The distinguished statesman and patron of education, Stephen Van Rensselaer III is best known as the namesake and co-founder of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He was especially dedicated to scientific pursuits, sponsoring Amos Eaton’s extensive geological fieldwork in Albany and Rensselaer counties. After spending several years as a member of the State Assembly and the State Senate of New York, Van Rensselaer began three terms as a U.S. Congressman in 1823. Additionally, Van Rensselaer played a major role in the planning of the Erie Canal, serving as president of the second Canal Commission during the last fourteen years of his life.
Van Rensselaer’s grandfather took charge of his education upon the death of his father in 1769. Eventually he was able to attend Harvard, graduating in 1782. He married Margaret Schuyler the following year and moved into the family manor house two years later. His state government work ended in 1801, when he lost the New York gubernatorial race to George Clinton.
Another major episode in Van Rensselaer’s career was his experience in the state militia during the War of 1812, an experience which was marked by disagreements among his men. He was assigned the task of defending the northern frontier of New York but lost 1,000 of his 6,000 men to poor organization and unwillingness to cross the river at Queenstown. He resigned from the militia shortly thereafter. Upon returning to Albany, he experienced another loss in his second gubernatorial race.
Van Rensselaer’s contributions to education were significant during the last twenty-five years of his life. He put up the capital to start Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and also provided financial support for several Williams students. In a letter from Williams College President Zephaniah Swift Moore in 1815, regarding one of Van Rensselaer’s beneficiaries, he is thanked repeatedly for his “patronage . . . and munificence for [the student’s] education thus far.” His financial generosity towards Williams earned him a short term as a trustee, despite the fact that he was not a Williams graduate.
By Matthew Jeffers (Williams Class of 1998)
Moore, Zephaniah Swift. Letter to Stephen Van Rensselaer, Esq.. 2 November 1815. Misc. Mss. vol. 8, p. 59. Williams College Archives.
Barnard, Daniel D. Discourse on the Life, Services, and Character of Stephen Van Rensselaer . Albany: Hoffman and White, 1839.
Durfee, Calvin. Williams Biographical Annals . Boston: Lee and Shepard, 1871. pp. 52- 53.
Malone, D., ed., and Council on Learned Societies. Dictionary of American Biography . New York: Scribners, 1936. pp. 211-212.
Portrait of Stephen Van Rensselaer III used with permission of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Archives and Special Collections.