Stephen Van Rensselaer

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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
2nd Lieutenant Governor of New York
In office
Governor John Jay
Preceded by Pierre Van Cortlandt
Succeeded by Jeremiah Van Rensselaer
9th Patroon and 6th Lord of the Manor of Rensselaerswyck
In office
Preceded by Stephen Van Rensselaer II
Succeeded by Stephen Van Rensselaer IV
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
Spouse(s) Margarita "Peggy" Schuyler
Cornelia Paterson
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[edit]

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, 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 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] Stephen's younger brother Philip S. Van Rensselaer (1767–1824), later served as Mayor of Albany from 1799 to 1816 and again from 1819 to 1820.

Van Rensselaer began attending Princeton College; since it was near to battles of the ongoing American Revolution, he was later sent to Harvard College, from which he graduated Phi Beta Kappa[5] in 1782.[6]


On his 21st birthday, Van Rensselaer took possession of Rensselaerswyck, his family's 1,200 square mile (3,072 km²) estate, and began a long tenure as lord of the manor.[7] Van Rensselaer desired to profit from the land, but was extremely reluctant to sell it off.[8] Instead, he granted tenants perpetual leases at moderate rates; Van Rensselaer derived a steady rental income from his property, while would-be landholders were able to become successful farmers without having to pay a large purchase price 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 to 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] By the time of the 1830 Census, he had none, in keeping with New York's gradual emancipation law, under which all slaves in the state were freed by 1827.[12]

Early political career[edit]

A Federalist, Van Rensselaer 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. In 1801, Van Rensselaer was the Federalist nominee for Governor of New York, and lost to George Clinton, 24,808 votes to 20,843.[13] Members of his extended family served in Congress including Jeremiah van Rensselaer (1741–1810), Killian K. van Rensselaer (1763–1845), and Solomon van Rensselaer (1774–1852).[3]

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.[14]

War of 1812[edit]

In 1786, Van Rensselaer was appointed a major in the militia. Though the military was not Van Rensselaer's major pursuit, he was a major general by 1801. This experience led to Van Rensselaer's appointment to command troops during the War of 1812. When war was declared on Great Britain in June 1812, Van Rensselaer was a leading Federalist candidate for Governor of New York. Democratic-Republican Party leaders, including President James Madison and incumbent New York Governor Daniel D. Tompkins devised a way to remove Van Rensselaer from the campaign by offering him command of the Army of the Centre, U.S. militia and regular Army troops massing in upstate New York for an invasion of Canada. If Van Rensselaer declined a military leadership role during a time of war, he would lose esteem in the eyes of the voters. If he accepted, he would be unable to run for governor.

Van Rensselaer accepted; despite having held high rank in the militia, he was largely inexperienced at leading large bodies of troops. As a condition of his acceptance, his more soldierly cousin Solomon was appointed his aide-de-camp. But the Army of the Centre consisted largely of untrained, inexperienced militiamen; under the Constitution, they did not have to cross from upstate New York 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 until his troops were better trained and organized. To make matters worse, Brigadier General Alexander Smyth, Van Rensselaer's subordinate, had a large force of regular Army troops that was theoretically under Van Rensselaer's command, but Smyth refused to subordinate himself to a militia officer. With some of his officers planning to try and force him from command, Van Rensselaer decided to act without Smyth.

On October 13, 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; after the battle he resigned his post. Despite his military setback, Van Rensselaer was still the Federalist candidate for governor in April 1813; he lost to Tompkins 43,324 votes to 39,713.[13]

Later career[edit]

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

Van Rensselaer served 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.

In 1822 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.

Role in deciding 1824 presidential election[edit]

In 1825 Van Rensselaer cast the vote that likely decided the presidential election in favor of John Quincy Adams. Because none of the four candidates received a majority of electoral votes in the 1824 presidential election, the U.S. House had to choose from the top three finishers—Adams, Andrew Jackson, and William H. Crawford. House members voted first individually by state, and then each state cast one ballot for the candidate who received a majority of the state's House delegation; a candidate had to carry 13 state delegations to win the election. Van Rensselaer had intended to vote for Crawford, but changed his mind and voted for Adams. His vote gave Adams a majority of the New York delegation; winning New York gave Adams 13 states in the House vote, to seven for Jackson and four for Crawford.[15]

College founder[edit]

Van Rensselaer was a member of the University of the State of New York Board of Regents from 1819 to 1839, and from 1835 to 1839 he was the board's chancellor.[16] In 1824 Van Rensselaer and Amos Eaton established 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".[17] Since its founding, RPI has developed a reputation for academic excellence, particularly in the field of engineering.[18]

Personal life[edit]

Van Rensselaer's gravesite in Albany Rural Cemetery

In June 1783, Van Rensselaer married Margarita "Peggy" Schuyler (1758–1801), a distant cousin and the daughter of Revolutionary War general Philip Schuyler.[19] Their marriage resulted in three children, all of whom were baptized at the Dutch Reformed Church in Albany. Only one of their children survived to adulthood:

After Schuyler's death in 1801, he married Cornelia Paterson,[20] the daughter of William Paterson, the 2nd Governor of New Jersey, and later, an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.[21] Together, they had:

He was a Freemason, and served as Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of New York from 1825-29.[22]

Van Rensselaer died on January 26, 1839. He was buried in a family cemetery at the Van Rensselaer Manor House, and was later reinterred at Albany Rural Cemetery, Section 14, Lot 1.[23]


The town of Stephentown, New York is named for Stephen Van Rensselaer.

See also[edit]


  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. ISBN 978-0-521-86196-0. 
  3. ^ a b c Bielinski, Stefan. "Stephen Van Rensselaer III",; accessed April 15, 2016.
  4. ^ Fitch, Charles Elliott (1916). Encyclopedia of Biography of New York, Volume 1. New York: American Historical Society. p. 56. 
  5. ^ University), Phi Beta Kappa Massachusetts Alpha (Harvard (1912). Catalogue of the Harvard Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, Alpha of Massachusetts. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University. Retrieved 7 September 2016. 
  6. ^ Ricketts, Palmer Chamberlain (1914). History of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, 1824-1914. J. Wiley and Sons. Retrieved March 3, 2014. 
  7. ^ Koniowka, Randy S. (2013). Legendary Locals of Cohoes. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing. p. 18. ISBN 978-1-4671-0091-5. 
  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. ISBN 0-231-08925-2. 
  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. ^ "Stephen Van Rensselaer in the 1830 United States Federal Census". Provo, UT: 1830. Retrieved February 11, 2016. 
  13. ^ a b The Tribune Almanac and Political Register. New York, NY: Horace Greeley. 1841. p. 4. 
  14. ^ Spooner, pp. 129
  15. ^ The Life of Andrew Jackson, by John Spencer Bassett, Volume 1, 1911, page 364
  16. ^ Barnard, Daniel D. (1839). A Discourse on the Life, Services and Character of Stephen Van Rensselaer. Albany, NY: Hoffman & White. p. 66. 
  17. ^ "RPI History". About RPI. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Retrieved June 12, 2016. 
  18. ^ Mullaney, Michael (August 21, 2014). "Rensselaer Ranked 5th on USA Today List of "Top 10 Engineering Colleges in the U.S."" (Press release). Troy, NY: Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Office of Media Relations. 
  19. ^ Bielinski, Stefan. "Margarita Schuyler Van Rensselaer". New York State Museum. Retrieved 8 December 2015. 
  20. ^ Reynolds, Cuyler (1914). Genealogical and Family History of Southern New York, Volume 3. New York: Lewis Publishing Company. pp. 1166, 1341. 
  21. ^ Wikisource-logo.svg One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainCabell, Isa Carrington (1889). "Van Rensselaer, Killian". In Wilson, James Grant; Fiske, John. Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography. New York: D. Appleton. 
  22. ^ Ross, Peter (1899). A Standard History of Freemasonry in the State of New York. 1. New York, NY: Lewis Publishing Company. pp. 294–295. 
  23. ^ Stephen Van Rensselaer at Find a Grave

External links[edit]

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