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Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919). New York. 1906.


The Usurpation of Leisler. 1689–1691

THE OVERTHROW of the Stuart dynasty, and the consequent sudden fall of Andros, brought about the collapse of the existing government in New York. There followed a period of turmoil and disorder, marked by a curious party fight and revolution, or rather attempted revolution, which in its various phases well illustrated the peculiar characteristics of New York life.

The relaxing of the bonds of authority allowed the jealousies between the different classes of the population to come to a head. The mass of the citizens,—the men of small means, who in the best of times had enjoyed but little influence in the political life of the colony,—were sullenly hostile to the aristocratic and conservative class of crown officials, patroons, rich merchants, and the like. The ferment in men’s minds enormously increased the activity of the forces that were tending to collision. After Andros was imprisoned the conservative faction wished to continue in power the existing officers, appointed by King James, until they could be replaced by others bearing commissions from King William. The popular party, on the other hand, was for immediate action. Their leaders were inspired by the course of the New England colonies, which had promptly set up their former chartered governments. Their proposal was to turn out all of the Stuart officials, and to put in their places men known to be faithful to the new order of things, who should govern until the will of the Prince of Orange was known. Of course all of the official class and the English Episcopalians, as well as the Hollanders and Huguenots of property, generally took the conservative view; the other was adopted by the poor people and radical liberals and Protestants, very many of the Puritans uniting with the Dutch and French Calvinist working men, small traders, sailors, and farm laborers. The popular party was at first joined by a very large number of respectable men, well-to-do or of small means, who afterward became alienated by the sweeping measures of the extremists and by the fickleness and violence of the mob. The greater number of the citizens whose tongue was French or Dutch were in its ranks, while the aristocratic faction contained a large share of the English element; but the difference was one of caste and instinct, not of speech or race. Indeed, the leaders of the aristocratic wing, after the lieutenant-governor (Nicholson), were the three members of the deposed governor’s council, Bayard, Van Cortlandt and Phillipse, all of Dutch birth or ancestry. On the other hand their opponents were led by a man named Jacob Leisler, who was strongly seconded by his son-in-law, one Jacob Milborne. New York City, then as now, contained within its population many different races only beginning to fuse together; and then as now, the lines of party were only subordinately affected by the lines of race,—each faction possessing representatives of all the different elements, while the leaders were found, as is still the case, among men of diverse origin and nationality. Religious animosities, as ever since, had much effect in sharpening party differences.

Leisler was a merchant of property, a deacon in the Dutch Reformed Church, and a captain of one of the six militia trainbands over which Bayard was colonel. He was a zealous Protestant and Republican, a fanatical hater of the Roman Catholic Church, and only less opposed to the Episcopacy of the English. He seems to have been an earnest man, of much power and energy, honest in his purpose to help the poorer people and to put down civil and religious tyranny. It is easy to imagine circumstances in which he would have done much good to the community wherein he lived. But he was of coarse, passionate nature, and too self-willed and vain not to have his head turned by sudden success and the possession of power. Moreover, like most popular leaders of his stamp, the very sincerity of his convictions made him feel that the cause of the people was indeed his own, and therefore that the converse of the proposition was also true. Such a man when he himself becomes a ruler is of course likely to continue to exercise against the people the very qualities which in the beginning he has exercised on their behalf; and this without any, or at most with but little, conscious change of intent. Yet with all Leisler’s faults it must be remembered that fundamentally he was right, for he struggled to procure enlarged liberties for the people.

The tyranny of King James had been two sided,—he had striven to make the power of the sovereign absolute, and less directly, to make the Romish Church arbiter of men’s consciences. The New York commonalty detested his officers, both as representing the civil power that actually had oppressed them and as standing for the religious power that possibly would oppress them. They naturally bore especial hatred to such of the officials as were Catholics; and it was this feeling that brought about the first break between the popular party and the upholders of the existing order of things.

Leisler imported a cargo of wine from Europe, but refused to pay the duties on the ground that the collector of the port was a Catholic. The council sided with the collector, and high words passed between them and Leisler, ending with a furious quarrel and the interchange of threats. The common folk at once made the cause of the recalcitrant wine merchant their own, and adopted him as their champion,—a position for which he was well fitted by his truculent daring and energy. Many wild stories were afloat as to the plots which were being concocted by the governmental officers, whom most of the citizens firmly believed to be under the influence of the Catholics, and in secret league with the fallen monarch. It was rumored, now that they were about to surrender the city to the French, now that they were plotting to procure an uprising of the Catholics and massacre of the Protestants. As the latter outnumbered the former twenty to one, this fear shows the state of foolish panic to which the people had been wrought; but foolish or not, their excitement kept rising, and they became more and more angry and uneasy.

The outbreak was finally precipitated by a misunderstanding between the governing authorities and some of the trainbands; for the latter had been called in to assist the handful of regular troops who were on guard in the fort. The quarrel arose over a question of discipline between the lieutenant-governor and the militia officers. The former chafed under the suspicions of the citizens,—which he was perhaps conscious that he merited, at least to the extent of being but a lukewarm supporter of the new order of things,—and lacked the tact to handle himself properly in such an emergency. He ended by bursting into a passion, and dismissing the militia officers from his presence with the remark that he would rather see the town on fire than be commanded by them.

This was the spark to the train. The indignant militiamen were soon spreading the report that the governor had threatened in their presence to burn the town. The burghers readily believed the truth of the statement, and under Leisler’s lead determined to take the reins of the government into their own hands. At noon of May 31, 1689, Leisler summoned the citizens to arms by beat of drum, mustering his own trainband before his house. The suddenness of the movement, and Leisler’s energy, paralyzed opposition. The lieutenant-governor yielded up the fort, no time being given him to prepare for resistance; and the city council were speedily overawed by the militia, who marched into their presence as they sat in the City Hall. The popular party for the first time was in complete control of the city.

There was much justification for this act of the common people and their leaders. Doubtless their fears for their own lives and property were exaggerated; but there was good ground for uneasiness so long as the city was under the control of the Stuart adherents. The exiled House of Stuart became at once the active ally of the most bitter enemies of England, Holland, and their colonies. King James identified his cause with that of the Church and the nation from whose triumph the New Yorkers had most to fear. Many of the officers whom he had left in high places proved willing to betray their countrymen for the sake of their king; and even attempted treachery might bring manifold and serious evils upon a small colonial city like New York. If there was really but little danger from the Catholics, there was beyond question a great deal to be feared from the French; and all those who held commissions from the House of Stuart, if they were loyal to the king who had appointed them, were bound to render assistance to the common public enemy, France. Leisler and the burghers were on the whole right in feeling that they were warranted in overthrowing the old government. In this they were supported, at least passively, by the bulk even of the conservative citizens; they were opposed chiefly by the rich and aristocratic families, who were hostile to all popular movements, and perhaps leaned secretly to the side of the Stuarts and absolute government. Of course the timid and wealthy persons of no convictions objected to change of any sort. Had Leisler contented himself with merely establishing a temporary government to preserve order and ward off outside aggression until the new officials should arrive from England, he would have deserved the goodwill of all the citizens.

Unfortunately, he lacked the self-restraint and clear-sightedness necessary to the pursuit of such a course; and he speedily established as arbitrary and unjust a government as that he overthrew. For a short time he ruled wisely and with moderation, oppressing no one. Then his head became turned by his position. He was always boasting of his feat in, as he asserted, saving the city from destruction; and he kept comparing himself to Cromwell, announcing that to rescue the people from their oppressors, there was need of swordrule in New York. The English Episcopalians naturally detested his sway from the beginning, as did those wealthy French and Dutch families that had previously possessed a share of the governing power. All of these people were closely watched; and though at first not actually molested, they soon began to suffer petty oppression and injustice at the hands of the rougher of Leisler’s lieutenants. As they grew more set against Leisler their hatred was repaid in kind. From time to time both their persons and their property were put in actual jeopardy by some freak of jealous suspicion or wounded vanity on the part of the popular dictator. The mass of the people did not care much for the ills that befell these first sufferers; but before many months were over, they themselves were forced to bear their share of unjust treatment, and then of course they became very loud in their indignation. Leisler was doubtless in part actuated by honest distrust of his opponents, and belief that he himself could do most good to the city and especially to the common folk, and in part by the ambitions to which his success had given birth. He found it difficult to know where to stop in pursuing his dictatorial policy. His suspicion of the Episcopalians grew to include the Puritans. His animosity toward the aristocratic families was far from being altogether causeless; for they were undoubtedly bitterly hostile not only to him but to the popular cause he represented. But he soon began to confound his aristocratic enemies with the people of means generally; and his baser supporters, under plea of enthusiasm for Protestantism and liberty, menaced indiscriminately every man of property, so that all the most thrifty and successful people of the community, including the Dutch and Huguenot clergy, became banded together against him. The decent working men also grew alarmed at his excesses and irritated at the pride he displayed and at the insolence of some of his subordinates, their own former equals.

Soon after Leisler had overthrown the lieutenant-governor and taken the reins of power, a royal proclamation was brought over which continued in office all Protestant officials. The old council greeted this proclamation with exultation, for if obeyed it restored them to office; but Leisler, fearing for his life if his foes returned to power, and furious at seeing his work thus undone, determined to disobey the command of the sovereigns, treasonable though such conduct was. At the head of his troops he dispersed the council, and continued his own appointees in place. The mob was at this time heartily in his favor, and cheered on the trainbands; and finally Bayard and Van Cortlandt were chased from the city.

Leisler had summoned a convention which, when it met, contained of course only the extreme men; not a few of its members were Republicans, or avowed adherents to the policy of Oliver Cromwell. They chose a committee of safety, ten in number, consisting of Hollanders, Huguenots, and English Puritans. They were all furious Protestants and ultra liberals; and they speedily nominated Leisler as commander-in-chief, with extensive and indeed arbitrary powers. Soon afterward a letter was received from the sovereigns which was directed to the “commander-in-chief” of the province of New York. It was meant for Nicholson whom the home government supposed to be still in power, but by an oversight his name was not put in the document; and the delighted Leisler insisted that he himself was the man for whom it was intended. He promptly assumed the title of lieutenant-governor, chose his own council, and formally entered on his duties as the royal representative and ruler of the colony. He treated the city as under martial law, yet in certain matters he showed his leaning toward democracy. Thus instead of appointing a mayor he allowed the freeholders to elect one,—the first, and until 1834, the last elective mayor of New York. The opposition to his rule outside of Manhattan Island was very strong from the outset; and Albany, under the lead of Schuyler, refused to recognize his authority until forced to do so by the pressing danger from the Canadian French and their savage allies.

In outside matters the usurping governor showed breadth of mind,—notably in calling a congress of the colonies, the first of its kind, which met in New York in the spring of 1690. The purpose of the meeting was to plan a joint attack on Canada; for Count Frontenac’s war-parties were cruelly harassing the outlying settlements of both New York and New England. A small army of Connecticut men and New Yorkers was assembled, and marched to the head of Lake Champlain, but owing to mismanagement accomplished nothing; and the expedition was finally abandoned after a bitter quarrel between Leisler and his New England allies. Nothing against France was accomplished beyond a couple of brilliant raids made by Schuyler up to the walls of Montreal, and the capture of a number of French ships by Leisler’s New York privateers. Yet, though this intercolonial congress produced such small results, it marks an era in the growth of the provinces which afterward became the United States. It was the first occasion on which the colonies ever showed the least tendency to act together, or on which they appeared as aught but a jumble of mutually hostile communities. Up to this time their several paths of development had been entirely separate, and their interests independent and usually conflicting; but after this date they had a certain loose connection with one another, and it becomes possible to treat their history in some degree as a whole.

In domestic affairs, Leisler sometimes did well and sometimes ill. He summoned two popular assemblies. They were filled with his supporters, ratified all his acts, and gave him power to go to any lengths he chose. He allowed his subordinates to maltreat the Long Islanders, Dutchmen and Puritans alike, who accordingly sent long petitions for redress to England. He opened letters, plundered houses, confiscated estates to satisfy taxes, and imprisoned numbers of the leading citizens whom he believed to be his enemies. He treated the Calvinist dominies as roughly as their flocks, and all the men of property became greatly alarmed. The leading Dutch and French citizens made common cause with the English, and sent a vigorous remonstrance to the home government praying for relief, and denouncing Leisler as an “insolent alien” who had tyrannized over the city, holding the lives and property of all citizens at his mercy, and setting up as rulers men of the meanest station and capacity, and often of criminal antecedents. Doubtless much of this opposition was due merely to an aristocratic dislike of anything like democracy; but Leisler’s “government of the people” had beyond question begun to degenerate into government by the mob and by a tyrant. His overbearing conduct alienated the mass of the mechanics, craftsmen, and laborers; and he was soon left unsupported save by the men he had put in office, and by the militia, in whose ranks he had left only his own adherents.

The repeated petitions of the citizens attracted the attention of King William; and to stop the disorders a governor (Sloughter) and a lieutenant-governor (Ingoldsby) were duly commissioned, and sent out to the colony with an adequate force of regular troops. The ship carrying the governor was blown out of its course; and when Ingoldsby, early in February, 1691, landed on Manhattan Island, Leisler refused to recognize his authority. The mass of the citizens supported Ingoldsby, while the militia stood by Leisler. For six weeks the two parties remained under arms, threatening each other, Ingoldsby’s headquarters being in the City Hall and Leisler’s in the fort. Then a skirmish took place in which several of Ingoldsby’s regulars were killed or wounded, while Leisler’s militia, shielded by the fort, escaped unharmed. The very day after this, Governor Sloughter’s ship appeared in the harbor, and he immediately landed and took command. The following morning Leisler’s militia deserted him, and he and his chief officers were promptly seized and imprisoned. They were tried for high treason, and Leisler and Milborne, the two ringleaders, were adjudged guilty and hanged; most of the respectable citizens, including the clergymen of every denomination, demanding their death as affording the only warrant for the future safety of the colony. The Leislerian or democratic party was cowed, and for the moment did nothing save feebly and ineffectually to protest against the execution of the sentence.

The popular party of New York had certainly failed to show governmental capacity, moderation toward opponents, or power to curb the oppressive tyranny of its own leaders. Its downfall was as complete as the triumph of the aristocratic element. The government of the colony was at once put on the basis on which it stood until the outbreak of the Revolution. There was a governor appointed by the king, and a council likewise appointed; while the Assembly was elected by the freeholders. The suffrage was thus limited by a strict property qualification. Liberty of conscience was granted to all Protestant sects, but not to the Catholics; and the Church of England was practically made the State Church, though the Dutch and French congregations were secured in the rights guaranteed them by treaty. It was thus essentially a class or aristocratic government,—none the less so because to European eyes the little American aristocracy seemed both poor and rude. In a frontier community such as New York then was, it was comparatively easy for any man to acquire property and position, and thus step into the ranks of the relatively large ruling class. Nevertheless, democracy, as such, had small share in the government.

However, the Leislerians soon plucked up heart, and appeared once more in public, claiming their fallen chief as a martyr, and troubling their foes for a generation ere they gradually lost their identity and became merged in the general mass of the popular party. Though this element of the population, owing to the restricted suffrage, possessed less than its due weight in the government, yet it always had allies and mouthpieces in the Assembly. These advocates of popular rights rarely made a fight for the granting of political power to the masses, but they were kept busy in battling against the prerogatives of the Crown and the power of the great patroons and rich merchants. For the next three quarters of a century the struggle for popular rights in New York took the form, not of a demand for democratic government and manhood suffrage, but of a contest waged on behalf of the men of small property against the authority of a foreign monarchy and the rule of a native oligarchy.