The Coopers and New York State Landholding Systems

David M. Ellis * (Hamilton College)

Published as New York History, Vol. 35, No. 4 (October, 1954), pp. 412-422 (Special Issue — James Fenimore Cooper: A Re-Appraisal).

Papers from the 1951 James Fenimore Cooper Conference, Cooperstown, New York.

Copyright © 1954, New York State Historical Association.

Placed online with the kind permission of the New York State Historical Association.

[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]

JAMES FENIMORE COOPER wrathfully commented in 1845 that New York was “much the most disgraced state in the Union.” 1 Admittedly the choleric creator of Natty Bumppo had a low boiling point especially where Yankees, editors, and Whigs were involved. Seldom did his anger reach greater heights or his indignation persist for a longer period than over the issue of antirentism. To combat this heresy Cooper wrote three novels: Satanstoe, The Chainbearer, and The Redskins.

Antirentism stirred up Cooper for a variety of reasons. The jacquerie seemed to be undermining not only the institution of property but also repudiating his family background. The fact that Yankees often led the antirent cause and that several Whig politicians and editors gave the disgruntled tenants their sympathy further infuriated Cooper. Age, too, was tending to dampen the spirits of the onetime democrat and to cast a nostalgic glow over the serene days of his youth when his father was establishing a lordly estate on the shores of Glimmerglass.

Cooper regarded land as the highest form of property and the landed gentry as the natural leaders of society. Correspondingly the nouveau riche who engaged in trading and manufacturing were somewhat vulgar and insensitive to the importance of tradition, aesthetic values, and community leadership. Like Jefferson before him Cooper did not see any difficulty in reconciling a democratic society with an aristocracy of worth. In the preface to the Chainbearer he wrote:

The column of society must have its capital as well as its base. It is only perfect while each part is entire, and discharges its proper duty. In New York the great landlords long have, and still do, in a social sense, occupy the place of the capital. On the supposition that this capital is broken and hurled to the ground, of what material will be the capital that must be pushed into its place! We know of none half so likely to succeed, as the country extortioner and the country usurer.

We need search no further than his family associations to find the sources of his thinking about the nature of landed property and the position of the landlord in society. Obviously his boyhood in the home of William Cooper, one of America’s greatest land promoters, made a lasting impression. Schooling in Albany under the rector of St. Peter’s Church brought him into close contact with the sons of the Hudson Valley aristocracy. The Tory doctrines of the rector who probably introduced the young lad to the ideas of Edmund Burke implanted in Cooper a strong respect for tradition and a high regard for the paternalistic landlord. His marriage into the DeLancey family, which had shared honors with the Livingstons as the two most powerful families in colonial New York, further cemented his ties with the landed gentry. To be sure, the DeLanceys had lost much of their land during the Revolution because of their allegiance to the King, but John Peter DeLancey, his wife’s father, had re-established a home at Heathcote Hill near Mamaroneck. After his marriage in 1811 Cooper settled down in Westchester County for a decade of pleasant living following the pattern set by the wealthy families. From his father he inherited $50,000 in 1809 including 23 farms paying an annual rent of 650 bushels of wheat. 2 Any challenge to the land system of New York was therefore a direct threat to his family heritage, his way of life, and his personal wealth.

William Cooper deserves further attention not only because of his influence upon his famous son but also because he was an extraordinary figure in his own right. 3 He made a great deal of money selling land in a period when many landjobbers such as Robert Morris, Alexander Macomb, and William Duer ended up in debtor’s prison. His political abilities and ambitions earned him a seat on the bench and in Congress. Although his Federalist convictions were deep rooted and outspoken, his relations with his fellow settlers were warm and friendly. The affable Judge Temple in Pioneers bears more than a casual resemblance to the founder of Cooperstown. Perhaps his outstanding achievement was his authorship of an important pamphlet on the techniques and theory of landselling in a pioneer community. The full title is an accurate one: A Guide In the Wilderness or the History of the First Settlements in the Western Counties of New York with Useful Instructions to Future Settlers .

The future Judge Cooper had succumbed to the fever of land speculation which swept Burlington, New Jersey, before and after the Revolution. He acquired control of much of the Otsego Tract and other patents in the valley of the upper Susquehanna. Confident of the future of this region he moved his family, including a reluctant wife, to the shores of Otsego Lake. The hard driving young man built up a fortune of approximately $700,000 during the next quarter century. Through his hands passed title to hundreds of thousands of acres of land in many counties of the state. He bought huge tracts on his own account, but he also acted as agent for dozens of land-owners in the United States and Europe. It was his proud boast, “I have settled more acres than any other man in America. There are forty thousand souls holding directly or indirectly under me.” 4 In 1785 he sold over 40,000 acres in sixteen days.

William Cooper was more interested in selling land than in building up a large family estate surrounded by tenant farmers. He realized that if he were to attract Yankees, the main immigrants of that period, he would do well to sell land in fee as was customary in Connecticut and Massachusetts. The shrewd judge had learned that the independent freeholder was usually a better risk than the tenant farmer.

This I have found by experience to be the only way to raise our back lands from a nominal to a lively Estate — the Purchaser when he holds the Soil in fee sees a probability of making it his own, he therefore builds better Houses Barns and other Buildings clears his Lands in a better and more effectual manner attends to planting Orchards, and in fact looks up as a Man on record with more ambition than he that is settled on any other plan ever yet practiced. 5

In his Guide in the Wilderness Judge Cooper offered a blueprint to land speculators. He urged capitalists to purchase tracts of 50,000 acres as a convenient unit to develop. He advised the public sale of land with no lots reserved for the promoter, since vacant tracts discouraged the settler and retarded the erection of bridges, roads, churches, and other improvements. Most important of all was the recommendation that the promoter sell his lands in fee simple. Of course, the owner would have to grant the settler ample time for making his payments, and he suggested ten years as a desirable limit. Cooper realized very well that only a few settlers had enough cash to pay for their lands and to carry them through the early period when they were building cabins and clearing the forests. The wise landlord therefore treated deserving settlers with leniency, realizing that every betterment was making the mortgage more secure.

Judge Cooper built up his great fortune by following these rules. Yankees by the thousands poured into the Otsego country to take up his lands and the records of Otsego County show that Cooper seldom found it necessary to foreclose on farms which he had sold. High prices for wheat during the Wars of the French Revolution and Napoleon, nearness to the market-towns along the Hudson and Mohawk rivers, and moderately good transportation down the headwaters of the Susquehanna helped farmers in that region to pay for their farms rapidly. So eager was Cooper to develop the country that he even leased lands to penniless farmers. A glance at his land book and his will shows that he leased scores of farms. At the time of his death in 1809 there were 135 tenants on his farms paying 3900 bushels of wheat. No doubt land, its price, and disposition, rivaled the sins of the Jeffersonians as a favorite topic of table-talk at Otsego Hall. Small wonder, therefore, that the younger Cooper acquired a good knowledge of the legal issues involved in land tenure and developed a firm conviction as to the social usefulness of the landholder.

The death of Stephen Van Rensselaer, at whose manorhouse James Fenimore Cooper was often entertained, symbolized the passing of an era. The spectacle of a landed aristocrat living in semi-feudal splendor among his three thousand tenant farmers was becoming more and more of an anachronism in an age in which democratic impulses elevated the frontier hero, Andrew Jackson, to the White House. Of course, the tenantry in New York had from the outset nourished a bitter hatred of the leasehold system. During the colonial period manor lords on the east bank of the Hudson had to suppress several attacks made on their titles by disgruntled tenants. Again in the 1790’s tenants in Columbia County rose up in force against the payment of rents which the sheriffs were trying to collect on Livingston Manor.

Antirentism in the years following 1839 when the last patroon died took much the same pattern as the earlier revolts. Sheriffs encountered violence and physical assault; armed riders rode through the country lanes; tenants pledged themselves not to pay the rent; and antirent leaders scrutinized every landlord title and sought ways and means to challenge their validity in court. Success, however, rewarded the efforts of the antirenters of the 1840’s, who enjoyed several advantages over their predecessors. They were far better organized and more skillfully led. Town, county, and state committees marshalled their forces and exerted their influence in politics and in the press. The antirenters of the 1840’s published their own newspapers, held conventions, employed “lecturers,” and elected their own spokesmen to the legislature and to local offices. Using the suffrage granted to all white males by the Constitutional Convention of 1821, the antirenters found it possible to influence state elections and to secure political favors in their crusade for a more democratic land system.

During the years 1845-1846 when antirent agitation reached a peak, Cooper plunged into the controversy with his Littlepage Manuscripts. This trilogy proposed to expose the nefarious actions of the antirenters and to justify the role of the landed aristocracy. Cooper used the device of having members of successive generations of the Littlepage family tell their story against a backgound of land selling and estate management. This family was to exemplify the role of the gentry as the “capital” of the “column of society.”

Satanstoe (1845) is a sympathetic portrayal of genteel life in the middle of the eighteenth century. Cornelius Littlepage, the narrator, is an attractive figure who is proud of provincial New York’s civilization: its Anglican Church, its sturdy loyalty to mother England, its landed aristocracy. “Corny” goes into the wilderness north of Albany in 1758 to investigate a tract (Mooseridge) which his father had purchased from the Indians. The young man naturally takes part in the French and Indian Wars and marries an heiress, Anneke Mordaunt, thus giving the Littlepage family a claim to Ravensnest, which adjoins Mooseridge.

The Chainbearer picks up the history of the Littlepage family after the Revolution when the upstate region is being opened up to settlement. Mordaunt Littlepage, whom Cooper is careful to describe as a Revolutionary hero, offers to sell farms at Mooseridge or to lease lands at Ravensnest. This distinction is important to Cooper, since one of his favorite arguments against antirentism is that the original settlers always had a free choice between these two ways of land acquisition. The author also goes to great lengths to describe the thousand-and-one problems of the frontier landlord who invested much capital and energy in opening up his holdings. The struggle with the Yankee squatter, Aaron Thousandacres, is the climax of this novel and provides the occasion for Cooper to deal his heaviest blows against the popular doctrine that possession and use gave men a moral claim to land.

The Redskins, subtitled Indian and Injin, was published in 1846 and literally scores of pages of this weak novel are taken up with arguments against the antirenters. Hugh Littlepage, the grandson of Mordaunt who had developed the tracts, returns from Europe to protect Ravensnest from attack by calico Indians. Cooper calls in a group of real Indians to put the antirenters to flight and to dramatize the degeneration of America into an anarchical society in which demagogues and editors formed the ruling caste.

The trilogy, although neither a financial nor a literary success, was an able exposition of the landlord’s case. But its uncompromising attitude probably made no converts and indeed may have affronted moderates. The petulant and shrill tone of this series was apparent even to Cooper, who in several places disclaimed responsibility for some of the opinions voiced in the novels. 6 His querulous carping attitude did little to endear him to the American public, still smarting from the criticisms in Home as Found. These antirent novels are another sign of Cooper’s growing alienation from American democracy, which he could not understand as a continuing process. The Littlepage Manuscripts are moderately reliable history if one discounts the bias. Cooper’s description of the leasehold is not inaccurate and his accounts of settlement process are often enlightening. He naturally stressed the validity of land titles which the king had granted and the laws of New York had confirmed. To buttress still further the original title, Cooper emphasized the public services of the Littlepage family in the colonial and revolutionary wars.

He also defended the landlord title on the grounds of justice and equity. The landlords had spent large sums to develop their properties and had contributed generously to the support of churches, schools, and roads. A special point is made in all three novels that the Littlepage family had erected and maintained St. Andrew’s Church at Ravensnest. Furthermore landlords as a class had treated their tenants with commendable leniency, often waiving the rent in hardship cases. The example of Stephen Van Rensselaer, who had allowed arrears to accumulate to more than $400,000, was well known to Cooper. Perhaps most persuasive of all was his analysis of the conditions under which the tenants took up their farms. Promoters throughout central and western New York were besieging settlers to buy their land at low competitive prices. But some settlers chose rather to lease lands from the landlords. Landlords required no down payments and often granted five years of free rent. The rents imposed thereafter were moderate and considerably below rents on commercial farms elsewhere.

Cooper made no attempt to avoid the unpopular aspects of leasehold such as the so-called feudal usages. A bargain was a bargain and could not be broken by either party with decency. The fact that the farms at Ravensnest reverted to the Littlepage family after the death of the third person named in the lease is not soft-pedaled. In fact, it becomes the basis of a long conversation between Mordaunt Littlepage and Jason Newcome, during which Cooper mustered several arguments to justify the provision. The author also sprang to the defense of the perpetual lease which was in effect on Van Rensselaer Manor. The requirement in the Van Rensselaer leases that each tenant had to pay an annual rent of four fat fowl and a day’s work with team and wagon in addition to the regular wheat rent is also warmly defended. After all, was not payment in kind an aid to hard-pressed tenant? Were these rents actually as burdensome as those paid by thoussands of citizens in New York City?

The appeal to natural law stirred Cooper to anger because he realized the attraction which this argument made not only to tenants but also to the public at large. Much of the Chainbearer revolves around this issue, with Thousandacres the embodiment of squatters’ rights. Another argument distasteful to Cooper was that leases were hostile to the “spirit of our institutions.” How could this be so, argued Cooper,if our Federal and state constitutions had formally recognized land titles dating from colonial days? Indeed it was the Yankees who were changing the good old ways of American institutions. Any American ought to be able to lease as well as sell land.

The Yankees were the chief target of Cooper throughout the Littlepage Manuscripts. Invariably the villains were Yankees who were seeking to impose their foreign ideas on New York institutions and customs. Cooper created the unlovely tribe of Newcomes as a contrast with the refined Littlepages. The former were aggressive and unscrupulous money-seekers; the latter were models of gentility and integrity. Cooper blamed much of the antirent troubles upon the New England stock, whose distaste for the leasehold system was well known. His dislike of the Yankees led him into many intolerant observations. Seneca Newcome, the local lawyer, is portrayed as the black-hearted villain who sets fire to Ravensnest. Cooper poked fun at the congregational “standing order,” and stoutly defended the Episcopalian establishment as the “kneeling order.” The villain of the Chainbearer, Jason Newcome, is a deacon of the Calvinist persuasion. The antirenters in the Redskins are charged with desecrating St. Andrew’s Church by taking out the canopied pew reserved for the Littlepage family. “Dissenting Ministers” preside at the meeting house where the antirent lecturer harangues the crowd. Cooper also ridicules the “spirit of enterprise” so characteristic of the Yankee. For example, he called the daughter of Newcome by the odd name of Opportunity. His prejudice against everything in Yankeedom extended to its “vulgar and provincial” way of speaking, its mediocre cooking, and even the use of the knife instead of the fork. No doubt his frequent bouts with editors such as James Watson Webb, Horace Greeley, and Thurlow Weed, all hailing from New England, made our neighbors to the east particularly odious in his eyes.

Parts of the Redskins are practically a commentary upon the events of 1845 and 1846. The reader is frequently admonished in the footnotes how desperate the state of affairs in New York had become. Cooper castigated the recommendations of the legislative committee headed by Samuel J. Tilden, condemning the leasehold as depressing and unfortunate. The committee favored the abolition of remedy by distress — that is, the right of the landlord to take and hold the goods of the tenant until the rents were paid. Its recommendation that the state should lay a tax on the interests which the landlords reserved in the leases infuriated and terrified Cooper. He realized that this law, combined with the extralegal activities of the calico Indians, would force many landlords to sell out their interests as quickly as possible. Equally evil was the proposal (which, however, was not enacted) that upon the death of the landlord the tenant could petition the court of chancery to have the rent converted into a principal sum which at legal interest would produce the annual rent. He called this proposal an open invitation for tenants to murder their landlords.

The failure of state and local officials to enforce the collection of rents and to punish antirenters led Cooper to urge desperate measures. He called on the landlords to band together and resist with arms the attack on their property and liberty. In both the Chainbearer and the Redskins Cooper seemed to approve violent attacks on antirenters. Thousandacres is felled by a bullet while the faithful red Indians scatter the cowardly disguised “Injins.” The trilogy ends with Hugh Littlepage going to Washington to seek redress in federal courts, and making vague threats that if he does not get justice he will have to move to Florence, and exile from republican tyranny.

The Littlepage trilogy remains interesting both as an apologia for the fading aristocracy and as a chapter in the remarkable intellectual journeys of James Fenimore Cooper. Furthermore the novels illustrate several important social trends: the process of settlement; the impact of civilization upon individuals living in a state of nature; the struggle between law and liberty and the individual and society; the cultural clash between Yankees and York Staters; and the growing ascendancy of the trading and manufacturing classes over the landed aristocracy. Moreover, a number of interesting figures emerge, although none so memorable as Leatherstocking, Harvey Birch, or Tom Coffin. Aaron Thousandacres is the archetype of the hard-bitten squatter; Jason Newcome is the go-getting unscrupulous Yankee; Mordaunt Littlepage is the country squire adding distinction to the frontier community.

Paradoxes abound in James Fenimore Cooper’s antirent novels. The apostle of American democracy in European circles returned home to become the leading defender of our equivalent of the European landed aristocrat. The son of William Cooper, the ardent advocate of the independent freeholder, upheld the tenancy system. The creator of Leatherstocking, the symbol of man’s innate goodness in a state of nature, spent most of his latter years writing novels expounding the value of a hierarchical society.

These antirent novels footnoted Cooper’s growing alienation from the onward march of American society to which he could not reconcile himself. If only “progress” (hateful Yankee ideal that it was) could be stayed, and society remain as as it was in his youth on the broad acres of the landed estates of the Hudson Valley or in his boyhood on the shores of Glimmerglass!


1 See Preface to Satanstoe.

2 Will of William Cooper. Paul Cooper has loaned a copy of this document to the New York State Historical Association.

3 The best account of William Cooper is by Lyman H. Butterfield who wrote “Judge William Cooper (1754-1809): A Sketch of His Character and Accomplishment,” New York History, XXX (October 1949), pp. 385-408.

4 A Guide in the Wilderness, p. 7.

5 William Cooper to Charles Evans. Aug 3, 1790, quoted by James Fenimore Cooper, The Legends and Traditions of a Northern County (New York, 1921), pp. 141-142.

6 See the note by the editor (Cooper) at the end of the Redskins.

* Dr. Ellis, who holds degrees from Hamilton College and Cornell, has been associate professor of history of the former institution since 1946. His Landlords and Farmers in the Hudson-Mohawk Region, 1790-1850 won the John F. Dunning Award of the American Historical Association. He has been a Dixon Ryan Fox Fellow of the New York State Historical Associalion while collaborating on a one-volume history of the state of New York soon to appear.