Leisler’s Rebellion: New York’s (not so) Glorious Revolution: A special guest blog by Sophie H Jones

05 December 2016

History

This blog post has been written by guest blogger Sophie H Jones. Sophie is a PhD candidate in the department of History at the University of Liverpool, UK.

1688: The Glorious Revolution. For many of us, these words bring to mind the overthrow of the tyrannical Catholic King James II and the happy arrival of William of Orange and his Queen, Mary. What few of us immediately consider is the impact of this change in regime upon far-flung colonies across the Atlantic.

Tucked away within the Colonial America collection, one short but interesting pamphlet deserves closer consideration. An Act for Reversing the Attainder of Jacob Leisler and Others (London: Charles Bill, 1695), this document details New York’s response to the Glorious Revolution, or rather, ‘Leisler’s Rebellion.’

An act for reversing the attainder of Jacob Leisler and others © The National Archives. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

Click the image to see this document in the collection.

As previous bloggers have already noted [1], Britain dominates modern-day perceptions of colonial-era America. New York is no exception to this. Originally founded as a Dutch colony, by 1688 New York still contained a large population of original Dutch settlers. There were also Native Americans based on the western frontier, French Huguenots, German Palatines, and a small but significant black population. Add to these the threat of French invasion from Canada (just north of the colonial border) and New York was far from the demographically homogeneous and politically stable British colony depicted in popular memory.

Upon hearing news of the events in England, the Royal Governor appointed by James II was declared an enemy of the new regime and driven out of the state. With a power vacuum in the colony, Dutch militia captain Jacob Leisler was established as the acting governor of New York. The episode triggered an intricate and complicated series of events, along with a political schism which would rumble on into the early 1700s, as the Leislerian and anti-Leislerian factions became bitter opponents within New York’s colonial assembly.

In the eyes of his supporters, Leisler acted within the interests of King William and Queen Mary to maintain order within New York. The anti-Leislerians depicted things a little differently; they accused the Dutchman with imprisoning his opponents arbitrarily, and inflaming “the rabble” and “men of mean birth, sordid education and desperate fortunes” with stories of papists and adherents to James II living amongst them. Ultimately, the affair came to an end in 1691 with the arrival of Governor Henry Sloughter and Leisler’s execution.

The Act for Reversing the Attainder of Jacob Leisler represents a gigantic U-turn in British politics. After being executed for treason, in 1698 Leisler was granted a full pardon and recognised as legal governor. But the document also raises more questions than it answers; for instance, what prompted this change of opinion? And why were ministers still enthusiastically debating Leisler’s innocence almost a decade after his ‘rebellion’?

For me, the Act encapsulates many of the arguments and tensions associated with the Leisler affair. But perhaps most significantly this document demonstrates that, despite New York’s geographical remoteness, its factional politics were of immediate importance in London. What this reveals about the relationship between New York and Britain, where the case of “the rabble” could come to the personal attention of not only Parliament, but the King himself, deserves critical investigation.

[1] Nick Jackson – 8 July 2016

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About the Author

Sophie H Jones

Sophie H Jones

Sophie H Jones is a PhD candidate in the department of History at the University of Liverpool, UK, and recipient of the University’s ‘Changing Cultures’ studentship. Her research considers the eighteenth-century cultural origins of Loyalism in New York, the activities of New York’s Loyalists during the American War of Independence, and their responses to its aftermath.

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