The Leisler-Milborne Treason Trial

Background

In 1688, James II ordered that the Province of New York be annexed to the Dominion of New England that he had established in 1686 to consolidate the administration of the New England colonies. In the ceremonial transfer of power, New York's Governor Nicholson presented the New York Provincial Seal to Governor Andros, who then broke it, symbolizing that New York no longer had an independent administration, and Nicholson became the Lieutenant Governor of the Dominion. Not long afterward, word of England's Glorious Revolution that replaced the absolute monarchy of James II with a constitutional monarchy under William of Orange and Mary, reached the capital of the Dominion, Boston. Andros and many officials of his highly unpopular administration were arrested, jailed and sent to England for trial.

In the political vacuum that ensued, the citizens of New York feared an attack on the city by forces loyal to James II. To preempt the rumored attack, the local New York militia seized Fort James on May 31, 1689, and declared loyalty to William and Mary. One of their number, a German immigrant named Jacob Leisler, drafted a declaration that stated "as soon as the bearer of orders from the prince of Orange shall let us see his power, then without delay we do intend to obey, not the orders only, but also the bearer thereof." The militia set up a Committee of Safety to govern New York pending the arrival of the new Governor and Leisler, who had studied at a military academy in Germany, emerged as the commander. On June 6, 1689, Lieutenant-Governor Nicholson departed for England to deliver depositions to the crown and shortly afterward, word was received from William and Mary confirming in office all Protestants holding royal commissions. By that time, the only area of the Province not under Leisler's command was Albany and the anti-Leisler faction gathered there, including Bayard and van Cortlandt. When Leisler's forces arrested and imprisoned Bayard, his supporters fled to neighboring colonies and in early 1690, the Leisler militia took control of Albany.

Although William and Mary commissioned Henry Sloughter as Governor of New York on November 14, 1689, he did not depart from England until December 1, 1690. While at sea, his ships encountered stormy weather, and it was the ship upon which his Lieutenant-Governor, Major Richard Ingoldsby, sailed that first arrived in New York harbor. Ingoldsby did not have his commission in his possession (it was on Sloughter's ship), but he insisted that Leisler surrender the government and Fort James to him. Leisler refused, citing the absence of the documents of appointment. Ingoldsby had the support of the members of the old Council and during the six weeks that followed, the City split into two armed camps. When Governor Sloughter arrived, he issued a second demand for surrender and Leisler sent envoys to the Governor in reply. These emissaries were immediately seized as rebels and the following morning, when Leisler surrendered the fort, he and many of his followers were arrested and imprisoned.

The Trial

A Committee for Preparing the Prosecution, consisting of Nicholas Bayard, William Pinhorne, and Stephen Van Cortlandt was set up and a special session of the Court of Oyer and Terminer was convened on April 10, 1691. Leisler, Jacob Milborne (Leisler’s son-in-law), and eight others were indicted and charged with the treasonable act of holding the king's fort by force against the royal governor, such action resulting in several deaths. Joseph Dudley, who had been Chief Judge of the Dominion of New England under James II, was appointed chief judge of the tribunal. Many of the associate judges were anti-Leislarians: Thomas Johnson, a judge of admiralty; Sir Robert Robinson, Colonel William Smith, Recorder William Pinhorne, Mayor of New York City John Lawrence, Jasper Hicks, captain of the frigate "Archangel," Major Richard Ingoldsby, Colonel John Young, and Captain Isaac Arnold. The attorneys for the prosecution were James Emott, George Farewell, and William Nicoll. Neither Leisler nor Milborne was represented by counsel.

Leisler and Milborne refused to plead until the court ruled on the legality of the authority under which they had held Fort James. That authority consisted of a commission from King William, dated July 30, 1689 and addressed to Lieutenant-Governor Nicholson or, in his absence "to such as for the time being take care of preserving the peace and administering the laws" (a reference to the Governor's Council). This document re-appointed Nicholson (previously appointed by James II) as Lieutenant-Governor. The document did not reach New York until December 9, 1689, by which time Nicholson had departed the Province. The king's emissary delivered the commission to Leisler, who controlled the City, and the Committee on Safety deemed Leisler legally appointed Lieutenant-Governor because he was "the person who administered the laws and preserved the peace."

The court declined to address this question but referred it to the Governor and Council who responded that the royal papers gave no power or direction to Leisler. Again, Leisler and Milborne refused to plead. The trial lasted eight days, the jury found the defendants guilty, and Leisler and Milborne were sentenced to death. Governor Henry Sloughter was hesitant to execute the men "who had first raised the standard of William of Orange and Protestantism," and sought instructions from England. But before the authorities in England could respond, the anti-Leisler faction prevailed upon the Governor to sign the death warrants (it is said, he was very drunk), and Leisler and Milborne were hanged on Saturday, May 16, 16911 before the Governor regained his senses.

Appeal to the House of Lords

Leisler's son petitioned the House of Lords to hold an inquiry into the legality of the execution of Leisler and Milborne. During those proceedings, Lord Bellomont declared that Leisler and Milborne had been "barbarously murdered." The House of Lords reversed the attainder and posthumously restored Leisler and Milborne to their estates. In 1698, when Governor Bellomont arrived in New York, he approved the disinterment of the remains of Leisler and Milborne from the hole beneath the gallows into which they had been hastily thrown after the execution. Under guard of 100 soldiers provided by Bellomont, and with upwards of twelve hundred people marching to the beat of muffled drums in torch-lit procession, the remains were brought to City Hall, where they lay in state for several days. Following funeral ceremonies, the bodies were interred in the Dutch Church.

Aftermath

The trial had lasting effect and the executions made martyrs of both Leisler and Milborne, deepened the divisions between pro- and anti-Leislerian factions, and influenced the politics of the Province for many decades afterward.


SOURCES:

David William Voorhees. "The 'fervent Zeale' of Jacob Leisler." 51 William and Mary Quarterly 447.

William Cullen Bryant, Sydney Howard Gay, and Noah Brooks. Scribner's Popular History of the United States. (1896).

William Torrey Harris. The United States of America: a Pictorial History of the American Nation from the Earliest Discoveries and Settlements to the Present Time (1909).

ENDNOTES:

1) "But the enemies of the condemned men did not stop because of such refusal. At a grand dinner, they brought the governor under the influence of wine, and then had little trouble in leading him further. While he was in this drunken condition, the death warrants of Leisler and Milborne were placed before him, and, without realizing the fearful step he was taking, he affixed his signature. This was on the 16th of May, 1691. When the governor recovered his senses he found that both the prisoners had been hanged, and their bodies beheaded in the presence of a large crowd of people." (The United States of America: a Pictorial History of the American Nation from the Earliest Discoveries and Settlements to the Present Time (1909)).



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