Monday, February 6, 2012
ANTI-RENTISM IN ALBANY COUNTY.
Page 277 of the Bi-centennial history of Albany: History of the county of Albany from 1609 to 1886, edited by George Rogers Howell and Jonathan Tenney, New York: W.W. Munsell & Co., Publishers, 1886.
ANTI-RENTISM IN ALBANY COUNTY.
ITS ORIGIN, RISE AND PROGRESS---ITS ADVENT AS A POLITICAL POWER, AND ITS DECLINE AS SUCH---REMARKABLE SHERIFF'S POSSE AND MILITARY DEMONSTRATIONS---THE LEGAL CONTROVERSY---THE QUARTER SALE, AND ITS OVERTHROW---MANOR PROPRIETORS FINDING THAT THEY ARE NEITHER LORDS, NOR PATROONS, NOR LANDLORDS, SELL THEIR DISPUTED INTEREST---FORFEITURE AND CONFISCATION OF LANDS, WITH THE BUILDINGS, AND OTHER IMPROVEMENTS, ENFORCED BY SPECULATORS—PRESENT STATUS OF THE CONTROVERSY.
by Hon. ANDREW J. COLVIN.
ANTI-RENTISM had its origin in Albany County. It started into existence very soon after the death of Stephen Van Rensselaer, the last holder of the manor of Rensselaervvyck under the British crown. His death occurred on the 26th day of January, 1839. He was known to that generation as the patroon, sometimes the good patroon, and after his death as the old patroon. The manor was more than a principality in size, and comprised the greatest portion of the lands— cultivated and wooded—in the present counties of Albany and Rensselaer.
As primogeniture was the law of inheritance in England, so it was of the colonies, and this Stephen Van Rensselaer, therefore, as the eldest son, inherited this manor of Rensselaerwyck. The revolution, and the laws following, changed the rule of inheritance, and gave to all the children alike.
To break the force of this radical change, and to keep this vast landed interest in the hands of his two eldest sons that might be, and their descendants, if possible, this Stephen Van Rensselaer on arriving at his majority adopted the system of selling his lands in fee, reserving to himself in the conveyances, and to his heirs and assigns, all mines and minerals, all streams of water for mill purposes and the like; and then certain old-time feudal returns, denominated rents, payable annually, at the manor house in Watervliet, such as a specified number of bushels of good, clean, merchantable winter wheat, four fat fowls, and one day's service with carriage and horses; and, finally, the reservation or exaction of one-quarter of the purchase price on every vendition of the land.
This patroon was advised that he could do this, even on grants in fee; and it is reported that Alexander Hamilton framed the form of conveyance to be adopted.
There was at this time an English statute, known as the statute of Quia Emptores, which rendered it impossible for a subject, on a conveyance in fee of his land, to make, or if made to enforce by reentry or forfeiture, such feudal reservations. That was a right remaining in and belonging to the crown alone.
It was, probably, assumed by Mr. Hamilton that that statute was never in force in the colony, and that it, therefore, had no existence in the State,or any statute tantamount to it; or he may, perhaps, have had no knowledge of the English statute, as it was adopted so long ago as the reign of Edward I.
However that may have been, it is certain that this patroon, acting upon such advice from some quarter, sold in fee, with warranty of title, his farming lands in Albany and Rensselaer counties, the deeds containing the feudal reservations above mentioned. The system seemed to work smoothly enough during his life and the lives of the first purchasers; but, on his and their death, the successors of the latter, as owners, began to grow restive under the burdens imposed; and, on being urgently pressed after the death of the patroon by his sons Stephen and William to make payments of the rents in arrear as reserved in the deeds, they—the owners of the lands—began to question the legality of the reservations.
The patroon, by his will, devised all his interest in the lands thus sold by him in fee, with the reservations of rents, to his two oldest sons, Stephen and William R; the scrivener who drew the will and himself undoubtedly supposing that he verily owned the escheat or reversion of such lands; in other words, and in more familiar language, that he still owned or retained the soil thereof. To the oldest son, Stephen, was given the rents in Albany County; and to William P., the second son, the rents in Rensselaer County, as reserved in the conveyances.
Here, on the death of the father, commenced the first troubles of the landholders, or the tenantry, as they were called by the manor proprietors.
While the old patroon was one of the most gentle, kind-hearted and benevolent of men, and often generously reduced the rents, and by many sympathetic acts called forth the gratitude and love of the landholders, the young patroons,—proud, perhaps , of the great acquisitions, and it may be withal in need of money, as the rents, after the father's death, came in sparingly and reluctantly,— were sternly exacting, and they required full and prompt payments, and omission to pay was followed by prosecution and threatened eviction.
It was not long, under these circumstances, before strong hostility was exhibited to the fee-farm rent system in these two counties, soon extending into adjacent counties affected by the same system.
It is remarkable, on taking advice of counsel, as the landholders did, that no opinion was given or suggestion made that the deeds of the patroon being absolute conveyances of all his interest in the lands, the reservations were, for that reason, invalid as incumbrances, made so by the English statute before mentioned.
The counsel consulted were either ignorant of the existence of that statute or they dismissed the consideration of it on the assumption that it was never the law of the Colony or of the State. Had that statute, at the time of the anti-rent outbreak, been recognized as the law of the State, it is not too much, probably, to assert and believe that, before the distinguished judges who then adorned the bench, with the Senate composing the court of last resort—a popular as well as judicial body—the anti-rent controversy would have been spared more than a quarter of a century of political and legal conflict, and the feudal-burdened counties have become as enlightened, prosperous and free as their sister counties of the State.
The anti-renters, desirous of compromising the disputed matters on some equitable, even liberal basis, early in the spring of 1839 held a convention or meeting, numerously attended, on the Helderbergs, in the town of Berne, and appointed a committee to wait on Stephen Van Rensselaer, the eldest son of the old patroon, for the purpose of ascertaining if an amicable settlement of manor claims for rents in arrear could not be effected, and to learn, in the language of the day, upon what terms the soil could be bought, ignorant that they owned the soil already by their deeds of conveyance.
The committee, consisting of such sterling men as Lawrence Vandusen, of Berne, afterwards elected county clerk, who acted as chairman; Edgar Schoonmaker, Hugh Scott, Joseph Connor and John F. Shafer and others of that town, and Denison Fish, Lawrence Fenner, Isaac Hoag and others of Rensselaerville, and other representative men of the hill towns and towns below the hill, on the 22d of May, 1839, went to the manor office in Watervliet to see and converse with Mr. Van Rensselaer on the subject for which they were appointed; but he refused to speak to or recognize them even by a nod. Passing into the inner office occupied by his agent, Douw B. Lansing, he held a somewhat lengthened and confidential conversation with him, and the agent then came out and said that Mr. Van Rensselaer would communicate with them in writing. This excited great indignation, the committee feeling that they had been treated with lordly and haughty contempt.
Mr. Van Rensselaer did some time subsequently address a letter to Mr. Vandusen, the chairman of the committee, which was read at meetings of the antirenters held at East Berne on the Helderbergs, and other places in the summer of 1839. In this communication Mr. Van Rensselaer declined to sell on any terms, saying, among other things, that he would be doing injustice to himself, to his family and to society at large should he consent to do so.
This determination of the manor claimant on the Albany side of the river led to the wildest excitement in the anti-rent towns of Albany County, and open resistance to the collection of rents was boldly urged and practiced. Rent agents were insulted, and were not safe among the excited people. Sheriffs were resisted in discharge of their duties, by men masked and dressed in calico and Indian costume; their horses were shorn of mane and tail; the wheels of their vehicles were removed and hidden; firearms were displayed; tar and feathers threatened, and strong demonstrations of force generally exhibited.
Such was the extent of the resistance that early in December, 1839, the Sheriff, Michael Artcher, called to his aid, in serving process, the posse comitatus, or power of the county. Among many prominent citizens summoned was ex-Gov. Marcy, who, amid much laughter, declared grimly and facetiously his readiness to go; and he did actually go with the posse on foot as far as Adamsville, where a gentleman friend found him and conducted him in his carriage as far as Clarksville, and there the Governor remained until evening, when he returned with the posse to Albany.
The Sheriff, with his posse, consisting of six hundred citizens, started from Albany on the third day of December, 1839, for Reidsville, a hamlet on the Helderbergs, about sixteen or eighteen miles from Albany. On arriving within a few miles of the place, the Sheriff, selecting from the body of theposse a committee of seventy-five of the stoutest hearted, left with them for Reidsville, where it was understood the anti-renters were collected in force. Just before reaching Reidsville the Sheriff and his committee encountered a body of fifteen hundred mounted men posted across the public highway, barring and refusing their further progress, and ordering them to go back. Whereupon the Sheriff and the committee returned obediently as directed; and on making report to the main body of the posse of the formidable resistance encountered, the whole body gladly took the backward march to Albany, where they arrived in safety the same evening at 9 o'clock.
People generally at the time, in discussing this unheard of posse and its ridiculous termination, declared that a bold front on the part of the Sheriff, with twenty resolute men, would have enabled him to pass through the mounted horsemen without injury, and do what he desired to accomplish of a legal character.
On the morning after his return, the Sheriff gave the Governor—-William H. Seward—-an animated if not exaggerated account of the resistance he had met with.
The Governor deemed it his duty, under the circumstances detailed, to call out the military, and he did so promptly and efficiently, for he ordered out a force sufficient to capture every man, woman and child on the Helderbergs. It was composed of the Albany Burgesses Corps, Captain Bayeux; Albany Union Guards, Captain Brown; Albany Republican Artillery, Captain Strain; First Company Van Rensselaer Guards, Captain Kearney; Second Company Van Rensselaer Guards, Captain Berry; Troy Artillery, Captain Howe; Troy Citizens Corps, Captain Pierce; and Troy City Guards, Captain Wickes.
This formidable body of citizen-soldiery, in general command of Major William Bloodgood, headed by Sheriff Artcher, started for Reidsville, on the Helderbergs, December 9, 1839, to encounter and overcome the rent-resisters. With colors flying, drums beating, cannon rumbling, and bayonets gleaming in the wintry sun, its march from Albany was imposing.
It reached the Helderbergs without a shadow of resistance, and, encamping at Reidsville, found no enemy there to attack or oppose. It remained in camp and on duty at that point, and other places, for a week, and then returned to Albany, greatly chagrined and sadly bedraggled, amid the peltings of a pitiless rain storm of almost unexampled severity.
Similar but much smaller demonstrations, under proclamations of subsequent governors, set on foot by rent claimants and timid sheriffs, have occurred several times since. The object has always seemed to be, not to serve and enforce process, for that was never really impossible in the hands of a vigorous and courageous officer, with only a respectable posse; but by military exhibitions of display, accompanied by sheriffs' posses in force, to intimidate and drive the landholders into settlement and payment of iniquitous demands.
The resistance to the collection of rents and attempted enforcement of collections went on for some time in the tumultuous manner stated, without successful or encouraging results on either side. The landholders hoped the petty and threatened acts of resistance made by them might induce Mr. Van Rensselaer to offer some terms of compromise; but he refused all compromise unless his tenantry, as he called them, would cease all further opposition, acknowledge themselves in the wrong and pay up what they-owed.
This obstinate state of the controversy led the landholders, under the advice of some antiquarian adepts in legal lore, to question the Van Rensselaer title to the manor. It was insisted that the letters patent were invalid on many grounds, not necessary now to be stated, as it would lead to fruitless discussion. It is enough to say of it that it soon brought the feudal rent conflict into the arena of politics.
Politicians, always keen to scent the advent of a new and potent power for votes, were quick in seizing this opportunity and putting the landholders in shape for political action. They must, it was urged, have a public press to make their cause and their grievances known to the people, and this was done with little delay.
The Freeholder, published in the City of Albany, became the organ of the embryo party. It was conducted for many years with great ability. Both of the old political parties, to a greater or less extent, entered into the controversy, although the National Republican or Whig party, then the opposition party to the Democratic, furnished, apparently, the largest number of anti-rent or land holders' advocates. The landholders now sought, through political agitation, the enactment and enforcement of laws to protect them against the feudal exactions. Their first object, therefore, was to secure the Governor and a controlling number of members of the Legislature; and at once, in the elections, they made their power felt. Rensselaer, Columbia, Dutchess, Sullivan, Ulster, Greene, Delaware, Otsego, Schoharie, Schenectady and Montgomery Counties promptly sent representatives of the landholders to the Legislature; and Albany County espoused their cause by overwhelming majorities. Ira Harris, as their especial representative, was elected to the Assembly in 1845 by a majority exceeding two thousand votes. In 1846 he was elected a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, and in the same year again to the Assembly, and subsequently to the Senate, and finally to a seat on the bench of the Supreme Court. Silas Wright, whose name was a tower of strength, and who, as the Democratic candidate for Governor, carried the State in 1844 for Polk as President against Henry Clay, was beaten for re-election by John Young in 1846, because his action as Governor with respect to the anti-rent outbreak in Delaware County, in which Steele, a deputy sheriff, was killed, had given offense to this new and potent organization. It would be out of place, in a history of Albany County, to detail the successes or the defeats of this organization in other counties or in the State, or its fate in the Legislature, or its decline as a political body. It is sufficient to say that the landholders' party, as a political organization, with its organ, the Freeholder, died out gradually, and that the contest subsequently became strictly legal in its character.
Among the conditions contained in the manorial grants in fee, as well in Albany as in other counties, was a provision that the grantee, his heirs or assigns, was to pay to the lord or proprietor of the manor, on every sale or vendition of the land ad infinitum, one-quarter of the purchase price; so that, if a given farm—worth, for instance, $2,000— with all its buildings and other improvements, put on it by the landholder himself, was sold four times, the manor proprietor would get the whole value of the farm, including the improvements; that is, $500 on each vendition, making the full sum of $2,000 on the fourth sale.
Litigation in the courts first assumed shape on this quarter-sale provision in 1848, and in 1852 the question was carried into the Court of Appeals for final adjudication. The ground taken there by the counsel for the landholders in opposition to the quarter-sale was, that the condition was void because it was a fine upon alienation, repugnant to the grant and against public policy; but Judge Ruggles, who delivered the opinion of the court, placed the decision in effect upon the statute of quia emptores, which, although he concluded was not in force within the colony, and, therefore, not in the State, yet, in his own words, "that our statutes of escheats and of tenures, the one passed in 1779 and the other in 1787, acting retrospectively, performed the same functions and wrought the same changes in the feudal tenures of this State as the statute of quia emptores did in England. They put an end to all feudal tenure between one citizen and another, and substituted in its place a tenure between each landholder and the people in their sovereign capacity; and, by taking away the grantor's reversion or escheat, they removed the entire foundation on which the power of the grantor to restrain alienation by his grantee formerly rested, and they placed the law of this State, in respect to the question in controversy, on the same footing on which the law of England now stands and has stood since the reign of Edward the First—that is, since 1290, when the statute of quia emptores was passed.
Judge Ruggles also said: "The right of re-entry for non-payment of rent, or the non-performance of other covenants, is not such an interest in the estate as makes the condition in question valid. It is not a reversion, nor is it a possibility of reversion, nor is it any estate in the land." And again he said: "A rent is not a reversion or a possibility of reversion, and nothing but such a reversionary interest in the land has ever been held to authorize a condition against alienation."
And Judge Ruggles adds, in the same opinion, that, although the quarter-sale condition is valid in leases for lives and years, for there the lessor has a reversionary interest in the land, yet on conveyances in fee it is void, for he has no reversionary interest left. And such was the unanimous judgment of the Court of Appeals; and so ended all further enforcement of this hoary-headed exaction.
The life and soul of this decision is this: the manor proprietors by sale and conveyance of their lands in fee divested themselves of all estate in the lands, and no relationship whatever of a legal character thenceforth existed between them and their grantees. They were not landlords, and the grantees were not tenants; for it is idle to call him landlord who does not own the land, and him tenant who does own it. And so quarter-sale condition died, and by parity of reasoning so died also all other attempted feudal restrictions, by way of covenants or conditions in deeds in fee, to free commerce in manor or other lands in the State of New York.
The Court of Appeals at the time of this decision was composed of the following Judges: Charles H. Ruggles, Chief Judge, and Addison Gardner, Freeborn G. Jewett, Alexander S. Johnson, John W. Edmonds, Malbone Watson, Philo Gridley and Henry Welles, Judges.
The Court of Appeals, in a subsequent decision, pronounced in 1859, by Judge Denio, dissented from the opinion of Judge Ruggles with respect to the existence of the statute of quia emptores here, and held that that statute was always the law of the colony, and that it was the law of the State as well before as after the passage of our act concerning tenures in 1787. "A contrary theory," said Judge Denio, "would lead to the most absurd conclusions. We should have to hold that the feudal system, during the whole colonial period, and for the first ten years of the State government, existed here in a condition of vigor, which had been unknown in England for more than three centuries before the first settlement of this country."
After the decision of the Court of Appeals in 1852, the Van Rensselaers and other manor proprietors were advised by their counsel to sell, as it was evident that the other feudal conditions, such as the payment of wheat in bushels, fat fowls, days' service with carriage and horses and the like, contained in the conveyances, and forfeiture of the land in case of non-payment, must rest and be rejected upon the same principle as the quartersale condition, to wit, want of relation of landlord and tenant between the parties; for if that relationship did not exist in the one case, it was obvious that it did not exist in the other, and could not, therefore, exist at all.
While the manor proprietors, tired of the long continued resistance and the failure to collect alleged rents, had, previously to 1852, in a few intances, sold to some submissive landholders the soil of their farms, as it was called, they now, under the adverse litigation attending the quarter sale, on the advice of counsel mentioned, expressed a willingness to sell at prices ridiculously small, if they really believed the rents claimed were legal and collectable; and speculators or adventurers in numbers, ever ready to take chances, however desperate, or, if possibly successful, however detrimental to the general welfare, pressed forward to buy; and they bought. The chief or principal purchaser was Walter S. Church, then of Allegany County, New York.
It must be here observed, once for all, that the term speculator or adventurer in this case is not made use of in an invidious or offensive sense, or even reproachfully, but by way of designation or discrimination. He is not an inheritor of manorial rights, and he does not take by devise. He simply comes in as a stranger on speculation, and buys casual or disputed claims, as he would buy lottery tickets or stocks in Wail street. He is, therefore, a speculator or adventurer in the contest, in which he purchases chances. If successful in the venture, his fortune is made, and he can take his ease, and live and spend and entertain freely and handsomely. If unsuccessful, he is no worse off than other speculators who spend on a hazard all, perhaps, they possess, and all they can borrow.
The last mentioned purchaser or speculator has, for more than thirty years, made a busy and troublous time of the venture for himself and for the landholders.
That he has been indefatigable in it, is saying little. His labors and his activity have been immense, and his presence, wherever or however required to promote or protect his interest, has been almost ubiquitous. Did the controversy drift into the Legislature, as it did from time to time, he confronted it there, at every step, with an energy untiring and sleepless, and open house and ample table as potent auxiliaries. When it went into the courts in the form of multiplied ejectment suits, prosecuted under his personal direction and in his interest, he was there alike active, untiring and vigilant; and it must be written, or this historical sketch will be imperfect, honored judges did not deem it improper, and have not considered it incompatible with their position, to accept the proffered hospitalities of his bachelor home, partake of his sumptuous repasts, sip his costly wines, and receive his courtly attentions; and distinguished lawyers, and lawyers engaged in the cases against the landholders, have participated in the entertainments; even Governors and LieutenantGovernors have not refused to join in them.
It may be said that these social entertainments have exercised no control in the judgments pronounced by the courts. That may be so. But in cases involving civil rights, the forfeiture of real property and enormous pecuniary exactions besides, it cannot be expected that the landholders, victims in the actions, have regarded their possible influence with indifference. In a great controversy like this, in which judgments are given upon the statutes of landlord and tenant—wheVe such statutes cannot possibly apply—the rule of stare decisis should not be allowed to prevail; and therefore the judges should keep their minds open to further argument and decision, without possible bias in any way or from any direction; for it has been well said that a single decision has never, in any case, been allowed to stand if found opposed to principle, and in a conflict of decisions the doctrine of stare decisis does not hold.
It is familiar to every well-read lawyer that there are hundreds of cases in the books that have stood settled as law for centuries, which have been overturned by the broad, luminous and analytical mind of a Mansfield or a Marshall, a Spencer or a Kent—intellects which have elevated and ennobled the race, not debased and degraded it—and it will scarcely do to say that this generation of judges is infallible, or wiser and greater than those illustrious prototypes.
If it be asked how the controversy has progressed since the purchase by the adventurers, and how it stands to-day between them and the landholders, it may be summed up briefly.
In 1858, in the case of Van Rensselaer against Ball, first, among many cases, that went to the Court of Appeals after decision in the quartersale suit, the right of the manor proprietors, or the purchasers of their interest, to maintain actions of ejectment against the landholders, was put by that Court, in the opinion written by Judge Denio, before alluded to, upon a statute passed by the Legislature in 1805, authorizing grantors of lands to have the same remedies for the recovery of rents as if the reversion had remained in them.
Now, this statute was passed after the manor proprietors had sold their lands, with scarcely an exception, and could not, therefore, be legitimately employed in the office it was called on to perform; that is, it could not confer a right if none existed before. But this was not all; Judge Denio then proceeded to apply the statutes of landlord and tenant to the cases, after he had demonstrated beyond all contradiction that these statutes could not by any possibility be made to apply, in consequence of the prohibitory statute of quia emptores, and our statutes of tenures and escheats.
This decision so shocked the public conscience, that the Legislature in 1860 promptly repealed the statute of 1805, so far as conveyances executed before that time were concerned.
After that statute was repealed, the feudal rent litigation was renewed; and other cases, having gone through the lower courts, were carried to the Court of Appeals for renewed decision, where they were decided in 1863. That Court then took a new departure, and held that the statute of 1805 was not necessary to the maintenance of the actions, but that the provisions of a statute enacted in 1846, abolishing distress for rent, and for other purposes—a statute passed in the interest of the landholders, through the agency of their own representatives in the Legislature—supplied the place of the statute of 1805. The opinion in the case was written by Judge Henry R. Selden.
Judge Selden, after relying on the statute of 1846, as Judge Denio had done on the statute of 1805, to sustain the actions, undertakes to uphold them on the strength of an opinion expressed by Sugden in his work on "Vendors and Purchasers," and on two or three controverted English cases. But neither Sugden nor the disputed cases advance the idea, or even hint at it, that there can be any forfeiture of land for non-payment of rent, outside the relation of landlord and tenant; and it may be asserted, without fear of contradiction, that no case can be found, English or American, where re-entry, or ejectment for default in the payment of rent, has been had or allowed, except where the relation of landlord and tenant existed, or was supposed to exist.
It has been shown that the decision in the case of Ball, in 1859, in which Judge Denio wrote the opinion—is no exception to this rule—for the judgment in that case was expressly affirmed, by help of the statute of 1805, upon the statutes of landlord and tenant. And Judge Selden, in his opinion in the Reid case, written in 1863, is forced finally to admit and declare that the actions are not maintainable, except the relation of landlord and tenant exists between the parties. His very language is here copied, and is as follows: 1' In many cases in our courts, behveen parties similarly situated, they have been spoken of and treated as landlords and tenants, and the decisions in the cases of Van Rensselaer v. Snyder (13 N. Y., 200) and Van Rensselaer v. Ball (ip N. Y, 100) can be sustained on no other ground, as they depended entirely upon a statute applicable only to parties holding that relation (2 R. S., p. JO J, § 30)."
Of the eight judges who composed the Court of Appeals in 1863, when Judge Selden wrote his opinion, it is notable that two of the most distinguished Judges of the Court, Wright and Rosekranz, who heard the arguments, refused to take part in the decision. They could not be brought to assent to the remarkable doctrines announced by Judge Selden.
Upon this indefensible assumption by Judge Selden of the relationship of landlord and tenant between the parties to this controversy (where such relationship does not exists), hangs the enormous exactions thereafter, and even now, bitterly wrung from the cultivators of lands absolutely owned by themselves.
The workings of the system, thus naugurated by the Court of Appeals, may be illustrated by a few out of many examples:
On the 17th day of February, 1860, one of the coldest days of the winter, the principal adventurer in the claims, accompanied by the Sheriff and his posse, some fourteen or fifteen in number, armed with pistols and clubs, and handcuffs to bind any that might be found to oppose, made a sudden descent upon the farm and premises of Peter Ball, situated on the Helderbergs, near the village of Berne. The farm had been his and his forefathers for generations, but then and there, in the midst of a furious mountain snow-storm, they cast him, with his family, consisting of his wife, a sick daughter and an aged colored servant, from the dwelling, out upon the public highway.
The value of this farm, within the very limits of the village, with its new, convenient and handsome dwelling-house, and other improvements, made by Peter Ball himself, was very considerable. It was one of the most desirable and picturesque places on the Helderbergs; and as the poor old people, the sick daughter and the aged servant were forced to leave, their cries and their tears touched many a tender heart.
It may be truthfully asserted that when the Patroon sold his lands on the Helderbergs, there was not probably an acre that was worth more than twenty-five cents. The value was given afterward by the buildings and other improvements put upon the lands by the purchasers.
It was necessary, it was said, to make an example of Peter Ball, because he had been a leading and persistent anti-renter, for the influence it might exert at the time upon other anti-renters to come forward and settle exacted claims.
Martinus Lansing, whose extensive farm lay on the east or Greenbush side of the river, in view, probably, from the pinnacles of the Capitol, beneath which, in august dignity, now sits the Court of Appeals, is a more recent and flagrant case of dispossession. On this farm, worth not less than twenty-five thousand dollars, it has been estimated there was an unpaid rent claim of about eight hundred dollars. Mr. Lansing was required to pay six thousand dollars to be reinstated. He paid four thousand dollars, and because he did not promptly pay the other two thousand, although he subsequently offered to pay it, and the payment was refused, he and his family were removed from their dwelling-house by an armed body of officers and men. The great farm, with all its buildings and other improvements, put on it by Mr. Lansing's forefathers, with extensive additions and betterments by Mr. Lansing himself, was immediately taken possession of by the chief speculator; and he is to-day occupying the fine dwellings and large barns, and planting and reaping the broad acres, and pocketing the fruits, rejoicing in the great acquisition, and making exhibitions of it to admiring friends.
The reader will not be surprised to learn that Mr. Lansing died of a broken heart, poor and penniless, and that his unmarried daughters, forced to support themselves as best they may, or dependent upon the liberality of relatives, have suffered a desolation, distress and mortification over which sympathetic neighbors and friends have dropped many a tear of charity.
Another case of dispossession was that of William Witbeck, of Greenbush, whose farm lay west of Mr. Lansing's, and nearer the river. The Olcott place, which occupies a site commanding a view of all Albany, forms in part its western boundary.
As a grass and stock farm, with its buildings and other improvements put on by the Witbeck family, it was very valuable—worth not less, probably, than fifteen thousand dollars.
Witbeck had paid all assumed rent claims against this farm, but there was yet unpaid, it seemed, the costs of the ejectment suit, amounting perhaps to one hundred and fifty dollars. These, by some oversight, had not been paid. They might have been collected at any moment upon execution, if Witbeck had refused to pay, as he had much cattle and other property on this and other farms in the same neighborhood. But this was not what the principal speculator in fee-farm rents was seeking. Witbeck, he insisted had been contumacious, and had forfeited his right to retain the farm, and he declared his intention, therefore, to take possession. For this purpose Hiram Griggs, a deputy of the Sheriff of Rensselaer County, with an armed posse, was dispatched to take possession. Witbeck, as he had given out he would do, resisted, and in the encounter which followed Griggs was shot, and subsequently died. Witbeck and his two sons were arrested and indicted for Griggs' murder. They were tried in Saratoga County, and were acquitted. In the meantime, secured against further resistance, the speculator obtained peaceable possession of the farm, and he retains it to this day, with its bountiful ingathering of harvests and fruits.
Such are some of the results of landlord and tenant statutes, where such statutes do not apply. It is the merciless taking and appropriation of land (by judicial accomplishment), with all the buildings and other improvements, put on it by the owners themselves, which never belonged to the manor or proprietors nor to the purchasing speculators; here in the State of New York, near the close of the nineteenth century, in a manner equal to anything in atrocity that could have occurred in the barbarous ages of the ninth century, when feudalism was first forced on allodial soil and on free men.
The system of swooping in farms, with the buildings and other improvements, now practiced, under the same incongruous statutes, (made possible by the like judicial action) may be illustrated by the method in which it is done:
Ejectment suits are brought to recover one year's rent claimed to be due—generally the last year— and recovery of possession of the farm for non-payment. The landholder, on prosecution, goes to the office in Albany to pay the year's rent sued for, and the costs of the action. Payment will not be accepted unless he will also pay all rents claimed to be in arrear; it may be for fifteen or twenty, perhaps thirty years. The landholder remonstrates, on the ground, as often happens, that he has only owned the farm a few years, and should not be asked to pay longer than he has owned. He is told that that makes no difference; the farm is liable, whoever may have been the owner, and he must pay all rents claimed or lose the farm. On inquiry as to the amount claimed, he is startled to learn that it exceeds the value of the farm, perhaps, with all the buildings and other improvements. That result is brought about by charging the fullest prices for the wheat, the fat fowls and the days' service with carriage and horses, with annual accumulations of interest on each. It is the old story; the successors of the old Patroon chastised the landholders with whips; the adventurers chastise them with scorpions.
The distressed farmer, sued for one year's rent> goes home and communicates to his astonished family the ruin that impends over their peaceful habitation; and ruin promptly comes in the person of the speculator, with the sheriff and posse at his back, who speedily close the scene upon the wretched family by pitiless dispossession unless every claim be paid.
The prices of rents claimed have been greatly increased by the speculators since the days of the Patroons; then the fat fowls and the days' service with carriage and horses, etc., were put at uniform rates of moderate character; now they are advanced to the extremest tension. It is this feature of the fee-farm rent system, among others, which makes it so bitter, harsh and unendurable. In cases between landlord and tenant, where that relationship actually exists, the landlord must specify in his petition or complaint the exact amount of rent claimed to be due, so that the tenant may know what he has to pay, and he pays it, or leaves the premises at his option, to which premises the tenant makes no claim, for he never owned them. He has added nothing to their value by buildings or other improvements, and he leaves them without loss or distress.
Very different from this is it with the fee-farm rent system. Here the courts do not require the speculators, on prosecution, to fix the amount of rent claimed to be due. That is left to their tender mercy after they have got their ejectment judgment; and if the landholder don't then pay as required, he loses his farm, with all the buildings and other improvements put upon it by himself. These buildings and other improvements, even more valuable, perhaps, than the land itself, the Court of Appeals declared in 1852, in the opinion delivered by Judge Ruggles in the quarter-sale suit, never belonged to the manor proprietors, and certainly, therefore, never belonged to the speculators in the manor claims. Yet these speculators are now allowed, under the statutes of landlord and tenant (with assistance of the courts), to take the buildings and other improvements as well as the land itself, which the Court of Appeals, in 1852, as above declared never belonged to the manor proprietors.
This category of the fee-farm rent system places it in a light of terrific injustice.
It may be asserted, boldly and unflinchingly, that the declaration of the Court of Appeals, before mentioned and transcribed, that because, in many cases, the parties to this controversy have been spoken of and treated as landlords and tenants, therefore, their status as such is forever fixed and cannot be changed, where that relationship does not exist, is judicial legislation and tyranny. *
* This language is used advisedly. Writers on social science concede that the courts in this country have assumed legislative power. Lester F. Ward, A.M., of the Smithsonian Institution, in a recent work on " Dynamic Sociology," says: "There are two classes of lawmaking bodies—courts and legislatures. The growth of law through the courts is almost unrecognized by the people at large: yet its development by this agency is, perhaps, more rapid than by legislation." The author is inclined to approve this usurpation, unmindful that judicial legislation is insidious despotism, paving the way for imperialism; destructive assuredly of our system of government described by President Lincoln as the "government of the people, by the people, for the people,"
This judicial legislation on this rent question makes him who does not own the land, landlord, and him who does own it, tenant, and gives the former the latter's land, with all the buildings and other improvements, without compensation.
The question admits of no dispute, and is of ready solution: it is determined by inalienable law, and all the courts in the civilized world cannot controvert or change it.
Suppose a man, owning one of these manor farms, dies without will, and without heirs, lineal or collateral, to inherit, to whom does the farm escheat or revert, to the manor lord, or in this case to the speculator who has purchased his interest, or to the people of the State in their sovereign capacity? Every tyro in the law knows that it goes to the people. Why? Because the reversion or escheat of all lands held in fee is in the State.
This point may be further illustrated by the manner in which the taxes upon these "anti-rent" lands are assessed and paid; which is matter of interest to distressed taxpayers generally, and to opponents of non-taxable Government bonds. The speculators have never been assessed for or paid any taxes on these lands which they claim to own as landlords over a peasant tenantry. If it be said that the manor proprietors, or the speculators who have purchased from them, are not bound to pay the taxes because of the original indentures by which the farms were acquired, that does not obviate the difficulty of the assessment of the taxes. If the speculators were the owners of the lands, the assessment would be levied against them as the owners; whereas, it is a well-known fact that such taxes have always been assessed to and paid by the farmers, as the owners in fee of the lands, and not as tenants either of the manor proprietors or of the speculators. The speculators have not only paid no tax or assessment of any kind on these "anti-rent" farms, but they have successfully resisted the payment of any tax on the vast amounts of rents which they have collected from the owners of these lands, as the tax receivers in the towns will testify. Hence it has now come to be understood that the speculators have here, under the aegis of the courts, a bonanza; a property superior to any other in the country; far better than non-taxable United States bonds, for they have a limit of existence, while this rent exaction is claimed to be indestructible; assuming always that the decisions of the courts are never to be reversed on this question.
The people of the State, therefore, are landlords of all these manor lands, as well as of all other lands held in fee, and no individual grantor, be he whom he may, has the slightest interest or possibility of interest in any land after he has made a deed of conveyance thereof.
Servitude to the soil in perpetuity, or involuntary servitude (better known to early ages as feudal servitude, the lords in which were known as lords superior, and the cultivators of the land as vassals, feuds or bondsmen), was imposed upon France by despotic rulers in the ninth century. It was brought from Normandy and planted on the allodial soil of England in the eleventh century by William the Conqueror. It was extirpated thence, in 1290, by the statute of quia emptores.
That statute was the law of the colony of New York, and it and tantamount statutes have always been the law of the State. Yet the degrading system, attempted to be fastened upon the eastern counties of New York by pseudo-Patroons and manor lords, has been actually fastened upon them by judicial legislation, under anomolous statutes of landlord and tenant, where such statutes do not and cannot be made to apply, even by legislative enactment; for our Legislature is not omnipotent, like the British Parliament, but is controlled in its action by both national and State constitutions.
Whether the system is to be perpetuated for the benefit of the speculators and their assigns, or their posterity, by judicial fiat, remains to be seen.
However that may be, candid and generous men will acknowledge that to the derided "anti-renters" must be accorded the honor of arresting the progress over the continent of this revival of mediaeval despotism; for there is no telling to what length it might have extended over land in vast tracts, comprising millions of acres, held by corporations and wealthy capitalists, had it not been for the determined and world-wide known resolute resistance to the enslaving system by anti-renters of the State of New York.
Through their sturdy resistance, the constitutional convention of 1846 put the system under ban for all future time throughout this commonwealth, whence it is not likely ever to have further resurrection.
July 21, 1889, New York Times, Obit, Andrew J, Colvin, Aged 81,
Worked in the law office of Martin Van Buren; Was City Attorney; Corporation Counsel of Albany City; and later District Attorney for Albany County.