A Catskill Catalog: Oct. 15, 2008
The 1838 mid-term elections were a real challenge for incumbent President Martin Van Buren and his Democratic Party. His party had been in power for the past 10 years nationally, the past 13 in the president’s home state of New York, where Governor William Marcy, after whom the Adirondack’s highest mountain would later be named, was running for re-election. But the economy was not in his favor.
The financial panic of 1837 had spun the country into recession. For the first time in a long time the opposition was united in a strengthened Whig Party that was ready to compete for the votes of the “common man,” votes the Jacksonian Democrats had always relied on.
In New York, the Whigs were led by William Seward, a 37-year-old lawyer from Auburn who had been general counsel for the Holland Land Company, a major developer of settlements in central and western New York.
Seward was a terrific speaker, inspirational to his many adherents, appealing, as he did, to their sense of idealism and hope. He espoused a forward-looking policy of government investment in internal improvements, government encouragement of commerce and credit, government-led social reform to encourage economic growth and equal opportunity.
This approach was in sharp contrast to the Democratic Party, which espoused traditional Jeffersonian republicanism: #1, the only legitimate function of government is the protection of individual rights, especially property rights, and #2, the best government governs least.
It was a shock when Seward beat Governor Marcy. He was sworn in as governor on January 1, addressing a joint session of the state legislature later that day. In a State of the State message that set the standard for those that came after, Seward proclaimed the responsibility of government to promote democracy and progress, even happiness and social enjoyment, to shape society according to “the democratic principle” and “the law of social improvement.” All very idealistic: government activism on behalf of the little guy.
So, when the eighth patroon of the Manor of Rensselaerwyck, Stephen Van Rensselaer III, died 25 days later, and, seven months later, the tenant farmers of Albany County’s Heldeberg Mountains held a Fourth of July Anti-Rent Rally to inaugurate a rent strike, Seward was kind of boxed in. He had publicly placed himself on the side of progress, change, and social equality. He was clearly sympathetic to the anti-rent side of this dispute. Yet, he had sworn to uphold the law. He couldn’t, as governor, support the violation of law that a rent strike entails.
In September, mob violence in Albany County threatened rent collection agents, process servers, and law enforcement officers attempting to enforce the law. The Democratic County Sheriff called for the governor to call out the state militia to protect him and his citizens’ posse. Seward did so, but not without some political encouragement for the anti-rent forces.
Seward called for land reform. He asked the legislature to abolish the “lease in fee” that allowed landlords to keep a title interest in perpetually leased farms. But how do you take thousands of acres of land – property – from one class of citizens to give it to another? There was no legal procedure to do so. Developing a formula to transfer ownership to tenants and to compensate the landlords would take political negotiation and compromise.
And the Democratic Party was still smarting from their unaccustomed defeat at the polls at Seward’s hands. They had long been the party of land-owners and land wealth. The Democratic Party traditionally stood for the protection of property rights and the sanctity of private contractual arrangements, such as the legally executed contract between landlord and tenant. They had a dog in this fight, too.
Thus, the rent issue became a bit of a political football, and, over the next few years, the Whigs and the Democrats traded a few elections back and forth on either side of the issue; sometimes, probably, on both. With the political leaders unable to develop a political solution, the anti-rent troubles took to the streets.
Anti-Rent societies sprang up in each of the affected counties, first in Albany County, then in Rensselaer and Columbia counties, then in Schoharie County, and finally down into Delaware County where land on the East and West Branches of the Delaware River was still owned by landlords with names like Livingston, and Montgomery and Lewis and Verplanck. Anti-Rent Societies were political action groups, whose members urged “Victory through the Ballot.” They had meetings and officers and passed resolutions and worked for change.
But these political action groups had underground activists as well, men organized in local “tribes” who showed up at property auctions dressed in calico print “Indian dresses” wearing identity-hiding leather masks, harassing law enforcement, intimidating potential buyers from bidding on property being auctioned to cover the unpaid rent. The sheriff and collection agents would, at the landlord’s compliant of unpaid past-due rent, arrive at the leasehold farm of the rent-striking tenant, to auction off livestock, farm implements, and other personal property of the farmer to cover the amount of the rent owed.
These underground Calico Indians were generally some, although not all, of the members of the local Anti-Rent Society. When one “Indian” spotted law enforcement traveling to a striking farm, he would blow his tin horn, the kind previously used to call him in to dinner. One horn call would lead to another until the hills reverberated and the Indians would stealthily make their way to the auction site. Often their mere presence provided enough intimidation to stop the sale. Sometimes the horrible torture of tar and feathers was applied.
Until, one day in August 1845, their presence led to America’s first notorious case of “Who shot the Sheriff?”, the climax of six years of down-rent, up-rent controversy, a confused hail of gun fire, and a dead Delaware County lawman.