Water Man Spouts

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

The Anti-Rent War

{1} "Only 130 year ago in New York State a few families, intricately intermarried, controlled the destinies of 300,000 people and ruled in almost kingly splendor over nearly 2,000,000 acres. Albany was the social and political capital of this island of semi-feudalism in a nation which had, only a half century before, declared its common faith in democracy and free enterprise. Here the farmers of a dozen counties were bound permanently to their landlords by a lease formulated by Alexander Hamilton, who had married into the landed aristocracy. Rebellion, long dormant, flared up among the hard-pressed tenants ....
"Like the patriots at the Boston Tea Party, these tenants, many of them descendants of Revolutionary soldiers, disguised themselves as 'Indians' in warpaint and calico whenever it was necessary to resist evictions. They used their tin dinner horns to signal from farm to farm to rally the neighborhood against the sheriff and his offending writs. The struggle became almost immediately an issue in state politics, where young William H. Steward demonstrated against the Hamiltonian idea of a priveleged upper class. Linked to the growing slave issue and the nation's policy of disposing of public lands, it became an important factor in the national political unrest between 1840 and 1860. It attracted the support of non-farmers, of liberal thinkers as far away as England.
"Though it took many years of suffering and terror to break the tyranny of serfdom and to bring democracy to the Empire State, the farmers never took the offensive in solving their problems by violence. In the end their victory was won by the vote.
"The Anti-Rent Rebellion led directly to the passage of the federal Homestead Act of 1862 which opened the West to the people. Indirectly it led to the birth of the Republican Party; one of the principal Anti-Rent agitators named the party and called the first meeting."-- "Tin Horns and Calico"; Henry Christman; Hope Farm Press; 1978;
The above four paragraphs are the introduction to the single best book on the Anti-Rent War. I think that just that introduction would be enough to make most people realize this was an important event in our nation's history. Yet, very few people outside of the historical societies in a handful of upstate New York counties know about this conflict.
In this, the second part of an essay that I began earlier in the week, I will cover just a few of the issues that was involved in the Anti-Rent War. I will focus, in part, on a man who was educated in the hedge schools of Ireland in the early 1800s, and who came to the United States in search of the Jeffersonian agrarian ideals for democracy.
The Anti-Rent War itself is too long and complicated for a full telling in this short a space. More, it was done perfectly by Mr. Christman's book, originally published in 1945 by Henry Holt & Co; then in 1978, a 4th edition was by the Town of Berne Historical Society.
In 1997, Dorothy Kubik of Hamden, NY, published "A Free Soil -- A Free People," a valuable account of the Anti-Rent War in Delaware County. She teaches at the SU-Delhi. Her book is availalable from Purple Mountain Press in Fleischmanns, NY.
{2} Thomas Ainge Devyr was born in Donegal, Ireland in 1805. Christman notes that the conditions of his early life seemed likely to produce a common criminal; instead, they produced an uncommon philosopher and reformer. As a young man, he published a pamplet called, "Our Natural Rights," based on the teachings of the Irish hedge masters who influenced his thinking.
Advocating for democracy was, of course, a dangerous thing. When a rally that he attended began to turn ugly, Devyr told the crowd, "It is not a riot we want, but revolution." He ended up facing a longer prison sentence than the violent rioters, because it was (and is) often ideas that are feared.
Devyr escaped and came to the United States in early 1840. Living in the New York City area, he found employment writing for liberal newspapers. He was strongly opposed to the ability of industries' owners to give the working class the ultimatum of "work for me at my price or starve." Within two years, however, he learned about the plight of the farmers in upstate areas, and he was determined to join the fight against feudalism.
Devyr traveled by stage coach through the hill country of the upstate counties, which reminded him of the land he had left. The farmers he encountered, though often but one generation away from the Revolutionary War soldiers, were frequently conservative. Knowing that he needed to earn their trust, Devyr would stay at their homes, work the land with them by day, and talk philosophy in the evenings.
Still, the anti-renters' leadership was a secret society. Devyr's experience with the Irish rebel's society had taught him how to earn their trust. By the summer, the outspoken Irishman had become friends with Dr. Smith Boughton, one of the leaders of the movement. On July 4th, Boughton placed Devyr among the leading speakers at their celebration in Rensselaerville.
"The immortal author of the Declaration of Independence has left us his opinion that the present generation is entitled only to the usufruct of the earth, and that they are bound to leave it free for the use of the generation that is to succeed them. Those who please to invert the laws of nature and adopt the doctrine of the thickheaded Dutch Company are, of course, at full liberty to do so -- but for my part I cling to the law which is stamped upon creation -- and I have more respect for the least sentence that ever fell from the pen of Thomas Jefferson than for all the dirty greasy tobacco-stained parchments that ever chronicled the wisdom of the big-breeched sages of Old Amsterdam ....
"If you permit unprincipled and ambitious men to monopolize the soil, they will become masters of the country in certain order of cause and effect. Holding in their hands the storehouse of food, they will make men's physicall necessities subdue his love of freedom. They will flood the halls of legislation, sent there by their dependent tenants. Then rapacity and wrong will assume all the due forms of 'law and order.' Then our unhappy descendants will be coerced, enslaved, famished to death .... Then resistance to the oppression will be stigmatized as a 'crime' against 'lawful authority.' Then our country will career down the steeps of wealth, vice, corruption, barbarism at last."
{3} While that speech won Devyr the trust of the anti-rent leadership, the movement was the cause of concern for the landlords who were finding that their rents were being withheld by a growing number of tenants. The landlords began having sheriffs and others go to collect by way of public auctions. Anti-rent tenants had crops, livestock and property sold to pay back-rents.
The anti-rent leaders formed neighborhood groups of men who ere organized into "cells" led by a "chief." These chiefs took the names of Indian leaders, such as Red Jacket, Yellow Jacket, Black Hawk, The Prophet, and Big Thunder. When the sheriffs would come to a farm to hold a public auction, groups of Indians, wearing disguises of calico, would appear and disrupt any attempt to sell the farmer's property or possessions. By 1844, the combined number of "Indians" was over 10,000.
No where were they more militant than in Delaware County. Many of these Scotch-Irish farmers resented the lack of clear title to the farms that their fathers and grandfathers were supposed to have earned for service in the Revolution. When sheriffs or others came on their property, they believed them to be trespassers. As the conflicts between the groups grew, the "Indians" began to tar and feather those who were serving the landlords.
It's interesting to note that Chauncey Burroughs, one of the Indians, was the father of 7-year old John, at a time that John Gould, father of 8-year old Jay, were involved in one such conflict. Gould opposed the Indians; his son watched the tribe tar and feather his father. Jay Gould went on to be one of the most notorious railroad robber barons in US history; John Burroughs, of course, became a famous naturalist.
On August 7, 1845, a particularly obnoxious sheriff's deputy, Osmond Steele, backed by a small group of friends, came to the farm of Moses Earle. Steele had announced an auction, although there appears to be no evidence he had the authority to hold such an auction. The only people who attended were over 200 Delaware County "Indians," who surrounded Steele and friends on Earle's farm outside the village of Andes.
Although accounts differ, it seems Steele was going to be tar-and-feathered, when he pulled out his pistol and began shooting into the crowd of "Indians." A brief volley of return shots killed him. Within hours, the 200 anti-rent "Indians" were long gone. Many would leave the county, and even the state. Interestingly, many would follow the routes that served as the "underground railroad." The connection was not coincidental. (Three ended up staying at a house a few miles from where I now live. The house was owned by the ancestor of the woman who did my secretarial work at the MHC where I was employed.)
The governor soon declared Delaware County to be in a "state of insurrection," and sent the state militia to arrest the "Indian" leaders. To this day, the people who shot Deputy Steele remain unidentified. However, the militia would suspend all constitutional rights of the farmers, including those who had not participated in the conflict at the Moses' farm. Over 100 people were arrested, causing the militia to have to build three log "long houses" on the lawn of the county jail in Delhi.
Eventually, 94 of the men were convicted for the death of Steele, including many who were not in Delaware County on the day he was shot. Of these, 40 were transported to Sing Sing prison. Thomas Ainge Devyr, reporting for several regional journals, noted that the jurors involved in the trials had agreed upon the guilt of those accused before the cases were heard. Eventually, the injustices led the governor to pardon all those convicted.
{4} The Anti-Rent movement underwent changes. Although many chapters were officially disbanded, they began to use the power of the ballot. In the 1846 NYS Constitutional Convention, they sent 52 Anti-Rent delegates, including two from Delaware County. They were not able to completely destroy the leash system that year, but they make significant progress. Most importantly, they changed the law so that judges would hold elected, rather than appointed, positions. (In Delaware County, Anti-Renters got more votes than any other party; they won more town and county offices, including the Board of Supervisors, than the democrats.
It was a time when "political parties" were changing. In the early 1830s, the "national republican" party had been strong; but in 1834, it became the Whig party. In the 1840s, the "democratic republican" party split up; one segment, known as the "barn-burners," were radical abolitionists; the "locofocos" were opposed to what they fet were plans to "make the masses mere serfs to bankers and capitalists." There was the "Liberty Party," started in 1840, and ended shortly thereafter. In 1848, the "Free Soil" party was organized.
In 1844, Thomas Ainge Devyr had proposed a party to unite "free soilers" and abolitionists. He proposed calling it the Republican Party, in honor of Thomas Jefferson. In 1852, Alan Bovay, a former Anti-Renter who had been influenced by Devyr, was at the formal meeting uniting the Whig and Free Soil parties, and he suggested using the name "republican." While the new parties' first presidential candidate was defeated, their second candidate, Abe Lincoln, won.
(The northern Whigs would become republicans. The southern ones, who opposed equal rights for blacks, became the democrats that we knew as "dixiecrats" in the early-to-mid 1900s. Nixon would bring them into the republican party in 1968.)
{5} This is an untold part of American history. Few people know of Thomas Ainge Devyr, or the Anti-Rent War. That's a shame, because Devyr was certainly an influential figure. But while others from that era, including Thoreau, Fourier, Marx, and Engels have a place in the history books, Devyr has been largely forgotten.
In the past decade, several of Delaware County communities' historical societies have worked hard to record and preserve the record of events in the Anti-Rent War. Their county museum in Delhi has more information for those interested in learning more.


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