Who Was Jacob Leisler?
Best known as a leader of a 1689 New York rebellion that came to bear his name, Jacob Leisler was one of late-seventeenth-century New York’s most prominent merchants, land developers, and foremost exponent of Reformed religious fundamentalism and Orangist political ideology. He was intimately bound to the social, economic, and political development of New Netherland and New York from 1660, when he was sent to the New World as a soldier by the Dutch West India Company’s Amsterdam office, until his execution for treason in New York City in May 1691.
Jacob Leisler was born in Frankfurt-am-Main into a prominent European Calvinist family that included Dr. Jacob Leisler (shown to the left), his grandfather and chief councilor to the Counts of Oettingen, Reverend Jacob Victorian Leisler, his father and pastor of the Frankfurt-am-Main French Reformed church (shown above), and the noted Huguenot theologian Simon Goulart. Leisler’s brothers, Johann Adam and Frantz, were Swiss bankers who financed such Protestant states as the Duchy of Württemberg. As a member of the Calvinist elite, Leisler was connected with such political and intellectual figures of his day as Dutch artist Henri Couturier, the pro-Orangist Rotterdam group of English exiles, which included Gilbert Burnet, Charles Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, and Charles Mordaunt, Earl of Monmouth, as well as with the New England divines Cotton and Increase Mather.
In the New World, Leisler catapulted to fame in 1689 when, in the wake of England’s Glorious Revolution, he assumed the role of King William III’s governor of New York. He thereupon implemented a program based on direct popular representation that had, as contemporaries noted, wide impact from the Chesapeake to New England. The following year he called for and hosted English America’s first intercolonial congress and organized the first intercolonial military action independent of British authority. Leisler’s administration of New York split the province into two distinct camps that were closely aligned with the Regent and Orangist factions in the United Provinces and the Whig and Tory factions in England, the legacy of which, according to some historians, is America’s unique two-party system. Other historians see in Leisler’s assumption of the New York government a forerunner of the American Revolution.
Remembering Jacob Leisler
Despite Leisler’s historic importance, he has been generally neglected by twentieth-century American scholars. That Leisler’s correspondence is in Dutch, French, and German, as well as in English, is a primary reason for this neglect. Another reason is that serious scholarship into the German-born Leisler, as well as into the largely non-English population of the middle colonies in general, fell victim to the anti-German hysteria of World War I. Leisler’s papers are widely scattered. In New York they are found throughout the state from such local town archives as that of East Hampton to the State Archives in Albany. Often these papers are found rotting in forgotten boxes in municipal basements. Outside New York, Leisler’s letters exist in widely diverse archives in Germany, Holland, France, England, the West Indies, Maryland, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Virginia. The Notarial Records of the Amsterdam Gemeentearchief, for example, contain a large selection of Leisler’s business correspondence.
The modern neglect of Leisler can also partially be attributed to the political designs and struggles of eighteenth-century New Yorkers. For decades following his execution in 1691, Leisler’s government and reforms remained a major source of factionalism within New York politics. Leislerians struggled to preserve Leisler’s legacy while anti-Leislerians attempted to eradicate his memory and strike his name from the public record. In addition, the broad notoriety Leisler enjoyed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries resulted in a strong collector’s market that further scattered his manuscripts. For each of these reasons, the Jacob Leisler Papers Project is required to search well beyond the government offices and local archives that would logically hold the papers of an important New York figure.
The only major published collections of Leisler’s papers appeared in 1849, when approximately 400 Leisler documents for the years 1689-1691 in the possession of the New York State Archives were printed in Volume II of the Documentary History of New-York. Compiled prior to the imposition of scholarly standards, the Documentary History of New York collection, lacking annotation, chronologically out of order, and poorly transcribed, nonetheless served as the basis for subsequent studies of both Jacob Leisler and late seventeenth-century New York. Peter R. Christoph published an excellent revised scholarly edition of this collection, The Leisler Papers 1689-1691: Files of the Provincial Secretary of New York Relating to the Administration of Lieutenant-Governor Jacob Leisler, in 2001. Another collection of Leisler material, consisting largely of documents for the months February-March 1691, were published in Volume I of the New-York Historical Society Collections in 1868.
Other than the Documentary History of New York and New-York Historical Society Collections, English-speaking students of late-seventeenth-century Dutch-speaking America have previously had available only the published papers of such English imperial officials as William Blathwayt, Edward Randolph, and Sir Edmund Andros, and the letters of such New Englanders as Samuel Sewall, and the Increase and Cotton Mather collections, which make only passing reference to events in the former Dutch colony of New Netherland. As a result, there is a large gap in the knowledge of events in New York between the 1664 conquest of New Netherland by the English and the early eighteenth century.