THE LAST PATROON
"[Stephen van Rensselaer III's] interests crossed many fields: state and national politics, internal improvements, philanthropy, education, agriculture, and even the early stages of industrial development. His life takes on greater significance when it is viewed as exemplifying the passing of the great landed aristocracy in the Empire State."
-- William Bertrand Fink, Stephen Van Rensselaer: The Last Patroon, ii.
Stephen van Rensselaer III, the Last Patroon (1764-1839)
With assets at his death worth approximately $10,000,000, or 1/65 of the nation's Gross Domestic Product, Fortune magazine listed Stephen III as the tenth richest American of all-time. In 2006, Bill Gates's wealth equaled 1/152 of GDP.
In addition to his role as patroon, Stephen served in various roles throughout his life: a major of the United States militia (1786), a member of the New York State Assembly (1789) and Senate (1791), lieutenant governor of New York State (1795), and a member of the United States House of Representatives (1822-1829). He was also the founder of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (1824) and a regent of the University of the State of New York (1819 -1839).
Stephen van Rensselaer III, the eighth and final patroon of Rensselaerswijck, was born on November 1, 1764. Stephen's father died in October of 1769, shortly before his oldest son's fifth birthday, leaving the administration of the manor to young Stephen's uncle Abraham Ten Broeck and grandfather Phillip Livingston. Stephen would take control on his twenty-first birthday.
Established in 1629 as the patroonship of Rensselaerswijck, this massive land possession of the Van Rensselaer family (commonly regarded as measuring twenty-four by forty-eight miles at the time of Stephen's birth) had survived the British takeover from the Dutch in 1664, when it became an English manor, and would subsequently survive the American Revolution.
Under Ten Broeck as de facto patroon and then Stephen, the population of the manor increased rapidly, in large part due to an influx of settlers from New England. At the time of Stephen's birth in 1764, the manor was predominantly uninhabited wilderness; by 1840, it was estimated that there were approximately 50,000 inhabitants.
Like his predecessors, Stephen rarely sold land outright; instead, tenants were granted lifetime leases. This rent-system, known as leases-in-perpetuity, was widely criticized as 'feudalistic' by a burgeoning republican movement, that, as historian Gordon Wood wrote, "struck directly at the ties of blood, kinship, and dependency that lay at the heart of a monarchical society." Many republicans saw this rent system as the embodiment of the ills they wished to destroy. The election of George Clinton, a staunch republican and political nemesis of Alexander Hamilton, as New York's first governor in 1777 and the state's abolishment of primogeniture in 1782 did not bode well for the landed aristocracy.
Despite this, the manor survived the Revolution and extended well into the nineteenth-century. Stephen was even known by many as the "Good Patroon" because of his reputation as a benevolent and lenient landlord who allowed many tenants to pay their rents partially or not at all. Furthermore, the patriotism of Phillip Livingston—a signer of the American Declaration of Independence—and Abraham Ten Broeck—a general in Washington's army—helped the manor survive. Loyalism to the British crown by manor lords in Westchester and Dutchess Counties decimated the manor system in those regions.
After Stephen's death on January 26, 1839, the informal system of rent forgiveness began to crumble. The eagerly awaited announcement of the terms of his will revealed his wish that his debts be paid from back rents. This came as a shock to many tenants accustomed to the informal system of rent forgiveness. This unrest eventually led to the massive tenant uprising known as the Anti-Rent Wars and the end of the manor shortly thereafter.
The Anti-Rent Wars have a direct relationship to the translation of Dutch colonial documents in New York. E.B. O'Callaghan, archivist of the State of New York in the 1840s, learned Dutch as a result of his advocacy of tenant interests. O'Callaghan subsequently used his linguistic skills to translate Volume 1 of the Register of the Provincial Secretary.