Stephen Van Rensselaer [1765-1839] was probably the second most visible Van Rensselaer next to his famous forefather Killian Van Rensselaer [1595-1644] who founded Rensselaerswijck, the huge estate near Albany, New York comprising the present Albany, Columbia and Rensselaer counties. Stephen, in fact, was the eighth and second last Patroon of Rensselaerswijck. All of the land of the estate was sold off in 1839, in response to the anti-rent protests, by his son, also called Stephen Van Rensselaer [1789-1868].
Stephen Van Rensselaer [1765-1839] actually improved the productivity of the lands in the Rensselaerswijck estate by lowering rents to about one percent of the land's output in order to induce farmers to settle on his lands. As a result he soon had 900 farms of 150 acres each under cultivation.
Stephen's interests, however, lay elsewhere, in politics and in the military. He was a Federalist and became a leader of the Federalist Party. He was elected to the New York State Assembly in 1789 and to the New York State Senate [1791-1796]. He became the New York State Lieutenant Governor in 1795 and again in 1798. He returned back to the New York State Assembly for the period from 1808 to 1810. He became a Major in the Militia in 1786, a Colonel in 1788, and a Major General in 1801.
In 1812 Stephen was appointed to command the U.S forces on the northern frontier. In October 1812, when he had reached the rank of General, he led the militia in the battle for Queenston Heights on the Niagara Frontier. Queenston Heights was located on the British [now Canadian] side of the Niagara River. The U.S. forces were able to gain control of Queenston Heights with a small force, but were unable to maintain control because the bulk of the U.S. militia refused to cross the Niagara River. Apparently the militia's contract stated that they were only expected to fight on American soil.
The small U.S. force holding Queenston Heights had to surrender to the British forces. That battle disaster resulted in General Van Rensselaer being blamed for the defeat and humiliation, even though he had only limited control over the situation. His cousin, Solomon Van Vechten Van Rensselaer [1774-1852] was a general in the battle and was severely injured in the battle. As a result of the debacle Stephen resigned his military commission a week later.
Prior to the War of 1812, in 1810, Van Rensselaer was a Commissioner on the establishment of the Erie Canal. Following his resignation from the militia he resumed his Erie Canal Commissionership and became the Commission Chairman. When the Erie Canal was completed in 1825 he had been President of the various Erie Canal Commissions and Boards for 14 years.
In 1818 his interest in politics was reawakened. He was elected to the New York State Assembly in 1818. Following that appointment he served in the State Constitutional Convention in 1821 and was elected to the U.S. Congress for the 1823-1829 period. During that time period he supported John Quincy Adams for the U.S. presidency.
In 1819 Van Rensselaer became a Regent of the University of New York, and later he became its Chancellor until his death in 1839. In 1823 he founded Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute at Troy, New York, paying half of its operating expenses during its early years. In 1825 Yale University gave him the honorary LL.D. degree. He was a graduate of Harvard University graduating in 1825.
Stephen Van Rensselaer was married twice. His first wife was Margaret Schuyler, daughter of Philip Schuyler, another member of a famous Dutch family dating back to the early days of New Netherland. In 1802 he married his second wife, Cornelia Paterson, daughter of Chief Justice William Paterson of New Jersey. His son Henry Bell Van Rensselaer [1810-1864] also entered politics and became a U.S. Congressman. His eldest son Stephen [1789-1868], a graduate of Princeton in 1808, became the last Patroon of Rensselaerswijck.
StephenVan Rensselaer passed away on January 16, 1839 at the ripe old age of 74. Not many people lived that long in that time period. He is interred in the Albany, New York Cemetery.
See the appendix at the end of the bio profile for Kileaen Van Rensselaer [1595-1644] to see the relationship between the ten Van Rensselaers in this publication.
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