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  antirent movement.                 more selected entries

Tenant farmers' movement from 1839 to 1852 that decisively influenced New York State politics in the 1840s and helped destroy the system of tenanted estates, replacing them with owner-operated farms. With 25,000-60,000 supporters, it was the most extensive farmers' movement in the United States before the Civil War and one of the most influential popular movements of the antebellum era.

New York State's leasehold estates originated in land grants made by the Dutch and English colonial governments in the 17th and 18th centuries. Grants ranged in size from a few thousand to hundreds of thousands of acres, totaling tens of millions of acres in all. Several recipients created leasehold estates or tracts on which tenant families held their land through long-term leases, paying an annual rent. Beginning in the 1730s the population of these estates grew dramatically as migrants from New England, southern and eastern New York State, Scotland and the German states took leases, but with an embargo placed on European goods in 1807 and an ensuing depression, migration to frontier areas was temporarily halted. By the 1810s some two dozen tenanted estates, totaling about 2 million acres (809,000 ha), spread across 16 counties in the mid-Hudson Valley and the surrounding mountains, the foothills of the Catskills, and the Mohawk and Susquehanna Valleys. By the 1840s leasehold tenants numbered about 260,000 people, about one-tenth of the state's population.

Legally, the relationship between landlords and estate farmers was modern and nonfeudal, founded on civic equality and the cash nexus. Tenants were legally free and could sell out and leave at any time. They owed landlords a specified yearly rent and were obliged to abide by certain restrictions on their use of the land. Typically, landlords reserved all mineral and manufacturing rights on the land as well as part of the sale price whenever a tenant sold his farm, but this contractual connection was embedded in a broader patron-client relationship. Landlords maintained tenant loyalty by tolerating irregular payments, occasionally forgiving a portion of the rent, assisting poor tenants, and subsidizing community institutions. In return, tenants deferred to their superiors, publicly affirming their loyalty and affection and voting as directed. But they also made the most of landlords' lenience, minimizing their rent payments (a strategy that led to large accumulations of unpaid rents) and ignoring landlords' prohibitions against cutting timber on unleased estate lands. Landlords' and tenants' embrace of benevolence and deference may not have been sincere, and not all tenants were deferential as antilandlord rebellions erupted in the 1750s, 1760s, 1790s, and 1810s. But these practices defined the normal relationship between them, ensuring widespread social peace on the estates for 50 years.

Peace between landlords and tenants broke down between 1819 and 1840. After the American Revolution, landlords began dividing their estates among several heirs and ended their former practice of marrying to consolidate different families' fortunes, which diminished the size of estates and incomes enjoyed by heirs. To make up for lost income proprietors after 1819 intensified pressure on tenants to pay rents, and most began suing them. They also ended their tolerance of standing-timber theft, bringing unauthorized lumbermen to court. In several counties, including Ulster, Schoharie and Montgomery, large numbers of landlords replaced their long-term leases with those of between one and five years, ending tenants' status as economically secure, semi-independent proprietors. Tenants responded by dragging out court proceedings, organizing rent boycotts, and legally challenging their landlords' titles to their estates. These efforts were sporadic and local, and a unified, well-organized movement did not emerge before 1839.

The conflict between landlords and tenants became a crisis on 26 Jan 1839 with the death of Stephen Van Rensselaer III, the proprietor of the 750,000-acre (304,000 ha) estate of Rensselaerswyck [now in Albany and Rensselaer Cos]. His personal debts totaled $400,000, about the amount owed him by his tenants. Van Rensselaer had instructed his executors to pay his debts by collecting the rent owed him; if they failed, his heirs would assume the debt. Stephen Van Rensselaer IV, heir of the half of Rensselaerswyck that lay in Albany Co, began prosecuting selected tenants in the courts. After a failed attempt at negotiating, tenants in the towns of the Helderberg Mountains in Albany Co initiated a rent boycott. During the summer and fall of 1839, Albany Co lawmen marched into the hill towns to serve legal process on boycotting tenants. Farmers threatened, assaulted, and robbed them of their legal papers. The sheriff sent out increasingly larger posses, which were met by ever larger groups of farmers. By early December 1,500 tenants turned back 500 men sent by the sheriff, and Gov William H. Seward sent in the state militia, while publicly urging tenants to seek legislative redress and promising his office's help in doing so. The insurgents embraced the governor's offer. The crowds in the hill towns went home, and the antirenters (as they began to call themselves) began a petition campaign.

Between 1839 and 1845, the antirent movement gained momentum from the western half of Rensselaerswyck to a score of estates in 11 counties (Albany, Rensselaer, Schoharie, Columbia, Delaware, Greene, Ulster, Sullivan, Otsego, Montgomery, and Washington), with the most powerful antirent presence in the first 5. People signing antirent petitions in 1845 numbered 25,000, and a movement newspaper claimed that 50,000-60,000 tenants actively supported the cause.

The antirent campaign was never a monolithic movement but had three wings, each pursuing a distinct strategy. Antirenters created town and county associations that oversaw rent boycotts, collected funds, coordinated legal campaigns against the landlords, lobbied the legislature, and mobilized tenants through meetings, picnics, dances, and rallies. Starting in 1844, they also entered electoral politics, fielding their own candidates for town and county offices and the state legislature. Finally, they formed the "Indians," heavily armed and grotesquely disguised bands of boys and young men dressed in calico gowns and masks of sheepskin or painted muslin, who protected tenant boycotters by driving landlords' agents and lawmen off the estates. The Indians also intimidated and assaulted tenants who supported the landlords or paid rent, ensuring unanimous support for the antirent cause.

For all their diversity, the antirenters shared a common vision and set of demands. Their core aims were to end landlords' control over estate lands and to distribute those lands among the tenants who farmed them. They justified these objectives on the grounds that the landlords' titles were fraudulently obtained, a legitimate claim in most cases. And, drawing on a long tradition of antimonopoly and republican thought in the United States, they declared that large accumulations of land stripped laborers of the freedom promised by the American Revolution. Freedom, they argued, could only be realized when every head of household owned the land he farmed. In petitioning the legislature, antirenters demanded a legal prohibition on landlords' right of distress. In petitioning the legislature, antirenters voiced three demands: a legal prohibition on landlords' right of distress-the power to seize and sell tenants' personal property to recover unpaid rent; taxation of landlords' rent income; and a law enabling tenants sued for back rents to challenge the validity of their landlords' titles as a defense.

The antirenters gained significant influence in the political arena. In 1845 they sent seven antirent candidates to the state assembly and one to the state senate, elected a US congressman, and convinced the leaders of both major parties that they would provide the swing votes to determine the next gubernatorial election. Whig and Democratic Party activists both made alliances with the antirenters, serving the tenants as speakers, newspaper editors, lobbyists, and candidates for elective offices, as did members of the National Reform Association, a land reform organization based in New York City. In 1846 the legislature abolished landlords' right of distress and taxed landlords' rent income. The leaders of both parties also endorsed a law that would allow tenants to buy their farms at the death of the current landlords. That law failed to pass because the leaders of each party were unwilling to allow their partisan rivals to take credit for its passage.

The heyday of the antirenters' political power was also a moment of political frustration. The demands that the legislature granted were minor. Most legislators opposed the insurgents' main demand-a law allowing tenants to "plead title" when sued for unpaid rents-as violating the federal constitution and the rights of property. Moreover, the antirenters' electoral gains came just as the Indians were being crushed. When the Indians killed Deputy Sheriff Osman Steele at a distress sale in Andes (Delaware Co) in August 1845, Gov Silas Wright declared Delaware, Columbia, and Schoharie Cos in insurrection and called out the militia. Posses and the militia swept through Delaware and Columbia Cos, making mass arrests, intimidating antirenters, destroying property, and serving legal papers on tenants who boycotted rents. In the face of this repression, the Indians disbanded, leaving thousands of tenants vulnerable to eviction.

The movement also suffered from bitter internal divisions. From early 1845 on, antirenters fought over whether to disband the Indians. Beginning in May 1845, Whig and Democratic allies of the antirenters engaged in a fierce factional dispute with Thomas Ainge Devyr, a National Reformer and editor of the antirent Albany Freeholder. Devyr and his supporters campaigned to win the antirenters over to the National Reform Association's program for national land reform and to forge an electoral alliance between the two movements. His Whig and Democratic rivals sought to make similar alliances between the antirenters and the reform wings of their parties. This conflict reached a climax during the 1846 gubernatorial election. While Devyr and the National Reformers worked to create an independent land-reform party, Whig activists won control of the state antirent convention, pushing through the nomination of the Whig gubernatorial nominee, John Young. The National Reformers and several Democrats bolted the convention and formed a separate Free Soil ticket, but Young triumphed in November, when the vast majority of antirent votes gave him the margin of victory over his Democratic rival.

The 1846 election marked the high point of antirent electoral strength. In addition to providing the swing votes that won Young the governorship, tenant militants sent 11 antirent representatives to the state assembly. But Young's nomination by the antirent state convention had alienated militants who had hoped for an independent antirent political organization and had convinced Democratic antirenters that their Whig rivals had won control of the movement. From 1847 on, the campaign was beset by partisan squabbles, as Democratic and Whig antirenters sought to win control of county and state nominating conventions. Amidst these conflicts, antirent voting strength collapsed, and militants lost their former influence in the legislature. Between 1848 and 1860, not a single antirent measure passed the legislature.

At the same time, the suppression of the Indians left landlords free to prosecute or evict rent boycotters, and proprietors flooded their estates with eviction notices. In this context of political stalemate and legal prosecution, tenants began to buy out their landlords' interest in their farms. All but a handful of tenants did so or left the estates, and the antirent movement collapsed. The Albany Freeholder, the last surviving antirent newspaper, closed its doors in 1851, and the antirent state central committee declined to call a state convention in 1852. Rump movements survived in Albany, Rensselaer, Montgomery, and Otsego Cos, but these were sporadic, weak remnants. By the late 1880s, these insurgencies had also ended.

The antirent movement left a lasting impact on New York State's society and politics. Throughout their campaign, the antirenters had refused landlords' offers to sell their land, so tenants' buyout of their landlords' property after 1846 marked the defeat of the insurgency, not its victory. Nevertheless, that buyout destroyed the leasehold system in New York State and the United States, ending a system of property and class relations that had shaped the lives of over a quarter of a million people. The antirenters' political influence was just as decisive. The movement created bitter divisions between conservatives and reformers in both the Whig and Democratic Parties, contributing to the collapse of the Whig Party after 1852. Just as important, the antirenters influenced the policies and ideologies of the major political parties. By 1845 a new, bipartisan consensus emerged that the leasehold system was hostile to American liberties. More generally, political leaders came to oppose any set of class relations that smacked of deference, seemed to create permanent inequalities, or retarded the free exchange of land. Many endorsed a radically new state power, that of weakening or destroying systems of property and class relations that undermined freedom. Finally, the antirenters injected the land issue into New York State politics. antirent leaders were the first major party politicians in the state, and among the first in the nation, to call for a homestead act. In the mid-1850s, these innovations found their way into the ideology and platform of the Republican Party.

Christman, Henry. Tin Horns and Calico: A Decisive Episode in the Emergence of Democracy (New York: Henry Holt, 1945)

Huston, Reeve. Land and Freedom: Rural Society, Popular Protest, and Party Politics in Antebellum New York (New York: Oxford Univ Press, 2000)

McCurdy, Charles W. The Antirent Era in New York Law and Politics, 1839-1861 (Chapel Hill: Univ of North Carolina Press, 2001)

Reeve Huston


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