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When the Serfs Rebelled

In 1839, a small pocket of feudalism still existed in New York State. Then tenant farmers got organized.

"The Gardens of the Van Rensselaer Manor House," by Thomas Cole (1841). Albany Institute of History and Art

In 1839, the people of Berne, New York, a small farming community near Albany, celebrated Independence Day by issuing their own declaration of independence — not from the government but from their landlord.

Unique among Americans at the time, the region’s residents had lived under a feudal system of land tenancy since the 1600s, a product of the Netherlands’ brief flirtation with the so-called New World. The declaration in Berne kicked off a sequence of events that would culminate in the oft-forgotten Anti-Rent War of 1845.

The tenants’ uprising marked a turning point in the history of activism in the US. Before 1840, sporadic renters’ strikes conformed to a familiar pattern: tenants would riot, state militia would be sent in, perhaps the most outspoken rioter would be jailed, and all would soon be forgotten. In contrast, the tenants in Berne created a coherent movement with clear goals, and became a political force in New York. Within a decade, feudal land ownership in New York had faded away.

That literal feudalism persisted in the United States until the 1840s is a fact curiously absent from most history books. That it took the sustained effort of a large (and at times violent) movement to dislodge the oppressive arrangement is a testament to the power of the status quo.

But this forgotten chapter in US history underscores the extent to which elites will defend contractual arrangements that benefit the rich and powerful, no matter how unjust or antithetical they are to supposed American values. The same holds true today.

The Dutch in Colonial North America

In the sixteenth century, the Dutch were the least committed of the European powers to colonizing North America. A mercantile redoubt, the Dutch established permanent settlements only when it would aid the country’s business interests. When Peter Minuit famously purchased Manhattan Island, he did so to set up a conveniently located port, not a colony, for Dutch fur traders on the Hudson River.

As such, the Dutch were happy to allow early settlers to establish land claims that were explicitly feudal. Their reasoning was simple: “patroons” — lords of the manors — would exercise total control over their domains, freeing the Dutch state from having to devote any resources, administrative capacity, or manpower to their upkeep.

Among the early land claimants was Killian van Rensselaer, a wealthy Amsterdam merchant. In 1629, the Dutch granted van Rensselaer control of an enormous tract of the Hudson River Valley. For the next nine generations, the tract would be known as the Manor of Rensselaerswyck.

Settlers were lured to the manor with the promise of good farmland at no cost, but they existed thereafter as literal serfs. On the manor, the patroon was judge, jury, lawmaker, law enforcer, vicar, and, most importantly, landlord. He demanded tribute (a portion of the harvest) annually. The entire property, even if occupied by renters, was used as he alone saw fit. Tenants could not buy or sell the land they occupied. Debts were passed on to one’s children. The patroon and his family even established a church, crop-processing facilities, and stores that tenants were obligated to use. While tenants had the freedom to leave, they could do so only with the clothes on their backs.

This arrangement persisted longer than the Dutch could have imagined. Into the early 1800s, high wheat prices allowed tenants to meet their obligations to the Rensselaer family with little difficulty. Their lives may have been devoid of basic freedoms, but when crops were profitable tenants could meet the patroon’s demands.

That all changed in 1825, with the completion of the Erie Canal. Eastern markets were flooded with western agricultural products, and prices plummeted. The region’s tenants began to amass cumulative debts to the manor. In the decade between 1825 and the national financial collapse of 1837, no tenant escaped the scythe of debt.

In 1839, Stephen van Rensselaer III, the ninth patroon, died unexpectedly. It was common feudal practice to forgive debts upon a patroon’s death. But the financial condition of the Rensselaer family, who were purely rentiers, turned out to be dire. Rather than offer relief, the will called for debts to be repaid immediately. Tenants pled with the new patroon, Stephen IV, but were rebuffed.

Instead, the manor moved to extract payments from the farmers — by force.

War Comes to the Manor

The manor organized a sheriff’s posse of nearly five hundred men to collect their payments and boot out the indebted tenants.

Arrayed against the posse were almost three thousand increasingly radicalized tenants. No longer did the calls of anti-rent organizers strike many tenants as extreme or unreasonable. Facing eviction and debtors’ prisons, the community was ready to act.

An 1839 poster supporting the anti-rent movement. Wikimedia Commons

The first sheriff’s posse was confronted at a narrow pass by a large, organized crowd of angry tenants. Minor violence — although no gunfire — broke out, and the sheriff and his men were turned back.

New York Governor William Seward, hearing of the local skirmish, decided to send in a trained state militia. The forces succeeded in dispersing the angry mob, but the tenants were unbowed. They refused to pay additional rent or debts to the patroon.

For four years the anti-renters held fast against increasing state pressure. They organized and printed newspapers, held coordinated local meetings across the area, and employed “Indians” — poorly costumed vigilantes who operated at night — to execute a campaign of petty vandalism, public defiance, and general nose-thumbing at the law.

Women organized meetings, disseminated crucial information, and worked to boost morale and solidarity when tenants began to feel the strain. Children were enlisted to move information from town to town. Communities pooled food and other resources to reinforce the united front.

The term Anti-Rent “War” was something of an exaggeration. Weapons were pointed, and on more than one occasion fired, in anger. Some representatives of the patroon or sheriffs were beaten, harassed, or subjected to tarring and feathering (which, despite its somewhat comical connotations, was a painful form of torture requiring the victim to peel tar and the underlying flesh from his body). The state used considerable force in evicting tenants who lived in remote areas and imprisoned people perceived as leaders in the movement.

But for the most part, things stood at a heated impasse.

Events took a turn in 1844 when an anti-renter shot and killed the sheriff at a property auction. The governor, now Silas Wright, declared the manor in a state of insurrection.

That could’ve been the death knell for the movement — the latest in a long line of renter rebellions put down by the authorities. But after maintaining a campaign of direct action for nearly five years, the anti-rent movement shocked the state by transitioning into a potent political organization. It showed, in other words, that it could play by the rules as well as flout them.

Pivoting to the Political

As early as 1840, a dedicated bloc of anti-renters had taken positions on local party committees and served as delegates to state party conventions. In the subsequent years, turnout among tenant voters surged, dealing a strong blow to the political power of landlords. In 1810 nearly half of elected offices on the ballot were held by landlords; by 1845 the share had fallen to 5 percent.

But the most forceful step anti-renters took was to form their own political party. In 1844, activists set up a formal Anti-Rent Party, nominating candidates and organizing on a scale that rivaled the Democratic and Whig organizations in the Hudson River Valley. As was common in this period, the Anti-Rent Party grew its support using tactics like rallies, parades, picnics, and other activities that blended the social and the political.

The rising Anti-Rent tide forced the state’s other parties to respond. The Whigs and Democrats both settled on a tried-and-true method: absorption. They took up the movement’s issues, meaning that both parties now boasted sizable blocs of anti-renters — not just from Rensselaerswyck but from around the state. Sympathizers were shocked by the feudal practices permitted by the courts and the legislature.

Meanwhile, in a kind of selective appropriation, the anti-Renters took parts of both major parties’ ideologies. From Jacksonian Democrats they borrowed the language of populism and the idea that the people should prevail over the moneyed interests; from the Whigs they borrowed old Jeffersonian conceptions of freedom as intimately tied to individual land ownership and the fruits of one’s labor.

In 1846, the Whig state convention nominated a gubernatorial candidate, John Young, who endorsed a call to eliminate all contracts binding tenants for a period longer than twelve years. Once elected, Young pardoned many tenants and ordered his attorney general to investigate “unusual” land-ownership laws.

That the system responded so quickly — first through the absorption of anti-renter ideas and then with the election of a sympathetic governor — is a testament to how effectively the anti-renters organized, participated, and integrated themselves into the political power structure of the state. The movement achieved its aims with remarkable swiftness.

At the same time, it came at the cost of a broader radical vision that could’ve won a more robust popular sovereignty. And there was also wind at the backs of the anti-renters: Jacksonian populism, combined with the recent depression, left the public and legislature in an anti-landowner mood, with little sympathy for vestiges of European feudalism. Pressure from all parts of government and society came to bear on Rensselaer and other smaller patroons of the region.

But the results speak for themselves: by 1850 the patroons had either converted their leases to traditional title or sold their land to the occupying tenants or land speculators. After existing unchallenged for two centuries, the feudal system buckled in less than a decade once tenants organized to oppose it.

The Importance of the Anti-Rent Movement

The rebelling tenants raised their complaints in a political and social system so thoroughly unjust that their grievances — lodged in a small portion of New York — may seem minor in hindsight. Slavery was practiced in much of the country. Women in New York, like elsewhere, had almost no meaningful legal or social standing. In addition, some anti-renters no doubt sought to take title to the land they occupied as a prelude to taking on tenants of their own.

Even more pernicious was that anti-renters subscribed to, and borrowed liberally from the rhetoric of, Jacksonian Democratic populism — a populism that, like the right to vote itself, was strictly the province of white men. These limitations would become acutely apparent in subsequent decades, when federal lawmakers — seeking to defuse the growing agrarian radicalism — granted white easterners all the free land they could settle out west. If veteran anti-renters saw any irony in being handed the title to land occupied by others (i.e. indigenous Americans), they left no record of it.

Yet the movement’s very real shortcomings, which at least partially reflected social mores of the time, do not erase their egalitarian accomplishments.

The anti-rent movement was the nation’s first sustained social and political movement against exploitative landlords, who were backed by the courts and the state at every turn. They transitioned effectively between direct action, community organizing, and traditional politics, unraveling a feudal system of land ownership that had managed to persist for more than two centuries in the US.

During that long stretch, tenants learned the painful reality we still live with today — that any contractual arrangement that extracts rent from a lower class to enrich wealthy landowners will enjoy the blessings of the legal and political systems unless and until individuals organize to demand fair treatment.

It is not necessary for a landlord-tenant arrangement to be literally feudal in order for it to be unjust. Renters’ issues and tenant rights are largely ignored by both political parties today as rental-housing stock, despite being aged and of poor quality except where it is new and exorbitantly priced, consumes an ever-growing share of stagnant earnings.

We may have rid ourselves of patroons and feudalism. But in the absence of an egalitarian housing policy, we will continue to live with their modern equivalents.