Jacob Leisler Trial: 1691

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Jacob Leisler Trial: 1691

Defendants: Jacob Leisler, Jacob Milborne, eight other men
Crimes Charged: The treasonable act of holding the king's fort by force against the royal governor, such action resulting in several deaths
Chief Defense Lawyer: None
Committee for Preparing the Prosecution: Nicholas Bayard, William Pinhorne, and Stephen Van Cortlandt
Chief Prosecutors: James Emmott, George Farewell, and William Nichols
Judges for Court of Oyer and Terminer: Captain Isaac Arnold, Joseph Dudley, Captain Jasper Hickes, Major Richard Ingoldesby, Thomas Johnson, John Laurence, William Pinhorne, Sir Robert Robinson, William Smith and Colonel John Young
Place: New York, N.Y. (Colony)
Dates of Trial: April 10-27, 1691
Verdict: Leisler, Milborne, and six others: guilty; two others acquitted; all eventually pardoned except Leisler and Milborne
Sentence: Death by hanging, disembowelment, decapitation, and quartering

SIGNIFICANCE: The trial and the harsh sentence imposed reflected the extreme personal and political animosities that marked New York politics. The executions, applauded by many of the colony's Anglo-Dutch elite as an example to the Leislerians, exacerbated those animosities.

The American colonies were already restive when mother England created a Dominion of New England in an effort to obtain greater control of the region. Many measures adopted were disliked by colonists. Thus, when England's Glorious Revolution replaced Catholic James II with Protestant William and Mary (James' daughter) of Orange, the colonies overthrew some appointed royal officials, including the lieutenant governor for New York, Francis Nicholson.

On May 30, 1689, an argument between two officers at New York's Fort James sparked a rumor that Nicholson planned to burn the city. On May 31, a German immigrant merchant, Jacob Leisler, leading 500 men, seized the fort.

Two weeks later Nicholson sailed for England. He left his councillors in charge: Nicholas Bayard, Frederick Phillipse, and Stephen Van Cortlandt. They were unable to thwart Leisler's usurpation of civil authority, which was supported by members of the merchant, artisan, and laboring groups.

Leisler Assumes Control

In December 1689, John Riggs arrived from Britain bringing dispatches from the king for the lieutenant governor or "to such as for the time being take care to keep the peace and administer the laws of New York" in the governor's absence. The dispatches were clearly for the council, but Leisler interpreted the orders to declare himself lieutenant governor.

Some of Leisler's actions were laudable, such as strengthening the province's defenses. Others are subject to interpretation. Leisler held a convention of delegates from the counties and towns. (Not everyone came.) Later, based on writs he issued, an assembly was elected. Some historians praise this as the first representative body for the province. Others believe Leisler manipulated both convention and assembly, often by threat of arms.

In February 1691, Major Richard Ingoldesby arrived in New York, ahead of the new governor, Colonel Henry Sloughter. Ingoldesby demanded Leisler surrender. Leisler refused, saying Ingoldesby had no royal commission. Even when Sloughter arrived, Leisler delayed briefly before surrendering. His behavior gave his enemies justification for insisting on a criminal inquest, instead of the general inquiry ordered by the Crown.

Ten men were indicted. Leisler and Jacob Milborne, his son-in-law, refused to plead, insisting the judges must first rule on the legality of the authority by which they had held Fort James. That "authority" rested on the king's letter by which Leisler had declared himself lieutenant governor. After an unfavorable ruling, the two men still refused to plead. The jury acquitted two, but found Leisler, Milborne, and six others guilty. They were sentenced to death. In response to a petition, Sloughter wrote the king recommending a pardon for all except Leisler and Milborne.

A clamor arose to execute Leisler and Milborne without delay. Eventually Sloughter gave in. On May 16, 1691, from the scaffold, Leisler and Milborne insisted they had had no intent save "than to maintaine against popery or any Schism or heresy" in the interests of the Crown. They begged forgiveness for any offenses and prayed that all hate be buried with them. They were then executed. Several years later, their estates, which had been seized, were restored to their heirs.

Teddi DiCanio

Suggestions for Further Reading

Andrews, Charles M. Narratives of the Insurrections, 1675-1690. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1915.

Reprinted 1967.

Balmer, Randall. 'Traitors and Papists: The Religious Dimensions of Leisler's Rebellion." New York History (1989). Vol. 70.

Reich, Jerome R. Leisler's Rebellion: A Study of Democracy in New York, 1664-1720. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953.

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