Stephen Van Rensselaer III, the “Good Patroon,” was born in New York City, son of the ninth Patroon Stephen and Catharina Livingston, daughter of Philip, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. His father died when he was five, and in the resulting period when there was no adult Patroon, the estate was managed by his uncle Abraham Ten Broeck. Stephen grew up in the Van Rensselaer Manor a short distance from the Nipper sign in North Albany. The house stood at the end of what is now Manor Street. His father had the house built in 1765 to replace the original that dated from 1666. Stephen later substantially enlarged the building.
The leading artist of the Hudson Valley School, Thomas Cole, recorded the Manor and its grounds on two canvases around 1840.
Stephen graduated from Harvard in 1782, and took over administration of the Patroonship when he was 21 in 1785. He married Margaret Schuyler, daughter of the Revolutionary War General Philip Schuyler. Her sister Elizabeth married Alexander Hamilton, with whom Margaret became good friends. Hamilton was in Albany when Margaret died in 1801, and he wrote to his wife to break the news of her sister’s death. Margaret has gained recent fame as the character Peggy in the musical Hamilton.
Van Rensselaer made modest reforms of the fundamentally anachronistic feudal landholding system he had inherited. He modernized the system of leases, and revealed himself to be a fair and often benevolent landlord. When he took over management of the manor there were about 600 tenants. Then the huge influx of New Englanders into eastern New York began. He himself encouraged it. The settlement named for him, Stephentown NY, was formed from part of eastern Rensselaerwyck in 1788. By 1812 he had about 3000 tenants and probably more than 10,000 by 1818.
Van Rensselaer was very progressive on many economic social issues. He was a strong and early supporter of the Erie Canal. he served 23 years on the Erie Canal Commission. He invested heavily in railroads. He founded Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, sponsored scientific research, donated land for the Dudley Observatory, and he was involved in banking. Van Rensselaer was also deeply engaged in New York State politics. He served as a Federalist in both the US House and Senate and spent several years as Lieutenant Governor of New York State. For a Federalist, he was relatively liberal on the key issue of expanding the franchise. Perhaps his greatest influence on national politics was a decisive vote he cast for John Quincy Adams as President when the 1824 election fell into the lap of Congress because no candidate had a majority of electoral votes.
Van Rensselaer also had a brief and ill-fated military career. At the time of the War of 1812 he was nominated to command the New York State Militia. At the time he was the leading Federalist candidate for New York State Governor, and some theorize that he was nominated by opponents to get him out of the political arena. But as a leading and dutiful member of the New York state aristocracy he could hardly refuse. He has no military experience, and when he went west as a major-general in command of the American effort on the Niagara frontier, he took his cousin Solomon Van Rensselaer with him as aide-de-camp. Solomon was an experienced solider. It was October and the American forces were striving to have a firm grasp of terrain across the Niagara River before winter. They had a clear numerical advantage. Nevertheless, the invasion of Canada was a debacle that seems to have been the result of poor generalship, poor training, and some internal dissension. The majority of the American troops were New York State militiamen who seem to have been relatively ill-prepared. There was also was a substantial contingent of US regular forces commanded by Alexander Smyth. At a crucial juncture Smyth ignored orders from Van Rensselaer, whom he probably considered to be merely an inexperienced politician. Eager to proceed, Rensselaer launched an attack without regular forces and a fiasco resulted. The Americans were driven back in the Battle of Queenston Heights, despite the loss of the British General. Van Rensselaer immediately resigned his command. Alexander Smyth took over and under his sole command things got much worse. He failed in two attempts to cross the river and his troops almost mutinied.
The peak of Van Rensselaer's financial fortune was probably around 1818 when he is estimated to have been one of the 10 wealthiest people in the whole of American history, taking into account inflation. An economic decline began in 1819. Unpaid rents and debts piled up. In 1837 there was a full blown economic depression. When died in 1839 he left his son Stephen Van Rensselaer IV – the eleventh and last Patroon ¬–substantial debt. His father's will explicitly required him to attempt to collect back rents. He did so, and this was an important contributing factor in the Rent Wars that resulted in violence in the hill towns of the Capital Region. Anti-rent forces were dominant in State politics, a series of laws the mid-1840s essentially dismantled all the relics of the feudal landholding system. The Patroonship was no more.
Ironically it was the Erie Canal, that Stephen Van Rensselaer had so strongly supported, that spelled the demise of the Van Rensselaer Mansion. In its heyday it was famous for the beauty of its grounds. But first the canal, then more than 20 slips piled with lumber, and finally the railroad, all lay very close, in clear sight and hearing from the house. The line of modern Erie Boulevard shows exactly where the canal was. The Van Rensselaer family no longer lived in the Mansion after about 1870 and it was dismantled in 1895. Some of the façade had a second life at Williams College, Massachusetts.
Stephen Van Rensselaer was originally laid in the family vault a short distance west of the Manor in what was referred to as the Patroon’s Vault. It was broken into and robbed in the late 1840s, prompting Stephen Van Rensselaer IV to move all the accumulated remains to Albany Rural, where they rest beneath an elegant marble memorial by William Gray. There is an underground crypt. The stairway leading down to it was visible until the 1940s.