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THE story of the so-called Leisler Rebellion illustrates the difficulty of sifting conflicting historical testimony. Among the earlier chroniclers of New Netherland there is the widest difference of opinion about the chief actor in the drama. Leisler was “an illiterate German,” says one authority. Another says “He was the son of a French clergyman driven into exile, and making his home in Frankfort where the little Jacob was born. The boy was taught to write and speak Dutch, French, and German; but being unskilled in the English tongue he was unjustly charged with illiteracy.” By one party he was branded as a vulgar demagogue ready to ally himself with the mob against the conservative citizenry. By another he was acclaimed as the champion of the people’s rights and religion when they were threatened with invasion by the minions of the perfidious Stuarts.
In regard to the main events of this troubled time. there is, fortunately, little dispute, although they are so complicated that they require close attention. When James II fled from England at the end of the year 1688 and was succeeded by William and Mary, the affairs of the American provinces were thrown into a state of chaos. The change of government was not known in Massachusetts until March, 1689. The immediate result of the news was to fan the popular wrath against Sir Edmund Andros, then in Boston, into such a flame that the Governor was seized and thrown into prison before he was able to make his escape to New York. His imprisonment left Lieutenant-Governor Nicholson, Andros’s deputy at New York, in a difficult position. Andros was still Governor and Nicholson was unable to communicate with him. Some people held that Nicholson thus became acting Governor; others claimed that the whole existing machinery of government was swept away by the abdication of James and that the provinces were free to govern themselves till they could learn the will of the new sovereigns.
Nicholson was a weak man, and his vacillation produced the impression that he might be engaged in a conspiracy to bring back the rule of James. Three years before, in the King’s camp, he had knelt when Mass was celebrated. Who knew what Catholic designs might lurk behind this significant act? Rumor grew into suspicion, and suspicion turned to panic. At length Nicholson fell into an altercation with an officer on guard at Fort James who asserted his authority. In the course of the argument the Lieutenant-Governor remarked angrily: “I would rather see the city on fire than commanded by an impudent fellow like him.” Next morning word had spread far and wide through the town that Nicholson had threatened to burn New York, and all was in an uproar. A crowd of citizens appeared at the house of Leisler, who was an officer in the train-band, a citizen well known for honesty, a stanch, even bigoted Protestant, and withal a man of firm purpose, and. they begged him to act as their leader in a determined effort to preserve their liberties and hold New York for William and Mary. It is easy to see on looking back over two centuries that the dangers of conspiracy were greatly exaggerated; but we must remember that these men really believed that they themselves and all that they held sacred were in jeopardy. The possibility of war with France was indeed not remote; and fear of an invasion from Canada with all the horrors of an Indian war haunted the minds of every frontier family.
Leisler invited the people of the towns and counties of New York to choose delegates to a convention to be held at Fort James on June 25, 1689, to consider what was best to be done under existing conditions. Ulster, Albany, and most of the towns in Queens County refused to send delegates. The others responded, however, and the delegates formed themselves into a committee of safety. They appointed Leisler “Captain of the fort at New York until orders shall be received from their Majesties,” and Leisler accepted the responsibilities of government.
Massachusetts and Connecticut congratulated him on his conduct, and in the province of New York he was generally approved; but he had the misfortune to be opposed by the Roman Catholics and the landed gentry. The former were few in number and, after the establishment of the Protestant succession, a negligible danger, though in view of the assertion made by James to the Pope that “it was his full purpose to have set up Roman Catholic Religion in the English Plantations of America,” we can scarcely call it bigotry on Leisler’s part to fear their influence. Unfortunately for the Leislerians “the gentry” made common cause with the Catholics against the new Government. Albany, which was preeminently Dutch and held the Reformed Church in reverence, was also aristocratic in sympathy and resented the rule of Leisler as the representative of the common people. Even so, had Leisler shown more tact and less obstinacy there might still have been a chance to placate the opposing factions; but by his fanatical attacks on all Catholics and his open defiance of such prominent citizens as Nicholas Bayard, Stephanus Van Cortlandt, Frederick Philipse, Peter Schuyler, and Robert Livingston, he fomented the strife until conciliation became impossible.
In the beginning of January, 1689, Leisler committed a grievous strategical error in permitting Nicholson to leave for England to render an account of the state of affairs, while the Leislerians depended upon communications written in dubious English and carried by a bearer who was of inferior social standing.
Meanwhile Leisler won a temporary victory over his opponents. In December dispatches arrived from the Privy Council and the King and Queen of England, addressed to “Our Lieutenant-Governor and Commander-in-Chief of our Province of New York, or in his absence to such as for the time being take care to keep the peace and administer the laws,” and authorizing him to take the reins of government, calling to his assistance “in the administration thereof the principal freeholders and inhabitants of the same, or so many of them as you shall think fit.” Nicholson having departed for England, the messenger was in some doubt as to the proper recipient of the message. Bayard and his faction strove to obtain possession of it; but it was finally delivered to Leisler. He appointed a council of eight men, all reputable citizens and by no means representing the rabble, as his enemies charged. In this procedure he was acting in strict conformity with the letter from the Privy Council.
Leisler assumed the title of Lieutenant-Governor and, much to the chagrin of his foes, took his seat in the Governor’s pew at church. It was his moment of triumph; but troubles were already darkening the horizon. In November Leisler sent to Albany his deputy, an Englishman named Milborne, to demand the recognition of his Government; but the mandate being opposed by Schuyler, Livingston, and Bayard, all well known and highly esteemed in Albany and representing the aristocratic faction, that town refused entrance to Milborne and his escort and refused likewise to recognize Leisler as Governor.
The Albany Records for November, 1689, describe the incident as follows: “Three sloops neared Albany bearing troops under Jacob Milborne and. immediately Captain Wendell and Blucker, Johannes Cuyler and Reymier Barents go aboard to learn the object of his visit. Jacob Milborne asks: ‘Is the fort open to receive me and my men?’ The reply is: ‘No, the Mayor is in command and will hold it.’”
On the receipt of this inhospitable message, reënforced by military demonstrations, Milborne wisely withdrew his inadequate force and returned to New York to report the failure of his mission. Three months after Milborne’s rejection, in the bitter February weather of 1690, the village of Schenectady, at that time a western frontier post, was burned and its inhabitants were massacred in a French and Indian raid. Once more Leisler sent his deputy at the head of a body of troops to the assistance of the Albanians, and this time Milborne was not denied entrance to the town. Having thus gained control of the province, Leisler summoned a convention of delegates from Massachusetts and Connecticut to meet at New York on May 1, 1690, in order to discuss the defense of the colonies.
Meanwhile the Leislerians and their opponents were bombarding the new King and Queen with their conflicting claims. In 1690, Captain Blagge, congratulating their Majesties on “the late Happy Revolution in England” asked their Majesties’ approbation for Leisler on the ground that “Nicholson, like Col. Dongan, had neglected to repair the fortifications of the city, which excited suspicions against his loyalty, and he was disaffected towards the late happy revolution in England.” Hence Jacob Leisler had been chosen, “with a committee, to make such repairs and to administer the government until William’s pleasure could be known.” The memorial goes on to say:
Shortly after, their Majesties’ Proclamation arrived by which William and Mary were to be proclaimed King and Queen of England. Notice was given to the late Council of Nicholson, and to the Mayor and Aldermen to assist, with proper ceremonies, in this Proclamation. They desired an hour’s time for considering it, and then refused. Leisler and his Committee and most of the inhabitants did then celebrate the event with many demonstrations of joy and affection.
The Mayor and Aldermen were then suspended from office, and certain opponents of the Revolution and their Majesties’ interests, were imprisoned. Shortly after their Majesties’ letters arrived, directed to Lieutenant Governor Nicholson, or, “in his absence to such as for the time being do take care for the preservation of their Majesties’ Peace, and administering the Lawes in that their Majesties’ Province; ordering such to take upon them the place of Lieutenant Governor and Commander in Chief of the said Province and to proclaim King William and Queen Mary, King and Queen of England, Scotland, France and Ireland, and supream Lord and Lady of the Province of New York, if not already done”; which was accordingly done.
The Inhabitants generally were satisfied therewith, and Leisler’s committee was dismissed, and a Council chosen to assist him in the government; but the members of the old government opposed all this and created a faction. This excited fear lest the Province should yet be delivered up to the French in Canada, which fear greatly agitated the Protestant population. The said faction also surrounded Captain Leisler and abused him with ill language and threats, and would have done violence to him, if they had not feared the people, who rescued him out of their hands, and imprisoned the ringleaders of the opposition. Multitudes also flocked into the city from the country, to defend the existing government, and it was with great difficulty that their zeal could be restrained. The prisoners were ultimately fined and discharged upon their own recognizance to. keep the peace.
The Fort and City were therefore, now in a good condition, excepting a lack of ammunition. The Commission of all military men who had acted under Governors Dongan and Andros, had been called in, and other Commissions issued in the name of their present Majesties, and only to those who were well affected thereto. But our efforts thus to secure their Majesties interests have been greatly misrepresented, and we have been loaded with reproaches; our actions have been called a Dutch plot, although three quarters of the inhabitants are of Dutch descent, and speak Dutch; and our ruin is threatened, if the government ever falls into the hands of our opponents.
To this lengthy defense Bayard and Nicolls made response as follows:
Jacob Leisler a man of desperate fortune, ambitiously did assume unto himself e the title of Lieutenant-Governor of this Province of New York, and chose a councel of ye meanest and most abject common people; made to himself a Broad Seale, which he called ye Seale of ye Province, with ye usuall armes of Kings of England; and affixed the same to some unlawful graunts of land within this Province; and commissionated under ye same Justices of ye Peace, in whose hartes were mischiefe. He constituted Courts of Oyer and Terminer, and tryed severall subjects for pretended treason, murther and other crimes. He taxed and levied monney upon their Majesties subjects to their grievous oppression and great impoverishment. When he wanted more money for his occasions, he forcebly robbed and spoiled, broke open doors and locx were he guissed it was to be found, and carried away to ye vallue of some thousands of pounds in money or goods; and all this against the best Protestant subjects in the Province. He imprisoned whom he feared, without any other cause than that their integrity to ye Protestant interest, and fidelity to their Majesties, became a terroire to him; some of them after a tedious confignment, without collour of law, he whipt and branded; and some he kept in duresse so long as he held ye fort.
Upon one point, both the followers and opponents of Leisler agreed: there was no Dutch plot behind this revolution. “The notion of a Dutch plott cannot be applicable to Leisler and his adherents,” said Bayard; “the much greater part of Albany which wholly consists of Dutch people, and all the men of best repute for religion, estatte, and integrity of the Dutch nacon, throughout the whole Province, having alwaies been manifestly against Leisler and his society, in all their illegall and irregular proceedings.” To these representations their Majesties’ advisers made no reply, but the appointment of Governor of New York was given to Colonel Henry Sloughter, “a profligate, needy, and narrow minded adventurer, “ the selection of whom did little credit to the wisdom of William of Orange. All the papers from both factions were committed to this inefficient officer with instructions to examine the allegations strictly and impartially and to make a true report.
In December, 1690, Sloughter set sail with several ships and a body of troops. By some accident the vessels were separated, and the ship bearing Major Richard Ingoldesby, “a rash, hotheaded man” who had served in Holland and recently returned from service in Ireland, arrived in the Beaver two months before Sloughter’s ship reached New York. His commission required him to obey the royal Governor, but did not give him authority to act as commander-in-chief in case of Sloughter’s absence or death. Nevertheless Ingoldesby at once announced the appointment of Sloughter and demanded the surrender of the fort. Leisler replied by offering quarters for Ingoldesby’s soldiers; but refused to surrender the fort till he saw the Major’s commission.
Ingoldesby had no credentials whatever, but he issued a proclamation calling on the people and. magistrates to aid him in enforcing the royal commission. Leisler issued a counter proclamation warning him at his peril not to attempt hostilities against the city or the fort; but on receiving assurances that Ingoldesby had no intention of using force against the people of New York, he permitted the troops to land. The fort, however, he would not yield. With rival forces in the town, peace was difficult to maintain. Neither commander trusted the other. Recrimination followed protest. Finally, on the 17th of March, Leisler fired on Ingoldesby’s troops, killing two and wounding others.
At length on March 19, 1691, Sloughter entered the harbor of New York. Representative anti-Leislerians hastened to board his ship and escorted him to the City Hall, where he took the oath of office at eleven o’clock at night. He immediately dispatched Ingoldesby to demand the surrender of the fort. Again Leisler’s bigotry and obstinacy overcame his prudence. Instead of surrendering at once he dispatched a messenger bearing letters and warning him to look well at Sloughter and be sure he was no counterfeit. Sloughter informed Leisler’s messenger that he intended to make himself known in New York as well as in England and ordered Ingoldesby for the second time to demand possession of the fort and to release from their prison Colonel Bayard and Mr. Nicolls, that they might attend the council to which they had been appointed members.
Leisler refused either to surrender the fort or to release the prisoners but sent Milborne and De la Noy to endeavor to make terms. Sloughter imprisoned both envoys and ordered his frigate to hold itself in readiness to fire on the fort. Leisler, at length and too late realizing that resistance was useless, sent a letter to the Governor offering submission. For the third time Ingoldesby was ordered to demand the possession of the fort. This time the garrison yielded and Leisler was put under arrest.
With Milborne, now his son-in-law, and eight others, Leisler was arraigned before a court having inveterate royalists as judges. Two insurgents were acquitted. Six made their defense, were convicted of high treason, and were reprieved. Leisler and Milborne declined to plead and appealed to the King. They were, however, condemned and sentenced to death. Sloughter was reluctant to sign the death-warrants; but his associates, more particularly Bayard, who had been imprisoned by Leisler, were determined on the execution. It is maintained that the Governor’s signature was obtained at a banquet when he was under the influence of liquor, and that an officer stole with the warrant to the prison and ordered the victims led out for immediate execution. Be this as it may, Sloughter’s compunctions were overcome and the death-warrants signed.
The scaffold was erected at the lower end of the park and weeping people thronged about the victims. Leisler’s dying speech, which was marked by neither anger nor bitterness, affirmed that he had no other aim than “to maintain against Popery or any schism or heresy whatever the interest of our Sovereign Lord and Lady and the Reformed Protestant Churches” in these parts. The drop fell, the populace rushed up to claim some relics of their leader, the bodies were taken down, beheaded, and buried, and so the worthless Sloughter thought to make an end of “a troublesome fellow.”
But the Leisler blood still flowed in the veins of the dead man’s son, who never ceased fighting till in 1695 the attainder on the estate was removed. This action of the English Parliament was tantamount to a confession that Leisler had been unjustly accused, tried, and hanged, and that these, the only people ever put to death for political reasons on the soil of New York, died as misguided martyrs, not as criminal conspirators.