Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography/Leisler, Jacob

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LEISLER, Jacob, soldier, b. in Frankfort on the Main, Germany; d. in New York city, 16 May, 1691. He came to this country in 1660 as a soldier in the service of the Dutch West India company. Leaving the army soon after his arrival, he engaged in the Indian trade, and became a comparatively wealthy man. While on a voyage to Europe in 1678 he was captured by Moorish pirates, and was compelled to pay a ransom of 2,050 pieces of eight to obtain his freedom. Previous to this voyage he was a resident of Albany, where he was a magistrate, and had incurred the displeasure of Sir Edmund Andros, the governor, by the arbitrary and high-handed measures that he and his associates had adopted to prevent the spread of popery, the political bugbear of the day. Leisler had also endeared himself to the common people by befriending a family of French Huguenots that had been landed on Manhattan island so destitute that a public tribunal had decided they should be sold into slavery in order to pay their ship-charges. Leisler prevented the sale by purchasing the freedom of the widowed mother and son before it could be held. Under Dongan's administration in 1683 he was appointed one of the judges, or “commissioners,” of the court of admiralty in New York. In 1688 Gov. Dongan was succeeded by Lieut-Gov. Francis Nicholson. In 1689 the military force of the city of New York consisted of a regiment of five companies, of one of which Leisler was captain. He was popular with the men, and probably the only wealthy resident in the province that sympathized with the Dutch lower classes. At that time much excitement prevailed among the latter, owing to the attempts of the Jacobite office-holders to retain power in spite of the revolution in England and the accession of William and Mary to the throne. On a report that the adherents of King James were about to seize the fort and massacre their Dutch fellow-citizens, an armed mob gathered on the evening of 2 June, 1689, to overthrow the existing government. The cry of “Leisler” was raised, and the crowd rushed to his house. At first he refused to lead the movement, but when the demand was reiterated by the men of his regiment he acceded, and within an hour received the keys of the fort, which had meanwhile been seized. Fortunately for the revolutionists, the fort contained all the public funds, whose return the lieutenant-governor in vain demanded. Four hundred of the new party signed an agreement to hold the fort “for the present Protestant power that reigns in England,” while a committee of safety of ten of the city freeholders assumed the powers of a provisional government, of which they declared Jacob Leisler to be the head, and commissioned him as “captain of the fort.” In this capacity he at once began to repair that work, and strengthened it with a “battery” of six guns beyond its walls, which was the origin of the public park that is still known as the Battery. Nicholson and the council of the province, with the authorities of the city, headed by Stephanus van Cortlandt, the mayor, attempted by pacific means to prevent the uprising, but without effect. Finally, becoming alarmed for their own safety, the lieutenant-governor sailed for England, and the mayor, with the other officials, retired to Albany. To the latter city, where the Jacobite office-holders still held control, Leisler sent his son-in-law, Milbourne, in November, with an armed force to assist in its defence against the Indians, but he was directed to withhold it unless Leisler's authority was recognized. This was refused, and Milbourne returned unsuccessful. In December a despatch arrived from William and Mary directed “to Francis Nicholson, Esq., or in his absence to such as for the time being takes care for preserving the peace and administering the laws in his majesty's province of New York.” This Leisler construed as an appointment of himself as the king's lieutenant-governor. He therefore dissolved the committee of safety, swore in a council, and assumed the style of a royal lieutenant-governor and commander-in-chief. In the spring of 1690, Albany, terrified by an Indian invasion, and rent by domestic factions, yielded to Milbourne. Amid distress and confusion a house of representatives was convened, and the government was constituted by the popular act. After the massacre at Schenectady in February, 1690, Leisler engaged with great vigor in the expeditions against the French, and equipped and despatched against Quebec the first fleet of men-of-war that had been sent from the port of New York. In January, 1691, Maj. Ingoldesby arrived with the news of Henry Sloughter's appointment as governor, and demanded possession of the fort, which Leisler refused. On Sloughter's own demand immediately upon his arrival in the following March, he likewise refused to surrender it until he was convinced of Sloughter's identity and the latter had sworn in his council. As soon as the latter event occurred, he wrote the governor a letter resigning his command. Sloughter replied by arresting him and nine of his friends. The latter were subsequently released after trial, but Leisler was imprisoned, charged with treason and murder, and shortly afterward tried and condemned to death. His son-in-law and secretary, Milbourne, was also condemned on the same charges. These trials were manifestly unjust; the judges were the personal and political enemies of the prisoners, and so gross were the acts of some of the parties that Sloughter hesitated at signing the death-warrants, and it is said that he finally did so when under the influence of wine. By the English law of treason their estates were forfeited to the crown, but the committee of the privy council to whom the matter was referred reported that, although the trial was in conformity to the forms of law, they nevertheless recommended the restoration of the estates of the culprits to their heirs. In 1695 Leisler's son succeeded in procuring the passage of an act of parliament reversing his father's attainder. Three years later the Earl of Bellomont, who had been one of the most influential supporters of the efforts of Leisler's son, was appointed governor of New York, and through his influence the assembly voted an indemnity to Leisler's heirs. The bones of Leisler and Milbourne were honorably interred in the Dutch church. Among Leisler's claims to kindly remembrance is the fact that, in 1689, while exercising the functions of governor, he purchased the land that is now occupied by the village of New Rochelle, N. Y., as a place of refuge for the persecuted Huguenots. See his “Life,” by Charles Fenno Hoffman, in Sparks's “American Biography” (Boston, 1844). See also “A Man whom New York Beheaded,” by Emily C. Judson, included in “Alderbrook” (Boston, 1846).