|Date||May 31, 1689– March 21, 1691|
|Location||Province of New York|
|Parties to the civil conflict|
Leisler's Rebellion was an uprising in late 17th century colonial New York, in which German American merchant and militia captain Jacob Leisler seized control of the colony's south and ruled it from 1689 to 1691. The uprising took place in the aftermath of Britain's Glorious Revolution and the 1689 Boston revolt in the Dominion of New England, which had included New York. The rebellion reflected colonial resentment against the policies of the deposed King James II.
Royal authority was not restored until 1691, when English troops and a new governor were sent to New York. Leisler was arrested by these forces, who tried and convicted him of treason. Leisler was executed, but the revolt left the colony polarized, bitterly split into two rival factions.
After English forces took control of New Netherland in 1664, King Charles II gave the territory to his brother James, then Duke of York, to rule as he pleased. James partitioned off East and West Jersey to other proprietors, and established an essentially autocratic government, with a strong governor and council, but no elected legislature.
James succeeded his brother to the throne in 1685, and established the Dominion of New England the following year. In May 1688 he added New York and the Jerseys to the dominion. Its governor, Sir Edmund Andros, came to New York that summer to establish his authority and install Francis Nicholson, a captain in the British Army, to administer those colonies as his lieutenant governor. Nicholson's rule, in which he was assisted by a local council but no legislative assembly, was seen by many New Yorkers as the next in a line of royal governors who "had in a most arbitrary way subverted our ancient privileges". Nicholson justified his rule by stating that the colonists were "a conquered people, and therefore ... could not so much [as] claim rights and priviledges as Englishmen".
In late 1688, the Glorious Revolution deposed the Catholic King James, and replaced him with the Protestants William and Mary. The rule of Andros was highly unpopular, especially in Massachusetts. Upon learning of the revolution, Massachusetts opponents of the Andros regime decided to use the event for their political benefit, and organized an uprising. On April 18, 1689 a mob formed in Boston and its leaders, former Massachusetts political figures, arrested Andros and other dominion officials. This led to a cascade of events, in which Massachusetts and the other New England colonies rapidly restored their pre-dominion governments.
Lieutenant Governor Nicholson learned of the uprising in Boston by April 26. He took no steps to announce news of it, or of the revolution in England, for fear of raising prospects of rebellion in New York. When word of the Boston revolt reached Long Island, politicians and militia leaders became more assertive, and by mid-May dominion officials had been ousted from a number of communities. At the same time, Nicholson learned that France had declared war on England, bringing the threat of French and Indian attacks on New York's northern frontier. Nicholson was also short of troops, since most of the New York garrison had been sent by Andros to deal with Indian activity in Maine. Nicholson found that even his regulars could not be trusted, for they had been swayed by populists into believing he was attempting to impose Catholic rule on New York. In an attempt to mollify panicked citizenry over rumored Indian raids, Nicholson invited the militia to join the army garrison at Fort James on Manhattan island.
Because New York's defenses were in poor condition, Nicholson's council voted to impose import duties to improve them. This action was met with immediate resistance, with a number of merchants refusing to pay the duty. One in particular was Jacob Leisler, a well-born German Calvinist immigrant merchant and militia captain. Leisler was a vocal opponent of the dominion regime, which he saw as an attempt to impose popery on the province, and may have played a role in subverting Nicholson's regulars. On May 22 Nicholson's council was petitioned by the militia, who, in addition to seeking more rapid improvement to the city's defenses, also wanted access to the powder magazine in the fort. This latter request was denied, heightening concerns that the city had inadequate powder supplies. This concern was further exacerbated when city leaders began hunting through the city for additional supplies.
A minor incident on May 30, 1689 in which Nicholson made an intemperate remark to a militia officer, flared into open rebellion. Nicholson, who was well known for his temper, told the officer, "I rather would see the Towne on fire than to be commanded by you". Rumors flew around the town that Nicholson was prepared to burn it down. The next day Nicholson summoned the officer, and demanded he surrender his commission. Abraham de Peyster, the officer's commander and one of the wealthiest men in the city, then engaged in a heated argument with Nicholson, after which de Peyster and his brother Johannis, also a militia captain, stormed out of the council chamber.
The militia was called out, and descended en masse to Fort James, which they occupied. An officer was sent to the council to demand the keys to the powder magazine, which Nicholson eventually surrendered, to "hinder and prevent bloodshed and further mischiefe". The following day, a council of militia officers called on Jacob Leisler to take command of the city militia. He did so, and the rebels issued a declaration that they would hold the fort on behalf of the new monarchs until they sent a properly accredited governor.
Leisler's exact role in the militia uprising is unknown, but a number of observations point to his involvement. He and militia captain Charles Lodewick presented the petition on May 22. Jost Stoll, one of his officers, led the militia mass to the gates of Fort James, and another of his officers delivered the demand for the keys to the powder magazine. Furthermore, none of the depositions Nicholson collected prior to his departure directly implicate Leisler as a ringleader.
Leisler takes control
At this point the militia controlled the fort, which gave them control over the harbor. When ships arrived in the harbor, they brought passengers and captains directly to the fort, cutting off outside communications to Nicholson and his council. On June 6, Nicholson decided to leave for England, and began gathering depositions for use in proceedings there. He left the city on June 10 for the Jersey shore, where he hoped to join Thomas Dongan, who was expected to sail for England soon thereafter.
Leisler's control of the province was at first limited. Nicholson's councilors, the Dutch patroons Nicholas Bayard, Stephanus van Cortlandt, and Frederick Philipse, were still in the city. They, and the city's civil administration, with van Cortlandt as mayor, did not recognize his authority. When both sides learned that William and Mary had been proclaimed in Hartford, Connecticut, there was a race to meet the messenger bringing copies of the proclamation to New York. Leisler's agents won the race, and Leisler published the proclamation on June 22. Two days later van Cortlandt received a copy of the official notice that William and Mary had prepared for Andros. The transmission of this document had been delayed at the behest of Massachusetts agents in London. It specifically continued in office all non-Catholic officeholders until further notice, and technically legitimized the rule of the council in Nicholson's absence. Pursuant to this document, van Cortlandt fired the customs collector, who was Catholic, and replaced him with Bayard and others to oversee customs activities. Leisler objected to this assertion of power, and descended on the customs house with a troop of militia. Accounts left by both sides of the dispute state that there was a near riot, and Bayard claimed to barely escape being killed by a mob. Bayard then fled to Albany, followed a few days later by van Cortlandt. Philipse withdrew from political life, leaving Leisler in effective control of the city.
On June 26 a convention, composed of delegates from a number of communities from lower New York and East Jersey, established a committee of safety to oversee affairs. This committee, which essentially became the nucleus of Leisler's later government, chose Leisler to be the province's commander-in-chief, "till orders shall come from their Majesties." Through July and August Leisler's hand-picked militia exercised de facto control over the city, financed by provincial funds Nicholson had deposited in the fort. Leisler was assisted by sympathetic officials from Connecticut, who sent a troop of militia to assist in holding the fort. Nicholson's company of regulars was formally disbanded on August 1, about the same time formal word arrived that France and England were at war. In order to bolster his position with the government in London, Leisler on August 15 dispatched Jost Stoll and Matthew Clarkson to England. They carried documents intended to support accusations that Nicholson had been conspiring against the people of New York, and to justify the propriety of Leisler's actions against Nicholson's "oppressive" rule. The agents were instructed to request a new charter for the province, and to claim that the united colonies could defeat New France without assistance from the home country. He made no specific requests that the new charter include any sort of democratic representation. An election ordered Leisler's committee of safety formally to turn van Cortlandt out of office in October, consolidating Leisler's command over New York except the Albany area. According to Bayard, the turnout in New York City was extremely low, with barely 100 voters participating. Councilors Bayard and Philipse on October 20 issued a proclamation calling Leisler's rule illegal, and ordered other militia commanders to stop supporting him. The proclamation had no effect.
Resistance in Albany
Leisler's opponents had assumed control of Albany and the immediate area. On July 1 they formally proclaimed William and Mary, and on August 1 established a convention to rule. The convention included the city fathers of Albany, wealthy landowners from the Hudson River valley, and local militia leaders. It became the nucleus of anti-Leisler activities in the province. The convention categorically refused to recognize Leisler's rule unless he presented a commission from William and Mary.
Albany's situation became tense in September when local Indians brought rumors of an imminent attack from French Canada. Because Leisler was interdicting movement of military supplies up the Hudson, Albany officials ended up making an appeal to him. Leisler responded by sending Jacob Milborne, a close advisor and future son-in-law, with a militia troop to take military control of Albany in November. However, the convention objected to the terms Milborne demanded in exchange for his support, and he was refused entry to the city and Fort Frederick. Milborne was warned by an Iroquois woman that a large body of Indians near Albany saw him as a threat to their friends in Albany and would react if he attempted to assert military control over the area. Milborne returned to New York City. The convention also appealed to the neighboring colonies for military assistance, which Connecticut answered by sending 80 militiamen to Albany in late November.
Leisler finally gained control over Albany early in 1690. In a move calculated to divide neighboring communities, Leisler in January 1690 called for elections at Schenectady. In early February, Schenectady was attacked by French and Indian raiders (part of King William's War, begun in North America the previous year), exposing the weakness of the Albany Convention's position. Although each side blamed the other for the failure to defend Schenectady, Leisler was able to capitalize on the situation. He convinced Connecticut to withdraw its militia, and sent his own militia north to take control of the area. Lacking any significant outside support, the convention capitulated.
The arrival in December 1689 of a letter from William and Mary addressed to Nicholson, or "in his absence to such as for the time being take care for preserving the peace and administering the laws in our said Province of New York". The recipient was to "take upon you the government of the said province". Although the messenger apparently sought to deliver the message to van Cortlandt and Philipse, Leisler's militia had the messenger seized. Leisler seized upon this document to claim legitimacy for his governance, began styling himself "lieutenant governor", and established a governor's council to replace the committee of safety.
Leisler then began attempting to collect taxes and customs duties. Although he was in part successful, he met with significant resistance from officials opposed to his rule. Some were arrested, and most of those who refused to act on his instructions were replaced. By April 1690 virtually every community in New York had officials appointed by Leisler in some of its posts. The officials he appointed represented a cross-section of New York society, and included prominent Dutch and English residents. However, resistance continued to his policies, and on June 6 he was attacked by a small mob, who demanded the release of political prisoners and refused to pay taxes he had imposed. In October 1690, diverse communities — from Dutch Harlem to Protestant English Queens County to Albany — protested his rule.
Leisler's principal activity in 1690 to strengthen his regime was the organization of an expedition against New France. In a meeting in May with representatives from the neighboring colonies, this idea first began to take shape. In order to provision New York's troops, he ordered merchants to offer up their goods, and broke into their storehouses if they did not. He kept a fairly careful account of these activities, and many merchants were later repaid. Connecticut officials were unwilling to grant command to Leisler's choice of commander, Jacob Milborne, citing the experience of their own commanders. Leisler acquiesced to their choice, Fitz-John Winthrop. The expedition was a complete failure, dissolving amidst disease, transport, and supply difficulties. However, Winthrop did avenge, to some extent, the Schenectady massacre of February 1690 by sending a small party north to raid La Prairie, Quebec. Leisler blamed Winthrop for the failure (for which there were numerous causes), and briefly arrested him, eliciting protests from Connecticut Governor Robert Treat.
The new king, William III, commissioned Colonel Henry Sloughter to be provincial governor in late 1690, but a variety of issues delayed Sloughter's departure from England. His ship was then further delayed by bad weather, and the ship carrying his lieutenant governor, Major Richard Ingoldesby, was first to arrive, in January 1691. Ingoldesby lacked official documents (which were on Sloughter's ship), but he insisted that Leisler surrender the government and Fort James to him. During six weeks of stubborn resistance on the part of Leisler, and stubborn imperious behavior on the part of Ingoldesby, there was minor skirmishing, and the city was split into armed camps, with several hundred Leisler supporters occupying the fort. Ingoldesby was supported in his efforts by members of the old dominion council. By mid-March Ingoldesby had surrounded the fort, and was threatening to take it by storm. Leisler occasionally had the fort's guns fired at suspicious movements, but these only succeeded in killing a few colonists.
Sloughter arrived in New York amid this tension, and on March 19 proclaimed his commission and demanded that Leisler surrender the fort. Leisler was not certain that Sloughter was in fact the person appointed, but Jost Stoll, who had been to London, was able to convince him that Sloughter was legitimate. Leisler then sent emissaries out to negotiate with the governor, but Sloughter, pointing out that he did not negotiate with his subjects, had them arrested. Leisler repeatedly rebuffed the governor's demands, but was eventually convinced to surrender, probably by his now-restive garrison. Sloughter had Leisler and ten others arrested on charges of treason and imprisoned in the fort they had just been occupying.
Sloughter established a special Court of Oyer and Terminer to hear the trials of Leisler and other defendants. Some individuals, including Abraham De Peyster and Charles Lodewick, the apparent ringleaders of the initial militia action, were not charged. The panel of judges included a significant number of anti-Leislerians, including Richard Ingoldesby, and was presided over by former dominion official Joseph Dudley. Leisler was arraigned by this court on March 31. The main charge against him concerned the militant resistance to Ingoldesby's attempts to take control. Leisler and his son-in-law Jacob Milborne both refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the court, and did not enter pleas. Even though English law did not mandate that individuals accused of treason receive legal counsel, Leisler asked for and was granted counsel. Most of the other defendants acknowledged the court's legitimacy, and pleaded not guilty. On April 1 Leisler was arraigned on a count of murder, over an incident that had taken place during his rule.
On April 9, Sloughter convened a new colonial assembly. Despite attempts by pro-Leislerians to control the body, it passed a bill on April 17 condemning Leisler's government and activities, even blaming him for the 1690 Schenectady Massacre. After repeated attempts by the court to get Leisler and Milborne to enter pleas, they were convicted on April 17, and sentenced to be "hanged, drawn and quartered, and their estates confiscated." No execution was scheduled.
There matters stood until mid-May. By early May the court had heard 32 cases, convicted and sentenced 8 men (including Leisler and Milborne) to death, and either acquitted or pardoned the rest. Partisan forces, however, continued to be active. Anti-Leisler forces agitated for his execution, and there were riots on Staten Island in late April, supposedly instigated by Leisler supporters. Sloughter, however, believed that the executions should be stayed until the king's will could be known. On May 7 he sent reports to the king and the Lords of Trade describing the situation. Although the report the Lords of Trade included the trial transcripts, the letter to the king painted Leisler in an extremely negative light, and neither report mentioned the sentence. On May 14 the court refused to transport Leisler and Milborne to England for appeal, and Sloughter's council, which was dominated by anti-Leislerians, urged him to execute the two men. He acquiesced, and signed the death warrants that evening. Nicholas Bayard and others claim that Sloughter was drunk (or at least strongly under the influence of alcohol) at the time, and accusations circulated afterward that Sloughter had been bribed. On May 16, Leisler and Milborne were executed by hanging. Leisler is reported to have made a long speech, claiming that he acted "for the glory of the Protestant interest, the establishment of the present government", and to protect the province from outside forces. The remains of the two men were buried beneath the gallows, and their estates were seized by attainder. On May 19 Governor Sloughter issued a proclamation of amnesty for all except about 20 named individuals.
The execution made martyrs of Leisler and Milborne, and did nothing to lessen the deep divisions between pro- and anti-Leislerian factions. His supporters sent agents to London, eventually joined by his son Jacob, to petition the government for redress. In January 1692 their petition was heard by the king, and in April the Lords of Trade recommended pardons for the convicted. On May 13, 1692 Queen Mary instructed the new incoming governor, Benjamin Fletcher, to pardon the six remaining prisoners.
Governor Sloughter's sudden death on July 23, 1691 was viewed with suspicion in some circles that he had been poisoned, although the autopsy indicated the cause was pneumonia. He left behind a letter in which he claimed to be "constrained" by the forces around him to order the execution. Other acts during his tenure also sparked comment. He was accused by Ingoldesby, who took the reins of government after his death, of pocketing £1,100 intended to pay the troops, and he was said to have seized a prize ship that had been captured and sold at auction during his time in office, and then sold it a second time.
One of Leisler's supporters had stopped in Boston while en route to England, and was offered support by the new governor of the Province of Massachusetts Bay, Sir William Phips. Massachusetts agents in London then worked on behalf of Leisler's heirs to have the attainder reversed and the family properties restored. In 1695, with the assistance of Massachusetts supporters Henry Ashurst and Sir Constantine Henry Phipps, a bill was introduced into Parliament to do so. Although the bill quickly passed in the House of Lords, anti-Leislerian agents succeeded in having it sent to committee in the lower chamber. After extensive hearings, in which Joseph Dudley defended his actions by, among other things, accusing Leisler of improperly seizing power because he was a foreigner, the bill was finally passed on May 2, 1695. It received the royal assent the next day.
However, it would not be until 1698 that Leisler's heirs would finally receive their due. The Earl of Bellomont, commissioned as New York's governor in 1695 and an outspoken supporter of Leisler in the parliamentary debate, arrived in that year. During his tenure (he died in office in 1701) he placed pro-Leislerians in key positions in his government. He oversaw the restoration of the family estate, and had the bodies of Leisler and Milborne properly reburied in the yard of the Dutch Reform Church.
Pro and anti-Leisler factions would remain in contention at the provincial level until the arrival of Governor Robert Hunter in 1710. Over time the Leislerians tended to associate with the British Whig faction, and the anti-Leislerians with the Tories. Hunter, a Whig who generally favoured the Leislerians, was able to calm the bitterness that existed between the factions.
As Waterman (1991) shows, many historians see the rebellion as a Dutch revolt against English control. However, Leisler failed to win the backing of the Dutch Reformed Church. Leisler, the son of a German Reformed minister, exploited popular anti-Catholicism and was supported by artisans and small traders who opposed the rich merchants. His followers saw themselves as people who had resisted anglicization and were the true heirs of Dutch religion. Others[who?] make the point, however, that when taken in context with other rebellions in the same period—Bacon's Rebellion in 1676, the 1689 Boston revolt that deposed Andros, 1683's failed Gove's Rebellion in New Hampshire, Culpeper's Rebellion in North Carolina in 1677, and the Protestant Rebellion against the Catholic-dominated government in Maryland in 1689—Leisler's Rebellion follows a pattern. In all of these rebellions a group of middling planters, merchants, or tradesmen rebelled against a group of well-entrenched elites who held a monopoly on power. In none of these cases did participants rebel against British rule. Rather, their struggle was with local authorities who they saw as preventing access to greater wealth or power within the British system.
At the same time, the presence of British soldiers on colonial soil and the reinvigorated enforcement of the heretofore neglected Navigation Acts led to increased tension between colonists and British forces. And in that sense in hindsight Leisler's Rebellion, like the others, can be seen as precursors to the American Revolution that began in the 1760s.
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