7 Jacob Leislers rebellion 91-102



7 Jacob Leislers rebellion 91-102
Jacob Leisler's
dros was acquitted of the charges that prompted
his recall, but he lost his job anyway. In 1683 the
duke replaced him with Colonel Thomas Don­
gan, the fourth royalist veteran of the Civil Wars to be sent to govern New York. Don­
gan was also an Iri sh Cath olic landlord, the younger brother of Irish peer Baron Don­
gan (soon to be earl of Limerick), and an experienced imperial functionary who had
previously served as the military governor of Tangier. Manhattan's Anglo-Dutch oli­
garchs liked him at once. They admired his "knowledge, refinement, and modesty," as
Dominie Selyns put it. They were also grateful that although he gave a majority of the
seats on his council to prominent English residents, he had the tact and good sense to
seek the advice of leading Dutch merchants like Philipse, Van Cortlandt, and Steen­
wyck (the latter of whom Dongan appointed as mayor) . Above all, they appreciated his
readiness to give them th e freedom to manage local affairs more or less as they saw fit.
Dongan launched his administration by calling for elections to the first representative
assembly in the colony's sixty-y ear history. The Assembly's eighteen delegates met at
Fort James for three weeks in October 1683. Their main accomplishment was to draft a
"Charter of Libertyes and Privileges."
The charter defined the form of government for the colony (governor, governor's
council, assembly), recognized basic political and personal rights (trial by jury, no taxa­
tion without representation), and affirmed religious liberty (for Christians). It divided
the colony into twelve "shires" or counties: New York (all of Manhattan), Kings (now
Brooklyn, including the Dutch towns of western Long Island), Queens (the English
towns of western Long Island), Richmond (Staten Island), Suffolk (the eastern remain­
der of Long Island), and seven others. As in England, these were to be the fundamental
(r664- J783)
units of local government. Each had its justices of the peace, collectively known as the
County Court, plus a county clerk, high sheriff, and militia officers-all appointed by
the governor. Each was also an election district whose freeholders were empowered to
elect representatives to the Assembly (although the definition of a "freeholder" was left
rather vague).
The Assembly wound up its work by awarding Dongan a "free and voluntary" cash
gift for his good will. Obligingly, he proclaimed the Charter of Libertyes aloud at City
Hall-the townspeople "having notice by sound of Trumpet"-and passed it along to
York for final approval.
At the behest of Mayor Steenwyck arid the aldermen, the ever cooperative Dongan
then issued a new charter for the government of New York City. "Dongan's Charter," as
it came to be known, made New York City a self-governing corporation, one of only a
dozen-odd communities ever incorporated in English America. It divided the city into
five inner wards (South, Dock, East, West, and North) plus an Out Ward comprising
the remainder of Manhattan . Every year each ward's "inhabitants" were to elect asses­
sors, a constable, an alderman, and an assistant, the latter two of whom served as dele­
gates to the Common Council. The mayor, who presided over the council, would con­
tinue to be selected by the governor, as would the recorder, sheriff, coroner, and clerk.
With Dongan wielding his appointive powers on their behalf, the Anglo-Dutch oli­
garchy easily gained control over both provincial and municipal governments. They lost
no time deploying their new powers for a wide range of purposes-straightening out
public finances, establishing courts of justice, repairing municipal facilit ie , fixing the
qualifications of physicians and surgeons, providing relief for the poor, standardizing
marriage procedures, and , not the least, regulating city land sales in their favor.
Dongan's amiable relations with the Anglo-Dutch oligarchy were clouded, however, by
the baronial land grants with which he favored a select group of insiders. Seven of these
grants were formally styled "manors," over which their " lords" received quasi-feudal
legal and governmental powers subject only to the authority of the governor. The
biggest, Rensselaerswyck Manor (an anglicized version of the old Dutch patroonship),
encompassed 850,000 acres or better than eleven hundred square miles-fiftv times the
area of Manhattan . The Van Rensselaers' Lower Manor at Claverack add~d another
25 0,000 acres . Robert Livingston, the ambitious young Scot who had worked for the
Van Rensselaers and linked himself by marriage to the Schuylers and Van Cortlandts,
obtained Livingston Manor, some 160,000 acres in extent. Smaller grants went to James
Lloyd (Lloyd's Neck Manor), John Palmer (Cassilton Manor), Christopher Billop
(Bentley Manor), and Thomas Pell (Pelham Manor) . Dongan also distributed a number
of substantial nonmanorial patents, among them three separate patents for Frederick
Philipse (fifty thousand acres in all) and one for Stephanus Van Cortlandt of several
thousand acres .
The ostensible purpose of this largesse was to improve the colony's revenue while
strengthening its defenses against the French and their Huron allies . Anglo-French
competition in the Mississippi Valley had heated up during the r670s and 1680s-La
Salle, Marquette, Joliet, and other French explorers were scouting the interior of North
America from Wisconsin to Louisiana in these years -s-and the danger of an invasion
Jacob L eisler's Rebellion ffil
from Canada couldn't be ignored. (All the more so, Dongan thought, because the
Albany Dutch couldn't be trusted to support the English in the event of war.)
None of this assuaged the wounded ambitions of men the governor overlooked
while making free with the proprietor's real estate. Land, not money, was still the key to
power and status in the English-speaking world: a rich man without estates was a man of
limited influence-which explains why rich men on both sides of the Atlantic dreamed
of acquiring land and moving into the ranks of the country gentry (or better yet, the
titled nobility) . It was galling indeed that Dongan gave so much to so few. And galling,
too, that he didn't fail to help himself along the way. On Manhattan, he used dummy
partners to lop off hefty slices of real estate along both sides of the city wall and drove a
new road (now Park Row) diagonally through the town common from Broadway to the
Bowery,appropriating a two-acre plot for his own use (and leaving a wedge-shaped rem­
nant now occupied by City Hall Park). On Staten Island he acquired a twenty-five­
thousand-acre tract that he named Castleton Manor after his estate in Ireland (its
approximate location is marked by the modern Dongan Hills).
Resentment against the Charter of Libertyes was also brewing outside the oli­
garchy, among the colony's Dutch population. Only eight of the first Assembly's eigh­
teen members had been Dutch, and the charter contained a string of provisions offen­
sive to Dutch traditions and sensibilities-allowing a widow to remain in her house for
only forty days after the death of her spouse and building primogeniture into the
colony' s law of intestate succession, among others. In 1684, the new Assembly adopted
"An Act for Quieting of mens estates" that further affronted Dutch custom by denying
a married woman the right to purchase land or conduct business in her own name. As
for access TO public office, most of the Dutchmen who found their way by election or
appointment into the new city government were the same anglicized merchants who
had collaborated with provincial officials for years; what was the likelihood that ordinary
Dutchmen would be appointed to the new county offices in proportion to their numbers
in the colony?
Working people, regardless of ethnic origin, didn't have much to gain from the new
charter, either. Among' the first acts of the new colonial and municipal governments
were regulations for the stricter disciplining of unruly laborers, apprentices, servants,
and slaves. The cartmen, still a virtually all-Dutch trade, received special attention.
Early in 1684, when numerous merchants signed a petition complaining that city cart­
men were "engrossing" firewood-going out of town to buy in quantity from suppliers,
then returning to sell at inflated prices-the city council prohibited the cartmen from
selling firewood themselves, then made them pay for inspectors to check the length and
quality of all firewood sold in the city. Another measure forced the cartmen to drop
whatever other work they were doing and make themselves available at the waterfront
whenever shipments of perishable foodstuffs arrived. Dongan ordered each to make 104
deliveries to the fort every year, an average of two per week, without compensation .
Outraged, the cartmen began the first transport strike in the city's history. The council
declared them "Suspended and Discharged," then announced that "persons within this
Citty have hereby free Lyberty and Lycence to Serve for Hyre or Wages as Carmen."
After a week the strikers pleaded to return, but the council refused to rehire any until
they had paid a fine and taken an oath to accept the new order of things .
Two additional circumstances sharpened dissatisfactions. One was the colony's fal­
tering trade, mainly the result of competition from Philadelphia. Founded in r682 , only
a year before Dongan arrived, William Penn's City of Brotherly Love had grown with
alarming speed-by r690 its population reached four thousand, already equal to or
exceeding that of Manhattan-and its merchants were cutting deeply into New York's
business with Chesapeake tobacco planters, New Jersey farmers, and the Iroquois of the
upper Susquehanna. Nobody had a remedy as yet, least of all Dongan, but everyone,
merchants and tradesmen and farmers alike, was worried.
Dongan's Catholicism rankled too. He'd come to New York in the company of sev­
eral Jesuit priests and immediately celebrated Mass in Fort James, the first such occa­
sion in the city's history. He also named Roman Catholics to strategic positions in his
administration and authorized the Jesuits to open a Roman Catholic school. New York
was a comparatively tolerant place and its residents didn't complain at first, not openly
anyway. As Captain William Byrd of Virginia discovered while touring the city a couple
of years later, the sheer diversity of its creeds had made the residents so forbearing that
they "seem not concerned what religion their neighbor is of, or whether hee hath any or
none." According to Dongan's own tally, there were "not many of the Church of Eng­
land; few Roman Catholics; abundance of Quakers . . . Singing Quakers; Ranting Quak­
ers; Sabbatarians; Anti-Sabbatarians, some Anabaptists, somc Independents, some
Jews; in short, of all sorts of opinions there are some, and the most part of no ne at all."
The problem was that the duke of York too now belonged to the Rom an Catholic
Church-and because his brother the king had failed as yet to sire a legitimate male
heir, he stood next in line to the throne. Sending Dongan to New York had been only
the latest of many signals that, in the event of his accession, the duke fully intended to
restore Catholics to positions of power and influence from which they had been exclud­
ed by r 50 years of Protestant supremacy. Horrified by this prospect, a parliamentary
faction known as the Whigs was maneuvering to exclude the duke from the succession,
put a Protestant on the throne, and curb the power of the monarchy. Anti-Catholic hys­
teria swept the country, aided and abetted by intriguers like Titus Oates, who in r678
claimed to have uncovered a "Popish Plot" to assassinate Charles II and hasten the
duke's accession. In the spring of r683, just as Governor Dongan left for New York,
Protestant fanatics were foiled in an attempt to murder both the king and the duke .
The failur e of the so-called Rye House Plot gave the crown and its allies in Parlia­
ment, known as Tories, an excuse to crack down on the Whigs. Two of their leaders,
Lord Rus sell and Algernon Sidney, were executed for complicity in the scheme; a third,
the earl of Shaftsbury, friend and patron of John Locke, was driven into exile in the
Netherlands. At the same time, crown lawyers attacked the chartered corporations and
colonies that served as bases of Whig power outside Parliament. When the duke's advis­
ers laid the Charter of Libertyes before him at the end of that same year, he had second
Then, in February r685, Charles II died and the duke of York became King James
II . New York was now a royal colony, meaning that the governor, the council, and all
other appointive officials would henceforth be named by the crown. Other changes were
on the way as well. Shortly after his ascension, J ames II and the Lords of Trade created
the Dominion of New England, a super-colony incorporating all of New England plus
New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. New York's Charter of Libertyes was disal­
lowed, and with it the provincial legislature. Although the city's new charter survived
Jacob Leis/a 'sR ebellion
royal scrutiny, Manhattan's affairs and fortunes were now inextricably married to those
of King James .
The king's subjects in New York were struggling' to make sense of these events
when they learned, only months later, that Louis XIV had revoked the Edict of Nantes
and unleashed a hurricane of official brutality against French Protestants. Thousands of
Huguenots, as they were known, fled the country to England, Switzerland, the Nether­ lands, and America . A small number of them arrived in New York as early as r686 . By
r688 there were two hundred Huguenot families in the city, and they had erected a
house of worship, the Eglise du Saint Esprit (originally the Eglise des Refugies Francais
a la Nouvelle York), on Petticoat Lane (Marketfield Street). Its congregation included
Jays, De Lanceys, Boudinots, and other well-to-do merchants and shipbuilders known
for their extensive business connections throughout Europe and their visceral hatred of
Roman Catholicism. Not surprisingly, on hearing that the new English king had con­ gratulated Louis for his diligence in persecuting them, New York's Huguenots-along
with the great majority of the city's other Protestants-began to see the outlines of a
deep -laid conspiracy, international in scope, against everything they held dear. After
r687, when James II suspended by royal decree all anti-Catholic legislation in England,
they were sure of it.
In August r688 Sir Edmund Andros returned to New York. He was now governor of
the new Dominion of New England, and for the past year or so he had been up in
Boston, its capital, bringing one colony after another under its authority. Now it was
New York's turn to submit. Andros removed Dongan from office, broke the provincial
seal, hoisted the flag of New England over the fort, and seized all the provincial records.
He then returned to Boston, taking the records with him and leaving Colonel Francis
Nicholson behind as lieutenant governor. Nicholson, though not a Roman Catholic like
Dongan, was no less ardently devoted to the Stuart cause. He was also a passionate
admirer of French culture and French political institutions.
The succession crisis in England was meanwhile coming to a head. What had held
the Whigs in check thus far was the fact that James II, having no male heir, would in
time be succeeded by one or the other of his two daughters, both of whom had
remained Protestants. The elder of the two, Mary, was the wife of none other than
Prince William of Orange-awkward, to be sure, but preferable, the Whigs figured, to
having a Roman Catholic on the throne.
But in the summer of r688, even as Andros was preparing for his journey down to
New York, the queen gave birth to a son . Now faced with the certainty of a Roman
Catholic succession, the Whigs reached out to William and Mary for assistance. A
Dutch army landed on the coast of England in November r688 and marched toward
London. James chose not to make a fight of it and fled to France. Early the following
year William and Mary accepted the crown from a grateful-not to say relieved­
This bloodless coup, hailed by Whig apologists as the Glorious Revolution, proved
to be a turning point in Anglo-American history. It secured the Protestant succession. It
laid to rest the theory of royal absolutism in England. It established the supremacy of
Parliament. In time, too, as Whig propagandists like John Locke labored to justify what
------- - -1
had taken place, it would alter, fundamentally, the structure and vocabulary of Anglo­
American political discourse. Natural rights, popular sovereignty, constitutionalism,
the inherent tendency of power to encroach upon liberty-these and other Whig Com­
monplaces would become the conventional wisdom on both sides of the Atlantic, so
broadly accepted as to seem self-evident and timeless, a national creed rather than sec­
tarian dogma.
Secret dispatches at the beginning of March 1689 brought the first sketchy reports of
"a total Revolution att home" to Lieutenant Governor Nicholson in New York. Uncer­
tain of his own authority and unwilling to act without further information, Nicholson
sat on the story for the next six weeks. His anxiety increased toward the end of April
when word came down from Boston that Governor Andros and other dominion officials
were under arrest. The dominion had been extremely unpopular in New England,
where attempts by Andros to reorganize local government aroused exactly the same
kind of discontent that he and his predecessors in New York had stirred up on Long
Island. When word of James II's abdication reached Boston, an angry mob clapped Sir
Edmund and other dominion officials in jail. They were later shipped back to England
in chains.
By mid-April (if not earlier) everybody in New York as well knew of the Glorious '
Revolution-that an English king after whom the city was named had been replaced hy
a Dutch prince after whom the city had previously been named (during its brief i .ar­
nation as New Orange), that Andros was finished, that the Dominion of New England
had collapsed. Then came news that England had joined the League of Augsburg
against Louis XIV and that a declaration of war against France could be expected
momentarily. Rumors may also have reached the city around this time tha t Louis XIV
had ordered the governor of Quebec to attack New York in the autumn of 1689 and
drive Ollt all the Protestants.
Nicholson and his council (Stephanus Van Cortlandt, Frederick Philipse, and
Nicholas Bayard), together with the captains of the city's six militia companies (among
them Abraham De Peyster, Nicholas Stuyvesant, and one Jacob Leisler), took steps to
fortify the city and strengthen the garrison in the fort . The governor said nothing, how­
ever, to indicate that he would accept the accession of William and Mary, and more
rumors now began to fly around town-that Nicholson, Irish Roman Catholics (includ­
ing former governor Dougan), renegade Jacobitcs (supporters of the deposed king), the
French, and Iroquois befriended by Andros were planning to seize the city for James II.
The English towns of Long Island responded to the alleged Catholic-Jacobite­
French threat by electing new magistrates and calling out their militias to march against
New York City. As the militias advanced slowly westward, Nicholson reported, they
were assisted by "some ill affected and restless spiritts amongst us" who "used all imag­
inable meancs to stirr up the Inhabitants of this Citty to sedition and rebellion."
Nicholson, his council, and the the city's militia captains reiterated their determination
to defend New York against foreign enemies and to suppress "mutinous persons nigh
us." The Long Island militiamen went no further than Jamaica and dispersed, but
apprehensive merchants, Captain Leisler among them, began withholding payment of
customs duties until the legitimacy of the government had been clarified and the cus­
toms collector, a Roman Catholic, was removed from office.
Jacob L eisler's Rebel/ion
Nicholson still hesitated to acknowledge the abdication of James II. When he gave
refuge to some soldiers from the Boston garrison, then threatened to "pistol" a Dutch
militia officer and "sett the town in fyre" rather than tolerate insubordination, his
authority disintegrated. Excited city militiamen poured into the streets, beating drums
and calling on Captain Leisler to lead them in preventing a papist rising . On the last day
of May, led by Ensign Joost Stol of Leisler's company, the militia swarmed into Fort
James and disarmed the little garrison of regular troops. Joined by a mass of civilians,
they declared all laws made under the authority of King James to be null and void and
formed an "association" to hold the city for William and Mary. To all intents and pur­ poses, the colony's government had ceased to exist . Nicholson took the first boat back to
England to get help (and in the bargain got himself appointed governor of Virginia,
where he founded the College of William and Mary and laid out Williamsburg).
Toward the end of June what Nicholson called "this confused businesse" took
another turn when orders at last arrived from England for all public officials to proclaim
William and Mary. When Mayor Van Cortlandt and Nicholson's council continued to
stall, their authority too collapsed. Angry crowds drove them out of office, shut the
courts, and closed down the customhouse. Van Cortlandt went into hiding. Bayard, hav­
ing narrowly escaped an armed assault, decided to get out of town.
The insurgents immediately set up a ten-member Committee of Safety (four of
. whom were Huguenots) to govern both city and province. Over the summer of 1689 the
committee reopened courts, resumed the collection of duties and taxes, allocated
money for the city's defenses, and dispatched an emissary to England to tell William
and Mary that all was well. The committee also chose Jacob Leisler to command the
fort; by mid-August, the committee had become so impressed by Leisler's zeal and pop­ ularity that they made him commander-in-chief of the entire province. When William
and Mary finally sent a commission for Nicholson or "such as for the time being take
care for Preserving the Peace and administering the Lawes in our said Province of New
York in America," Leisler decided-not unreasonably, in light of Nicholson's hasty
departure-that he should assume the office of lieutenant governor. He began to orga­ nize a government, handing out commissions to scores of militia officers, justices of the
peace, tax collectors, sheriffs, and notaries throughout the colony. As the year drew to a
close his control of New York seemed complete.
Leisler was not unprepared for the work that lay ahead . Born forty-nine years earlier in
Frankfurt-am-Main, he came from an illustrious family whose members included well­
known Reformed clergymen, wealthy merchants and bankers, and highly placed gov­
ernment officials throughout Germany and Switzerland . After graduating from a
Calvinist military academy in Nuremberg, he moved to Amsterdam and got a job as a
translator for Cornel is Melyn . In 1660, probably with Melyn 's help, he was commis­
sioned an officer in the forces of the West India Company and led a contingent of troops
over to New Amsterdam. He stayed on after the English conquest, set himself up in the
fur and tobacco trade, and by the mid-1670S had become one of the half-dozen richest
men in New York, owning a large town house, a farm on the present site of City Hall
Park, and numerous other properties in and around the city. He became even wealthier
in 1683, when the courts finally awarded him control over the vast estate of Govert
Loockerrnans, whose stepdaughter, Altye (Elsie) Tyrnans, he had married some years
-------- 1
(1664- 1783)
before. Active as well as prosperous, Leisler was a deacon of the Reformed Church, cap­
tain of the militia, justice of the peace, and-thanks to close family and personal con­
nections with the international Huguenot community--a respected figure among New
York's French Protestants. It was largely through Leisler's efforts, in fact, that a settle­
ment of Huguenots had been started in 1687 at New Rochelle (named after La Rochelle,
the epicenter of French Protestantism).
Leis1er never quite made it into the innermost circle of the Anglo-Dutch oligarchy,
however. One reason was a nasty, protracted dispute with the Bayards and Van Cort­
landts over the estate of his wife (who was related to both families). Another was his
ardent Calvinism and passionate devotion to the House of Orange, which linked him to
anti-English elements in the Reformed Church. During the brief Dutch reconquest of
1673- 74, moreover, Leisler had been closely identified with Governor Colve and was
thereafter never entirely trusted by the English.
Leisler's goal in the summer of 1689 was to hold New York for his new sovereigns
against the "Popish Doggs & Divells," foreign and domestic, who threatened it . The
identity and motives of his followers cannot be summed up so neatly. Many were sec­
ond-generation Dutch, born in the city around the time of the 1664 conquest. A few,
like Johannes De Bruyn, Abraham Gouverneur, and Nicholas Stuyvesant, were suc­
cessful merchants; others, such as Cornelius Pluvier, baker, and Johannes Van Couwen­
haven, brewer, were well-to-do artisans. Gerardus Beekman, a physician, supported
Leisler. So did Samuel Staats, also a physician, who had returned to the Netherland s
after the English conquest "rather than endeavor to make himself an Englishman,"
then came back again to join Leis1er. But this wasn't simply a Dutch uprising a ainst
English oppression. Some prominent Dutch merchants opposed Leisler, as did
Dominie Selyns of New York and Dominie Varick of Long Island, while Lei. er's most
trusted lieutenants included a number of Englishmen, among thern jacob Milborne and
Samuel Edsall, a New Jersey hatmaker and Indian trader. Among L eislers followers,
moreover, were the shopkeepers, craftsmen, sailors, cartmen, and laborers of every
nationality who formed the bulk of the city's population. Somewhat more than half the
militiamen who initially took over Fort James came from England, Scotland, Wales,
Denmark, France, Germany, or other parts of North America; outside the city itself, the
Stuart-hating villagers of English Long Island would prove to be among Leisler's
staunchest supporters.
What united these disparate insurgents was a rhetoric of loyalty to the Protestant
cause that encompassed a broad range of social and political discontents. As Leislerian
pamphleteers and spokesmen told the story, they had lived for years in "great dread"
that the late King James planned "to Damn the English Nation to Popery and Slavery."
His minions in New York-"our grandees," Leisler called them-had already made
great strides in that direction, aided by Reformed clergymen who collaborated with the
English. Then "the Hand of Heaven sent the glorious King William" to save the colony.
When the governor and council delayed in declaring for the new government, the peo­
ple rose up to defend both "the Holy Protestant Religion, and the Rights and Liberties
of English men."
Nowhere was this layering of social and religious resentment more apparent than in
the case of Jacob Milborne. Eight years younger than Leisler, Milborne was the son of a
tailor who had been deeply influenced by the radical Protestantism that flourished
among English working people during the Civil War. Jacob's brother William was one of
Jacob Leis/a's Rebellion
the Fifth Monarchy Men who believed that Christ's kingdom was at hand and in 1661
attempted an armed uprising to prevent the restoration of the Stuarts. He eventually
settled in Boston as a Baptist preacher. Jacob, in the meantime, went to America as the
apprentice of a Hartford merchant. In 1668 he came down to New York, found work as
a clerk for Thomas Delavall, and then went into business for himself
During the 1670S and early 1680s, Milborne often traveled IO Europe as a factor for
Delavall and other city merchants, building a modest fortune as well as contacts with
powerful English Whigs like Shaftsbury. On both sides of the Atlantic, his loathing for
the Stuarts and his egalitarian contempt for puffed-up authority got him into trouble on
more than one occasion. He took part in the Popish Plot and served as a spy for Samuel
Pepys. He also joined Leisler in opposition to the anglicized dominies who led the
Reformed Church in New York. The Glorious Revolution found him in the Nether­ lands on business, but rumors of a Catholic plot to deliver the colony to the French
brought him hurrying back in the summer of 1689.
Like his brother, who took part in the Boston uprising that toppled Andros and the
Dominion of New England, Milborne threw himself into the struggle to defend his
new sovereigns against their enemies. His pronouncements on social equality and the
popular basis of political authority-far more extreme than anything ever heard from
Leisler himself-soon made him one of the city's most conspicuous and controversial
As for Leisler's "grandees," whose version of events is more fully recorded, they
knew, without a shadow of doubt, what they were up against. "Hardly one person of
sens & Estate . .. do countenance any of these ill and rash proceedings," Nicholson had
said after giving up the fort, striking a note that would be played over and over again by
Leisler's opponents and victims in th e months and years to follow. Thirty-six mer­ chants, including a half-dozen deacons of the Reformed Church, sent an address to
William and Mary depicting the Leislerians as "a Rabie . .. who formerly were scarce
thought fit to bear the meanest offices among us." Still other "men of quality" and "Per­ sons of Note" scoffed at Leisler's "ignorant Mobile," his "most abject Comon people,"
his "drunken crue," his "Olleverians" (a reference to Oliver Cromwell's supporters).
Van Cortlandt spoke grimly about the approach of "people's Revolucions ."
To Nicholas Bayard, perhaps his most vitriolic critic, Leisler was a man of
Cromwellian insolence, driven by "unsatiable Ambition ," unable to accept "the station
nature had fitted him for, and placed him in, but his soaring, aspiring mind aiming at
that which neither his birth nor education had ever qualified him for." Jacob Milborne
was a "dark politician" who had an "affected ambiguous way of expressing himself
[which] renders him unfit for the conversation of any hut the vulgar, who in this age are
so apt and ready to admire and applaud that they understood not." The rest of the
insurgents, Bayard continued, were "poor ignorant innocent and senseless people who
suffer them to be ruled and hectored by about twenty or thirty ill drunken sots ."
(Bayard also alleged that the insurgents were egged on by a woman, Trijn Jans, and
women appear to have been among Leisler's most active and vocal supporters.)
Something very like a "people's Revolucion" did indeed appear to be approaching New
York between the autumn of 1689 and the spring of 169 I. When the Committee of
Safety called for a general election of local officers in September 1689, it decided (per­
(1664- 1783)
haps at Milborne's urging) to broaden the range of elective positions: ju~tices ~f the
peace and militia captains were to be chosen ~i:ectly by v~ters fo: the first tIm~, trigger­
ing a dramatic shift in the distribution of political power In the City. Bak~rs, bnckla!,~r~,
carpenters, innkeepers-workingmen heretofore thought unfit for public resporisibili­
ty- -captured a majority of seats on the board of aldermen. Johannes Johnson, carpen­
ter became sheriff and William Churcher, bricklayer, became marshal. Peter Delanoy, a
H~guenot and on: of Leisler's inner circle, was elected mayor of the city. Joos~ Stol, the
militia ensign who had led the initial takeover of the fort, accepted the crucial task of
presenting the Leislerians' case in London.
Scenes of open class conflict now became commonplace In the city. Bands of Leis­
lerian rebels waylaid grandees who ventured out of doors, ransacked their homes and
stores intercepted their mail,and hauled them off for questioning. Bayard was arrested,
marched in irons around the parapets of the fort, then thrown into jail for almost a year.
Arrest warrants went out for such other prominent anti-Leislerians as Van Cortlandt,
Robert Livingston, and former governor Dongan-so many, in fact, that a little colony
of fugitives and refugees sprang up across the Hudson in New Jersey.
In retaliation anti-Leislerian saboteurs reportedly tried to blow up the fort, and
one day in June 9 0 thirty-odd anti-Leislerian merchants set upon Leisler himself,
shouting "Kill him, kill him!" "I will not suffer this to happen," cried sixty-year-old
John Langstraet, a prominent carter, who jumped into the fray, giving Leisler time to
draw his sword and escape. While his outraged followers flooded into town to protect
him against further attempts, thirteen of the plotters were arrested, including Major
Thomas Willett. Inexplicably, they were all soon released. Willett returned to his home
in Queens, where he raised a small body of troops and marched back toward New York.
Milborne rallied the city militia and drove the Long Islanders off after a brief skirmish
near Newtown. Willett escaped to New England, and Milborne's militiamen contented
themselves with looting his house. Seven of his captains were subsequently convicted of
treason and rebellion at a court-martial in Flatbush .
In the spring of 1690 Leisler ordered elections for a new Assembly, which proceed­
ed to raise taxes and strike down the monopolies and trade regulations with which every
governor sin ce Nicolls had favored New York City and its merchants. At a second ses­
sion in the fall of the same year, the Assembly demanded the return of all disaffected
persons who had fled the colony and provided heavy fines for those refusing civil or mil­
itary employment in Leisler's government.
The striking thing, under the circumstances, was what the Assembly didn't do­
how utterly it failed to address the piled-up political and social grievances that had
plunged New York into near-chaos. Leisler himself bore a large share of responsibility
for what happened . He never really wanted to deal with a legislature, it seems, and when
talk at the first session turned to things like fundamental rights and liberties, he angrily
sent the delegates home. If Leisler's rebellion was to become a revolution, he wasn't the
man to lead it .
Besides which, Leisler had his hands full. To suppress the grandees' strong and
active opposition, he relied more and more heavily on arbitrary arrests, oppressive taxa­
tion, and confiscations, with the result that some of his most trusted collaborators lost
their nerve and began to drift away. Then, too, there loomed the problem of French
Canada. In February 1690, six months after the outbreak of the War of the League of
Augsburg (known as King William's War in the colonies), a mixed force of French and
Jacob L eister'sRebellion Ril
Indians burned Schenectady and slew some sixty of its citizens and their slaves. Leisler
promptly began to organize a retaliatory strike against Montreal, but after months of
time-consuming, often acrimonious preparations the attack failed to materialize. Had
he not been confronted with so serious an external threat to the entire colony so early in
his regime-or had he not chosen to respond with such single-mindedness-it is
arguable that his fate might have been different.
New York's grandees had better connections at court than did Ensign Stol, the Leisler­ ian emissary. Over the summer of 1690 they convinced King William to disavow
Leisler. Colonel Henry Sloughter was commissioned governor and given a council con­ sisting of Philipse, Van Cortlandt, Bayard, Willett, and other oligarchs. Proclaiming his
intention to rid New York of Leisler and the "rabble," Sloughter set sail for New York
toward the end of 1690.
The first contingent of English troops, commanded by Richard Ingoldsby, reached
the city in March 1691. With several hundred well-armed followers, Leisler and
Milborne barricaded themselves in the fort and refused to surrender until shown
Slaughter's commission. A tense six weeks passed, punctuated by exchanges of gunfire,
as both sides waited for Sloughter himself to arrive. When Sioughter finally turned up,
commission in hand, Leisler and Milborne had no choice but to lay down their arms. A
hastily appointed court (including Ingoldsby) convicted them and six others of treason,
then directed that they be "hanged by the Neck and being Alive their bodys be Curt
Downe to the Earth that their Howells be taken out and they being Alive burnt before
their faces that their heads shall be struck off and their Bodys Cutt in four parts and
which shall be Desposed of as their Majesties shall Assigne."
While he waited for this grisly sentence to be approved back in London, Sloughter
ordered elections for a new Common Council and provincial assembly. Both bodies
began at once to apply pressure on the city's working' people and its large Dutch popu­ lation, the two overlapping groups that had formed the mass base of the insurgency.
The council imposed a licensing requirement on cartmen, made it more difficult to
obtain the privileges of freemanship, and drew up the first municipal ordinances
specificall y re gulating apprenticeship. The Assembly facilitated the suppression of
future dissent with legislation providing that anyone who disturbed "the peace good
and quiet of this their Majestyes Government" would be guilty of high treason. It also
allocated public funds to compensate individuals for losses sustained during Leisler's
regime and encouraged punitively large private damage suits against dozens of leading
L eislerians.
The Assembly's most important thrust against the Leislerians, however, came in
the form of the Judiciary Act of 169 I. Designed to anglicize New York's legal system
once and for all, the Judiciary Act set up a centralized Supreme Court of Judicature,
erased the remaining traces of Roman-Dutch law in the colony, and instituted a new,
uniform legal system based on the English common law. (That this was the Assembly's
work underscores its vindictiveness: English courts traditionally derived their authority
from the crown, not legislaturcs.) The act also empowered county sheriffs and justices
of the peace to prosecute "moral" as well as civil and criminal offenses-a de facto
license to homogenize local custom and culture. Under English law "moral offenses"
were a matter for church courts. No such courts existed in New York, and by shifting
l or
(J664- 1783)
th eir responsibilities to county justices and sheriffs, the Assembl y made th ose officials
more powerful than their English counterparts.
In resp onse to publi c appeals for clemency and to a Hu guenot riot on Staten Island,
Sla ughter paroled all the condemned rebels except L eisler and Milborne (who was now
Leisler 's son-in- law, having marr ied his daughter Mary just before their arr est). Bayard
talked Sloughter into signing their death warrants; it was lat er alle ged that he took
advanta ge of the govern or when he was drunk. T he Assembly concurred, and on a rainy
M ay 16, 1691, the two were taken "on a sledge" to the gallows on the eastern edg e of
what is now City Hall Park.
Leisler spoke bri efly, begging forgiveness for the errors and excesses of his regime
an d insi sting on the purity of his moti ves. "T his confused City & Province," he said,
need ed "more wise & Cunning powerful Pilotts th an either of us ever was." Milborne,
always the more defiant, swore that he would have his day of reckoning with his enemies
" before gods tr ibunal. " No carpenter would pr ovide a ladder for the scaffold , so
D om inie Sel yn s fet ched one himself, and the executions proceeded while the cr owd
san g th e Seventy-ninth Psalm : "Pour out thy wrath upon the he athen that have not
known the e, and upon th e kingdoms that have not called upon thy name. For the y have
devoured Jacob, and laid waste his dwelling place."
On e eyewitness lat er recalled that "Milborne was not dead when the executioner
took him down from the gallows, and lifted up his arm as if to parry the blow of the axe
that was to cut his head off." Anoth er remembered that "the shrieks of the people were
dreadful-esp ecially the wome n- some fainted, some were taken in labor; the crowd
cut off pieces of his [Leisl cr 's] garments as precious relics; also his hair was divided out
of great veneration as for a martyr." (It was also repo rted that the executione r cut out
L eisler 's heart and gave it to a lady, possibly Bayard's wife, who held it aloft, creaming,
"Here is the heart of a traitor!")
Leisl er and M ilborne, heads sewed back on, were buried side by side on property
Lei slcr owne d not far from th e place of their execution, in th e ar ea now bounded
by Park Row, Spruce Street, and Frankfort Street. L egend says the latter was named
after th e place of Leisler' s birth . If so, it is the city's only surv ivin g monum ent to his
memor y.'
1. Ajacob Street , also said to have been named for Leisler, no longer exists. Gouv erneur S treet, Gouvern eur
L ane, and Gouverne ur Slip were aJlnamed after Abraham Gouverneur, a leading Lcislerian who later marr ied
Milh orn e's widow, Mary Leister. Hester Street was named after ano ther Lcisler daught er, while Nicholas Bayard
is remembe red in Bayard S treet. After World War I a bronze tablet commemorating Leisler was placed on a boul­
der in City H all Park, only to be banished a decade or so later by Parks Comm issioner Rob ert M oses.