Of Landlords, Leases, and Calico Indians

Fenimore Cooper and Private Property

In 1845, James Fenimore Cooper wrote Satanstoe, the first novel of The Littlepage Manuscripts, a trilogy Cooper conceived as a fictional response to the New York “anti-rent” uprising that, since 1839, had pitted leasehold tenants against their patrician landlords.  It was a struggle that, in Cooper’s view, threatened the property rights enshrined in the Constitution.  At the heart of the struggle was the claim by tenant farmers that their landlords were engaging in “feudal” practices incompatible with the egalitarian aims of the American Revolution.  Inspired, in part, by Free Soil ideology, anti-renters were aggrieved by a system of leases that granted them long-term tenancy and rights of sale, while denying them the status of freeholders.  While the landlords took their stand on the rights granted them by their legal titles, anti-renters claimed that true ownership of the land was vested in the man who had improved it with his labor.  More radically, some groups such as the National Reformers sought to use the power of the state to confiscate landlords’ estates and to redistribute the land according to various utopian schemes of universal ownership.  In Cooper’s view, such notions were an outright invitation to theft and an instance of “popular misrule” threatening to become tyranny.

The leasehold system opposed by the anti-rent...

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