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Leisler, Jacob (1640-1691)

Jacob Leisler (1640-1691)

Merchant and militia officer

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Conventional Explanations. Jacob Leisler was a German merchant and militia soldier employed by the Dutch West India Company when he came to New York (then New Amsterdam) in 1660. His rebellion and subsequent seizure of New Yorks government (1689-1691) is well known; what is less well known is why he did what he did. The standard explanations have focused on his inability to break into the higher echelons of New Yorks political world. Some have also focused on his supposed bitter disposition toward the Dutch merchants who were becoming anglicized. Each of these points has validity, but none adequately explores a central motivating factor behind Leislers actions: religion.

Background. Jacob Leislers family, on both his mothers and fathers side, was from a long line of magistri (magistrate or lawyer class). Because of the close dependance John Calvin (French Protestant reformer) had on the magistri to maintain civil order, especially to limit secular rulers who would counter Protestant initiatives, many from that class became strong Calvinist Christians. Calvinism stresses the absolute sovereignty of God and absolute sinfulness of man. Because of this infinite separation between the two, the unmerited grace of God is required for reconciliation. As a branch of Protestantism, Calvinism was naturally in conflict with Roman Catholicism, which focused on the necessity of good works as a means of salvation. Many magistri closely associated with the Reformation in Germany and France began to see their legal function in an energetic religious context. Leislers grandfather, Dr. Jacob Leisler, employed his Calvinistic zealotry as legal council to Prince Christian of Anhalt. Dr. Leisler sent his son Jacob Victorian Leisler to the University of Altdorf and later to Geneva University where he came under the powerful influence of Calvinist reformer Theodore Beza, author of the Right of Magistrates (1574). The younger Leisler became a reformed Calvinist pastor to many Huguenot exiles, a ministry that gained him considerable note. Since the 1560s the Huguenot role in French society had been in a constant state of flux, gaining and losing political, civil, and religious rights. The most recent event had taken place in 1629 when French Cardinal Richelieu rescinded the Huguenots political and military rights in the Peace of Alias (1629).

Promising Youth. In 1640 his son Jacob Leisler was born. One can imagine the zeal for a Calvinistic world-view this young man would be prone to adopt. With this view came a fear of Roman Catholicisms potential secular dominance. Part of this fear resulted from the Catholic-Protestant conflicts associated with the Thirty Years War, a conflict that was in its most destructive stage in Germany at Jacobs birth. Just three years before he was born his parents fled the Roman Catholic Inquisition. By the retelling of this difficult time Jacobs parents instilled in him, as historian David Voorhees has described, a lasting fear of Roman Catholics. While in New York, Leisler often spoke of the Implacable malice & Violence he associated with Roman Catholicism. Eventually, Leislers father received a rather lucrative pastorate to a French congregation in Frankfurt. It was there that his father developed a wide reputation for strict Calvinistic orthodoxy. Jacob Leislers growth... was shaped by his familys social position, their Huguenot connections, his fathers rigid orthodoxy, and the religious fanaticism rife in the war-torn German states. All this he brought to the colony of New York.

Radicalization. In 1683 New Yorks Catholic governor Thomas Dongan believed that by appointing the now-successful merchant and militia leader Jacob Leisler as a Court of Admiralty commissioner that he could help to ease tensions between the very diverse Protestant groups in the colony. Leisler reluctantly served in this capacity. He did not like serving under a profest Papist, he later stated. His greater concern over Roman Catholic dominance intensified in 1685 when Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes, a decision that caused almost two hundred thousand Huguenots to flee France. Also in this year a Catholic king ascended the throne of England, James II, formerly the duke of York. From this time forward Jacob Leisler radicalized his position and began to act within his ancestral tradition as a magistrate for the glory of God. Leisler viewed political action as spiritual warfare. He saw the apathy of Anglicanism as willful submission to Catholic sentiments, especially after New York came under the Dominion of New England during the reign of James II. Government was under obligation, Leisler stated, to enforce the true faith of the Scriptures. The true faith to Leisler was Protestant Christianity. Many other Protestant groups, mostly German Pietists who would normally not have been in a close alliance with Leislers Calvinism, began to see him as their spokesman. A strong coalition of anti-Catholicism was developing in New York, with Leisler at the head.

Road to Rebellion. In 1688 New York Protestants were dismayed when news came that James II had had a son. Now the prospects of a long Catholic rule in England were a reality. But the Glorious Revolution changed all that. With the invasion of William III, Protestant husband to James IIs daughter Mary, the Protestant hopes in England and America revived. Dominion of New England lieutenant governor Francis Nicholson suppressed the news of William and Marys invasion. Eventually the word came to Leisler through his own European connections, and he publicized the news. When word reached Boston of the Revolution, the Dominion of New Englands governor Andros was overthrown and jailed. Once the rebellion had spread to New York, Nicholson appointed Leisler, because of his leadership position in the militia, to put a stop to the uprising. He accepted this position, because as a magisterial Calvinist he was committed to legal structures. Soon after this appointment Leisler reversed his support for Nicholson upon learning of the lieutenant governors support of James II and of a possible anti-Protestant plot between fallen Massachusetts governor Edmund Andros and Nicholson. At first reluctant to actively engage in confronting Nicholsons violent caridge and malicious designe, Leisler eventually acted upon Calvins famous counsel that the magistri exist to withstand the fierce licentiousness of kings in accordance with their duty. It was in this context that Jacob Leisler took over New York Citys Fort James in the absence of Nicholson. Many hailed him as a defender of the Protestant faith. He soon received the lieutenant governorship of the colony. Leisler had successfully taken control of New Yorks royal government in the name of God and the Protestant king, William III. His victory was short lived. The tables eventually turned when certain merchants harmed by Leislers economic policies convinced King William III that Jacob Leisler was a traitor to England. Leisler further distanced himself from the monarchy when in 1691 he refused to transfer the command of the fort into the hands of a newly arrived royal commander. Leisler, with no other recourse, surrendered the fort to the newly arrived royal governor Henry Sloughter. On 31 March 1691 he was found guilty of traitorously levying war against our Sovereign Lord and Lady the King and Queen and was summarily hanged (16 May) until halfe dead, then beheaded. Whatever else the rise and fall of Jacob Leisler may mean, especially its role in the subsequent emergence of a representative assembly in the colony, the religious context of his actions shows the extent to which Calvinists were willing to go to obstruct what they saw as a threat by James II and Louis XIV to romanize the Atlantic world.

Source

David Voorhees, The fervent Zeal of Jacob Leisler, William and Mary Quarterly,51 (1994): 447472.

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Jacob Leisler

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.

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.

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.

Further Reading

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. □

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Leisler, Jacob

Jacob Leisler (līs´lər), 1640–91, leader of an insurrection (1689–91) in colonial New York, b. Frankfurt, Germany. He immigrated to America in 1660 as a penniless soldier, married a wealthy widow, and became a trader in New York. The overthrow (1688) of the Roman Catholic James II and accession of William III and Mary II in England caused uprisings in the colonies, where many royal officials were suspected of being Roman Catholics, and fear of a Catholic French invasion prevailed. Leisler, a Protestant champion, in 1689 gained control of S New York with the aid of militia, proclaimed the new sovereigns, and was appointed commander in chief by his followers. The lieutenant governor, Francis Nicholson, fled the country and Leisler assumed his office upon seizure of letters from King William that he interpreted as authorization. The council at Albany eventually recognized his authority, although he was bitterly opposed by the rich and aristocratic faction. Leisler maintained power through military force and the suppression of opposition. Meanwhile, William commissioned Col. Henry Sloughter as governor, and troops were dispatched to New York under Major Richard Ingoldesby, who, arriving early in 1691, sided with the faction opposed to Leisler and demanded the surrender of the fort on Manhattan island. Leisler refused, and fighting broke out. On the arrival of Sloughter, Leisler surrendered, was tried as a traitor, and was hanged in May, 1691. Parliament, in 1695, on petition of the Leisler family, passed an act reversing the attainder and later voted an indemnity to his heirs.

See H. L. Osgood, The American Colonies in the Seventeenth Century, Vol. III (1907, repr. 1957); J. Reich, Leisler's Rebellion (1953).

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