As we have seen over the last several months on this show, America’s first libertarian movement called Locofocoism was, but one among many reform movements dotting the Jacksonian period. For a century and a half, historians have diligently detailed the stories of abolitionists, working people, feminists, land reformers, prohibitionists, suffragists, and suffragettes, free lovers, communists, industrialists, progressivists, free thinkers, transcendentalists, socialists, and the Young America Artistic Movement that lent credibility to the broad cause of reform. This week, we turn to an example of yet more mixed success in which radical Locofocoism was both implemented and watered down at the same time. New York’s Anti-Rent War and the Revolutionary Constitution of 1846.
Stephen B. Miller, Historical Sketches of Hudson, Embracing the Settlement of the City, City Government, Business Enterprises, Churches, Press, Schools, Libraries, &c. Hudson: Bryan & Webb, Publishers. 1862.
Cheney, Edward P. The Anti-Rent Agitation in the State of New York, 1839-1846. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania. 1887.
Huston, Reeve. Land and Freedom: Rural Society, Popular Protest, and Party Politics in Antebellum New York. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2000.
McCurdy, Charles W. The Anti-Rent Era in New York Law and Politics, 1839-1865. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press. 2001.
Music by Kai Engel
00:05 Anthony Comegna: As we have seen over the last several months on this show, America’s first libertarian movement called Locofocoism was, but one among many reform movements dotting the Jacksonian period. For a century and a half, historians have diligently detailed the stories of abolitionists, working people, feminists, land reformers, prohibitionists, suffragists, and suffragettes, free lovers, communists, industrialists, progressivists, free thinkers, transcendentalists, socialists, and the Young America Artistic Movement that lent credibility to the broad cause of reform. Historians have unquestionably failed though to connect these many and diverse reform causes to that libertarian philosophy of Locofocoism. We have seen individuals and whole movements spring out of deep intellectual and moral convictions, very close to our own libertarianism.
00:58 Anthony Comegna: We have seen the ideas reach full expression in the life and thought of William Leggett. We have seen them put into political practice with the Equal Rights Party in the election of 1840. Military practice in Canada and Rhode Island. Cultural practice across the Young America Movement. For the most part, these efforts came to nothing. Containing many wonderful ideas and stories, but little actual impact on public affairs. This week, we turn to an example of yet more mixed success in which radical Locofocoism was both implemented and watered down at the same time. New York’s Anti-Rent War and the Revolutionary Constitution of 1846.
01:43 Anthony Comegna: Welcome to Liberty Chronicles. A project of Libertarianism.org. I’m Anthony Comegna.
02:03 Anthony Comegna: The Loco-Foco Movement was always a child of the left. In its infancy, it existed as a strain of the Workingmen’s Movement, which suddenly rose to prominence in 1828. Those who generally favored direct state action for the relief of poor, uneducated or otherwise marginalized people clustered around editor, George Henry Evans, the man who came up with the idea of secretly preparing to storm the Tammany Nominating Convention in 1835. Those who considered private property an absolute right, found a home with William Leggett and Locofocoism. Whatever their orientations, both sets of radicals shared the same physical spaces in New York City. They consumed the same newspapers, magazines and public spectacles. They coordinated with each other, shared schemes and conspiracies between themselves. And together, they plotted to continue revolutionizing America in pursuit of its historical destiny. When George Henry Evans and Thomas Ainge Devyr founded the National Reform Association, the original NRA on March 8, 1844, they were joined by one of the original Loco-Foco’s, John Windt. In fact, they met in his print shop, the same place where he published tracks from radical Loco-Focos and even a book advocating the liberation of Thomas W. Door, in prison for treason at the time.
03:27 Anthony Comegna: The National Reform Association’s purpose was to agitate and coordinate a wide variety of social and legal reforms, but especially labor and land reform. Its early membership reads almost like a who’s who in Locofocoism. There was John Commerford, a Loco-Foco and founder of the first proper union in America, the General Trades Union. There was Robert Hogbin, that devoted old Loco, who wept as they tore down the Military and Civic Hotel. And none other than Fitzwilliam Byrdsall, the equal rights party’s recording secretary and the movement’s first historian. The NRA and Loco-Foco’s in New York City may have been willing to wait for politics to deliver real land reform, but up the Hudson River, tens of thousands of radical poor and landless Americans decided to implement Locofocoism spontaneously on their own timeline.
04:23 Anthony Comegna: And they had plenty of grievances. For two centuries, the vast territory of Upstate New York was legally owned and dominated by a small handful of feudal Lords. When it was still New Amsterdam, the Dutch States General incentivized colonization by granting away literally millions of acres to colonial adventurers. The smallest grants were a few thousand acres at a time, but the largest included 2.6 million or about 14 counties worth of land to a single proprietor. No medieval duke could have hoped for such a bounty and all at the cost of transporting a few hundred vagabonds there to work the fields. Sign me up. Backed by nearly absolute feudal rights over land and people in their domains, the manner lords amassed huge concentrations of wealth and power in the colony.
05:17 Speaker 2: Charter of freedom and exemptions, June 7th, 1629. Freedoms and exemptions for the patroons, masters, or private persons who will plant any colonies in and sent cattle to New Netherland, drawn up for the benefit of the general West India Company in New Netherland, and for the profit of the patroons, masters and private persons. One. Such participants of the said company as may be inclined to plant any colonies in New Netherland shall be permitted to send in the ships of this company going thither, three or four persons to inspect the situation of the country, provided that they, with the officers and ships company, swear to the articles, pay for board and passage, and agree to give assistance like others in cases offensive and defensive.
06:05 Speaker 2: Three, all such shall be acknowledged patroons of New Netherland and shall agree to plant there a colony of 50 souls upwards of 15 years old within the space of four years after they have given notice to any chamber of the company here or to the commander or counsel there. One-fourth part within one year and the remainder within three years after the sending of the first part making together four years to the full number of 50 persons to be shipped hence on pain in case of willful neglect of being deprived of the privileges obtained. But they are warned that the company reserves to itself the Island of the Man Hats.
06:46 Speaker 2: Four. From the very hour they shall make known the situation of the places where they propose to settle colonies. They shall have the preference over all others to the free ownership of such lands as they shall have chosen. But in case the location should afterwards not please them or they should find themselves deceived in the selection of the land, they may, after memorializing the commander and council there choose another place.
07:11 Speaker 2: Five, the patroons by their agents may at the place where they wish to settle their colonies, fix their limits so that the colony shall extend four leagues along the coast or one side of a navigable river or two leagues along both sides of a river and as far inland as the situation of occupants will permit with the understanding that the company retains for itself the ownership of the lands lying and remaining between the limits of the colonies to dispose thereof when and at such time as it shall think proper, but no one shall be allowed to come within seven or eight leagues of them without their consent unless the situation of the land they’re about be such that the commander in counsel for good reason shall order otherwise, always observing that the first occupants are not to be prejudiced in the right they have obtained, except in so far as the service of the company should require it either for the building of fortifications or something of that sort, and that outside of this, the patroon of the first settled colony shall retain the command of each bay, river or island under the supreme jurisdiction of their high mightiness, the state’s general, and the company. But the later colonies on the same river or island may appoint one or more counselors to assist him that in consultation, they may look after the interest of the colonies on the river or island.
08:32 Speaker 2: Six, they shall forever own and possess and hold from the company as a perpetual fief of inheritance all the land lying within the aforesaid limits together with the fruits, plants, minerals, rivers, and springs thereof and the high, middle and low jurisdiction rights of fishing, fouling and grinding to the exclusion of all others, said fief to be renewed in case of demise by doing homage to the company and paying 20 guilders per colony. No fishing or fouling shall be carried on by anyone, but the patroons and such as they shall permit. And in case anyone should in time prosper so much as to found one or more cities, he shall have authority to appoint officers and magistrates there, and to use such titles in his colony as he sees fit according to the quality of the persons.
09:20 Speaker 2: Seven, there shall likewise, be granted to all patroons who shall desire the same Venia Testandi or liberty to dispose of the aforesaid fiefs by will. Eight, the patroons may also to their profit use all lands, rivers and woods lying contiguous to them until such time as they are taken possession of by this company, other patroons or private persons.
09:43 Speaker 2: Nine, those who shall send over these colonies shall furnish them with proper instructions in order that they may be ruled and governed conformably to the rule of government. 18, the company promises the colonists of the patroons not to lay any duties, tolls, excise, imposts or any other contributions upon them for the space of 10 years. And after the expiration of the said 10 years at the highest such dues only as the goods pay here at present.
10:14 Speaker 2: 19, they will not take from their service of the patroons any of their colonists, either men or woman, son or daughter, man servant or maid servant, and though any of these should desire it, they will not receive them, much less permit them to leave their patroons and enter into the service of another except on written consent obtained previously from their patroons and this for and during many years as they are bound to their patroons. After the expiration whereof, the patroons shall be set at liberty to bring hither such colonists as will not continue in their service, and then only to set them free. And if any colonist runs away to another patroon or contrary to his contract leaves his service, we promise to do everything in our power to deliver the same into the hands of his patroon that he may be prosecuted there according to the customs of this country as occasion may require.
11:07 Speaker 2: 21, and as to private persons who own their own account or others who in the service of their masters here in this country shall go thither and settle as free men in smaller numbers than the patroons, they may with the approbation of the director and counsel there choose and take possession of as much land as they can properly cultivate and hold the same in full ownership either for themselves or for their masters.
11:31 Speaker 2: 22, they shall also have rights of hunting as well by water, as by land, in common with others in public woods and rivers, and exclusively within the limits of their colonies, according to the orders of the director and counsel. 26, whosoever shall settle any colonies out of the limits of Man Hat’s Island must satisfy the Indians of that place for the land and may enlarge the limits of their colonies if they settle a proportionate number of colonists they’re on.
12:02 Speaker 2: 27, the patroons and colonists shall in particular endeavor as quickly as possible to find some means whereby they may support a minister and a school master, that thus the service of God and zeal for religion may not grow cool and be neglected among them and they shall, for the first, procure a comforter of the sick there. 29, The colonists shall not be permitted to make any woolen, linen or cotton cloth nor to weave any other stuffs there on pain of being banished and peremptorily punished as oath breakers.
12:35 Speaker 2: 30, the company will endeavor to supply the colonists with as many blacks as it possibly can on the conditions hereafter to be made without however being bound to do so to a greater extent or for a longer time than it shall see fit. 31, the company promises to finish the fort of the Island of the Man Hats and to put it in a posture of defense without delay. And to have these freedoms and exemptions approved and confirmed by their High Mightiness, The Lord States General.
13:11 Anthony Comegna: In colonial Massachusetts in Connecticut, the lords were called The River Gods, but in New York, the old Dutch label ‘patroon’ stuck. By 1839 though, Americans had little space in their world for such large leeches. Many of the patroons had already done what they could to divest themselves of their holdings in one way or another. Others like Stephen Van Rensselaer, greatest of all the great Hudson Valley landlords clung almost desperately to their ancient feudal so-called rights. Van Rensselaer ran into hard financial times during the panic of 1819. So over the next two decades, he made attempts to collect the massive amount of unpaid rents. According to the terms of many charters, renters were also bound to perform a variety of feudal services. So many days of labor per year spent chopping wood or clearing land or affecting property repairs. Rensselaerswyck, that’s the name of the manor, included quarter sales under which any land sales tenant to tenant, devolved a quarter of the sale back to the patroon. Armed with radical anti-monopoly, anti-corporate, Locofocoism from New York City, people up river started refusing their feudal obligations en masse as early as 1839. Landlords called upon law enforcement agents to protect their chartered rights and anti-renters stormed county land offices, burning records wholesale, a Fight Club style way to erase the lord’s legal claims.
14:38 Anthony Comegna: Over the next five years, villages and communities around the Catskills and the Hudson Valley, periodically rose and combine their strengths to resist this or that sheriff trying to serve this or that paper, collecting rents as the officially appointed lap dogs for the patroons. Anti-rent outlaws, hid their identities with masks and dressed as Native Americans, so sheriffs were either met with enough physical resistance that they were turned away or they were unable to actually prosecute the activists. From the start, William Cullen Bryant’s New York Evening Post, that original font of locofocoism, condemned the anti-renters who sullied the cause of equal rights by spilling blood at its altar. One anti-renter meeting advertised itself as a meeting of the friends of equal rights. John Evans named his anti-rent Columbia County newspaper, the Equal Rights Advocate. The 1844 anti-renter state convention styled itself, the Equal Rights Convention. In the fall of 1844, groups calling themselves patriots, organized into tenant dissociations to resist payment together. They divided out tribes of Indians led by Smith A. Boughton named Chief Big Thunder, the Indians gathered at [15:53] ____ in November, dressed in calico uniforms with feathers, horns, face paint and whatever arms they could carry.
16:01 Anthony Comegna: They shouted “Down with rent” and warned officials, “Get out of the way Big Bill Snyder, we’ll tar your coat and feather your hide, sir”. A journalist on the scene decided it was good advice and hightailed it out of there. On December 12th, Sheriff Henry Miller, attempted to serve processes to delinquent renters. 300 Indians in disguise, met him in mass and took him prisoner. Big Thunder and six other chiefs forced him to turn over the papers at gun point. They burned everything in front of the crowd. Six days later, the sheriff returned in force knowing that another large meeting was underway, and Big Thunder was the featured speaker. When they arrived, they found him sitting quietly in a tavern without weapons willing to come quietly. The crowd tried to overpower the sheriff’s posse, but without success. Around the countryside, anti-renter meetings roared with outrage, for their imprisoned de facto leader. At its peak in 1845, there were 10,000 anti-rent families spread across 11 counties with almost 2 million acres under lease.
17:06 Anthony Comegna: Officials both state and local, masked their respective military powers to ensure Boughton went to trial and then prison. Conservative citizen seize their opportunity to root out the trouble-making Indians in their midst and formed committees of safety, committees for law and order and the like. For the moment at least, the war seemed over. With such massive popular resistance to the apparent rights of property, the anti-renters help draw sharp practical lines between Loco-Focos involved in politics. With Governor William Seward had taken a hard line against the movement and most Democrats around the state. Even New York City Loco-Focos did the same. Silas Wright, a staunch equal rights Van Buren man and the state’s new governor in 1846, went so far as to outlaw wearing masks or other disguises.
17:57 Anthony Comegna: Meanwhile, Bryant’s Evening Post and its allies made serious constitutional reform of pet project in 1843, calling for county and state level constitutional reform associations. Speaking in support of the plan and well aware of the explosive atmosphere in the manor country upstate, Theodore Sedgwick urged his fellow New Yorkers to avoid the disastrous example of the Dorr War. A principled but disappointing farce, which should not be reenacted on the theater of New York. Ironic, considering Rhode Island Whigs said the Dorr War was cooked up by Loco-Focos in the New York customs-house. Thanks to their relatively tame agitation, Loco-Focos could claim great successes in the constitution of 1846. They helped to minimize sectarian influence in the halls of state, guaranteed liberty of conscience. They made virtually all judges and state offices elected. Even the hated canal commissioners and state prison inspectors.
18:58 Anthony Comegna: The Constitution declared common law repugnant and transformed the relationship between corporation and state by democratizing the incorporation process and leveling the sorts of privileges the state could grant. It abolished government weights and measures offices, but did retain the authority to set standards. It severed almost all connections between bank and state, while removing special powers and privileges like species suspension. And it granted note holders preference over others in cases of bank insolvency. It was a dramatic and important reorganization of power throughout New York and a model for other states embarking on similar reform crusades.
19:39 Anthony Comegna: The whole movement gave moral and legal force to Loco-Foco lawyer and Van Buren strategist Samuel Tilden’s plan to resolve the anti-rent war. Tilden proposed that the legislature convert the manor lord’s land claims into standard property holdings. Leases would be replaced by mortgages and renters turned into debtors. This would relieve the people of their grosser feudal obligations without abjectly destroying the manor lord’s property rights. Both parties scrambled to claim credit for some sort of resolution to the anti-renter crisis, but the Whigs threw them the best bone. A promise to pardon Big Thunder, Smith Boughton. The Whigs won the Governor’s mansion thanks to anti-rent votes and used Tilden’s plan to kick the can to the courts.
20:28 Anthony Comegna: Case by case over decades, judges determined exactly who owned what land at what value and under what terms. Sometimes judgments went to the tenants, sometimes to the landlords. As I understand it, there are still people in Upstate New York in possession of land passed down to them from the great patroons of old. Such were the successes of the Loco-Foco political movement. A long string of losses punctuated by half victories, far more radical in their implications than their actual effect. We can appreciate the ways they revolutionized our world, but we must remember the limitations of their accomplishments, each of which was sharply curtailed by failures of practical application and absorbed by the two main parties. This is how America’s first libertarian movement, both left its permanent mark on our world and disappeared from it almost without a trace.
21:29 Anthony Comegna: Liberty Chronicles is a project of libertarianism.org. It is produced by Tess Terrible. If you’ve enjoyed this episode of Liberty Chronicles, please rate, review and subscribe to us on iTunes. For more information on Liberty chronicles, visit libertarianism.org.