|An attack in anti-rent war|
Did the National Reform Association (NRA) and the Whig Party conspire against wealthy landowners in the 1840s to win votes from farmers along the Hudson River, or did the tenants use these groups to achieve their own goal of acquiring land? More likely, the relationship was mutually beneficial.
The farmers had been protesting years before the NRA and the Whigs began to help them. Economic conditions following the panic of 1837, and the death of the “Good Patroon” Stephen Van Rensselaer III in 1839, led his sons, Stephen IV and William, to try to collect $200,000 in overdue rents from the tenants on their father’s New York estates in eleven counties, including Albany, Columbia, Delaware, Greene, Rensselaer, and Schoharie.
The farmers refused to pay. They claimed that the land was not as productive as it used to be and that the landlord privileges were excessive. Since the price of wheat had increased over the years, the requirement to pay ten to fourteen bushels in addition to $40 to $65 per farm was too much.
They wanted to renegotiate the leases or to purchase the land for $2.00 to $2.50 per acre, to revoke the landlord’s water, mill, and mineral rights, and to have the landlord forgive back rents for all tenants unable to borrow money.
Stephen agreed to surrender his quarter sales for $30.00 per farm or for $2.00 per year, to give up his mineral rights, and to sell his poorer quality land for $5.00 per acre, if a tenant paid all back rent. This angered the farmers, and on 4 July 1839, they drafted a declaration of independence.
During the ensuing months, farmers intimidated those who attempted to evict them. When Albany County Under Sheriff Amos Adams failed to heed a warning not to serve a writ on Isaac Hungerford, someone destroyed the sheriff’s wagon and harness and clipped his horses’ tails and manes. Crowds forced other law officers to throw their writs of eviction into barrels of blazing tar, armed themselves with sticks, and chased deputies away from their farms.
On 2 December, Sheriff Michael Artcher gathered a citizen posse of 500, including former New York Governor William Marcy and John Van Buren, son of former President Martin Van Buren. When they reached a hamlet at the foot of the Helderberg Mountains, 1,600 men armed with clubs threatened them and they retreated.
The tenants deployed two Revolutionary War field pieces to defend themselves. Governor William H. Seward dispatched three uniformed companies of the state militia, appealed to the tenants to put down their arms, and pledged to take their grievances to the state legislature.
But the legislature took no action other than suggesting that, perhaps, the state use its power of eminent domain to force the landlords to sell at a fair price. Further negotiations failed and sheriffs continued their attempts to evict tenants.
In 1842 the NRA sent Thomas Devyr to help the tenants form an Anti-Rent Association with the goal of persuading the state to assist them. Organization flourished and on 18 January 1844, 25,000 tenants petitioned the legislature.
A select committee of Whig representatives from the affected counties reported that the leases were onerous and repugnant, that the system stifled agricultural incentive, and the titles of the Patroons’ heirs were questionable. But the Judiciary Committee concluded that the tenants should purchase the land at the asking price.
The tenants intensified efforts to organize, this time with an auxiliary secret army. Ten thousand disguised themselves as “Indians,” donning sheepskin masks and calico skirts and calling themselves to arms with the sound of a tin horn.
They tarred and feathered deputies, intimidated tenants willing to pay their rent, frightened the Patroon’s heirs, and shot to death two persons who favored the rents. The legislature passed an act to prevent persons from appearing in public disguised and armed.
On 12 March 1844, Delaware County Under Sheriff Osman N. Steele with 50 men defeated 100 “Indians” and arrested several who were convicted and sent to prison. Agitation increased and on 7 August, when Steele attempted to sell the property of Moses Earle to pay his back rent of $64, someone in the crowd fired shots, killing the sheriff.
This triggered a violent backlash against the antirenters and led Governor Silas Wright to proclaim the county in a state of insurrection. Authorities arrested 242 men, convicted 2 of murder and sentenced them to death, sentenced 4 to life in prison and 13 to lesser terms, and fined 51.
On 22 November, the governor commuted the death sentences to life in prison and asked the legislature to tax incomes from rent and to limit the duration of all future leases. The legislature passed the tax. Then, in February 1847, newly elected Whig Governor John Young pardoned 18 anti-rent prisoners and Stephen Van Rensselaer offered to sell some of his land for $2 per acre.
When voters elected more anti-rent candidates in 1848, the legislature directed Attorney General Ambrose Jordon to test the Patroon’s title in court. He filed eleven cases against Stephen, who lost in lower court but won on appeal. Then, in 1852, the court of appeals unanimously upheld a new case declaring quarter sales illegal and void. Finally, Stephen sold his west Albany lands in 1853 and his East Manor in 1857.
Some incidents occurred even later. In 1860 William Witbeck shot and killed Deputy Sheriff William Griggs when the latter attempted to evict him for back rent. In 1865 “Indians” abused a man who purchased a farm from a person who had been evicted. And as late as 1866 a sheriff had to call for reinforcements when seventy-five armed men accosted him for attempting to evict a farmer.