Jacob Leisler’s Rebellion

Andros was acquitted of the charges that prompted his recall, but he lost his job anyway. In 1683 the duke replaced him with Colonel Thomas Dongan, the fourth royalist veteran of the Civil Wars to be sent to govern New York. Dongan was also an Irish Catholic landlord, the younger brother of Irish peer Baron Dongan (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 oligarchs 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 the 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-year 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 taxation 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 remainder of Long Island), and seven others. As in England, these were to be the fundamental 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 and 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 assessors, a constable, an alderman, and an assistant, the latter two of whom served as delegates to the Common Council. The mayor, who presided over the council, would continue 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 oligarchy 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 facilities, 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—fifty times the area of Manhattan. The Van Rensselaers’ Lower Manor at Claverack added another 250,000 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 1670s and 1680s—La Salle, Marquette, Joliet, and other French explorers were scouting the interior of North America from Wisconsin to Louisiana in these years—and the danger of an invasion 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 remnant 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 oligarchy, among the colony’s Dutch population. Only eight of the first Assembly’s eighteen members had been Dutch, and the charter contained a string of provisions offensive 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 cartmen 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 fal­tering trade, mainly the result of competition from Philadelphia. Founded in 1682, only a year before Dongan arrived, William Penn’s City of Brotherly Love had grown with alarming speed—by 1690 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 several Jesuit priests and immediately celebrated Mass in Fort James, the first such occasion 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 England; few Roman Catholics; abundance of Quakers. . . Singing Quakers; Ranting Quakers; Sabbatarians; Anti-Sabbatarians, some Anabaptists, some Independents, some Jews; in short, of all sorts of opinions there are some, and the most part of none at all.”

The problem was that the duke of York too now belonged to the Roman 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 excluded by 150 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 hysteria swept the country, aided and abetted by intriguers like Titus Gates, who in 1678 claimed to have uncovered a “Popish Plot” to assassinate Charles II and hasten the duke’s accession. In the spring of 1683, just as Governor Dongan left for New York, Protestant fanatics were foiled in an attempt to murder both the king and the duke.

The failure of the so-called Rye House Plot gave the crown and its allies in Parliament, known as Tories, an excuse to crack down on the Whigs. Two of their leaders, Lord Russell 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 advisers laid the Charter of Libertyes before him at the end of that same year, he had second thoughts.

Then, in February 1685, 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, James 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 disallowed, and with it the provincial legislature. Although the city’s new charter survived 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 XFV 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 Netherlands, and America. A small number of them arrived in New York as early as 1686. By 1688 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 Français 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 congratulated 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 1687, when James II suspended by royal decree all anti-Catholic legislation in England, they were sure of it.


In August 1688 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 1688, 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 1688 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—Parliament.

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 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 commonplaces 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 sectarian 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. Uncertain 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 IPs 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 by a Dutch prince after whom the city had previously been named (during its brief incarnation 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 that Louis XIV had ordered the governor of Quebec to attack New York in the autumn of 1689 and drive out 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, however, 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 (including former governor Dongan), renegade Jacobites (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 imaginable meanes 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 customs collector, a Roman Catholic, was removed from office.

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 purposes, 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, having 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 popularity 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 organize 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 government 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 Cornells Melyn. In 1660, probably with Melyn’s help, he was commissioned 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 Loockermans, whose stepdaughter, Altye (Elsie) Tymans, he had married some years before. Active as well as prosperous, Leisler was a deacon of the Reformed Church, captain of the militia, justice of the peace, and—thanks to close family and personal connections 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 settlement of Huguenots had been started in 1687 at New Rochelle (named after La Rochelle, the epicenter of French Protestantism).

Leisler 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 Cortlandts 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 second-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 successful merchants; others, such as Cornelius Pluvier, baker, and Johannes Van Couwenhaven, brewer, were well-to-do artisans. Gerardus Beekman, a physician, supported Leisler. So did Samuel Staats, also a physician, who had returned to the Netherlands after the English conquest “rather than endeavor to make himself an Englishman,” then came back again to join Leisler. But this wasn’t simply a Dutch uprising against English oppression. Some prominent Dutch merchants opposed Leisler, as did Dominie Selyns of New York and Dominie Varick of Long Island, while Leisler’s most trusted lieutenants included a number of Englishmen, among them Jacob Milborne and Samuel Edsall, a New Jersey hatmaker and Indian trader. Among Leisler’s 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 people 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 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 to 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 helped spread the tale of 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 Netherlands 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 figures.

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 the months and years to follow. Thirty-six merchants, including a half-dozen deacons of the Reformed Church, sent an address to William and Mary depicting the Leislerians as “a Rable . . . who formerly were scarce thought fit to bear the meanest offices among us.” Still other “men of quality” and “Persons 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 Revolutions.”

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 but 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 1691. When the Committee of Safety called for a general election of local officers in September 1689, it decided (per­haps at Milborne’s urging) to broaden the range of elective positions: justices of the peace and militia captains were to be chosen directly by voters for the first time, triggering a dramatic shift in the distribution of political power in the city. Bakers, bricklayers, carpenters, innkeepers—workingmen heretofore thought unfit for public responsibility—captured a majority of seats on the board of aldermen. Johannes Johnson, carpenter, became sheriff, and William Churcher, bricklayer, became marshal. Peter Delanoy, a Huguenot and one of Leisler’s inner circle, was elected mayor of the city. Joost 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 Leislerian 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 1690 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 proceeded to raise taxes and strike down the monopolies and trade regulations with which every governor since Nicolls had favored New York City and its merchants. At a second session 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 military 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 taxation, 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 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 Leislerian emissary. Over the summer of 1690 they convinced King William to disavow Leisler. Colonel Henry Sloughter was commissioned governor and given a council consisting 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 Sloughter’s commission. A tense six weeks passed, punctuated by exchanges of gunfire, as both sides waited for Sloughter himself to arrive. When Sloughter 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 Cutt Downe to the Earth that their Bowells 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 population, 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 specifically regulating 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 Leislerians.

The Assembly’s most important thrust against the Leislerians, however, came in the form of the Judiciary Act of 1691. 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 legislatures.) 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 their responsibilities to county justices and sheriffs, the Assembly made those officials more powerful than their English counterparts.

In response to public appeals for clemency and to a Huguenot riot on Staten Island, Sloughter paroled all the condemned rebels except Leisler and Milborne (who was now Leisler’s son-in-law, having married his daughter Mary just before their arrest). Bayard talked Sloughter into signing their death warrants; it was later alleged that he took advantage of the governor when he was drunk. The Assembly concurred, and on a rainy May 16, 1691, the two were taken “on a sledge” to the gallows on the eastern edge of what is now City Hall Park.

Leisler spoke briefly, begging forgiveness for the errors and excesses of his regime and insisting on the purity of his motives. “This confused City & Province,” he said, needed “more wise & Cunning powerful Pilotts than either of us ever was.” Milborne, always the more defiant, swore that he would have his day of reckoning with his enemies “before gods tribunal.” No carpenter would provide a ladder for the scaffold, so Dominie Selyns fetched one himself, and the executions proceeded while the crowd sang the Seventy-ninth Psalm: “Pour out thy wrath upon the heathen that have not known thee, and upon the kingdoms that have not called upon thy name. For they have devoured Jacob, and laid waste his dwelling place.”

One eyewitness later 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.” Another remembered that “the shrieks of the people were dreadful—especially the women—some fainted, some were taken in labor; the crowd cut off pieces of his [Leisler’s] garments as precious relics; also his hair was divided out of great veneration as for a martyr.” (It was also reported that the executioner cut out Leisler’s heart and gave it to a lady, possibly Bayard’s wife, who held it aloft, screaming, “Here is the heart of a traitor!”)

Leisler and Milborne, heads sewed back on, were buried side by side on property Leisler owned not far from the place of their execution, in the area now bounded by Park Row, Spruce Street, and Frankfort Street. Legend says the latter was named after the place of Leisler’s birth. If so, it is the city’s only surviving monument to his memory.1

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