New York State: Southerners of the North (PART 2)

anti rent 

Above: poster announcing an Anti-Rent meeting in the town of Nassau (NY)

(continuation of PART 1:

Contact with the other British colonies intensified in the 18th century, yet not as much as is often supposed nowadays. The patroons maintained the manorial system, and used it to hold control over increasingly large estates along the River Hudson.

The land tenure system of upstate New York was a cause for much discontent among the new settlers to the area in the 18th century. Yet the patroons dug in their heels and even increased the perpetual rents. The conflict between the tenants and the patroons erupted in the so-called Anti-Rent War (also known as the Helderberg War). Though this was more of a revolt than an actual war, the conflict marked the area for many years, beginning with the death of patroon Stephen van Rensselaer III, the last ”benevolent” patroon of Rensselaersswyck in 1839.

By 1845 most of the leaders of the revolt had been tried and sentenced to prison. The state attorney, John van Buren personnally conducted their prosecution. From a 21st century perspective however, the strengthened position of the landowners turned out to be a Pyrrhic victory. Regardless of the apparent victory of the land owners – and by the time the conflicts that would lead to the Civil War increased – it became clear that the manorial system was coming to an end. A strong Antirenter-party held sway over local politics from 1845 to 1851 and, backed by popular support, ended the patroonships with relative ease.

In many ways, the Antirenter-party was the local counterpart of a the virulent Free Soil-movement which advocated free property right all across the United States in the last two decades before the Civil War, a movement which was to play an important role in the exacerbation of the conflict between North and South on the eve of massive westward expansion in pre-Civil War days. Not surprisingly, the Free Soil movement meet fierce opposition in the South where white elites tried to prevent free blacks from acquiring private property; yet it is a lesser known fact that the state of New York offered similar land tenure structures for such a conflict to arise.

The Anti-Rent War has not been studied in the light of the American Civil War, at least not as far as I know (and dear reader, if so: please let me know). Yet the clash between aristocratic land tenure systems and a more liberal approach was also the core of the conflict between North and South at the time. In many ways, the Anti-Rent War can be considered as a pre-conflict to the American Civil War, especially now in a time when historians agree to an ever greater extent that the Civil War wasn’t merely about slavery. It was also a conflict between different economic models, one aristocratic-feudal (South), and one based on small land owners and a fast developing industry (North).

The mid-19th century saw many of such conflicting models. The Austro/Prussian-Danish wars of the time and the Italian reunification (Risorgimento) were also conflicts over differences in economic models. As much as the Prussians were keen to construct the Kiel-canal from the North Sea to the Baltic to unite their provinces commercially, the Northern States needed to end rivalry with the South before further expanding into the West. In the same manner, the Erie Canal that was opened in 1825 brough about important changes in the New York hinterland. 

As much as we today may appreciate the abolition movement in the United States, slavery itself was not the only cause of the Civil War. The Anti-Rent war is, if many other things as well, at least one indication that it was not the north-south geography that mattered. To the states of the North it was about freedom of property, which was in its turn necessary for the industrial development of the United States in the late 19th century. That is at least what the Anti-Rent conflict teaches us.

For an informative video about the Anti-Rent War see:

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