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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Rule of Jacob Leisler; and His Fate

By William Smith (1728–1793)

[Born in New York, N. Y., 1728. Died in Quebec, Canada, 1793. The History of the Province of New-York. 1757. Completed from the Author’s MS., and republished by the N. Y. Hist. Soc., 1826–29.]

A GENERAL disaffection to the government prevailed among the people. Papists began to settle in the colony under the smiles of the Governor. The collector of the revenues, and several principal officers, threw off the mask, and openly avowed their attachment to the doctrines of Rome. A Latin school was set up, and the teacher strongly suspected for a Jesuit. The people of Long Island, who were disappointed in their expectation of mighty boons promised by the Governor on his arrival, were become his personal enemies; and, in a word, the whole body of the people trembled for the Protestant cause. Here the leaven of opposition first began to work. Their intelligence from England, of the designs there in favor of the Prince of Orange, blew up the coals of discontent and elevated the hopes of the disaffected. But no man dared to spring into action till after the rupture in Boston. Sir Edmund Andros, who was perfectly devoted to the arbitrary measures of King James, by his tyranny in New England had drawn upon himself the universal odium of a people animated with the love of liberty, and in the defence of it resolute and courageous; and, therefore, when they could no longer endure his despotic rule they seized and imprisoned him, and afterwards sent him to England.

The government, in the mean time, was vested in the hands of a committee for the safety of the people, of which Mr. Bradstreet was chosen president. Upon the news of this event, several captains of our militia convened themselves to concert measures in favor of the Prince of Orange. Among these Jacob Leisler was the most active. He was a man in tolerable esteem among the people, and of a moderate fortune, but destitute of every qualification necessary for the enterprise. Milborne, his son-in-law, an Englishman, directed all his councils, while Leisler as absolutely influenced the other officers.

The first thing they contrived, was to seize the garrison in New York; and the custom, at that time, of guarding it every night by the militia, gave Leisler a fine opportunity of executing the design. He entered it with forty-nine men, and determined to hold it till the whole militia should join him. Colonel Dongan, who was about to leave the province, then lay embarked in the bay, having a little before resigned the government to Francis Nicholson, the Lieutenant-Governor. The council, civil officers, and magistrates of the city, were against Leisler, and therefore many of his friends were at first fearful of openly espousing a cause disapproved by the gentlemen of figure. For this reason, Leisler’s first declaration in favor of the Prince of Orange was subscribed only by a few, among several companies of the trained bands. While the people, for four days successively, were in the utmost perplexity to determine what part to choose,—being solicited by Leisler on the one hand, and threatened by the Lieutenant-Governor on the other,—the town was alarmed with a report that three ships were coming up with orders from the Prince of Orange. This falsehood was very seasonably propagated to serve the interest of Leisler; for on that day, the 3d of June, 1689, his party was augmented by the addition of six captains and four hundred men in New York, and a company of seventy men from East Chester, who all subscribed a second declaration, mutually covenanting to hold the fort for the Prince. Colonel Dongan continued till this time in the harbor, waiting the issue of these commotions; and Nicholson’s party, being now unable to contend with their opponents, were totally dispersed, the Lieutenant-Governor himself absconding the very night after the last declaration was signed.

Leisler, being now in complete possession of the fort, sent home an address to King William and Queen Mary, as soon as he received the news of their accession to the throne. It is a tedious, incorrect, ill-drawn narrative of the grievances which the people had endured, and the methods lately taken to secure themselves, ending with a recognition of the sovereignty of the King and Queen over the whole English dominions.

This address was soon followed by a private letter from Leisler to King William, which, in very broken English, informs his Majesty of the state of the garrison, the repairs he had made to it, and the temper of the people, and concludes with strong protestations of his sincerity, loyalty, and zeal. Jost Stoll, an ensign, on the delivery of this letter to the King, had the honor to kiss his Majesty’s hand, but Nicholson, the Lieutenant-Governor, and one Ennis, an Episcopal clergyman, arrived in England before him; and by falsely representing the late measures in New York, as proceeding rather from their aversion to the Church of England, than zeal for the Prince of Orange, Leisler and his party missed the rewards and notice, which their activity for the revolution justly deserved. For though the King made Stoll the bearer of his thanks to the people for their fidelity, he so little regarded Leisler’s complaints against Nicholson, that he was soon after preferred to the government of Virginia. Dongan returned to Ireland, and it is said succeeded to the earldom of Limerick.

Leisler’s sudden investiture with supreme power over the province, and the probable prospects of King William’s approbation of his conduct, could not but excite the envy and jealousy of the late council and magistrates, who had refused to join in the glorious work of the revolution; and hence the spring of all their aversion, both to the man and his measures.

Colonel Bayard, and Courtland, the mayor of the city, were at the head of his opponents, and finding it impossible to raise a party against him in the city they very early retired to Albany and there endeavored to foment the opposition.

Leisler, on the other hand, fearful of their influence, and to extinguish the jealousy of the people, thought it prudent to admit several trusty persons to a participation of that power which the militia, on the 1st of July, had committed solely to himself. In conjunction with these (who, after the Boston example, were called The Committee of Safety), he exercised the government, assuming to himself only the honor of being president in their councils. This model continued till the month of December, when a packet arrived with a letter from the Lords Carmarthen, Halifax, and others, directed “To Francis Nicholson, Esq., or, in his absence, to such as for the time being take care for preserving the peace and administering the laws in their Majesties’ province of New York, in America.”

This letter was dated the 29th of July, and was accompanied with another from Lord Nottingham, dated the next day, which after empowering Nicholson to take upon him the chief command, and to appoint for his assistance as many of the principal freeholders and inhabitants as he should think fit, requiring also “to do everything appertaining to the office of Lieutenant-Governor, according to the laws and customs of New York, until further orders.”

Nicholson being absconded when this packet came to hand, Leisler considered the letter as directed to himself and from this time issued all kinds of commissions in his own name, assuming the title, as well as authority, of Lieutenant-Governor….

Except the eastern inhabitants of Long Island, all the southern part of the colony cheerfully submitted to Leisler’s command. The principal freeholders, however, by respectful letters, gave him hopes of their submission, and thereby prevented his betaking himself to arms, while they were privately soliciting the colony of Connecticut to take them under its jurisdiction. They had, indeed, no aversion to Leisler’s authority, in favor of any other party in the province, but were willing to be incorporated with a people from whence they had originally colonized; and, therefore, as soon as Connecticut declined their request, they openly appeared to be advocates for Leisler….

The people of Albany, in the mean time, were determined to hold the garrison and city for King William, independent of Leisler, and on the 26th of October, which was before the packet arrived from Lord Nottingham, formed themselves into a convention for that purpose….

Taking it for granted that Leisler at New York, and the convention at Albany, were equally affected to the revolution, nothing could be more egregiously foolish than the conduct of both parties, who by their intestine divisions threw the province into convulsions, and sowed the seeds of mutual hatred and animosity, which for a long time after greatly embarrassed the public affairs of the colony.

When Albany declared for the Prince of Orange, there was nothing else that Leisler could properly require; and, rather than sacrifice the public peace of the province to the trifling honor of resisting a man who had no evil designs, Albany ought, in prudence, to have delivered the garrison into his hands, till the King’s definitive orders should arrive. But while Leisler, on the one hand, was inebriated with his new-gotten power, so on the other, Bayard, Courtland, Schuyler and others, could not brook a submission to the authority of a man, mean in his abilities, and inferior in his degree. Animated by these principles, both parties prepared, the one to reduce, if I may use the expression, the other to retain, the garrison of Albany.

Mr. Livingston, a principal agent for the convention, retired into Connecticut to solicit the aid of that colony for the protection of the frontiers against the French.

Leisler, suspecting that they were to be used against him, endeavored not only to prevent these supplies, but wrote letters to have Livingston apprehended as an enemy to the reigning powers, and to procure succors from Boston, falsely represented the convention as in the interest of the French and King James.

Jacob Milborne was commissioned for the reduction of Albany. Upon his arrival there, a great number of the inhabitants armed themselves and repaired to the fort, then commanded by Mr. Schuyler, while many others followed the other members of the convention to a conference with him at the City Hall. Milborne, to proselyte the crowd, declaimed much against King James, popery, and arbitrary power; but his oratory was lost upon the hearers, who after several meetings still adhered to the convention.

Milborne then advanced with a few men up to the fort, and Mr. Schuyler had the utmost difficulty to prevent both his own men, and the Mohawks, who were then in Albany and perfectly devoted to his service, from firing upon Milborne’s party, which consisted of an inconsiderable number. In these circumstances, he thought proper to retreat, and soon after departed from Albany. In the Spring, he commanded another party upon the same errand, and the distress of the country on an Indian irruption gave him all the desired success. No sooner was he possessed of the garrison than most of the principal members of the convention absconded. Upon which, their effects were arbitrarily seized and confiscated, which so highly exasperated the sufferers, that their posterity, to this day, cannot speak of these troubles, without the bitterest invectives against Leisler and all his adherents….

While our allies were faithfully exerting themselves against the common enemy, Colonel Henry Sloughter who had a commission to be Governor of this Province, dated the 4th of January, 1689, arrived here, and published it on the 19th of March, 1691. Never was a Governor more necessary to the province than at this critical conjuncture; as well for reconciling a divided people, as for defending them against the wiles of a cunning adversary. But either through the hurry of the King’s affairs, or the powerful interest of a favorite, a man was sent over, utterly destitute of every qualification for government, licentious in his morals, avaricious and poor….

If Leisler had delivered the garrison to Colonel Sloughter, as he ought to have done, upon his first landing, besides extinguishing in a great degree the animosities then subsisting, he would doubtless have attracted the favorable notice, both of the Governor and the Crown.

But being a weak man he was so intoxicated with the love of power, that though he had been well informed of Sloughter’s appointment to the government, he not only shut himself up in the fort with Bayard and Nichols, whom he had before that time imprisoned, but refused to deliver them up or to surrender the garrison. From this moment he lost all credit with the Governor who joined the other party against him. On the second demand of the fort, Milborne and Delanoy came out under pretence of conferring with his Excellency, but in reality to discover his designs. Sloughter, who considered them as rebels, threw them both into gaol. Leisler, upon this event, thought proper to abandon the fort, which Colonel Sloughter immediately entered.

Bayard and Nichols were now released from their confinement and sworn of the Privy Council. Leisler, having thus ruined his cause, was apprehended with many of his adherents, and a commission of oyer and terminer issued to Sir Thomas Robinson, Colonel Smith, and others, for their trials.

In vain did they plead the merit of their zeal for King William, since they had so lately opposed his Governor. Leisler, in particular, endeavored to justify his conduct, insisting that Lord Nottingham’s letter entitled him to act in the quality of Lieutenant-Governor. Whether it was through ignorance or sycophancy, I know not: but the judges instead of pronouncing their own sentiments upon this part of the prisoner’s defence, referred it to the Governor and council, praying their opinion, whether that letter “or any other letters, or papers, in the packet from White-Hall, can be understood, or interpreted, to be and contain any power or direction to Captain Leisler, to take the government of this province upon himself, or that the administration thereupon be holden good in law.” The answer was, as might have been expected, in the negative; and Leisler and his son were condemned to death for high treason. These violent measures drove many of the inhabitants, who were fearful of being apprehended, into the neighboring colonies, which shortly after occasioned the passing an act of general indemnity….

Colonel Sloughter proposed, immediately after the session, to set out to Albany, but as Leisler’s party were enraged at his imprisonment and the late sentence against him, his enemies were afraid new troubles would spring up in the absence of the Governor. For this reason, both the assembly and council advised that the prisoners should be immediately executed. The sufferers under their government stated their oppressions to the assembly, who unanimously resolved on the 17th April, 1691, that their services were tumultuous and illegal and against the rights of the new King and Queen; that they had illegally and arbitrarily thrown divers Protestant subjects into doleful nauseous prisons; proscribed and forced others out of the colony; that the depredation upon Schenectady was imputable to their usurpations. That they had ruined merchants and others by seizures of their effects; levied money and rebelliously raised forces; and that their refusal to surrender the fort was rebellion.

The council concurred with the resolves on the next day. The assembly at first waived an answer to the Governor’s question, respecting the propriety of reprisoning the convicts; he urged them again for an explicit answer three weeks after (11th May) whether they ought, or ought not to be executed; and within eight days after this the council consented to the execution, and the assembly declared their approbation. Sloughter, who had no inclination to favor them in this request, chose rather to delay such a violent step, being fearful of cutting off two men who had vigorously appeared for the King and so signally contributed to the revolution. Nothing could be more disagreeable to their enemies, whose interest was deeply concerned in their destruction; and, therefore, when no other measures could prevail with the Governor, tradition informs us that a sumptuous feast was prepared, to which Colonel Sloughter was invited. When his Excellency’s reason was drowned in his cups, the entreaties of the company prevailed with him to sign the death-warrant, and before he recovered his senses the prisoners were executed.

Leisler’s son afterwards carried home a complaint to King William, against the Governor. His petition was referred, according to the common course of plantation affairs, to the lords commissioners of trade, who, after hearing the whole matter, reported on the 11th of March, 1692, “That they were humbly of opinion, that Jacob Leisler and Jacob Milborne, deceased, were condemned and had suffered according to law.”

Their lordships, however, interceded for their families as fit objects of mercy, and this induced Queen Mary, who approved the report on the 17th of March, to declare, “That upon the humble application of the relations of the said Jacob Leisler and Jacob Milborne, deceased, her Majesty will order the estates of Jacob Leisler and Jacob Milborne to be restored to their families, as objects of her Majesty’s mercy.”

The bodies of these unhappy sufferers were afterwards taken up, and interred with great pomp in the old Dutch church in the city of New York. Their estates were restored to their families, and Leisler’s children, in the public estimation, are rather dignified, than disgraced, by the fall of their ancestor.