Jacob Leisler

Jacob Leisler (1640-1691), colonial political leader, became de facto governor of the New York colony after leading a revolt against British officials and colonial aristocrats.

Jacob Leisler, son of a Calvinist clergyman, was born in Frankfurt, Germany, early in 1640. He arrived in New Amsterdam in 1660, a destitute soldier employed by the Dutch West India Company. Energetic and ambitious, he became a trader. His marriage in 1663 to Elsje Tymens— widow of one wealthy merchant and stepdaughter of another—gave him ties to leading colonial families and the capital to engage in fur, tobacco, and wine trading. Within a decade he was one of New York's richest traders. He traveled widely on his own vessels and was once captured by Algerine pirates. In New York he became a militia captain and a deacon in the Dutch Reformed Church and served briefly as justice of the peace and commissioner of the Court of Admiralty.

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Religious Controversy

Yet Leisler was never fully accepted by the aristocracy, possibly because he lacked polish but more probably because he became involved in legal suits concerning alleged abuses in his church and his wife's inheritance from her stepfather. In 1675 Leisler and Jacob Milborne, later his son-in-law, aligned themselves against Edmund Andros, governor of the Dominion of New England, who had appointed an Anglican-licensed minister to the Dutch Reformed Church pastorate at Albany. Leisler and his faction protested that the appointment violated ecclesiastical liberty. The ensuing legal proceedings aligned both colonial officials and aristocrats against Leisler. The Anglican clergyman received the appointment, promising the governor's council to follow the Dutch Church Sacraments, but within a year Leisler and Milborne charged that he was unorthodox; the clergyman sued them for slander. This case, too, came before the council, though it was settled with a show of amicability.

Colony in Revolt

After James II, the English monarch, was deposed (1688) Governor Andros was captured by the colonists in Boston and sent to England as a prisoner. Lieutenant Governor Francis Nicholson was left in power in New York. The colonists, who desired representative government, suspected that Nicholson had deliberately neglected the Manhattan fort to invite French invasion. They dreaded the Catholic influence of former governor Dongan (in retirement on Long Island) and were enthusiastic over the accession of William of Orange (William III) to the English throne. Nicholson's unwillingness to recognize William or to assemble the militia against a rumored French naval attack led the militia to demand surrender of the fort—and to request Leisler to lead them. The governor's council proved unable to maintain control. Leisler, recognized as leader of the workingmen and most of the militia, proclaimed allegiance to William and Mary and gained the support of significant Dutch and English elements in the province.

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De Facto Governor

Nicholson fled in June 1689. An elected Committee of Safety for six counties named Leisler captain of the Manhattan fort and then commander in chief. He repaired the fort and consolidated the support of most of the city's population, jailing those few who questioned the committee's authority. When official communications addressed to Nicholson or to "such as for the time being … [are] administering the laws" were delivered to him, Leisler assumed that this was effective recognition of his place as provisional lieutenant governor. In fact, however, the British government never sanctioned his takeover; Col. Henry Sloughter had already been named governor and given two companies of troops to accompany him to New York.

Leisler functioned as executive for over a year. He suppressed riots, collected customs duties, instituted courts, and called an elective assembly from portions of the colony acknowledging his administration. He also organized an intercolonial expedition against Canada after the Schenectady massacre of 1690 and gained the grudging support of local Albany authorities. But his attempt to collect tariffs turned some merchants against him. He imprisoned key aristocrats who attempted to undermine his position, though he showed clemency to mob leaders who assaulted him physically. He filled official posts with kinsmen and supporters.

Surrender to British Authority

King William's War delayed Col. Sloughter's departure from England, but in January 1691 his troops reached New York, and their commander, Maj. Ingoldsby, demanded surrender of the fort. Leisler believed Ingoldsby lacked legal authority beyond his own commission and refused. For 2 months war hung in the air, and on March 17 shots were exchanged and two soldiers killed. Sloughter arrived 2 days later; Leisler surrendered the fort on March 20, leaving his foes ample time to claim that he had plotted treason.

Leisler and Milborne were immediately imprisoned and then convicted of treason and murder. Political enemies of the two persuaded Sloughter to sign the death warrant, and they were hanged May 16, 1691. The trials were blatantly unfair; Parliament later rescinded the attainder against Leisler, and the colonial Assembly voted an indemnity to his heirs. Historians have hailed "Leisler's Rebellion" as one of the earliest manifestations of self-determination and urban democracy in America.

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Further Reading on Jacob Leisler

Leisler was a controversial figure in his own day and later. The most scholarly and detailed account of his uprising, with as much information on the man as is readily available, is Jerome R. Reich, Leisler's Rebellion (1953). Charles M. Andrews, Narratives of the Insurrections (1915), is worthwhile. The best local history dealing with the revolt is Mariana Van Rensselaer, History of the City of New York in the Seventeenth Century (2 vols., 1909); most of the other accounts are obviously partisan, and all are fragmentary regarding Leisler.