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Profile - Stephen Van Rensselaer

Scion of a Hudson Valley Dutch patroon family Stephen Van Rensselaer III (1764-1839) was raised to wealth, privilege, and duty.  One of the finest militia officers in American history, his only experience of active service was a brief campaign along the Niagara River.

His father dying in 1769, the five year old Van Rensselaer inherited the family's vast estates – a million acres that today comprise most of Albany and Rensselaer counties in New York – as the Eighth Patroon, a quasi-feudal "lord of the manor."  Graduating from Harvard in 1782, he managed the family property, and became active in politics and the state militia.  Commissioned a major in 1786, he was promoted to colonel in 1788 and by 1801 was a major general.  Meanwhile he served in the State Assembly and Senate from 1789 to 1795, as lieutenant governor from 1795 to 1801, and in the state constitutional convention of 1801.  Shortly after the outbreak of the War of 1812, Van Rensselaer, the senior line officer of the New York State militia, was appointed by President Madison as commander of the "Army of the North," charged with undertaking an offensive across the Niagara Frontier.  Although Rensselaer had never served a day of active duty, Madison thought the appointment politically astute, since Van Rensselaer was a pro-war Federalist, and he had a reputation for being a serious militiaman.  And in fact, Van Rensselaer had been assiduous in his attention to his duties in the militia.  Nevertheless, aware of his lack of professional military experience, he promptly appointed his cousin, Lt. Col. Solomon Van Rensselaer, as his chief-of-staff.  Solomon had served in the Regular Army for nearly a decade, rising to major after fighting under “Mad” Anthony Wayne at Fallen Timbers, and had then served several terms as adjutant general of the State of New York, and returned to active duty as a volunteer on the outbreak of the war.  Unfortunately, Regular Army Brig. Gen. Alexander Smyth, also a political appointee with even less military service, was assigned as Van Renssalaer’s principal subordinate.

By October of 1812, Van Rensselaer had about 900 U.S. Regulars and 2,300 New York militiamen along the Niagara River.  He planned a surprise crossing of the river, but 1,900 of his militiamen refused to cooperate on the grounds that they were only obliged to serve in defense of New York (this may sound strange, but the wording of the Constitution permits such interpretation).  Worse, Smyth, who commanded another 900 regulars, claiming that a Regular officer had precedence over a militiaman, despite President Madison's orders, refused to obey Van Rensselaer.  As a result, when Van Rensselaer opened his offensive on October 13 he had only about 900 Regulars directly under his command plus his remaining 400 militiamen.

Van Rensselaer’s attack met with considerable success, and he capture d Queenstown Heights.  With only about 1,300 men, however, his position was precarious.  Nevertheless, a counterattack by British Regulars and Canadian militia was beaten off, during which British commander Isaac Brock was mortally wounded.  Brock's successor brought up more troops and a good deal of artillery.  A second counterattack overwhelmed Van Rensselaer's little force, leaving a hundred dead and nearly a thousand men – among them young Winfield Scott – prisoners of the enemy.  Only 300 men managed to escape across the Niagara to safety.

Disgusted with the lack of courage displayed by many of the militiamen and with Smyth's pusillanimity, Van Rensselaer resigned his commission.  He never again took up arms.  Van Rensselaer spent the rest of his life pursuing his business and political interests.  He was a major promoter of the Erie Canal, served as a regent and chancellor of the University of the State of New York, and founded the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Stephen Van Rensselaer's death led to what is known as the "New York Rent War,"  sometimes called the “Helderberg War.”  It seems that although patroon of vast estates across upper New York, Van Rensselaer had for many years not collected his feudal rents.  When his heirs inherited these lands, they promptly demanded immediate payment of all back rents.  This sparked rioting by Van Rensselaer's tenants, who dressed up as “Indians” and ran amok for a couple of days before the state militia was called out to calm things down.  No one was killed, but one man was eventually sentenced to jail for life on riot charges, only to be pardoned by a sympathetic governor shortly afterwards.  The "war" led to the formation of the “Anti-Rent Party” which wielded considerable influence in state politics from during the 1840s, and helped push through a reformed state constitution in 1846, which abolished patroonships.  

Note 1: Stephen's son, Henry (1810-1864), graduated from West Point in 1831 (which gave the Confederacy one general and the Union six, of whom the most famous was Maj. Gen. Samuel R. Curtis).  He served for a time as a brevet second lieutenant in the 5th Infantry, but resigned from the Army early in 1832 to purse a career in agricultural, politics, mining, and eventually railroading.  In the Civil War he was appointed a colonel and additional aide-de-camp to Winfield Scott, and later served as inspector general in various commands until his death.

Note 2: Anya Seton's 1944 novelDragonwyck is set during the waning days of the patroon estates and the period of the Rent War. 

 


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