hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News April 2019


Uprising over farmers’ rents sent a governor packing

Maury Thompson


New York Gov. Silas Wright wrote that $500 was “reasonable and fair compensation” to state Attorney General John Van Buren, the son of former President Martin Van Buren, for two weeks of work representing the state at an 1845 trial stemming from the Anti-Rent rebellion.
Critics disagreed, and made the sum, the equivalent of about $13,600 in today’s dollars, an issue in Wright’s 1846 re-election campaign.

“Notwithstanding the Van Burens had feasted and fattened for more than a quarter of a century upon the public, Mr. Wright did not think they had been supplied liberally enough,” the Oxford Times of Chenango County wrote in an editorial reprinted on Oct. 21, 1846, in the Northern State Journal of Watertown. “Where is the farmer or laborer or mechanic who, in a whole month, can make what the attorney received in a day?”

The criticism stuck, and Wright lost the 1846 election.
Still in the prime of life, Wright might have made a political comeback had it not been for his untimely death from a heart attack at age 52, less than a year after the election.

The Anti-Rent rebellion of 1839-1845 had its roots in the Hudson Valley’s history as a Dutch colony. Much of the region from Rensselaer to Delaware counties was granted to a handful of aristocratic landowners, known as patroons, who leased small plots of land to tenant farmers. The many tenants in this feudal-style system paid land taxes as well as rent, in the form of crops and cash, but had no opportunity to buy their own land.

A series of sometimes violent confrontations began in 1839 as some of the landowners sought to evict tenant farmers who refused or weren’t able to make their required payments. The unrest became a storm that dominated the single two-year term of Wright, a Democrat who had multiple connections with the local region.

Wright was born at Amherst, Mass., on May 24, 1795, and moved with his father to Weybridge, Vt., in 1796, according to the Biographical Directory of Congress.

He graduated from Middlebury College in 1815, and then studied law for four years with Henry C. Martindale of Sandy Hill, now Hudson Falls, before moving to Canton in St. Lawrence County, where he embarked on a career that mixed law, farming and politics, according to The Post-Star of Glens Falls.

Wright was an ally of Martin Van Buren, who dominated the state’s Democratic Party beginning in the 1820s. Wright served as a county judge, a state senator, a brigadier general in the state militia, a U.S. representative and as state comptroller before being elected to the U.S. Senate in 1832. He served there for 12 years, including six as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.
Wright turned down a nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court and an offer to be John Tyler’s vice presidential running mate, choosing instead to run for New York governor in 1844

That year, Wright, with 49.5 percent of the vote, defeated the Whig Party’s Millard Fillmore, the son of a tenant farmer who later rose to the presidency, by about 10,000 votes. Third-party candidate Alvin Stewart received more than 15,000 votes.

Two years later, John Young, running on the Whig and Anti-Rent party lines, defeated Wright by about 11,500 votes in a four-candidate race.

Wright had taken a strong stance against the anti-renters, pushing for prosecution of the rebels and at one point sending troops to Delaware County after a sheriff there was shot and killed at a farm sale. But the anti-renters organized to support the candidacy of Young, who promised reforms to the land ownership system.

Other factors in Wright’s defeat included his veto of a canal infrastructure improvement bill, which he had said would add too much to state debt, and his opposition to a state constitutional convention.

His tenure as governor marred what even his critics said was otherwise a generally good reputation from his two previous decades in political office.

“Talent, to a certain extent, cannot be denied to him,” the Rochester American wrote in an editorial reprinted in the Northern State Journal on Nov. 4, 1846. “He is a handsome speaker, a person of general information, particularly on political subjects, and previously to his present station, he was esteemed a good political manager. His great misfortune is that he has been ludicrously and absurdly overrated.”

Wright’s supporters, however, lauded him as a hero.
“Silas Wright, himself a poor man and the poor man’s friend, builded up the fair stately fabric of his frame on the fast foundations of intellect and integrity,” the St. Lawrence Republican of Ogdensburg wrote in an editorial on Sept. 7, 1847.

Wright, after losing re-election in 1846, retired to his farm in St. Lawrence County and attempted to find solace by working the land. The hard labor likely contributed to his death on Aug. 27, 1847, his physician said. He suffered a heart attack while picking up his mail at the post office, a part of his daily routine.

“Mr. Wright had labored severely on his farm during the hot weather of the present summer,” The St. Lawrence Republican reported on Aug. 31, 1847. “He was known to have the opinion that such exercise was the best antidote for the plethoric tendency of his constitution.”

Wright had been scheduled to deliver the agricultural address the next month at the State Fair in Saratoga Springs.

State Sen. Joshua Spencer, in a tribute on the Senate floor on Sept. 9, 1847, lamented that Wright had “scarcely arrived at the meridian of his life” when he died. He praised Wright’s tenure in the U.S. Senate

“A bright constellation there shone throughout the whole period of his connection with that body; and the most distinguished of his opponents acknowledged him a foeman worthy of their steel,” Spencer said. “Courteous in debate, never losing his self-possession, he was ever clear, logical, and consistent.”


Maury Thompson retired in 2017 after 21 years as a reporter for The Post-Star of Glens Falls. He now is a freelance writer focusing on the history of politics, labor and media in the region.