The Anti-Rent Era in New York Law and Politics, 1839-1865

Charles W. McCurdy.

Published June 2006. Order online through The University of North Carolina Press or Amazon. ISBN: 978-0-8078-5765-6.

A compelling blend of legal and political history, this book chronicles the largest tenant rebellion in U.S. history. From its beginning in the rural villages of eastern New York in 1839 until its collapse in 1865, the Anti-Rent movement impelled the state’s governors, legislators, judges, and journalists, as well as delegates to New York’s bellwether constitutional convention of 1846, to wrestle with two difficult problems of social policy. One was how to put down violent tenant resistance to the enforcement of landlord property and contract rights. The second was how to abolish the archaic form of land tenure at the root of the rent strike.

Charles McCurdy considers the public debate on these questions from a fresh perspective. Instead of treating law and politics as dependent variables–as mirrors of social interests or accelerators of social change–he highlights the manifold ways in which law and politics shaped both the pattern of Anti-Rent violence and the drive for land reform. In the process, he provides a major reinterpretation of the ideas and institutions that diminished the promise of American democracy in the supposed “golden age” of American law and politics.


“With the acute understanding of a veteran legal historian, McCurdy dissects the arguments and strategies of the chief protagonists in the conflict, proceeding carefully through the legislature, press, a constitutional convention, and relevant court decisions. His ability to clarify complex issues and decode devious stratagems is impressive. . . . [This] study opens up vistas showing the manifold ways in which politicians/lawyers shaped the possibilities for democratic reform.”
– Choice

“Exhaustively-researched and richly detailed.”
– New York Law Journal

“[A] deeply-researched and wonderfully detailed legal and political analysis. . . . McCurdy is a masterful guide, leading the reader through the intricacies of . . . law, the dynamics of self-interested party politics, and the complex interaction of national and state affairs. . . . An extraordinarily rewarding [read], perhaps the best study of nineteenth-century law and politics now in print.”
– Journal of the Early Republic

“This book is worth reading for its detailed and engaging description of the Anti-Rent movement itself and for the light it sheds on the legal and political context framing the controversy.”
– Harvard Law Review

“Provides essential political history and expertly, lucidly dissects . . . court decisions and statutes. . . . McCurdy masterfully demonstrates how national politics repeatedly had a significant impact on the anti-rent struggle. . . . Splendid. . . . Clear and comprehensive.”
– Law & Social Inquiry

“[This book] serves as an important reminder of the value of institutional studies and their limitations. [McCurdy’s] account of the apparently sincere struggle to find a legal solution to the heightening problems on the manors is a fascinating read.”
– Reviews in American History

2000-2002 Coif Book Award, Order of the Coif, A 2001 Choice Outstanding Academic Title
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