Leisler’s Rebellion

Signing Leisler declaration
Signing Leisler declaration

In November 1688, Protestant monarchs William and Mary of Orange led a small army across the English Channel at the behest of Parliament to depose James II, the Stuart king whose newborn son promised continued Catholic rule. Amid the confusion and turmoil once news of the revolution had reached the colonies, militia captain Jacob Leisler plotted and led a successful revolt against the colonial government of New York.

On 31 May 1689, Leisler and his largely Dutch and German force captured Fort James on Manhattan Island, gaining control over New York harbor and supplanting Stuart appointee Governor Francis Nicholson. While condemned by some as treachery, Leisler’s Rebellion proved more complex than a mere plot to overthrow the colonial government—his coup lay at the intersection of a number of significant tensions in European and American politics, society, culture, and religion.

In the late seventeenth century, New York found itself entangled in chaos and transformation. In 1664, the former New Amsterdam fell to English forces in the second Anglo-Dutch War (1664–1667). King Charles II placed the province under the control of his brother James, duke of York and heir to the throne.

As proprietor with complete authority over the province (Charles reserved only the right to hear appeals), James quickly replaced Dutch officials with his English appointees and instituted a strict disciplinary code known as “The Duke’s Laws,” designed to inject Dutch practice with English political custom.

Despite these and other sweeping efforts to solidify English dominance, New York remained extremely diverse, inhabited by Dutch, English, German, Scottish, and Huguenot settlers spanning a large and geographically disparate area. Religious differences also split the colony as Anglicans, Dutch Calvinists, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Catholics, and various other Protestant denominations vied for social influence.

James II assumed the throne in 1685, replacing his brother’s inconsistent policies with his model of absolute monarchy. In order to control the recalcitrant northern colonies, he combined them all into the Dominion of New England, a single royal colony.

When the news of James II’s deposition in the Glorious Revolution and of New England’s subsequent overthrow of Sir Edmund Andros, the despotic British governor, reached New York, merchant and militia captain Jacob Leisler took it upon himself to restore Protestant rule in the colony.

Capturing Fort James and New York Harbor, Leisler proclaimed himself governor and quickly began organizing representatives from Massachusetts, Plymouth, and Connecticut to unite with New York in an offensive against French Canada, another Catholic threat. Lack of cooperation between the colonies involved soon doomed the nascent assault and Leisler was left to deal with increasing pressure at home.

While heavily supported among the Dutch laborers and artisans who resented the power of the colony’s Anglo-Dutch ruling class, Leisler soon found that he could not control the city’s powerful merchants. He jailed numbers of powerful New Yorkers for resisting his authority, ultimately strengthening his opponents’ resolve to have him removed.

When King William’s newly appointed royal governor, Colonel Henry Sloughter, sent a force of English soldiers to secure the city in early 1691, Leisler refused to allow them into key forts, suspecting the loyalty of their commander, Major Robert Inglesby.

The king’s forces took the city, and at the advice of prominent community leaders, Jacob Leisler was charged with treason for his attack on the royal garrison at Fort James. After a brief trial, Leisler was executed in May 1691.

Despite the death of its prominent leader, Leisler’s Rebellion lived on in New York politics for decades to come, even after Parliament posthumously exonerated Leisler in 1695.

Jacob Leisler’s conspiracy to restore Protestant rule to New York fueled an ongoing political struggle between elite and Leislerian factions that continued as New York’s various ethnic, religious, and socioeconomic groups clashed over the future of the colony and its relationship to the throne. Like most popular uprisings, Leisler’s Rebellion was no mere coup, but an ideologically motivated effort to restructure power in the developing British North American colonies.