $1,295.73 $1,268.59

Edward Scannell 1,053.00 576.00

Tenth Regiment, N. G. S. N. Y. 992.25 992.35

Company F, 25th Regiment 762.24 762.24

Company C, " " " 66.40 626.40


Claimed. Allowed.

Company C. 35th Regiment, N. Y. 256.92 256.92

Lord& Thornton 500.02 498.02

Albany & Susquehanna R. R. Co 228.80 228.80

John Cutler... 157.00 150.00

Augustus Brewster... 132.00 80.00

Walter S. Church. 115 00 Disallowed.

Landmarks of Albany County, New York - (1897) - Parker, Amasa J. (Amasa Junius), 1843-1938, ed