People v. Van Rensselaer & People v. Clarke

9 N.Y. 291 (1853) & 9 N.Y. 349 (1853)

The long simmering issue of manorial titles came to the fore again in the mid-19th century Anti-Rent Wars and, in 1848, Governor Young and the Legislature authorized the Attorney General to bring court actions on behalf of the State challenging the manorial land titles.

People v. Van Rensselaer came before the Supreme Court, Rensselaer County, on January 23, 1851, and the parties waived a jury trial. Justice Ira Harris granted judgment for the People for the recovery of possession of the land and this judgment was affirmed general term. The defendant, William P. Van Rensselaer, then appealed to the New York Court of Appeals.

Charles M. Jenkins represented Van Rensselaer at the Court of Appeals and argued that the Supreme Court erred in holding: "That the provisions of both patents, that of 1685 and that of 1704, whereby manorial privileges and franchises were conferred upon the lord of the manor, were in express violation of the established law, not only in England, but of this colony, and for this reason both grants were illegal and void."

Levi S. Chatfield, the Attorney General, represented the respondents, the People of the State of New York. He asserted that the title of the People “rests in their right of sovereignty” and that the People are deemed to possess the original and ultimate property in and to all lands within the jurisdiction of the state (Constitution, § 11, art. 1).

The Court of Appeals held, in an opinion written Judge John Willard, that: “The conclusion to which I have come, that the patents were both valid, and were effectual to divest the colonial government of all title to the land in dispute, is enough to dispose of the case upon its merits. I think, too, a regular paper title has been deduced from the original patentee to the present owners, and that their title is good against all the world.”

The ground of this decision was that, whatever may have been the imperfections of the original title, the act passed in 1830 limiting the impeachment of titles by the State to a period within forty years preclude any questioning of the title.

Although Judge Denio wrote separately, the Court of Appeals unanimously held that the judgments of the Supreme Court and Circuit Court should both be reversed, and a new trial ordered with costs to abide the event.

***

In People v. Clarke, Attorney General Levi S. Chatfield sought invalidation of a patent, dated November 19, 1737 in the reign of George II, under the great seal of the province of New York and signed by George Clarke, lieutenant-governor, for 25,400 acres of land in Albany County, southward of the Mohawk River and westward of Schoharie River, to William Corry and twelve other persons. The Attorney General alleged that Clarke himself was the real grantee, and that he made use of his position as a member of the council to obtain this valuable property for himself. The case was heard at a special term in Montgomery County in December, 1850 before Justice Daniel Cady, who ordered judgment for the defendant Clarke, and this judgment was affirmed by the General Term of the Fourth District (11 Barb. 337). The People of the State of New York, represented by Attorney General Levi S. Chatfield, appealed to the New York Court of Appeals, which affirmed the decision of the lower court on the same ground as the decision that had been reversed in the Van Rensselaer case—the act passed in 1830 limiting the impeachment of titles by the State to a period within forty years.

As Judge Francis Bergan wrote in his seminal work on the New York Court of Appeals: “Thus the great controversy of New York’s anti-rent wars wound down to a judgement for the patroon in the court that came into being on the wind of that controversy.”



SOURCES

Annual Report of the American Historical Association, Vol 1, p 168 (1897)
Francis Bergan. The History of the New York Court of Appeals, 1847-1932 (1985)



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