Stephen Van Rensselaer III

Stephen Van Rensselaer III was born November 1, 1764 in New York City, New York and died on January 26, 1839 in Albany, New York. He was a American Politian during the War of 1812

Rensselaer, Stephen Van
November 1, 1764
New York City, New York
January 26, 1839
Albany, New York

Van Rensselaer III was an American statesman, soldier, and land-owner, the heir to one of the greatest estates in the New York region at the time. He is the father of Henry Bell Van Rensselaer, who was a politician and general in the Union Army during the American Civil War.

Van Rensselaer was born in New York City, the eldest child of Stephen Van Rensselaer II and Catharina Livingston. 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 he was only 5 years old, and the heir to his father's estate.

Van Rensselaer was raised by his uncle, Abraham T. Broeck, who administered the Van Rensselaer estate after his father's untimely death. At an early age, he was raised to succeed his father as lord of the manor, and the remarriage of his mother to Dominie Westerlo in 1775 did nothing to change this. To this end he was sent off to school, and in 1782, he graduated from Harvard University.

One year later, he married Margarita Schuyler, the daughter of renowned Revolutionary War Gen. Philip Schuyler. Van Rensselaer was only 19 years old, but Margarita's death in 1801 would cause him to enter into his second marriage one year later with Cornelia Paterson, daughter of former New Jersey Governor William Paterson.

On his 21st birthday, Van Rensselaer took possession of his family's prestigious estate, close to 12,000 square miles in size, named Rensselaerswyck, and began a long tenure as lord of his family's manor. He desired to make money off of the land that was suddenly his, but was extremely reluctant to sell it off. Instead, he granted tenants perpetual leases at moderate rates, which saved would-be landholders from having to pay all of their money up front. This meant that they could invest more in their operations, which lead to increased productivity in the area. Over time, he would become landlord over 3,000 tenants, and proved a lenient and benevolent landowner. His tenants, who did not have to work in fear of sudden foreclosure or unfair treatment, were able to focus on their work, and the productivity Van Rensselaer created benefited the entire Albany area.
Van Rensselaer also spent a great deal of time in political pursuits, it is said more out of a sense of duty than of ambition. He served in the New York State Assembly from 1789-91 and the New York State Senate from 1791-96, being named Lieutenant-Governor of the entire state in 1795. Van Rensselaer, over his time in politics, acquired a reputation as something of a reformer, voting in favor of extending the suffrage and going against much of New York's upper class.

In 1786, he was made a major of the U.S. militia, which set him on a brief military career.
Though the military was not his major pursuit, he was a militia major-general by 1801. Despite having held high rank in the militia for several decades, he was, like most American militia officers at the time, virtually untrained and inexperienced. Clearly, he 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.

Van Rensselaer was a leading opposition candidate for Governor of New York, and the incumbent Daniel D. Tompkins was worried about the run the popular and wealthy Van Rensselaer could give him. However, Tompkins soon devised a way to remove him from the picture, which was to offer him command of the U.S. Army of the Centre. If he, 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, he would be discredited and his reputation would be badly mauled.
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 manuvering 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 assure 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. 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 he would have to attack, and his officers were itching for action despite their general's desire to delay.

To make matters worse, Brig. Gen. Alexander Smyth, Van Rensselaer's subordinate, had a large force of trained regulars that was theoretically under his overall command. However, Smyth, a regular soldier, continuously refused to obey his commands or answer his summons. With his officers planning to try and force him out, he saw that he had to act without Smyth against the fortified Queenston Heights position. It was a prodigious miscalculation.

On October 13, 1812, Van Rensselaer launched an attack on the British position that would evolve into the Battle of Queenston Heights, in which his forces were badly beaten by Maj. Gen. Isaac Brock and, after Brock's death, Maj. Gen. Roger H. Sheaffe. His preparations and his plan of attack were clearly a major reason for the scale of the defeat, as he was unable to secure the element of surprise, did not procure enough boats for his men to cross easily, did not even get enough ammunition to his men.

Despite badly outnumbering the British in the early stages of the battle, the American soldiers, untried and untrained, sometimes refused to cross the river, and 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. His political ambitions were far from over, but, as Daniel Tompkins had hoped, Van Rensselaer would never become Governor of New York.

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 23 years, from 1816–39, 14 of which he served as its president. In 1821, he was a member of the New York State Constitutional Convention, and 2 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 3 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.

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 the regent of the University of New York from 1819-39.
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.

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