Wednesday, March 04, 2009

The First Free Soil Party: "Land . . . is the natural inheritance of every individual"

Most standard accounts of the Free Soil movement date the birth of the Free Soil Party to the Buffalo Convention held in August 1848. The Wikipedia entry, for example, states that, "In 1848, the first [Free Soil] party convention was held in Buffalo, New York . . .."

In fact, the Free Soil party that contested the 1848 national election was not the first to bear that name. That distinction goes to the Free Soil party that contested state elections in New York in the autumn of 1846.

The 1846 Free Soil party was born out of the convulsions of New York's Anti-Rent Wars, which roiled the state from roughly 1839 until the early 1850s (and beyond). The Anti-Rent Wars are fascinating in their own right and tremendously complex. Mercifully, for present purposes the most basic outline will suffice to set the stage.

In the 1600s and 1700s, Dutch and English authorities granted large tracts of undeveloped land in eastern New York to individual men. The properties, known as Patents or Manors, dominated large parts of what became Albany, Rensselaer, Columbia, Schoharie and Delaware Counties, which are shown in white on the map above. Smaller manors were scattered across a number of other adjacent counties, shown in pale blue on the map. Shortly after independence, the New York State legislature ratified the grants of those owners, known as Patroons, who had sided with the revolution.

Meanwhile, in the 1700s and early 1800s, the Patroons began leasing farm-sized plots of land within the manors to thousands of settlers and their families. The “leases” (technically, many or most of the conveyances were not leases, but that’s another story) were often perpetual, or at least extended over many generations. They typically required annual payment in kind (in, for example, in wheat and “fat fowl”). In addition, they contained provisions that permitted the lessees to sell the property. However, if they did so they were obligated to remit a portion of the price (often one-quarter, hence the term “quarter sale”) to the Patroon.

Over the decades, settlers cleared, fenced and farmed their plots and improved their parcels by building homes, barns, saw mills, grist mills and other outbuildings on them. Relations between the farmers and the Patroons were often unsettled and tense in a society where land ownership rather than rental was the norm. Individual farmers dragged their feet in making payment; Patroons generally used the carrot rather than the stick to encourage at least partial payment.

Decades of neglect led to a crisis in the late 1830s. A new generation of Patroons inherited massive debts from their indulgent forbears, and they were neither willing nor able to use gentle persuasion to convince farmers to pay their debts. The farmers, for their part, were now faced with the fact that their debts had accumulated to point where many could not pay. Many were farming marginal land in mountainous terrain, and some were, in effect, squatters, having purchased their farms from sellers who had failed to pay the quarter sale.

To make a long story short, the Patroons began filing suits, and something close to a war developed on the manors. The farmers organized rent strikes, and young men in disguise formed themselves into bands of “Indians” (pictured below) that threatened and menaced any agent or sheriff who entered the manors seeking to execute on a judgment.

The farmers also organized politically, although different groups emphasized different tactics. Some concentrated on reaching out to the two existing political parties – the Jacksonian Democrats and the Whigs – to enlist their help. Others were more inclined to nominate their own candidates to the state legislature.

There was also a divergence of views over time concerning the underlying basis of the farmers’ complaints. The more conservative (for want of a better term) approach accepted, tacitly at least, the assumption that, if the Patroons owned the land, they were entitled to lease it, at least on reasonable terms. These more conservative elements adamantly maintained, however, that the original grants to the Patroons were legally void. For years they sought court rulings declaring that the Patroons had never had good title in the first place.

More radical elements did not disagree with the contention that the grants were void. But more fundamentally they rejected the premise that land was an article of commerce that could, or at least should, be bought and sold like wheat or a cow. They contended that each citizen had a natural right to the soil. In his fine book Land and Freedom: Rural Society, Popular Protest, and Party Politics in New York, Reeve Huston describes an 1845 letter to an Anti-Rent newspaper that expressed the idea:
“Experience” of Columbia County argued that while equal laws “allow all, by their own honest exertion, to acquire as much wealth as they can, from the products of labor, they should not allow the more wealthy to seize and draw to themselves the main sources of such products. Land is the life blood of the community, and therefore, is the natural inheritance of every individual.” By defending the “natural right” of all to the “use” of the land, government would “make the success of the rich, as well as of the poor, depend upon their own exertions, and not upon partial or unjust laws.”

Because mainstream elements of both major parties firmly embraced the idea that land was a marketable commodity, neither endorsed “Experience’s” formulation. Instead, the “natural right” conception was spread among the Anti-Rent farmers primarily by Thomas Ainge Devyr, an Irishman who had fled from England to Brooklyn in 1840. In 1844, Devyr “helped found the National Reform Association, an organization led and supported by New York City craftsmen and dedicated to land reform.” Another founder of the NRA was George Henry Evans, described by Jonathan H. Earle as “a freethinker, mechanic, newspaper publisher, and land reformer [who] personified the radical tradition in antebellum America.”

In April 1845, Devyr “signed on as editor of the Albany Freeholder, the central organ of the statewide [Anti-Rent] movement.” Devyr used that pulpit to preach the doctrine that all citizens had a natural right to the land, and he drew many followers. When the publisher of the Freeholder, a conservative Democrat, fired Devyr for his radical views later the same year, Devyr simply “moved his office down the street and opened the Anti-Renter, a newspaper dedicated to the tenants’ cause and openly allied with the National Reformers.”

By mid-1846, the Anti-Renter and its “natural right” position had gathered a wide following among the Anti-Rent farmers:
Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of ordinary tenants became converts to National Reform. Devyr’s new newspaper enjoyed a circulation of 2,000. Scores of letters poured into the offices of the Anti-Renter and Young America, endorsing the notion that each citizen had a natural right to the land. Over a dozen local anti-rent associations held meetings to support the Anti-Renter and call for the freedom of the public lands.

These radical ideas did no go unchallenged. In particular, both Democratic and Whig politicians who were wooing the anti-rent bloc nonetheless urged the farmers to reject attempts to meddle with existing property rights. Many farmers adopted an amalgam of views, holding that the landlords’ titles, if valid, entitled them only to the value of the unimproved land; the value of the improvements rightfully belonged to the tenants whose labor had created them.

With this lengthy background, in the next post we’ll look at (finally!) the New York state elections of 1846 and the creation of the first Free Soil party.

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