“Worse than trash”? Politics, Poetry, and the Anti-Rent Press

Roger W. Hecht (SUNY Oneonta)

Presented at the 15ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 2005.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the 2005 Cooper Seminar (No. 15), The State University of New York College at Oneonta. Oneonta, New York. Hugh C. MacDougall and Steven Harthorn, editors. (pp. 63-67).

Copyright © 2007, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta.

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

Aside from Cooper scholars, a handful of historians, and some upstate librarians, the Anti-Rent war remains a rather obscure event in America’s past, barely a blip in the nation’s historical narrative. The conflict could very well have been lost to us today were it not for James Fenimore Cooper. So concerned was Cooper about the goals and the tactics of the striking farmers that he dedicated three full novels — the Littlepage trilogy — to defending the property rights of landlords against what he saw as the outrages of the movement. The Anti-Rent War was a protracted struggle between the most prominent families in the state — the Rensselaers and Livingstons — and tenant farmers who felt that their leases placed unfair burdens on their ability to profit from, or even survive on their farms. The landlords’ refusal to discuss the farmers’ grievances led to rent strikes, enforced by paramilitary groups who disguised themselves as “Indians,” in calico shirts and masks. When local sheriffs were called on to collect rents, often through distress auctions of farmers’ personal property, they were met by bands of Indians who for several years successfully kept law enforcement at bay, often through violent means. The anti-renters also took political and legal action, creating a political party and challenging the constitutionality of their leases and the legitimacy of the landlords’ titles in court. 1

Cooper’s Littlepage trilogy explains the anti-rent problems from the landlords’ point of view. Each volume represents a different stage of the process whereby the Littlepage family came to acquire and settle their lands, dramatizing through the saga of the family’s efforts to secure and defend their property the legal, social, and moral necessity of property rights. Cooper was not alone in placing his pen in the service of one side or other of the Anti-Rent conflict. In Pierre (1852), Herman Melville makes numerous, explicit references to the farmers’ distress. Henry Rowe Schoolcraft crafted a ninety-four stanza mock epic, Helderbergia: or the Apotheosis of the Anti-Rent War (1855), satirizing the state’s efforts to suppress the uprising. The conflict drew comments from writers in journals as far ranging as Boston’s Whig Review, Richmond’s Southern Literary Messenger, and DeBow’s Review in New Orleans. The Anti-Rent conflict is the subject of at least one dime novel and in countless poems published in newspapers across the state. In its time, the Anti-Rent conflict was indeed a serious affair with serious consequences. To its defenders, the Anti-Rent movement was an extension of the unfulfilled promise of American revolution and the spirit of democracy. The power of the landlords smacked of aristocracy and violated the spirit of the country’s democratic institutions, which state that all men are created equal. To its opponents, the movement was a direct threat to rights of property holders, to the integrity of the Constitution, and to the nation’s social stability. In the introduction to The Redskins (1846), Cooper went so far as to argue that laws affecting the descent of property would inspire aggrieved tenants to murder their landlords so they could convert their leases into mortgages (464).

The main sources of literature representing the tenants’ views were a number of short-lived newspapers that sprouted up in the Anti-Rent counties and were crucial vehicles for transmitting the movement’s message. These newspapers are referred to in the opening chapters of The Redskins, where we find Hugh Littlepage, the current heir to the family estate, in Paris concluding a five-year tour of Europe with his Uncle Roger. A packet of letters from home brings news of the spreading Anti-Rent troubles and the threat posed to the Littlepage property. Accompanying the letters are copies of Guardians of the Soil and other Anti-Rent newspapers, which Hugh Littlepage dismisses as “full of trash.” “Worse than trash,” his Uncle Roger adds, “with some of the loosest principles, and most atrocious feelings, that degrade poor human nature” (485). The Littlepages dismiss these papers so violently because they lend voice to and legitimize the complaints of the farmers while offering a radical reinterpretation of the Constitution and the meaning of property. The farmers of the region strongly embraced these papers, which were not degrading but inspiring, and gave them a framework to interpret and discuss their grievances.

Of the half-dozen or so anti-rent papers, the most prominent were The Albany Freeholder and the Anti-Renter, 2 both edited by Thomas Ainge Devyr, an Irish radical who had fled to New York in 1840 after the collapse of the Chartist insurrection in Newcastle. At first glance, both the Freeholder and the Anti-Renter read like a combination of a movement newsletter and the penny press — the cheap, popular newspapers that had emerged in New York and Philadelphia in the 1830s. 3 Alongside meeting minutes and resolutions from local Anti-Rent associations, letters supporting the movement, and editorial attacks against “patroonery,” a typical issue would include briefs from other newspaper, urban crime stories, accounts from the frontier, stories about labor and communal experiments, such as the Mormons’ Nauvoo, and agricultural tips. But the anti-rent papers served an even larger purpose — education. One of Cooper’s charges against the movement was that it stemmed from ignorance. “We have,” he states in the introduction to The Redskins, “imputed much of the anti-rent feeling to provincial education and habits” (465). For Cooper, ignorance of history and the economy, combined with a lack of refinement and taste, drove the uneducated farmers into the arms of anti-rent demagogues. On the matter of the farmers’ ignorance, Devyr was in complete agreement — though he felt that their ignorance was a product of their status as subordinates to the landlords. As editor of the Anti-Rent papers, Devyr had a platform to change that, giving his readers a political education that tied intellectual and cultural enrichment to the political necessities of the movement. In his memoir, Odd Book of the Nineteenth Century, Devyr reflects on his purpose:

Education is the way to taste, refinement, the truest and highest development and enjoyment of life. There is no “royal road” to those attainments. But the rights and the duties of men, in rational, civilized communities, can be taught in a few very short lessons. (162)

The political education Devyr offered his readers included stories about the Revolution and American military heroes, European history, excerpts of classical oratory, and what we now would call “factoids,” such as a chronology of important inventions. These were set alongside Devyr’s own speeches and essays about land reform. But his educational program was not limited to facts alone. Poetry played an important role as both a vehicle for political agitation and cultural enrichment. 4

Every issue of the Freeholder and Anti-Renter included a poetry column with up to five poems. These poems were not selected to instruct the farmers in the tradition of taste Cooper endorsed, which bind picturesque scenes with an implied affirmation of landlords’ proprietary rights. Instead, much of the poetry in the Anti-Rent papers stresses the perspective of the oppressed: the working poor, the homeless, the landless, and the striking farmers themselves. These poems strive to build solidarity from the shared oppression and moral outrages born of the work of similar foes — the wealthy and the landed. Even seemingly non-ideological poems — conventional lyrics about nature or family — take on a new import when read against fiery attacks on landed property or a letter describing the hardships a farmer has endured. Poems that contrast the beauty of a landscape against the threat of impoverishment or eviction illustrate the unnaturalness of Patroonery. Stock pastoral images that celebrate the working lives of farmers become manifestations of the Jeffersonian ideal. It is important, then, to look at the papers as a whole to understand the context in which the poems develop their meaning.

Many of the prose texts in the Anti-Rent paper take the form of fiery editorials penned by Devyr, first hand accounts by farmers relating the offenses of the landlords, and extant materials supporting the Anti-Rent cause quoted from other sources. The Anti-Rent papers draw their authority primarily through two discourses — religion and revolutionary democracy — which are often intertwined. The masthead of both the Albany Freeholder and the Anti-Renter bear as a motto Leviticus 25: 23, “The land shall not be sold for ever: for the land is mine; for ye are strangers and sojourners with me.” The motto acts as an admonition against absolute individual ownership — holding titles beyond the scope of an individual’s lifetime and in quantities beyond an individual’s capacity to occupy and cultivate — a practice that, Devyr argues, ignores God’s true ownership of the earth. In an editorial, “Right of Man to the Earth,” Devry writes that the government has no authority to grant “abiding control of the earth” to men who then exercise “unbounded authority” over it, for it is not the government’s to give. The folly in this action is that these men eventually “will have betaken themselves to other spheres — higher or lower as the case may be,” and the final result is conflict, dispute, and litigation over terrestrial property. Nature’s plan, God’s plan, is a kind of socialized land trust by which a democratic government holds all lands in fee while assigning occupancy rights to individuals. The current system threatens not only man’s relationship with God, but also his relationship to a pastoral world. “[H]ow much less right,” Devry asks, “have they [the government] to set up an abiding control over that eternal earth which will be green, and flowery, and fruitful-full of springs and rivulates [sic], and waving woods-fresh, youthful and life-sustaining as it is now,” when the mortality of men ensures that men will die. Land locked up in dead men’s hands cannot be cultivated, remain “fruitful” and “life-sustaining,” and must certainly go to waste, to die, too, without the ability of new farmers to easily resettle (AF Feb. 14, 1846). In this vision, the life-giving capacity of Nature demands the naturally ordained, democratic distribution of land.

Letters from farmers tend to rely on a democratic discourse, making the Anti-Rent movement the fulfillment of the American Revolution. In these letter farmers, or their ancestors who originally settled their farms, are the true patriots who sacrificed for their country only to be robbed by landlords who embody the very forces they fought against. In response to charges that the movement was run by outlaws and barbarians, Anti-Rent writers claim for themselves the memory of Washington and link the landlords with the English aristocracy that the republican revolution had supposedly defeated. Accordingly, the landlords are depicted as haughty, condescending, selfish, and decadent. In a letter to the editor signed “E. F. M.,” the writer recounts the unnecessary insult and humiliation he and a company of travelers from Albany endured from William Rensselaer. En route to their village, they found themselves having to walk a short distance on William Rensselaer’s property to avoid an alternative, mud-locked road. Rensselaer himself accompanied the group a short while, then passed through the gate to his property without so much as acknowledging them. Upon entering his own house, Rensselaer sent a footman to order the party of travelers off his property. The writer asks, “Now, could he not have told us, when in company with us, that he did not allow people to walk on his premises? No, he would sooner have seen us wade in mud to our knees or in water to our necks, rather than have us set our feet on soil where he sometimes travels” (AF April 30, 1845). The writer’s complaint offers evidence that Rensselaer neither cares about his tenants’ well-being, nor acknowledges in them any trace of dignity. A situation in which a landlord will only communicate to a tenant through a subservient is inexplicable in a democratic nation. “How long,” the writer demands, “will they let this whelp of the old Lion of England stalk at noonday on the fair borders of this Republic, which should be held up as the beacon light to the nations of the whole world?” The continued existence of landlords signifies the failure of the revolution to fulfill its promise of establishing a true republic of equals.

Another letter, signed “C. C. S.,” contrasts the plight of the first generation of farmers to settle the patents, themselves veterans of the Revolution, against the comforts of the landlords, whose properties they ultimately defended. These original farmers “expended their little all in defence [sic] of their country” while “they suffered hunger and nakedness.” In the meantime, the landlords “were wallowing in luxury.” In addition to the obvious point about the extremes of wealth and poverty that plagued the landlord system, we are meant to understand that, unlike the landlords who are represented as having weathered the revolution losing little in material comfort, the settlers gave everything to the revolution and continue to give everything in the process of building the new country. When the farmers are finally on the verge of fulfilling their own ambitions as independent yeomen, the landlords “stood ready like tigers to wrest from them their hard earnings and leave them naked and breadless. ... ” Just as they directly interfere with the fulfillment of Natural right, the landlords interfere with the political right to be self-sustaining and independent (AR Jan. 31, 1846).

These paired discourses, religion and democracy, also govern the poetry published in the anti-rent press. The purposes of the newspapers’ poetry columns seem to serve the function that Anne Janowitz calls “poetico-political intervention” (263), in which the structures and conventions of traditional poems are subverted to serve the farmers’ cause. An editorial column, titled “An Indication of the Times,” makes clear the transference of conventional romantic sentiment to radical politics. Constructed as an overheard conversation, the author, “Equitas,” describes two men discussing the spiritual effects of poetry. One comments that poetry “carries a beauty with it that oftimes has a tendency to play upon the finer chords of our inner being.” This leads to an exchange of quotations from elegiac and pastoral verse. One speaker recites several stanzas from Oliver Goldsmith’s “The Hermit” that depict “the insulting rapacity of the British Aristocracy.” Rather than quoting the actual poems here, what I want to emphasize is how the play of poetry on “the chords of our inner being” is directed to raise political consciousness. Anti-Rent poetry stirs the reader’s consciousness to “forcibly” recognize “the present unequal conditions of mankind” (AR April 11, 1846).

Goldsmith’s poems hold a special place in the anti-rent papers. His condemnation of the Parliamentary enclosures of the English commons is appropriated by Devyr as a motto for both the Freeholder and the Anti-Renter to add to his contention that the New York landlords are analogous to the English aristocracy:

The man of wealth and pride Takes up a space that many poor supplied. Space for his lakes, his park’s extended bounds; Space for his horses, equipage and hounds. The robe that wraps his limbs in silken sloth Has robbed the neighb’ring fields of half their growth.

Of course, the situation that Goldsmith condemns — the wholesale depopulation of a rural village that has been incorporated into a landscape garden — does not accurately reflect the tenant farmers’ concerns. Land on the New York manors had not been taken out of production to satisfy the aesthetic pleasure of a privileged few. Rather, the tenants have restricted control over the lands they can farm, and even less control over their own investment in their property because of rents and quartersales. However, the image of the landlord committed to no other interests but his own pleasure is a potent symbol for the New York landlords who refuse to negotiate with tenant organizations over the relief they seek. For another motto, the Anti-Rent papers borrow lines from Robert Burns’ “A Winter Night,” which castigates the rapacious, “glittering” landlord who wrests wealth from the poor, “simple rustic” farmers. Paired in the anti-rent papers, both poems collaborate to make landlords into a destructive force that undermines the democratic, pastoral landscape.

The Freeholder and Anti-Renter both reprinted works by established poets and published original poems penned by Anti-Rent farmers themselves. These poems condemned the sufferings of the poor, celebrated the labors of farmers, and encouraged solidarity for the movement. Many of the poems are products of the Chartist movement and were first published in various Chartist newspapers in England. “The Dwellings of the Poor,” by Mrs. James Gray, first published in the True Sun, demystifies the familiar image of the rural cottage, exposing both rural poverty and the industrial economy into which the proletarianized farmers were forced to enter. Mrs. Gray contrasts the sentimental fantasy of a rustic cottage, complete with “moss and flowers o’ergrown, / And little gardens veiling them / Like an enchanted zone,” against the grueling realities of poverty in the mill. Later she takes aim at the abuses of child labor in factories, where the “rosy smile” and “silken hair” are replaced with “pale” brows and “feeble” limbs, and poverty’s all-pervasive curse: hunger. The prevailing pastoral fantasy of Victorian poetry of “A simple people free from care / With few and simple wants” is exposed as an obfuscation of the real conditions of the poor (AR Feb. 28, 1846). A number of poems original to the Freeholder, such as “The Afflicted Tenant’s Appeal” (AF July 23, 1845) and “The Ejected Tenant” (AF July 16, 1845) follow a similar tack, focusing on the humiliation and physical suffering of the evicted-a common plight of both the rural and urban poor.

Of course, not all Anti-Rent poems focus on suffering; many of the poems celebrate the beauty of nature, the nobility and pride of the farmer, and the Anti-Rent cause through pleasing, sentimental pastoral landscapes. The anonymous “All Things Speak of God” catalogues a sylvan scene in a trajectory that moves from “bright broad beam of the sun at noon,” to a bird song that chimes “Till the chords of earth all sweep along,” to rivers and brooks that mirror the image of God (AF May 21, 1845). Meditation on nature provides a direct route to heaven. Ellen L. Smith’s “The Greenwood Glen” is a sentimental reflection about how a “pure” and “holy” childhood haunt that the speaker has since abandoned for the “buzy haunts of men,” leads the speaker and the reader to “a better land” in the afterlife. While the poem’s sylvan scenery is but a fragile memory, as delicate as “a woven web,” it represents an innocent, unalienated connection to God. The speaker hears directly “the voice of Nature,” which tells the speaker her destiny, “a better land, / A world beyond the sky” that is more substantial and much more joyous than fragile Nature can offer (AR Feb. 21, 1846). In all of these pastoral scenes the landlords are noticeably absent.

The agricultural images in “The Field of Wheat,” by Miss M. F. Gould, take on a more defensive stance. But here the farm does not so much need defending as it defends itself. In this poem, the stalks in a wheat field metamorphose into weaponry, spears and arrows “Pointing upward to the sky, / Riding straight and aiming high, / Every stalk is seen to shoot,” to defend themselves against “robbers.” “No vain insect that could do / Harm to thee, dares venture through / Armory like thine” (AF April 23, 1845). It does not seem that great a leap to see in the given weaponry Indian warriors, an image which resonates with the calico “Indians” who defend tenant farmers against “vain” “robber” landlords. In another celebration of agricultural life, “The Farmer’s Ode,” by Mrs. Hemans, the labor of the farmer is contrasted against the work of lawyers, doctors, and statesmen, and shown to be more moral “The Farmer’s skill is valued most / In making golden sheaves of grain.” The farmer in this poem is devout, hard working, content with his “homely fare,” and generally finds his life worry-free and fully rewarding. He takes “pleasure in light labor” and learns through his labor charity for others. While in its surface the poem is full of conventional platitudes, the elevation of farmers above urban professionals (lawyers and lawmakers included) would have special meanings to tenant farmers engaged in a protracted struggle. Indeed, given the ideological context of these poems, the celebration of a pastoral nature that embodies the voice of God has strong political overtones. The strong connection with nature can be seen as an implicit manifestation of living within Nature’s law about which the newspapers editorialize. Read alongside poems that represents the farmer as entirely in accordance with natural law, these poems help buttress the farmers’ own attempts to naturalize their own position, sanctifying their claim as the natural inheritors of the land.

Not all of the poems published have great literary value — a point Devyr acknowledges himself. Locally penned verses that attack landlords or praise the “Indians” or urged farmers to maintain their commitment to the movement, often set to popular songs and intended to be sung at political meetings, may not carry great literary weight, but they did carry important emotional weight for farmers looking for confirmation of their experience and support for their position, and sometimes just a good laugh at the expense of the powerful — the landlords and the politicians that supported them. In many ways, these lesser verses are part of a larger tradition of “street poems” circulated through broadsheets and traditional songs. But if their artistic merit is debatable, their merit as a vital discourse in the Anti-Rent struggle is real and remains to be fully measured.

Works Cited

  • Cooper, James Fenimore, The Redskins [1846]. Cooper’s Works, Vol. 6. New York: Collier, 1891.
  • Devyr, Thomas Ainge, The Odd Book of the Nineteenth Century; or, “Chivalry” in Modern Days, a Personal Record of Reform — Chiefly Land Reform, for the Last Fifty Years. New York: Self-published, 1882.
  • Janowitz, Anne, “The Chartist Picturesque.” The Politics of the Picturesque: Literature, Landscape, and Aesthetics. Stephen Copley and Peter Garside, eds. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.


1 The history and aims of the Anti-Rent movement are discussed in length in Henry Christman, Tin Horns and Calico: An Episode in the Emergence of American Democracy (New York: Collier, 1961) and Reeve Huston, Land and Freedom: Rural Society, Popular Protest, and Party Politics in Antebellum New York (New York: Oxford, 2000).

2 Hereafter, references to Albany Freeholder will be cited as AF, and references to the Anti-Renter will be cited as AR.

3 The history and forms of the American penny press are discussed in depth in William E. Huntzicker, The Popular Press, 1833-1865 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999).

4 A useful discussion of the role poetry played in the Chartist movement and English working class consciousness can be found in Peter Scheckner, An Anthology of Chartist Poetry: Poetry of the British Working Class, 1830s-1850s (Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1989) 15-56.