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The Great Republic by the Master Historians
The Leisler Revolt in New York
by Bancroft, Hubert H.


[The news of the accession of William of Orange to the English throne produced in New York an effect very similar to that which it produced in New England, - an uprising of the people against their tyrannical governor. But the revolt here against the lieutenant of Andros grew into a rebellion against the constituted authorities, of sufficient interest to demand special consideration. Another important event of the same period was the massacre of the inhabitants of Schenectady by a party of French and Indians, - a far-off result of the war then raging in Europe between the French and English. We extract a description of these events from William Smith's "History of New York," one of the oldest of American historical works, as it was originally published in 1756.]

While these things were transacting in Canada [the massacre of the French on the island of Montreal by the Iroquois], a scene of the greatest importance was opening at New York. A general dissatisfaction 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 in 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 the 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 fortynine 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 at once sent to King William an account of his proceedings, but Lieutenant-Governor Nicholson had previously reached England, and had falsely represented the late actions to Leisler's prejudice. The authorities of the city, being opposed to the new party in power, retired to Albany.]

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 their 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..

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 [Milborne] 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 upon 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.

[During these proceedings was broke out between the French and the English. A French fleet was sent over, with the design of taking New York; but the distressed condition of the colony in Canada defeated this project. Efforts were then made to bring over the Iroquois Indians to the French side.]

Among other measures to detach the Five Nations from the British interest and raise the depressed spirit of the Canadians, the Count de Frontenac thought proper to send out several parties against the English colonies. D'Aillebout, De Mantel, and Le Moyne commanded that against New York, consisting of about two hundred French and some Caghnuaga Indians, who, being proselytes from the Mohawks, were perfectly acquainted with that country. Their orders were, in general, to attack New York; but, pursuing the advice of the Indians, they resolved, instead of Albany, to surprise Schenectady, a village seventeen miles northwest from it, and about the same distance from the Mohawks. The people of Schenectady, though they had been informed of the designs of the enemy, were in the greatest security, judging it impracticable for any men to march several hundred miles, in the depth of winter, through the snow, bearing their provisions on their backs. Besides, the village was in as much confusion as the rest of the province, the officers who were posted there being unable to preserve a regular watch, or any kind of military order..

After two-and-twenty days' march, the enemy fell in with Schenectady on the 8th of February [1690], and were reduced to such straits that they had thoughts of surrendering themselves prisoners of war. But their scouts, who were a day or two in the village entirely unsuspected, returned with such encouraging accounts of the absolute security of the people that the enemy determined on the attack. They entered on Saturday night about eleven o'clock, at the gates, which were found unshut, and that every house might be invested at the same time divided into small parties of six or seven men. The inhabitants were in a profound sleep, and unalarmed, till their doors were broken open. Never were people in a more wretched consternation. Before they were risen from their beds, the enemy entered their houses and began the perpetration of the most inhuman barbarities. No tongue, says Colonel Schuyler, can express the cruelties that were committed. The whole village was instantly in a blaze. Women with child were ripped open, and their infants cast into the flames, or dashed against the posts of the doors. Sixty persons perished in the massacre, and twenty-seven were carried into captivity. The rest fled naked towards Albany, through a deep snow that fell that very night in a terrible storm; and twenty-five of these fugitives lost their limbs in the flight, through the severity of the frost. The news of this dreadful tragedy reached Albany about break of day, and universal dread seized the inhabitants of that city, the enemy being reported to be one thousand four hundred strong. A party of horse was immediately despatched to Schenectady, and a few Mohawks, then in the town, fearful of being intercepted, were with difficulty sent to apprise their own castles.

The Mohawks were unacquainted with this bloody scene till two days after it happened, our messengers being scarce able to travel through the great depth of snow. The enemy, in the mean time, pillaged the town of Schenectady till noon the next day, and then went off with their plunder and about forty of their best horses. The rest, with all the cattle they could find, lay slaughtered in the streets.

[This outrage was to some extent revenged by the Mohawks, who pursued and killed a number of the enemy, while during the year the Canadians met with other losses at the hands of the Iroquois. During this year, also, Sir William Phipps made an expedition against Quebec, with a fleet of thirty-two sail. His demand for a surrender was contemned by De Frontenac, and he was quickly repulsed, with loss. Shortly afterwards, Colonel Henry Sloughter, the newly-appointed governor of the province, arrived at New York.]

If Leisler had delivered the garrison to Colonel Sloughter, as he ought to have done, upon his first landing, besides extinguishing, in a 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 De Lanoy 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 jail. 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 Whitehall, 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 thereof be holden good in law." The answer was, as might have been expected, in the negative; and Leisler and his son [-in-law] were condemned to death for high treason.

[Many of Leisler's adherents immediately fled to the other provinces, in fear of being apprehended. It may be remarked here that later historians relate that the first demand on Leisler to surrender was made by Richard Ingoldsby, who arrived before Colonel Sloughter, and announced his appointment. His demand was peremptorily made, and was refused. On Sloughter's arrival Ingoldsby was again sent to demand a surrender, Leisler's messengers to the governor being detained. Leisler hesitated for a while, but the next day personally surrendered the fort.]

Colonel Sloughter proposed, immediately after the session [of the Assembly], 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. 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.

[Sloughter died suddenly shortly afterwards. Leisler's son made complaint to the king, but the execution was sustained by the authorities in England. Afterwards the attainder of treason was removed, and the estates of Leisler and Milborne were restored to their families. The bodies of the victims were taken up, and interred with great pomp in the old Dutch church of New York city.]

William Smith

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