In 1845, James Fenimore Cooper wrote Satanstoe, the first novel of The Littlepage Manuscripts, a trilogy Cooper conceived as a fictional response to the New York “anti-rent” uprising that, since 1839, had pitted leasehold tenants against their patrician landlords.  It was a struggle that, in Cooper’s view, threatened the property rights enshrined in the Constitution.  At the heart of the struggle was the claim by tenant farmers that their landlords were engaging in “feudal” practices incompatible with the egalitarian aims of the American Revolution.  Inspired, in part, by Free Soil ideology, anti-renters were aggrieved by a system of leases that granted them long-term tenancy and rights of sale, while denying them the status of freeholders.  While the landlords took their stand on the rights granted them by their legal titles, anti-renters claimed that true ownership of the land was vested in the man who had improved it with his labor.  More radically, some groups such as the National Reformers sought to use the power of the state to confiscate landlords’ estates and to redistribute the land according to various utopian schemes of universal ownership.  In Cooper’s view, such notions were an outright invitation to theft and an instance of “popular misrule” threatening to become tyranny.

The leasehold system opposed by the anti-rent movement was, by the late 1830’s, over 200 years old.  First established by the Dutch in the 1630’s, it was replicated by British authorities in 1664.  Although before the Revolution landlords did possess extensive powers, reforms after 1776 abolished feudal tenure in New York, along with primogeniture.  Thus, the anti-renters’ frequent claims that the leasehold system was a feudal relic were not substantial.  On the other hand, it is true that landlords expected from their tenants an Old World deference that, at times, fueled the class envy that erupted so violently after 1839.  If the landlords expected deference, however, they were also aware of their obligations and acted, for the most part, benevolently toward their sometimes hard-pressed tenants.  Ironically, it may have been this very benevolence that served as a catalyst for revolt.  Both before and after the Revolution, landlords did not always consistently enforce payment of rents (whether in cash or in kind).  By the 1830’s, the number of tenants seriously in arrears rose alarmingly, as did landlord indebtedness.  When Stephen Van Rensselaer III died in 1839, he was over $400,000 in debt.  When his eldest son, Stephen IV, assumed control of half of the divided estate, he began aggressively to enforce collection of back rents, a move that provoked immediate resistance.

In fairness, it should be noted that the terms of the leases in question, although legal, were sometimes onerous.  While some were “perpetual” and some were granted in “lives” or for shorter terms, in virtually every case, the landlords retained rights over “improvements” made on the properties.  Most notorious were the “quarter-sale” provisions.  Tenants who held leases in “lives,” for example, were legally able to sell their leases for a profit, but those profits were reduced by a quarter (or even a third) in remittances to the landlord.  In practice, this meant that tenants who hoped to reinvest their profits in a freehold were often unable to meet the market price.  Thus, a laudable desire for landed independence was frustrated.

The anti-rent resistance first became an organized movement on the Rensselaer and Livingston estates, spreading outward from there as the movement began to find support, not only among tenants but among political activists in both the Whig and Democratic parties, who saw in the resistance a vehicle for opposing the political power of the patroons.  Anti-renters formed voluntary associations, circulated pledges requiring signers to withhold rent from the landlords, and, when landlords sought to confiscate or evict, formed militant bands of “Indian” vigilantes disguised in calico gowns and pantaloons, grotesque horned masks, and strings of beads.  By 1844, according to some accounts, as many as 10,000 such “braves” had organized into numerous tribes, each with its own rituals of initiation.  Many of the anti-renters saw themselves as a revolutionary vanguard, destined to complete the business begun in 1776.  To the landlords, the activities of the associations appeared to herald a second revolution, an all-leveling Chartist hydra that would replace the old federalism with what Cooper termed a “tyranny of numbers.”

Cooper’s rejoinder to this threat in The Littlepage Manuscripts was to trace the “decay of principle” that would eventually give rise to the anti-rent crisis.  In Satanstoe, set two decades before the Revolution, Cornelius “Corny” Littlepage, the offspring of a family of minor New York gentry, is an idealized representation of the natural aristocrat for whom property is not simply another commodity but the guarantor of true independence and an instrument of social stability.  An exemplar of the Christian gentleman, Corny is proud of his Old World heritage but prouder still of his native land.  He is a thoroughly admirable character who, as he narrates his own story in a comically self-deprecating fashion, contrives to charm all but the most cynical of readers.  One of Cooper’s most attractive young heroes, Corny epitomizes the leisured and civilized manliness that, in Cooper’s view, only a rural, landed elite could produce.  By way of contrast, Cooper introduces Jason Newcome, a Connecticut Yankee schoolteacher whose only “virtue” is an innate, materialistic cunning.  Unlike Corny (to whom he opportunistically attaches himself), Newcome recognizes no authority higher than himself.  Manners, inherited custom, deference to one’s social superiors—all of these are an affront to his radically Puritan individualism.  This contrast between Corny and Newcome is central to Cooper’s purpose, for, as the decades encompassed by the trilogy unfold, the world of the Littlepages is increasingly inhabited by men of Newcome’s ilk.  At first an anomaly treated with amused forbearance, by sheer force of numbers and the spread of egalitarian envy, they become an ominous threat to the hierarchical social order that Cooper defends.

Satanstoe narrates Corny’s journey north to the area around Albany to establish his family’s claim to a substantial piece of property—40,000 acres purchased from the Indians—called  Mooseridge.  In Albany, he courts, and is eventually betrothed to, the delightful Anneke Mordaunt, daughter of Hermann Mordaunt, a gentleman of means who has also purchased a piece of property, called Ravensnest, in the same area.  This private quest for land becomes entangled in the events of the French and Indian War when Corny and his entourage defend both the Littlepage and Mordaunt properties against the invading French and their Huron allies.  In the end, with the union of Corny and Anneke, a new dynasty is established.

In the second novel, The Chainbearer (1845), Corny’s son, Mordaunt Littlepage, becomes embroiled in a conflict with Aaron Thousandacres, a squatter on the Mooseridge property who has built a sawmill and enriched himself at the family’s expense.  The Revolution is recent history, and a new democratic spirit stirs.  Thousandacres embodies this spirit in its most debased form.  For him, property belongs to the man who is bold enough to declare his right to it, regardless of titles.  His character is a more overtly anarchistic reprise of Jason Newcome’s.  Defending his right to the portion of the Little-page property that he has occupied, he argues that “It is enough that a man wants the land, and he comes, or sends[,] to secure it.  Possession is everything.”  Thousandacres’ title to the land is the “best of titles, the Lord’s title,” for he fancies himself a lordly Adam with a “secret natural right” (as Mordaunt phrases it) to stake his claim wherever the spirit of possession, or want, moves him to do so.

Pondering Thousandacres’ philosophy of “secret natural right,” which anticipates the more radical of the anti-renter arguments, Mordaunt notes that, when such men “[reduce] their claim to this standard, they put it on a level with the rest of mankind.”  How are rival claims to the same property to be adjudicated?  “Nature gives nothing exclusively to an individual, beyond his individuality. . . . [A]ll beyond that he is compelled to share, under the law of nature, with the rest of his race.”  Hence, a title based on “original possession” is no title at all, for, if all can claim it equally, then it will remain perpetually in dispute.  Mordaunt admits, as Cooper does in The American Democrat, that it is “merely human convention that gives any title its force and authority”; yet, however artificial that may seem, without such convention, no title of any value, nor any lasting possession, would be possible.

In The Redskins (1846), 60 years have passed, and the tide of Jacksonian democracy has swept the country.  Equality is the shibboleth on every tongue.  Hugh Littlepage, grandson of Mordaunt, and his uncle, “Roo,” return to New York after a sojourn abroad, having learned that the Mooseridge and Ravensnest properties are threatened by the anti-rent uprising and that some of the Littlepage tenants have taken up the cause.  Intent on investigating the matter but fearing attack if they appear openly on the properties, Hugh and his uncle disguise themselves as, respectively, an itinerant German organ grinder and a seller of trinkets.  This amusing device allows Cooper to place his protagonists in the midst of the fray with an excuse to mingle and converse with whomever they please.  And converse they do.  Well over half of this novel is given over to extended dialogue on the anti-rent controversy, leaving no stone unturned.  Considered as a work of fiction, The Redskins is the weakest of the trilogy, possessing little in the way of plot or character development.  Considered as an exercise in polemics, it is equally flawed, for, by making Hugh—himself a landlord—his narrator, Cooper’s animus against the anti-renters is all too evident.  Yet there are scenes in which this weakness is avoided, especially those where Cooper allows those tenants who have resisted the anti-rent hysteria to speak in their own voices.

One such scene occurs near the middle of the novel, when a large gathering of anti-renters has appropriated a village church on the Ravensnest estate to rally more tenants to the cause.  The featured anti-rent “lecturer” argues for the abolition of the leasehold system, questioning the validity of the landlords’ titles.  Having been granted originally under the authority of the British crown, such titles can have no real claim on the “people.”  For “the people had conquered the country from that sovereign, and put themselves in his place. . . . The people had conquered the land, and . . . had a right to take the land.”  He admits that the “accursed” law, as it presently stands, grants possession to the landlords; but, in keeping with the labor theory of value propagated by the Free Soil Movement, he contends that “true possession” belongs to those who toil upon the land.  The landlords’ titles make of them a “privileged class [that] ought to be brought down to the level of gin’rel humanity.”  For one man is as good as another “in all things.”  The majority should exercise its “absolute sovereignty”; as for the minority, it is their “duty to submit.”  If the minority is unhappy with this state of affairs, then the solution is easy: “Any man can fall in with the majority, and sensible folks commonly do.”  Equality, he urges, has been misunderstood.  “Substantial” equality is not the “pitiful equality before the law” that the landlords defend, but a real equality in which the land is divided equally.

Rising to refute what he considers to be patent nonsense, one Mr. Hall speaks eloquently in his homespun dialect against the notion that one man is as good as another.  He concedes that “One man ought to have the same general rights as another . . . but if one man is as good as another, why do we have the trouble and cost of elections?”  It would be less trouble if the people simply “drew lots, as we do for jurors.”  Nor is Hall a great admirer “of them that are always telling the people they’re perfect.”  In an admirably concise dismissal of the people’s absolute sovereignty, he contends that “Men are imperfect,” and “[t]en millions of imparfect men won’t make one parfect man.”  This self-educated man of the people then points out that the redistribution of land advocated by the lecturer would necessarily involve a violation of the Constitution itself and overthrow the principles enshrined there, which are “something stronger than the people.”  In his unassuming way, Hall sounds remarkably like James Madison, who wrote in the Federalist that “there is no just government” where a man’s property “is violated by the arbitrary seizures of one class of persons for the service of the rest.”

However flawed The Redskins may be in conception, Cooper’s argument is a reasoned defense against the threat of such arbitrary seizures.  Especially impressive is the manner in which he contrives to expose the fraudulence of the anti-rent Indians’ claim to represent the legacy of the aboriginal possessors of the land.  As Reeve Huston suggests, the anti-rent tribes drew heavily on the popular mythology of the “vanishing Indian” who had been unjustly robbed of his homeland.  By appropriating Indian costume, the anti-rent Indians were able to propagate a fictitious but popular claim that their “title” to possession of the land was somehow superior to the landlords’, and that they were simply “returning” to reclaim their ancient home from those who had dispossessed them.  This fiction is stripped of its power to persuade when Cooper introduces into the novel a band of real Indians, a group of venerable chieftains of the Six Nations who have trekked a thousand miles from their exile on the prairie to pay homage to the ancient Susquesus, an Indian who has been attached to the Littlepage family for over 70 years.  Susquesus’s great secret, we learn, is that he was once a respected Onondaga chief who had left his tribe after refusing honorably to abrogate the rights of one of his warriors when he could easily have done so.  The warrior in question had captured a young and beautiful squaw, and, by tribal custom, she was his property.  But she favored Susquesus, who longed to bring her into his own wigwam.  His popularity and authority ensured that he could have served his selfish interest without interference, but, in the end, he chose to uphold the law of possession.

Susquesus’s story is revealed in one of the novel’s final scenes with great oratorical flourish, as the Littlepages and a band of some 200 anti-rent Indians who have besieged their property listen in rapt attention.  The reader is to understand that, when the pseudo-Indians abandon their intentions of doing some further violence to the property (having already burnt down the barn), it is out of shame.  Though hiding their dishonest faces in “calico bags,” even they are not so debased as to fail to recognize the moral superiority of the ancient Susquesus, who refuses to recognize them as warriors: “When they take a scalp,” he proclaims, “it is because they are a hundred, and their enemies one.”  However implausible the mise en scène, the moral point is transparent.  These false Indians have not kept their word; they have, in good faith, entered into agreements with their paleface landlords but now wish to violate their oaths and take the land for themselves.  Susquesus recalls with anguish how the red men were driven off the land that, “far and near, was ours.”  The same “wicked spirit” that dispossessed the Indian now seeks to “drive off the pale face chiefs.”  But there is, he admits, a difference.  The original dispossession was accomplished by superior strength, a rough justice that the red man can accept.  This second dispossession is being effected by the weak, whose dishonesty “dishonor[s] the red men.”

It is quite true, of course, that, in this denouement, Cooper cleverly exploits the same myth of the “noble savage” that served his anti-rent opponents so well.  However, the myth makes for an effective literary device, and the underlying moral has its force.  Unfortunately, Cooper’s fictitious victory over the forces of anti-rentism was not to be realized in reality.  In 1847, the Whig candidate John Young was elected governor of New York with substantial anti-rent support.  Although, in order to appease party moderates, he had promised not to pardon a group of anti-rent Indians who had been jailed on charges ranging from murder to crimes against property, he quickly succumbed to the “tyranny of numbers” (after anti-rent militants sent him petitions bearing some 11,000 signatures) and issued the pardons.  Shortly thereafter, he pushed for a resolution in the state legislature that would allow the attorney general to “inquire” into the legality of the landlords’ titles if he were presented with any “just doubt” of their validity.  While this resolution prevented any wholesale seizure of properties, it did open the way to years of litigation that bankrupted the landlords and forced them to sell off their estates.  And in most cases, it was not tenant farmers who then took possession of the land, but high-risk speculators who, in turn, sold it to those same farmers at prices (and rates of interest) well above what their former landlords had demanded.