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ART. VIII. — A Discourse on the Life, Services, and Char
acter of Stephen Van Rensselaer, delivered before the Albany Institute, April 15th, 1839; with an Historical Sketch of the Colony and Manor of Rensselaeruyck, in an Appendix. By Daniel D. BARNARD. Albany. Printed by Hoffman & White. 8vo. pp. 144.
The late General Van Rensselaer, whose life is the subject of this valuable pamphlet, was a man richly deserving of remembrance. His character was of sterling purity. Few persons, in any country or age, have silently and unostentatiously exercised a happier influence on society. Born to the hereditary possession of great wealth, which increased in his hands, not by the arts or through the passion of accumulation, but purely because the simplicity of his taste left a surplus of his income, after all the calls of duty and benevolence were answered, it would have been difficult for the sternest censor to find aught to reproach in the modesty of his life and manners. His purse was the treasury of the poor, who resorted to it for their own wants, and of the philanthropic, who found it an unfailing spring of liberal aid for every work of Christian charity. But his bounty, as far as possible, was dispensed in secret, and with that discrimination, which a sense of justice, no less than the unainbitious tone of his own character, required. He granted generous aid to deserving objects, but flung no largesses into the lap of sturdy or popular beggars. The task of giving judiciously, out of large means, is by no means quite so easy to be performed, as may at first be thought, by those who reflect little on the subject, and think, if they had the philosopher's stone, they could make everybody rich and happy. The number of demands, very great, always, on all who are known or supposed to have wealth, is indefinitely and oppressively multiplied, whenever the willingness to give liberally is known to coëxist with the means. The great mass of private wants, real and fictitious, the boundless circle of public charities, deserving and undeserving, are diligently urged upon the consideration of the affluent. No fortune is adequate to the tithe of these calls, if it should all be appropriated to satisfy them. The task of apportionment, of selection, and refusal, is difficult and thankless. It was performed by
General Van Rensselaer, with guileless simplicity of heart, with a strict regard to principle, and with such gentleness of spirit, where high-raised expectations were to be disappointed, that, as probably no man of property in the country ever gave more away, so no man's charities were ever less invidious and offensive.
General Van Rensselaer's liberality was not confined to acts of charity. He wisely appropriated a portion of his ample means to the promotion of practical education ; of which, perhaps, we ought rather to speak as of an act of charity, in the noblest sense of the term. The School of Natural Science, which he founded and endowed at Troy, is a monument of far-sighted benevolence. Among its principal objects, one was “to qualify teachers for instructing the sons and daughters of mechanics in the application of experimental chemistry, philosophy, and natural history, to agriculture, domestic economy, and the arts and manufactures." Mr. Barnard speaks of its results in the following terms :
"It is impossible to compute, or perhaps to give any rational conjecture about, the amount of good which has already been effected through this munificent and skilfully-devised charity ; much more impossible is it to compass, in thought, the benefits which coming generations must reap from that system and plan of Education, of which the example was first set, and the eminent utility satisfactorily tested, in the Rensselaer Institute. Schools have been set up on the Rensselaer method, in various and distant parts of our country ; and it has been stated to me as a fact, from calculations actually made, that the Institute has itself furnished to the community more experimental Teachers and Professors, State Geologists, Principal and Assistant Engineers on Public Works, and practical Chemists and Naturalists, than have been furnished, in the same time, by all the Colleges in the Union. If the half of this statement be true, the result, in this single particular, is a proud one for the memory of the Patron, through whose almost unknown munificence it has been effected.” — pp. 82, 83.
The personal history of General Van Rensselaer is, in some respects, one of extraordinary interest. He belonged to a class, never numerous in the Northern and Middle States, scarcely known, in fact, in New England, that of large landed proprietors. He inherited an immense property, known by the name of the Manor of Rensselaerwyck, granted to his ancestor in the earliest period of the Dutch
jurisdiction in New York ; and with it the title, privileges, and honors of a Patroon, as the lord of the manor appears to have been called in the Dutch colonial law. As far as we are aware, General Van Rensselaer was the only individual, to whom, within the memory of man, this title, originally of right, and after the American Revolution by universal courtesy, has been conceded. The class of very rich men, generally, but not without exceptions, (of which Hancock and Carroll, as well as the Patroon are memorable examples,) at the commencement of the Revolution, looked with fear upon that event, and shrunk from its possible results, among which confiscation was that which the entire history of rebellion rendered most familiar to a timid mind, wedded to the enjoyment of the good things of life. General Van Rensselaer was barely eleven years old, when the war broke out; but bis guardians and family embraced the cause of independence, and he was nurtured upon pure whig principles. His large property, his attachment to the federal constitution at the time of its formation, and his adherence to its principles, against the various measures which, at different periods, have been devised, in violation of its spirit, sometimes of its letter, for the purpose of carrying temporary, political ends, threw him, for the better half of his life, into the political minority of his native State. He was associated, as Lieutenant-Governor, with Mr. Jay, for six years, but failed, by a small number of votes, to be elected his successor. Had he been willing to use a few catchwords of party, he would easily have won and worn, through life, the honors which were won from him by others, great and patriotic men, certainly, but who were willing to speak the Shibboleth, which he was not. In the war of 1812, he was placed in the chief military command by his rival, Governor Tompkins ; and, though nothing could well be conceived less congenial, than his domestic, tranquil, unobtrusive character, with the fervor, the passion, and recklessness of military life, yet he promptly obeyed the call, engaged with spirit in the discharge of his duties, and did all that could be done by an invading general, who, after entering the enemy's country, finds his army troubled with constitutional scruples on the subject of following him.
General Van Rensselaer was a Canal Commissioner in New York, from the first formation of the Board, which had
in charge the magnificent system of internal navigation of that State. His known practical wisdom, in the management of extensive private concerns, made it an object of public policy to enlist his name and influence on the side of the big ditch, at the time when the noble enterprise had to struggle into existence under the weight of all the odium which could be cast upon it, by politicians of the same gauge and calibre with those, who are unceasing in their efforts, in our own State, to cast reproach upon an enterprise of similar character, and, considering the proportion of our means, not of inferior magnitude.
In Congress he moved in a sphere above the storms of party. It was pleasing to contemplate one, whose political course was unwavering, still commanding universal respect by amenity of manners and purity of character. It fell to his lot, by his casting vote in February, 1825, to decide the ballot of New York ; and, in so doing, to cause the election of President John Quincy Adams, at the first trial. It is necessary to be acquainted with the private history of that day, to know what firmness was required to perform this duty, and from what convulsions it saved the Union. There were those, it is said, who desired that, out of a long-protracted struggle in the House of Representatives, a state of affairs should arise, which would defy all arbitration but that of the sword. It devolved on General Van Rensselaer, by his casting vote in the delegation of his State, to avert the danger of any such convulsion, if such danger existed. But such was the unquestioned honesty of his purpose, that even this critical relation to a question so momentous in no degree affected his universal popularity in Congress.
The secret strength of his character was no doubt founded on religious principle. In the morning of life, and while surrounded by every thing which could tempt him to worldliness, he made a public profession of religion in the church of his fathers, and maintained, to the end of his days, the character of a consistent Christian. This topic is happily adverted to by Mr. Barnard ;
“In presenting, as nearly as may be in the order of time, the events of this good man's life, I must not omit to mention one in this place, certainly of no inconsiderable importance, if only considered as affecting our right judgment of his character. It was in the spring of 1787, when he was short of twenty-three years of age, in the vigor of manhood, just on the threshold of mature life, which sparkled brightly before him, with large possessions, and wealth enough to lay the world under contribution for whatever it can afford to pamper appetite and passion, and supply the means of wanton and luxurious indulgence ; it was then, and under such circumstances, that he deliberately chose, by a formal profession of religious faith, and a personal vow of religious obedience, according to the doctrines and discipline of the Christian Church as adopted by the Dutch Reformers, to pledge himself to a life of temperance, simplicity, truth, and purity. How well he kept his vow, is known to all who had occasion to observe him ; and how eminently he was blest in keeping it, was seen in all those quarters, where, I think, the Christian is wont to look for the promise of the life that now is, - in the calm and quiet of a peaceful existence, in domestic relations of the most tender, harmonious, and beautiful character, and in a resigned, appropriate, and happy death.” — pp. 36 - 38.
His remains were committed to the tomb with ceremonies well befitting the occasion ;
“ His own desire had been frequently expressed, that, when the time came, his body should be borne to the common Tomb of his Fathers, with simple ceremonies only, and with an entire absence of ostentatious parade. This injunction was obeyed by his family, as far as the public, and public bodies, would consent it should be. It was arranged, that the religious solemnities of his funeral should be celebrated at the North Dutch Church in this city, - his own place of public worship, and in the presence of that fellowship of Christians belonging there, with which he had been connected, as a Member in Communion, for more than half a century. From thence to the family vault, near his late residence, a procession was formed. The Body, in its simple and unadorned Coffin, was borne on mens' shoulders, the bearers frequently relieving each other, — the pall supported by those who had known him long and loved him well. No hearse was permitted to receive the burden. The mourners followed ; after them, the Municipal Authorities of the City ; several public Societies; the Chief Magistrate and other Executive Officers of the State ; and the Legislature in order ; and then came citizens and strangers, falling in by two and two, until the procession was extended to a most unusual and imposing length. All were on foot. No carriages were used. The military were in citizens' dress. All badges of office had been laid aside. No plumes nodded ;