Leisler, Jacob

views updated May 14 2018

Leisler, Jacob


Frankfurt, Germany

May 16, 1691

New York

Merchant, militia officer, and rebel

Jacob Leisler was a German merchant and militia officer who led a rebellion in New York (then New Netherland) in 1689. Driven by religious conviction, he tried to lessen Roman Catholic power in the colony. At the time the colony was made up of many diverse groups—rich and poor, Protestant and Catholic. The main conflict was between Protestants and other colonists—primarily the Dutch—who were joining the Church of England (the official religion of England; also known as the Anglican Church). Because of the long tradition of Calvinism in his family, Leisler wanted the Protestants to triumph because he believed the Anglican Church would eventually submit to Catholicism. (Calvinism was a branch of the Protestant religion that placed strong emphasis on the supreme power of God, the sinfulness of mankind, and the doctrine of predestination, which states that all human events are controlled by God.) While historians continue to debate Leisler's motivations for leading the rebellion, most of the evidence points to his intense religious beliefs.

Robert R. Livingston

Robert R. Livingston was the first prominent member of a family of important American political figures. He was born in Roxburgshire, Scotland, in 1654. After growing up in Holland, he emigrated (moved from one country to another) to the colony of New York (then New Netherland) in 1673. He settled in Albany and married Alida Van Rensselaer six years later. Livingston accumulated substantial wealth by trading goods with Native Americans. Under Governor Thomas Dongan, Livingston acquired a patent (title or deed) for 160,000 acres of land, which he turned into Livingston Manor.

Livingston was a major opponent of the 1689 rebellion led by militia officer Jacob Leisler. After the revolt was subdued, Livingston encountered problems with Leisler's followers who called themselves Leislerians. He had to defend himself against their rising power, which threatened his estates and privileges. A

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highly respected citizen in the colony, Livingston served as secretary of Indian affairs until his death in 1728. Among his descendants is United States Congressman Robert Livingston, from Louisiana.

Influenced by Calvinist tradition

Jacob Leisler was born in 1640 in Frankfurt, Germany. His family, on both his father's and mother's sides, came from a long line of German magistri (magistrate or lawyer class). According to the founder of Calvinism, French Protestant reformer John Calvin, the magistri existed "to withstand the fierce licentiousness [disregard for rules of moral conduct] of kings in accordance with their duty." Many magistri became staunch Calvinist Christians, combining their legal duties with their religious beliefs. Leisler's grandfather relied upon Calvinist teachings when he provided legal counsel to Prince Christian of Anhalt (a former state in Germany). He made sure that his own son, Leisler's father, received a solid religious education. Leisler's father later served as a Calvinist pastor to Huguenot (French Calvinist) exiles.

Leisler thus acquired a zealous Calvinistic view of the world, which included a deep fear of Roman Catholicism. Part of this concern resulted from the Catholic-Protestant conflicts during the Thirty Years War (1618–48; a general European war fought mainly in Germany), which had reached its most destructive stage at the time Leisler was born. Three years previously his parents had fled the Roman Catholic Inquisition (an official inquiry formed to discover and punish heretics, or those who disobeyed the laws of the Roman Catholic Church). Telling their son stories about this difficult time, the Leislers instilled in him a suspicion of Roman Catholicism. Jacob Leisler took this mistrust with him when he emigrated to New York in 1660.

Becomes prominent in New York

Leisler went to New York as a soldier in the Dutch West India Company (the trading and colonizing company that founded the colony of New Netherland, later called New York). After becoming a merchant he married a rich widow, and by 1676 he was one of the wealthiest men in the colony. Although Leisler had secured a high social position, he was unpopular with prominent Dutch families in New York. In 1674 he had spoken out against Nicholas Van Rensselaer, who was attempting to become a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church (now the Reformed Church of America; founded in Holland after the rise of Calvinism in the sixteenth century). Leisler was opposed to Van Rensselaer because he had been ordained by the Church of England. Leisler objected to Van Rensselaer's ties with the Church of England because Calvinists feared that England would be taken over by Catholics. As a deacon (layman, or unordained person, elected to assist the pastor of a church) of a Calvinist congregation, Leisler therefore opposed any Catholic influence in the church at a time when Protestantism was unstable in the colony.

Despite his strong Calvinist beliefs, Leisler served under New York's Catholic governor Thomas Dongan. In 1683 Dongan appointed Leisler as a Court of Admiralty commissioner, hoping Leisler could help ease tensions among diverse Protestant groups. Although he resented working for a Catholic, Leisler agreed to serve in this capacity. His concern about the instability of Protestantism and the rising dominance of Catholicism was intensified in 1685 when French king Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes (a decree issued in 1598, which defined the rights of Protestants). Another blow to Protestant hopes came during the same year when King James II, a Catholic, ascended the throne of England.

From this time onward Leisler became more radical in his Protestantism. Like his ancestors, he combined his secular (public) duties and religious beliefs, viewing political action as spiritual warfare. He believed that Anglicans were too willing to submit to Catholicism, especially after New York came under the Dominion of New England (a self-governing nation in the British Commonwealth) during the reign of James II. During this time, many other Protestant groups, who would not normally have been in a close alliance with Leisler, began to see him as their spokesman. As a result, a strong anti-Catholic coalition was developing in New York, with Leisler at the head.

Protestant fear of Catholics

The situation in New York during Jacob Leisler's tenure as Court of Admiralty commissioner is an example of the profound impact of the Protestant Reformation—and the subsequent fear of Catholicism—on the American colonies. The Reformation was a revolution within, and ultimately against, the Roman Catholic Church that swept Western Europe in the sixteenth century. The movement began as early as the fourteenth century, however. Martin Luther, a Catholic professor of theology at the University of Wittenberg in Germany, is credited with starting the Reformation. On October 31, 1517, Luther posted 95 theses, or charges, on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg. In the theses he demanded reform within the Catholic Church. Specifically, he accused the Catholic clergy (priests, bishops, and popes) of gross corruption and misuse of power. Luther's action led to the founding of Lutheranism, the first Protestant denomination, or group of congregations. Luther was followed in the 1530s by the French reformer John Calvin, who founded Calvinism. From that time onward the Protestant movement gained momentum, fueling fears and animosities against Catholics throughout the world.

Takes over Fort James

In 1688 the Protestants of New York received news that James II had a son. Now the prospects of a long Catholic rule in England were a reality. But the situation was changed when William III, the Protestant husband of James II's daughter Mary II, invaded England. Protestant hopes were now revived in both England and America. Francis Nicholson, lieutenant governor of the Dominion of New England, tried to keep William III's invasion a secret from American colonists. Eventually, however, Leisler received the news and made it public. New Englanders, who had long objected to the Dominion governor, Edmund Andros, because he was an overbearing and dictatorial governor, now saw their chance to overthrow him. Now that Andros had no backing in England and could not defend himself against a rebellion, the colonists sent him and other officials to England as prisoners. When the rebellion reached New York, Nicholson appointed Leisler to end the uprising. Leisler accepted this official position, hoping to apply his Calvinist beliefs to the colonial government.

Soon after his appointment, however, Leisler learned that the lieutenant governor had supported James II. Therefore, Leisler reversed his support for Nicholson. He had also heard about a possible anti-Protestant plot between Andros and Nicholson. Leisler was reluctant to rise up against Nicholson until he realized that it was his duty as a Calvinist to fight. In 1689, when Nicholson went to England seeking support, Leisler seized New York City's Fort James with a group of militiamen (a citizen army).

Bacon's Rebellion of 1676

Rebellions like Leisler's were common in colonial America, as less powerful individuals rose up against aristocrats (members of the ruling class or nobility). Another significant uprising was Bacon's Rebellion in 1676. Led by landowner Nathaniel Bacon (see entry), colonists staged a revolt in Jamestown, Virginia. At the time the colony was ruled by British governor William Berkeley (see entry), who focused primarily on his own economic interests at the expense of colonists. When Berkeley refused to continue defending Jamestown against Native Americans in order to protect the fur trade, Bacon led the Virginians in an uprising. At the end of the conflict, on September 18, 1676, Bacon burned Jamestown to the ground. Historians believe that Bacon's main target was Berkeley, while Leisler's rebellion involved religion and the common man against an aristocratic elite.

After this move, many colonists hailed Leisler as a defender of the Protestant faith. He was soon named lieutenant governor of the colony and upon gaining power he declared his allegiance to Protestant king William III. Leisler believed his authority had been confirmed by a letter sent by the king in December 1688. Addressed to Nicholson or whoever may have been in command at the time, Leisler automatically assumed the letter granted him the power to take over command of the colony. Thus he continued to occupy Fort James, feeling confident that William III approved of his rebellion.

Attempts to gain wider support

In spite of his victory, Leisler was not widely supported by other colonists. For instance, when he held a meeting for various representatives of the colony in 1689, no one attended. Leisler was also hindered by his unpopularity among prominent Dutch families, who resented the fact that the colony was now governed by a group of lowly traders. As a result, Leisler was backed mainly by poor merchants and farmers. He attempted to gain wider support twice in 1690. In February he launched a military expedition to protect northern New York. The militia arrived too late, however, and sixty colonists were killed by French soldiers and Native Americans. In his second attempt to gain support, Leisler called a meeting in April to negotiate with colonists who had protested against his high taxes. Nevertheless, while attempting to please one group of colonists, he ended up angering another. In the end, Leisler still had not won over prominent families who doubted his ability to govern.

Stands trial as a traitor

Not surprisingly, Leisler's victory for the Protestants was short-lived. The tables finally turned when certain merchants, who had been harmed by his economic policies, convinced William III that Leisler was a traitor. In December 1689 the king appointed Colonel Henry Sloughter to replace Leisler as governor of New York. Sloughter did not arrive from England until 1691 because his ship had been delayed by a storm. Accompanied by hundreds of troops, he tried to take command peacefully but Leisler refused to hand over Fort James. The confrontation resulted in violence, and during the fighting several English soldiers were killed. Leisler finally surrendered the fort. Outraged by Leisler's rebelliousness, Sloughter ordered him to stand trial for treason. Leisler defended himself by claiming that William III's letter of December 1689 had given him the authority to take over Fort James. His accusers argued, however, that command should immediately have been turned over to the council after Nicholson's departure. On March 31, 1691, Leisler was found guilty of treason. According to records, on May 16, 1691, Leisler was hanged until "halfe dead" and then beheaded.

Were Leisler's actions justified?

Historians have tried to determine whether Leisler was justified in taking over Fort James and later defying Sloughter. Many point out that Leisler was wrong in trying to promote Protestantism at a time when New York was occupied by many diverse religious groups. He was unduly influenced by his strong Calvinist upbringing, and his religious fervor led him to misread the letter from William III. He had incorrectly assumed that the Protestant king would unconditionally support all Protestant efforts. Nevertheless, even though Leisler was executed, his legacy lived on with the emergence of the Leislerians. These followers of Leisler managed to have the verdict against their leader overturned in 1695. Aside from this achievement, the Leislerians had difficulty gaining political power. The situation changed, however, when they were invited to join the council by Richard Coote, Earl of Bellomont, who became governor in 1698.

For further research

The Leisler Papers Project.http://pages.nyu.edu/_dwvl/ Available July 13, 1999.

McCormick, Charles Howard. Leisler's Rebellion. New York: Garland Publishers, 1989.

Reich, Jerome R. Leisler's Rebellion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953.

Leisler, Jacob (1640-1691)

views updated May 21 2018

Jacob Leisler (1640-1691)

Merchant and militia officer


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.


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

Jacob Leisler

views updated Jun 08 2018

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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