Stephen Van Rensselaer, III


Stephen Van Rensselaer, III was born in New York City in 1764. He was the first child of Van Rensselaer, II. His father died when he was five years old, leaving him to become “Lord of the Manor”, an estate of approximately 12,000 acres in up state New York. He married two times. His first wife, Margarita, the daughter of General Philip Schuyler, died after giving birth to three children. His second wife, Cornelia Patterson, daughter of the governor of New Jersey, bore ten children. He died at the age of seventy-five in 1839. (New York State Museum)


During his long tenure of Manor Lord his career spanned three major areas. He served not only as a member of the State Assembly and the State Senate of New York but also three terms as a U. S. Congressman. He played a major role in the planning of the Erie Canal, serving as president of the second Canal Commission the last fourteen years of his life. He ran and lost the gubernatorial race in New York two times. A major episode in his career was during the War of 1812. He was appointed as General to the state militia and was assigned to defend the northern frontier of New York. He had 6,000 men and lost 1,000 of his men in the battle crossing the river at Queenstown. He resigned from the militia after this defeat to the British.


He is best known and remembered as the namesake and co-founder (Amos Eaton) of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. (William College Archives and Special Collections) Van Rensselaer established the first school in the Old Bank in Troy, New York. He wanted the school to be “useful to the community in the diffusion of a very useful kind of knowledge, with its application to the business of living.” (From letter to the Rev. D. Blatchford Lansingburgh, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Library Archives) In his vision for establishing this Institute Van Rensselaer stated: “to qualify teachers for instructing the sons and daughters of farmers and mechanics, by lectures of otherwise, in the application of experimental chemistry, philosophy and natural history, to agriculture, domestic economy, the arts and manufactures.” (CIPCE, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Lester Rubenfeld, Director) In The Builder Magazine, October 1921-Volume VII-Number 10, there are discrepancies from the above information, i.e. noting that he is the fifth, not first, descendant and being born five years later in 1769. However, the wives were listed as the same leading this writer to assume the two are one and the same. With this said, the magazine states that “he laid a foundation for the skill and science that made the Republic grow, more than any peaceful move that has ever been made.” It was the origin of mechanical engineering.


Rensselaer was founded in 1851 as “the first such institution for study of science and engineering in the U. S.” Van Rensselaer and Amos Eaton revolutionized instruction away from the liberal arts tradition into a laboratory method of applied preparation for solving society’s problems. He was a strong proponent of higher education for women. (Chronology of Science in the U. S. 1820-29)


Quoting from The Builder’s Magazine:

The wisdom of Grand Master Van Rensselaer may be appreciated when we consider this. He builded wiser than was dreamed of in our philosophy. Machine design, construction and operation has developed the Nation. By it the air is navigated; the surface and the depth of the sea, as well as the land are traversed. A factory girl now spins as much as several hundred girls did, when the work was all done by hand. Transportation has been rushed over iron rails, while other nations were using pikes. Machine design is today an exact science, instead of a tentative art, and for blazing the way to make this possible we must hail Grand Master Van Rensselaer as the pioneer.”

Researched and prepared by: Linda Bourgeois


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