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Stephen Van Rensselaer

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Title: Stephen Van Rensselaer  
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Subject: John Jay, United States House of Representatives elections, 1822, Rensselaerville, New York, New York gubernatorial election, 1798, United States House of Representatives elections in New York, 1822
Collection: 1764 Births, 1839 Deaths, American People of Dutch Descent, American People of the War of 1812, Burials at Albany Rural Cemetery, Erie Canal Commissioners, Federalist Party Members of the United States House of Representatives, Harvard University Alumni, Lieutenant Governors of New York, Members of the New York State Assembly, Members of the United States House of Representatives from New York, National Republican Party Members of the United States House of Representatives, New York Federalists, New York National Republicans, New York State Senators, People from Capital District, New York, People from New York City, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Faculty, Schuyler Family, Van Rensselaer Family
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Stephen Van Rensselaer

Stephen van Rensselaer
Stephen van Rensselaer III,
c. 1790s, by Gilbert Stuart
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from New York's 10th district
In office
March 4, 1823 – March 3, 1829
Preceded by John D. Dickinson
Succeeded by Ambrose Spencer
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from New York's 9th district
In office
March 12, 1822 – March 3, 1823
Preceded by Solomon Van Rensselaer
Succeeded by James L. Hogeboom
Lieutenant Governor of New York
In office
Governor John Jay
Preceded by Pierre Van Cortlandt
Succeeded by Jeremiah Van Rensselaer
Personal details
Born (1764-11-01)November 1, 1764
New York City, New York
Died January 26, 1839(1839-01-26) (aged 74)
New York City, New York
Alma mater Harvard College
Net worth USD $3.1 billion at the time of his death (equivalent to $101 billion in 2014)[1][2]

Stephen van Rensselaer III (November 1, 1764 – January 26, 1839) was Lieutenant Governor of New York and a member of the United States House of Representatives, as well as a soldier, businessman and landowner. The heir to one of the largest estates in New York, his holdings made him the tenth richest American of all time, based on the ratio of his fortune to contemporary GDP. He founded the institution which became Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.


  • Early life 1
  • Politics and the War of 1812 2
  • Later life 3
  • Family 4
  • See also 5
  • References 6
  • External links 7

Early life

Van Rensselaer was born in New York City, the eldest child of Stephen van Rensselaer II, the ninth patroon of Rensselaerswyck a large land grant in upstate New York awarded by the Dutch to his ancestor Kiliaen van Rensselaer. His mother was Catharina Livingston the daughter of Philip Livingston, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. His family was very wealthy, and the Van Rensselaer Manor House was a rich childhood environment for the young boy to grow up in. However, his father died in 1769 when Van Rensselaer was only five.[3]

Van Rensselaer was raised by his mother and his stepfather, the Rev. Eilardus Westerlo, whom his mother married in 1775, and his Livingston grandfather.[4] His uncle, Abraham Ten Broeck, administered the Van Rensselaer estate after the untimely death of Van Rensselaer's father. At an early age, Van Rensselaer was raised to succeed his father as lord of the manor.[3]

To this end he was sent off to school, first to Princeton College. Since Princeton was near to troops and battles of the ongoing American Revolution, Van Rensselaer was later sent to Harvard College, from which he graduated in 1782.[5] In 1783 he married Margarita Schuyler, the daughter of renowned Revolutionary War general Philip Schuyler and a distant cousin as Van Ressselaer was also a Schuyler through his Livingston roots. Margarita died in 1801; a year later Van Rensselaer married Cornelia Paterson, daughter of former New Jersey Governor William Paterson.[6]

On his 21st birthday, Van Rensselaer took possession of his family's prestigious estate, close to 1,200 square miles (3,072 km²) in size, named Rensselaerswyck, and began a long tenure as lord of his family's manor.[7] Van Rensselaer desired to make money off of the land that was suddenly his, but was extremely reluctant to sell it off.[8]

Instead, he granted tenants perpetual leases at moderate rates, which saved would-be landholders from having to pay all of their money up front.[9] This meant that they could invest more in their operations, which led to increased productivity in the area. Over time, Van Rensselaer would become landlord over 3,000 tenants, and proved a lenient and benevolent landowner.[10] In the First Census of the United States in 1790, it was noted that he owned fifteen slaves.[11]

Politics and the War of 1812

Van Rensselaer also spent a great deal of time in political pursuits; it is said that he did this more out of a sense of duty than of ambition. He was a member of the New York State Assembly from 1789 to 1791, and the New York State Senate from 1791 to 1796. He was elected as an honorary member of the New York Society of the Cincinnati in 1781.

He was Lieutenant Governor of New York from 1795 to 1801, elected with Governor John Jay. Van Rensselaer, over his time in politics, acquired a reputation as something of a reformer, voting in favor of extending suffrage and going against much of New York's upper class in doing so. He was one of the first to advocate for a canal from the Hudson River to the Great Lakes and was appointed to a commission to investigate the route in 1810.[12]

In 1786, Van Rensselaer was made a major of the United States militia, which set him on a brief military career. Though the military was not Van Rensselaer's major pursuit, he was a militia major-general by 1801, a path which would come to a head during the War of 1812. Van Rensselaer, despite having held high rank in the militia for several decades, was, like most American militia officers at the time, virtually untrained and inexperienced. Clearly, Van Rensselaer was not a good choice to command an entire American army, but politics as much as military tactics dictated many of the military appointments of the day.

When war was declared on Great Britain in June 1812 Van Rensselaer was a leading opposition candidate for Governor of New York, and he made the incumbent Daniel D. Tompkins quite wary of running against him. Therefore, the Democratic-Republican Tompkins devised a way to remove van Rensselaer from the picture. He did this by offering him command of the United States Army of the Centre. If Van Rensselaer, who was, technically, a militia major-general, declined the post, then he would lose esteem in the eyes of the voters. If he accepted, he would be unable to run for Governor with the Federalists. If Van Rensselaer proved a poor general (which seemed likely), he would be discredited and his reputation would be damaged. However, even if Van Rensselaer proved a natural and was able to do well, he would not be able to run for Governor because the military powers-that-be would refuse to remove him. Tompkins' clever maneuvering had eliminated his main rival, but it had given short shrift to the war that had only just begun.

Van Rensselaer accepted the post, and with his decidedly more soldierly cousin Solomon as his aide-de-camp, attempted to safeguard the honor of his country in the war (despite the fact that, as a Federalist, he had been against the war in the first place). But the Army of the Centre consisted largely of soldiers like himself—untrained, inexperienced militiamen, who, under the Constitution, did not actually have to cross over into Canada to fight. The British were in the process of fortifying the Queenston Heights that Van Rensselaer would have to attack, and his officers were itching for action despite their general's desire to delay. To make matters worse, Brigadier-General Alexander Smyth, Van Rensselaer's subordinate, had a large force of trained regulars that was theoretically under Van Rensselaer's overall command. However, Smyth, a regular soldier, continuously refused to obey van Rensselaer's commands or answer his summons. With his officers planning to try and force van Rensselaer out, the General saw that he had to act without Smyth against the fortified Queenston Heights position. It was a prodigious miscalculation.

On 13 October 1812, Van Rensselaer launched an attack on the British position that would evolve into the Battle of Queenston Heights, in which Van Rensselaer's forces were badly beaten by the British generals Isaac Brock and, after Brock's death, Roger Hale Sheaffe. Van Rensselaer's preparations and his plan of attack were clearly a major reason for the scale of the defeat. He was unable to secure the element of surprise, he did not procure enough boats for his men to cross easily, and he was even unable to supply his soldiers with sufficient ammunition. Despite significantly outnumbering the British in the early stages of the battle, the American soldiers, untried and untrained, sometimes refused to cross the river. Van Rensselaer was not even able to coax the boatmen into going back over to rescue the doomed attack force. The defeat at Queenston Heights spelled the end to Van Rensselaer's military career, and after the battle, he resigned his post. Van Rensselaer's political ambitions were far from over, but, as Daniel Tompkins had hoped, Van Rensselaer would never become Governor of New York: He lost the gubernatorial election in April 1813 to Tompkins–Tompkins 43,324 votes, Van Rensselaer 39,718.

Later life

c. 1835, Engraved by G. Parker, from a miniature by C. Fraser

After the war, Van Rensselaer still enjoyed a fair measure of popularity, and still had the energy to try to serve his country. He was on the canal commission for twenty-three years (1816 – 1839), fourteen of which he served as its president. In 1821, he was a member of the New York State Constitutional Convention, and two years later, he was elected by special election to the seat in the House of Representatives that his cousin Solomon had vacated. He served from February 27, 1822 to March 3, 1829, during the Seventeenth, Eighteenth, Nineteenth, and Twentieth Congresses; during the last three sessions, he was the chairman of the Committee on Agriculture. During this time he memorably cast the vote that put John Quincy Adams in the White House at the expense of Andrew Jackson.[13]

After 1829, Van Rensselaer did not stand for re-election, and retired from political life to focus on educational and public welfare interests. He was regent of the University of the State of New York from 1819 to 1839.

Van Rensselaer was a Freemason, and served as Grand Master in the Grand Lodge of New York from 1825-1829.

Despite his active life, Van Rensselaer's most lasting contribution to the world was to establish, with Amos Eaton, the Rensselaer School (now known as Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, or RPI) "for the purpose of instructing persons, who may choose to apply themselves, in the application of science to the common purposes of life" in 1824. RPI has since become a well-respected American university.

Stephen van Rensselaer III died in 1839, aged 74. He was buried on his family plot, but was later reinterred in the Albany Rural Cemetery.


Van Rensselaer's gravesite in Albany Rural Cemetery

Stephen's eldest son, also named Stephen (born in Albany, New York, 29 March 1789; died there, 25 May 1868), became the last patroon of Rensselaerwyck and inherited the manor in 1839 by his father's will. He graduated from Princeton in 1808. During the anti-rent troubles in 1839 he sold his townships, and at his death the manor passed out of the hands of his descendants. He served as major general of militia. He married Harriet Elizabeth, daughter of William Bayard, of New York.[14]

Another of Stephen's sons was Henry Bell Van Rensselaer, a politician and general in the Union Army during the American Civil War. A third son, Cortlandt Van Rensselaer, was a noted Presbyterian clergyman.

Stephen's younger brother Philip S. Van Rensselaer (1767–1824) was Mayor of Albany, New York, from 1799 to 1816 and 1819 to 1820.

Other members of the Van Rensselaer family in Congress:

See also



  1. ^ Hargreaves, Steve (June 2, 2014). "The Richest Americans in History: Stephen Van Rensselaer". CNN (Atlanta, GA). 
  2. ^ Keister, Lisa A.; Southgate, Darby E. (2012). Inequality: A Contemporary Approach to Race, Class, and Gender. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press. p. 174.  
  3. ^ a b Bielinski, Stefan. "Stephen Van Rensselaer III", New York State Museum
  4. ^ Fitch, Charles Elliott (1916). Encyclopedia of Biography of New York, Volume 1. New York: American Historical Society. p. 56. 
  5. ^ Ricketts, Palmer Chamberlain (1914). History of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, 1824-1914. J. Wiley and Sons. Retrieved 3 March 2014. 
  6. ^ Reynolds, Cuyler (1914). Genealogical and Family History of Southern New York, Volume 3. New York: Lewis Publishing Company. pp. 1166, 1341. 
  7. ^ Koniowka, Randy S. (2013). Legendary Locals of Cohoes. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing. p. 18.  
  8. ^ Jordan, John Woolf (1911). Colonial Families of Philadelphia, Volume 2. New York: Lewis Publishing Company. p. 986. 
  9. ^ Hamilton, Alexander; Harold C., Syrett (1979). The Papers of Alexander Hamilton: May 1, 1802-October 23, 1804. New York: Columbia University Press. p. 467.  
  10. ^ Republic: A Monthly Magazine, Devoted to the Dissemination of Political Information, Volumes 1-4. Washington, D.C.: Republic Publishing Company. 1875. p. 185. 
  11. ^ Heads of Families at the First Census 1790, Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc. 1976, p. 52
  12. ^ Spooner, pp. 129
  13. ^ The Life of Andrew Jackson, by John Spencer Bassett, Volume 1, 1911, page 364
  14. ^  One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the  


  •  This article incorporates public domain material from websites or documents of the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress.

External links

Political offices
Preceded by
Pierre Van Cortlandt
Lieutenant Governor of New York
Succeeded by
Jeremiah Van Rensselaer
United States House of Representatives
Preceded by
Solomon Van Rensselaer
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from New York's 9th congressional district

Succeeded by
James L. Hogeboom
Preceded by
John D. Dickinson
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from New York's 10th congressional district

Succeeded by
Ambrose Spencer
Academic offices
Preceded by
Simeon De Witt
Chancellor of the University of the State of New York
Succeeded by
James King
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