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The Anti-Rent Wars

Meanwhile, Stephen van Rensselaer, with the assistance of Alexander Hamilton, created a "durable lease" that would bind his tenants and their heirs to the manor in perpetuity. By calling the contract an "incomplete sale," Hamilton had devised a means to sidestep the issue of feudalism, which had been outlawed in New York State in 1787. Tenants were required to pay the patroon an annual rent of ten to twenty bushels of winter wheat per one hundred acres, "four fat fowl," and a day's labor with a team of horses and wagon. In addition, the tenant was to pay all taxes and use the land for agricultural purposes only, while the patroon kept all timber, mineral, and water rights, as well as the right to exploit those resources. These leases also provided that when a tenant chose to sell all or part of his farm, was thus required to pay a "quarter sale" or one-forth of the sale price to the patroon in order to release the property to another individual or party. Hence, the patroon kept all the advantages of land ownership, and the tenant had all of the obligations of land improvement, road building and taxes. This was not quite the binding to the land of the old European feudal system, but it was fairly close in actual effect.

When the tenants went to collect their "durable lease" after working their land for seven years, they were shocked to discover the terms of their lease and objected to the conditions, arguing that the terms were not what the patroon originally promised. However, Van Rensselaer would not negotiate, and the tenants had to choose between signing the "incomplete sale" contracts or leaving their 120-acre farm and all the buildings and improvements they had made over the previous seven years without compensation. Few actually refused the lease, but the seeds of tenant resentment towards the Van Rensselaer family were sown.

Rent payments were due to the offices of manor agents at the beginning of January as stated in leases. Soil conditions in much of the manor were not particularly good, and many tenants fell behind in their annual rent payments to the manor. However, Stephen van Rensselaer III did not aggressively pursue overdue rent payments. As a result, he became known amongst many of his tenants as the "Good Patroon." In January 1839, Stephen van Rensselaer III died, and the tenants anxiously waited to see the extent of the Good Patroon’s humanity. In his will, he divided his estate between Stephen van Rensselaer IV, the only offspring of his first marriage, and William Paterson van Rensselaer, the oldest son of his second wife. Stephen's half of the land estate was called West Manor and William’s East Manor. His will also stated that Stephen and William should immediately collect back rents from his tenants and their heirs totaling $400,000 so that their inheritance could be unencumbered.

Stephen and William aggressively pursued collecting back rents due to the manor, but their initial attempts were unsuccessful, as most tenants simply ignored their collection agents. Several tenants met with the brothers, hoping to negotiate lenient payments of rent arrears and more favorable terms in the lease contracts that would lead to outright purchase of the land which families had been occupying for multiple generations. The brothers refused to renegotiate leases or sell lands. Instead, they served writs and ordered sheriffs to collect debts or seize property and have non-compliant tenants evicted. The tenants responded by refusing to pay any more rent and, with threats of violence and intimidation, the Anti-Rent Wars began.

The End of Dutch Culture in New Netherland

Although there was some bloodshed during the Anti-Rent Wars of 1840 to 1846, the issues were really resolved by legislative action and in the courts of law. In 1845, the New York State Legislature abolished the right of the landlord to seize goods of a defaulting tenant and taxed the income that the landlord derived from rent. The New York Constitutional Convention of 1846 prohibited any further leases of agricultural lands for a period longer than 12 years. These measures, however, did not abolish existing lease agreements.

In 1852, the Court of Appeals reversed the 1850 decision invalidating the Van Rensselaer land title based on the landlord-sponsored statute of 1830, which basically said that such land titles had to be legally questioned within forty years of their original land grant. But the reversal did not question another ruling in 1852 which confirmed that tenants who obtained "quarter-sales" after 1787 owned the land they farmed. In other words, these court decisions ruled that many of the clauses of the leases were invalid, but the collection of rent was not.

The disputes between landlords and tenants reached the high courts of New York State during the 1850s in a series of rulings that primarily considered the validity of the lease in fee agreements. The courts generally found most titles and the collection of rents to be valid. Nevertheless, the Van Rensselaers concluded that these legal disparities, coupled with diminished profitability of land rents, marked the beginning of the end of the great manorial estates, and they offered much of their land for sale to speculators. Walter Church, the son of a wealthy landowner of western New York, bought most of the leases which were available for $210,000. He too had trouble collecting back rents and brought over a thousand suits to court. While Church won all of them, he nonetheless died bankrupt in 1890. Otherwise, most of the farms were released or sold during the 1850s and 1860s to the tenants whose families had held title for multiple generations. A few tenants and their heirs, however, continued to pay rent to the Van Rensselaer family estate well into the twentieth century.