The Anti-Rent War

Performed by the Templeton Players of The Farmers' Museum


In the years between 1839 and 1845, a conflict was raging in Central New York State between farmers and their landlords over the terms of their leases. While farmers, who had to pay rent in perpetuity, clear the land, build structures, and pay all taxes, claimed they were taken advantage of by landowners who lived in luxury, the latter argued that contracts are sacred once they are signed and could not be flouted with impunity.

As the population became increasingly polarized, the farmers organized in local factions, some of which organized boycotts or lobbied the legislature, while others violently opposed the enforcement of the contracts. The latter, armed and disguised with colorful smocks and sheepskin hoods, were the fierce "Calico Indians", who disrupted rent collections, threatened the landlords' agents and drove off bidders at distress sales.

The Anti-Rent Wars' effects reached much further than Central New York: giving rights to the people over an established gentry, it was an extension of the American Revolution that helped shape our modern democracy. 

1 - The Genesis

Characters: Isaac Wilsey, tenant farmer. Greene Moore, sheriff, acting as the landlord’s agent. James Leggett, neighbor farmer.

Location: Lippitt Farmstead. Time: 1:30 PM

The “Good Patroon” has just died at the end of January 1839. In his will, he instructs his heirs to collect all the back rents he has let accumulate over the years, in order to settle his own debts, incurred by his luxurious lifestyle. After years of leniency, and even contribution to civic causes, the landlord enforces the contract that binds the tenants to him and sends his agents to serve them papers and sell off their cattle and possessions if they cannot pay the back rent.

The tenants, who a month earlier were told that they had been given yet another extension, find this sudden change of heart unfair and argue the terms of the contracts. They quickly organize to drive off the agents by threat and intimidation.

2 - An Anti-Rent Rally

Characters: Peter Finkle, anti-rent leader. James Leggett, farmer.

Location: Church. Time: 2 PM

The anti-rent movement is gaining momentum, and clashes between increasingly large posses of lawmen and quickly organized groups of farmers have escalated. However, these clashes remain localized, and the movement lacks a leader, a unifying creed, and organization.

3 - The Silent Force

Characters: Parthenia Davis, foster daughter of Moses Earle. Esther Leggett, wife of James Leggett. Helen Leggett, teenage daughter of James and Esther Leggett. Greene Moore, sheriff.

Location: Lippitt Farmhouse. Time: 2:30 PM

As the anti-rent movement progresses, most men are either fighting in disguise or lobbying the legislature. Their wives and daughters support them, sometimes influencing them with their own opinions. Besides providing food and running the households, one of their main responsibilities in the movement is sewing the calico smocks the men will be wearing in combat.

Occasionally traveling between villages to visit relatives or trade household staples, they also convey news and secrets without awakening the suspicion of the authorities, and help with the coordination of the efforts across the county.

4 - An Altercation

Characters: James Leggett, anti-rent activist. Jed Tompkins, a rent-paying farmer.

Location: Bump Tavern, first floor. Time: 3 PM

The anti-rent movement is now getting stronger, and the sheriff’s men hardly dare to approach the farms any longer. A political party has been formed, and is running for election, putting pressure on the governor. Yet, some tenants continue to pay rent: they are usually working on fertile land in the Hudson Valley, where they easily produce the required rent. They are relatively well-off and prefer to continue paying rent, ensuring the patroon’s protection, than engage into a violent conflict. The anti-renters feel that this lack of commitment is doing a disservice to their movement, and that the up-renters’ allegiance to the landlord is akin to an act of treason.

Different city taverns are frequented either by up-renters, who agree with the patroon system, or down-renters, who refuse to pay rent. The former and the latter do not mix. However, while traveling, an up-renter occasionally ends up in a down-renter tavern, and the discussion with the locals naturally drifts toward the subject that is on everybody's minds.

5 - The Murder

Character: Greene Moore, sheriff

Location: The Village Green. Time: 3:30 PM

The year is now 1845, and the community is more polarized than ever over the issue of the rent. Factions roam the villages, threatening to tar and feather those who don’t agree with them, and neighbors invent rumors about each other to entice visits from the “Calico Indians” or from the sheriff’s posses. Confrontations often involve hundreds of men, but so far violence has always been averted.

At Moses Earle’s farm, deputy undersheriff Osman Steele is conducting the forced sale of the farmer’s cattle to cover two years’ back rent. Earle, a fatalist, wants to avoid confrontation, but his friends and family, strong anti-renters, won’t let him back out. Undersheriff Steele has come with a numerous guard to keep the order, but the calico troops are there en force as well. Tempers flare; guns are drawn and waved threateningly when a shot is heard. In a moment of mutual panic, a melee ensues. When the smoke clears, undersheriff Steele is lying in a pool of blood, mortally wounded. No one knows who fired the first shot or who fired the shot that hit the deputy.

6 - The Trial

Characters: Amasa Parker, judge. Samuel Gordon, defense attorney. John Steele, District Attorney/Chief Prosecutor.

Location: Bump Tavern, second floor. Time: 3:40 PM (immediately after Vignette 5)

Both the murderer of Osman Steele and the entire anti-rent movement are on trial. The movement has reached such a violent climax that the landlord is willing to make some concessions, as are the local statesmen. But a crime has been committed, and the judge wants a harsh and exemplary sentence for the perpetrator, as well as for the entire Calico movement.

Judge Parker has already made up his mind that all those present at the shooting are guilty, and instructs the jury to be severe. The Chief Prosecutor, John Steele, is the brother of the victim and is looking forward to this opportunity to avenge his brother.