Stephen Van Rensselaer III (1764-1839), was orphaned at the age of ten. His father had died when he was five and his mother remarried Reverend Eilardus Westerlo, minister of the Dutch Reformed Church in Albany. She died five years later and Stephen was raised by Abraham Ten Broeck (later Brigadier General) and his wife (Stephen’s aunt) Elizabeth Van Rensselaer.
Stephen attended the John Water’s School in Albany, grammar school in Elizabeth Town, New Jersey and Classical School in Kingston. He then attended college at Princeton, but withdrew to Harvard because of the dangers in Northern New Jersey during the Revolutionary War. In 1776, Stephen’s grandfather Philip Livingston (who had married Ten Broeck’s sister Christina) had signed the Declaration of Independence.
On June 6, 1783, Stephen married Margarita Schuyler, daughter of Major General Philip Schuyler at the Schuyler Mansion in Albany. (Another Schuyler daughter, Elizabeth, married Alexander Hamilton.)
The Van Rensselaer Manor was supported primarily by profits from the fur trade and secondarily by their mills and farms but also by the rents collected from rented land and some property sales. Since there were no taxes, neither property nor income taxes, the Van Rensselaers preferred to rent property rather than sell it, thus providing for a steady income for the Manor. With this income, the Van Rensselaers assumed most of the responsibilities of government such as organizing road and bridge building and repair, raising and outfitting a military force, as well as purchasing livestock, tools and equipment to get settlers started. This was the feudal system of government slowly being replaced in Europe. Rensselaerwyck was basically a fiefdom.
New laws passed after the Revolution restricted the practice of renting land. It was said that it was Alexander Hamilton who developed a system for the Van Rensselaers to sell the land but reserve for themselves all mineral and
water rights, rents on grain or livestock raised, and reserving for themselves one quarter of any subsequent sale of the property. This income freed Stephen to pursue other governmental and civil positions, many of which paid little or no compensation at that time.
Stephen Van Rensselaer III became a leader in the Federalist Party following in the footsteps of his Schuyler and Hamilton relatives. In 1789, he was elected to the New York State Assembly and in 1790 to the New York State Senate, where he served for five years. At that time, the Legislature alternated its meetings between Albany and the city of New York.
While in the Assembly, Stephen voted to conduct a census of New York State, to establish the New York State Militia, and improve navigation of the Hudson River. While in the Senate, he voted against Aaron Burr to fill a Senate vacancy, a act that signaled the growing conflict between Hamilton-Schuyler-Van Rensselaer and Burr. In 1789, he also financed the the establishment of the first regular military artillery company in Albany County, the Albany Republican Artillery.
In 1792 he became the largest stockholder in the Northern Inland Lock and Navigation Company providing financing for New York’s first canal running from the Mohawk River to Lake Ontario at Oswego. Philip Schuyler was also a big investor and the first president of the Northern Inland Lock and Navigation Company.
In 1795, Stephen Van Rensselaer III was elected Lieutenant Governor of New York under Governor John Jay.
The year 1801 was a difficult one for Stephen. He served as a delegate to the New York State Constitutional Convention and then was nominated to run for governor but lost to George Clinton. Later that year, his wife
Margarita Schuyler died. Seventeen months later, Stephen married Cornelia Paterson, daughter of United States Supreme Court Justice William Paterson, a signer of the U.S. Constitution and past Governor of New Jersey (for whom Paterson, New Jersey was named). In 1802, Stephen provided financing and became the largest stockholder in the Albany and Schenectady Turnpike Company.
In 1808, Stephen Van Rensselaer III was again elected to the New York Assembly. In 1810, along with DeWitt Clinton, he was appointed to a legislative commission to study the feasibility of building the Erie Canal. However, canal building would have to wait due to the outbreak of the War of 1812.
At the start of the war, the Democratic-Republicans (largely Jeffersonian Democrats) controlled the statehouse; however there was still a strong Federalist Party in New York. Not one Federalist had voted in favor of the war. Governor Daniel D. Tompkins appointed Stephen Van Rensselaer III, then the state’s leading Federalist (both Schuyler and Hamilton had died in 1804), as commander of the State Militia and ordered him to defend the northern border. Stephen had no military experience and requested a relative, Solomon Van Rensselaer, who was an experienced army colonel, accompany him.
His troops, mostly volunteers from Albany and the Van Rensselaer Manor serving between planting and harvest seasons, were untrained and undisciplined and numbered less than 1,000 men. Although augmented by 700 regular federal troops commanded by General Alexander Smyth, Smyth refused to follow Van Rensselaer’s commands, billeting his troops near Buffalo and refusing to join Van Rensselaer’s troops at Lewistown. Smyth also refused to attend a council-at-war.
After a British-Canadian force seized Detroit, Van Rensselaer was pressured to invade Canada and attack Fort George. His voluntary troops warned him that unless they attacked shortly, they would leave to be home during the cold winter months. Van Rensselaer worried that his earlier political opposition to the war held him in suspicion if he did not attack and he might be charged with treason.
The attack on Queenstown Heights was a disaster. Both Solomon Van Rensselaer and his counterpart in the regular army, Colonel John Christie were wounded in the first few hours of fighting, leaving Lieutenant Winfield Scott and Captain John E. Wool in charge. The U.S. troops seized Queenstown Heights and raised the flag, but their position was perilous. Since Van Rensselaer did not have enough boats, he had to cross the army piecemeal. When the first boats returned with the wounded, many troops were so shocked that they refused to cross. Some militia men were saying that they had only pledged to defend the U.S. and had never agreed to invade Canada.
When the British artillery opened fire on the returning boats, the civilian boatsmen refused to re-cross. Many troops never made it to battle and the ones who had crossed were trapped. Stephen Van Rensselaer however, was not blamed for the defeat and when he returned to Albany he was greeted with a hero’s welcome.
In 1816, Stephen Van Rensselaer III was appointed a commissioner of the Erie Canal and chairman of the Construction Committee. In 1819, the New York State Legislature formed the State Board of Agriculture and appointed Van Rensselaer its first president. In 1820, Stephen became the first president of the Albany Savings Bank. That same year he paid Amos Eaton to perform a geological survey of Albany and Rensselaer Counties and later to analyze the geology along the planned route of the Erie Canal. Eaton’s study was used by Governor DeWitt Clinton to show that the canal could be built.
In 1821, Van Rensselaer was a delegate to the New York Constitutional Convention. Suffrage was made practically universal for white men who were citizens during this Convention by concerted action of the emerging Democratic Party. Van Rensselaer, a slave owner, attempted to limit the franchise to land owners. When a motion was made to include the word “white” before “citizens” it was opposed by John Jay (representing Westchester County), and forthrightly by Robert Clarke (of Delaware County), who reminded those assembled that the Declaration of Independence declared “all men are created equal.” The vote to strike the word white passed however, by a narrow margin 63-59.
Van Rensselaer was also chairman of the Erie Canal Commission when the canal opened at Albany in October 1825. He remained chairman until 1839; he was served as a commissioner of the Champlain Canal.
From 1823 to 1829, Stephen Van Rensselaer III served in the U.S. Congress. He was the first chairman of the Congressional Committee on Agriculture. He voted in favor of investigating the possibility of building the Panama
Canal and helped negotiate a treaty with the Creek Nation. While in Washington, Van Rensselaer lived in a boarding house with other government officials, among them future Democratic President Martin Van Buren. Daniel Webster was a friend and for a while courted Van Rensselaer’s daughter.
In the 1824 Presidential Election, the Electoral College vote was split between John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson and William H. Crawford with no one receiving a majority, throwing the vote to the House of Representatives.
Henry Clay and Daniel Webster urged Van Rensselaer to support Adams. However, Van Rensselaer did not like Adams. The roots of their conflict can date back to Revolutionary War when the Adams family was instrumental in withholding troops from Albany General Philip Schuyler and forcing his replacement with General Horatio Gates. Martin Van Buren urged Van Rensselaer to oppose Adams and support the Democrat Andrew Jackson.
Vote was by state, and despite much trepidation, Van Rensselaer cast the deciding vote in the New York caucus for Adams, carrying New York and meeting the minimum required 13 states. Van Buren attributed Van Rensselaer’s
single vote with carrying the election for Adams.
Van Rensselaer was the largest investor and first president of the Mohawk and Hudson Railroad, owning 100 shares at $100 each, the first passenger railroad in the United States (chartered by the State of New York in 1826). He used a silver spade to break ground for the start of construction from Albany to Schenectady and was among the passengers (along with Erastus Corning and Governor Enos Throop) on the first official ride from the intersection of Western and Madison Avenues in Albany into downtown Schenectady.
Van Rensselaer also served as president of Albany’s Orphan Asylum and served on the Boards of Trustees of Rutgers College, Union College and Williams College. He was a Regent of the State University for 16 years, including being elected Chancellor, a position he held for four years. He was also an active Freemason. In 1825, he was a member of Masonic Lodge 2 in Albany and was elected grand master of New York State.
Van Rensselaer formed the Albany Lyceum of Natural History and served as its first president; it eventually evolved into the Albany Institute of History and Art. In 1824, as the Erie Canal reached completion, he helped establish a scientific school, the Rensselaer Institute. He hired many of the engineers, geologists and surveyors who had worked on the Erie Canal to teach at the new school whose purpose he said, was to train teachers to instruct farmers and mechanics on the scientific principles needed to improve their professions. He paid the full cost of running the school for five years and underwrote half of its expenses for the rest of his life. He offered free tuition to bright students with the one condition that they teach after graduation. The Rensselaer Institute became the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
Stephen’s brother, Philip van Rensselaer was the mayor of Albany for 19 years beginning in 1798. After Stephen died, the right of “patroonship” granted under the Dutch, and “Lord of the Manor” granted under British rule, could not legally be passed on to his sons William and Stephen IV under new laws passed after the Revolution. Sales of Van Rensselaer Manor property, which had boomed during the construction of the Erie Canal and the local railroads, slowed.
Legal challenges and changes in New York State law prohibited the enforcement of the deed restrictions Van Rensselaer had placed on the sale of his property, most notably requirements that new property owners pay him rents on grain or livestock raised, and pay to him one quarter of any subsequent sale. The courts did, however, uphold the requirements that tenants pay him rent.
William and Stephen’s efforts to collect these rents, which had been long-ignored by their father, led to the Anti-Rent Wars (1839-1845). Court decisions and new laws overturning the deed restrictions, declining property sales, unsuccessful investments in the Western Inland Lock and Navigation Company and possibly the Albany and Schenectady Turnpike Company, and Stephen III’s many donations and philanthropic support, led to the eventual financial decline of the Manor.
After Stephen III’s death in 1839, the Van Rensselaer Manor House, built in 1765 and home of generations of Van Rensselaers, was sold. In an effort to save what was Albany’s most important historical home, renowned Albany architect Marcus T. Reynolds engineered the dismantling, shipment and re-assembly of the house on the campus of Williams College in 1893.
Van Rensselaer descendants donated the original wallpaper and some of the woodwork and Williams College donated original doors to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to create the Van Rensselaer Room. In the mid-1960s, Williams College had the building torn down to make room for a new library. The Manor House was located just east of Broadway at the intersection of Albany-Shaker Road. When the manor was built it was described as “being on a flatt near the Hudson River across from Kissing Bridge.”
Stephen Van Rensselaer is buried with other members of his family in Section 14, Lot 1, in Albany Rural Cemetery.
Illustrations, from above: Stephen Van Rensselaer III (from the National Portrait Gallery); Map Showing the Patroonship of the Van Rensselaers (Van Rensseaer Manor – Rensslaerswyck); The Battle of Queenstown Heights by eyewitness James B. Dennis, depicts the American landing on October 13, 1812 – the village of Queenstown is in the right foreground, with Queenstown Heights behind and Lewiston in the left foreground; The First Railroad Train on the Mohawk and Hudson Railroad, by Edward Lamson Henry (Albany Institute); Van Rensselaer Manor House near Albany, just before its destruction; and Van Rensselaer Hall at the Met, which displays the ornate wallpaper from the original Van Rensselaer Manor House.
Julie O’Connot says
No mention of Van Rensselaer’s ownership of many enslaved people?
John Warren says
Thanks for your comment Julie. I’ve added a paragraph about the Constitutional Convention of 1821 and Van Rensselaer’s role, with a reference to his being a slave owner and a link to our list of Congress people who were enslavers.
I couldn’t locate any records regarding this in the New York Slavery Records Index, but if you have a source handy that can give a few more details, I’d be glad to add them.
Thanks for your careful reading!
Julie O’Connor says
My knowledge comes from looking at census data from 1790 to 1820 and archives of manumission lists.
The Van Rensselaer family appears to be largest enslaver in Albany in 1800, followed by the Schuylers, Leonard Gansevoort and Abraham Lansing if memory serves.
The one enslaved Van Rensselaer enslaved person we know the most about was Adam Blake Sr. Father of Adam Blake, Jr. who built the Kenmore Hotel.
Deirdre Sinnott says
Thanks for the detailed article. It helps me as I work on a new book set in 1777. My question is when did people stop calling the Lords of these manors by that title? Certainly after the revolution, it must have been no longer used.
I think my home built in 1812 in Manlius ny was the families country home. I do not have my abstract on hand. How can I confirm this?
Rob Naborn says
Catharina Livingston Van Rensselaer Westerlo lived to be 65 , when Stephen van Rensselaer III was 46 [https://exhibitions.nysm.nysed.gov/albany/bios/l/calivingston5034.html]