England Seizes New Netherland

When England seized the colony of New Netherland in 1664, the generous terms negotiated between the Dutch and the English meant that not only could Leisler continue his commercial ventures largely uninterrupted, but he also could extend his operations and contacts into the English Atlantic world. From New York, Leisler expanded his commercial involvement in a wide range of products, from salt and sugar to servants and slaves, and became the greatest New York dealer in Chesapeake tobacco.

By the 1670s, Leisler owned, in full or in part, at least a half dozen vessels registered in several colonies, and he was among the wealthiest men in New York. He was also one of the principal property owners in the city, in addition to owning land in England and continental Europe. After the mid-1670s, Leisler increasingly concentrated on England’s triangular trade, dealing in West Africa, the West Indies, and on to England, where he enlarged his commercial connections, solidifying those associations with his children’s marriages.

Transatlantic journeys still held dangers, though, and, in 1677, Leisler and two stepsons were captured along with his ship by Algerian corsairs. In an indication of Leisler’s importance, New York’s governor raised a public collection for the group’s ransom, but Leisler’s own large ransom came first from a European source.

His social and economic prominence meant that Leisler was sought out for civic, military, and juridical positions within the colony, but he shunned political office. His religious convictions persuaded him that civic rather than political duty was the best means to preserve both honest action and the Protestant faith.

Fearing unnecessary suffering, Leisler had supported capitulation to the English in 1664, but, in 1673, when the English lost New York during the Third Anglo-Dutch War (and before it was reclaimed the next year), Leisler supported the Dutch occupation for the religious conservatism it signaled. After following the expelled Dutch governor back to Holland, Leisler returned to New York the next year and resumed his elite status, though he continued to remain out of political office.

By the 1680s, the colony was experiencing heightened challenges stemming from taxation and land policy, and from tensions related to the arrival of increasing numbers of Quakers, Native Americans, Jews, and French Huguenots. A 1683 act to naturalize all foreign Christians in New York threatened to overwhelm the Dutch majority with a heterogeneous society, which would challenge the Dutch New Yorkers’ commercial power that Leisler and his colleagues represented. The annexation of New York to the new Dominion of New England also posed a mercantile threat, since the transfer of public records to Boston greatly hindered local commercial operations.

Most distressing for orthodox Calvinists such as Leisler, however, was the toleration of Catholics encouraged by the colony’s proprietor, the duke of York, and a series of his governors. The European interests and orthodox Calvinism of Leisler’s group made Catholic advances in Europe seem especially alarming, particularly with the coronation of the Catholic duke of York as King James II in 1685.

The response in the colony to England’s Glorious Revolution was swift and was tied both to regional reactions and to Dutch New Yorkers’ support for the new monarchs, William and Mary. Amid rumors of a massive French and Native American attack on Albany, in April 1689, Bostonians seized Governor Edmund Andros and declared the dominion defunct. These actions excited communities around New York City to denounce the local authority of Lieutenant Governor Francis Nicholson and elect new political representatives.

On May 31, the city militia seized the fort and, on June 8, commissioned Leisler, a militia officer, as captain of the fort. Within two months, he accepted the position of commander in chief of the province, apparently with a sense of reluctant obligation. The delegates established a Committee of Safety to govern the province, with Leisler at its head. England’s Privy Council and King William empowered Nicholson (who had fled to England) to resume control of the colony, and, in his absence, granted power to those who had acted to preserve the peace, which became the basis for Leisler’s claim of authority.

For nearly two years Leisler’s government conducted legitimate business, maintaining order and commerce within the colony in the interests of traditional community liberties. But it also exiled and imprisoned political opponents. As Leisler grew increasingly suspicious and arbitrary, he relied on his son-in-law Jacob Milborne, who was part of a family of Presbyterian radicals in England and Bermuda and connected to transatlantic networks of radical Protestants. Within the colony, only Albany, lying north on the Hudson River, was powerful enough to resist Leisler. Albany’s residents worried that his rebellion would endanger relations with their Iroquois allies. Although the town was predominantly Dutch, the leading merchants and military men there formed the Albany Convention, an independent ruling body that fought off Leisler’s control. A French and Native American raid on Schenectady on February 8, 1690, which left over sixty dead, pushed aside Albany’s opposition to New York City.

During the period of the rebellion, the provisional colonial governments did try to cooperate with each other, in part for their security and in part as a show of their loyalty and value to the new king. In June 1689, two delegates from Connecticut came to New York to help the insurgents declare loyalty to William. Leisler entered into friendly correspondence with Maryland, although the latter was unwilling to lend soldiers to defend New York’s frontier. More assertively, in May 1690, delegates from New York, Massachusetts Bay, Plymouth, and Connecticut agreed to a joint invasion of New France. Without imperial support, the assault collapsed, but it was part of an increasing regional involvement of New York, which would continue after 1691.

In 1690, King William appointed Henry Sloughter as governor of the colony. Although Sloughter didn’t arrive for fourteen months, Captain Richard Ingoldsby arrived early the following year, demanding that Leisler surrender the fort on Sloughter’s behalf. Citing a technicality regarding Ingoldsby’s commission, Leisler refused. When Sloughter arrived himself on the evening of March 19, 1691, Leisler again refused, claiming that, in the interest of safety, he would not surrender the fort until morning. For these actions, he and nine others were charged with treason against the Crown.

Leisler’s Trial The trial lasted for eighteen days. In terms of familiarity with English law and political thought, it was heavily weighted in the prosecution’s favor, particularly as Leisler and Milborne refused to recognize the court’s authority. Two of the men were acquitted, but the other eight were convicted and sentenced to death. A month later, Leisler’s and Milborne’s sentence was carried out. The other six rebels obtained a reprieve and were pardoned by the Crown in 1694.

In 1695, both Leisler’s and Milborne’s bodies were exhumed by supporters and given proper burial, the two having been pardoned posthumously by an act of Parliament. Though the bodies were put to rest, the divisions in New York between the Leislerian faction and its opponents would continue to underscore the colony’s political life. Often exaggerated now, this factionalism was usually not clear-cut, and it became of less concern than matters of economic decline and frontier defense. Since it was directed more or less into the political arena, in the long run, factionalism legitimized the structure and operation of government in the colony. Leislerians forged new connections to Holland and to English Whigs, and they learned to use the language of English liberties in protecting their interests within the empire. Neil Kennedy See also: Dutch; Germans; Glorious Revolution; New York City. Bibliography Kammen, Michael. Colonial New York: A History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1975. McCormick, Charles. Leisler’s Rebellion. New York: Garland Publishing, 1989. Voorhees, David W. “The Fervent Zeale’ of Jacob Leisler.” William and Mary Quarterly 51:3 (July 1999): 447 72.

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