Stephen Van Rensselaer (1764-1839)

Stephen Van Rensselaer III, "The Old Patroon" Lieutenant-Governor of New York

Associated Houses

Van Rensselaer Manor House


He was born in New York City to the 9th Patroon of the Manor of Rensselaerswyk that the Dutch government granted to their ancestor, Kiliaen Van Rensselaer (1586-1643), in 1630. His mother, Catherine, was the daughter of U.S. Founding Father Philip Livingston, brother of Robert, the 3rd and last Lord of Livingston Manor. He grew up at Van Rensselaer Manor and by the time he graduated from Harvard (1782) he had succeeded to the 768,000-acre Rensselaerswyk estate that had been managed by his uncle, Abraham Ten Broeck, after the premature death of his father when he was just five.

He was careful to ensure the legacy of his inheritance which he achieved by granting perpetual leases that gave him a steady income from his 80,000-tenants, all the while gaining a reputation as a lenient landlord who preferred to accept produce over money or late payments rather than see his tenants evicted. However, his condition that tenants must pay him one-fourth of the value of their property or an additional year's rent when they sold their leases later added fuel to the fire of the Anti-Rent War (1839-1845). But, his views on slavery were also progressive, whereas in 1790 he owned 15 (a comparative handful for a man of his wealth), by 1830 he had none, actively supporting the return of slaves to Africa and serving as Vice-President of the American Colonization Society.

As a Federalist, he was elected to the New York State Assembly and the New York State Senate before serving as Lieutenant-Governor of New York. He was President of the Erie Canal Commission, a Member of the State Constitutional Convention, and was appointed a Major-General in the State Militia. On the outbreak of the War of 1812, he was given command of the irregular "Army of the Centre" - a political move devised to ensure that he did not become Governor of New York. In a bid to take control of the Niagara River, he launched an unsuccessful attack on the British at Queenston Heights, handing them a major victory despite being vastly outnumbered. Neither was he successful in his second attempt to secure the Governorship of New York (1813), but in 1825 he was credited for casting the vote that saw John Quincy Adams elected as the 6th U.S. President.

He was President of the State Board of Agriculture; President of the Albany Savings Bank; President of the Albany Institute of History & Art; President of the American Lyceum; founding President of the Albany Academy; Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Freemasons of New York; a founding director of the New York Life Insurance & Trust Company; Chancellor of the Board of Regents for the University of the State of New York; and, in 1824 with Amos Eaton he established the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) that continues to this day. In today's terms, his net worth is estimated to have been in excess of $100-billion, making him one of the ten richest Americans in U.S. history.

In 1783, he married Peggy, daughter of General Philip Schuyler and sister of Mrs Alexander Hamilton, by whom he had 3-children but only one of whom (listed), "The Last Patroon," lived to adulthood. After she died, in 1802 he married Cornelia, daughter of Justice William Paterson, by whom he had 9-children (listed) who lived to adulthood. 
Contributed by Mark Meredith on 14/07/2019 and last updated on 16/12/2023.