Jacob Leisler was born in Frankfurt, Germany, the eldest son of a Calvinist clergyman. At 20, he enlisted as a soldier in the service of the Dutch West India Company. Leisler was sent to New Amsterdam, where he married the well-to-do widow of a ship’s carpenter in 1663.
His fortune assured, Leisler led a fairly uneventful life for the next 25 years. He became a merchant and the captain of one of the New York City militias, but he did not attract a great deal of attention. It was the aftereffects of the Glorious Revolution in England that thrust Leisler into the spotlight.
William and Mary displaced King James II in 1688 and became joint sovereigns of England. This situation caused unrest within the colonies, and New York’s Lieutenant Governor Francis Nicholson appointed Leisler to lead the militia in suppressing the trouble in his colony. On May 31, 1689, the New York militia companies banded together and seized the city’s fort.
Over the next few days, Leisler switched allegiance from Nicholson’s government and took over the New York fort on behalf of the new Protestant monarchs. A committee was elected, and Leisler was confirmed first as commander of the fort, and then as commanderin- chief of the colony since Nicholson had fled to England.
Then, in December 1689, long-awaited instructions arrived from William and Mary. However, while the instructions specified that an unknown administrator named Henry Sloughter would be appointed royal governor, they were ambiguous as to who would rule the colony for the time being. Leisler received the instructions, seized upon this opportunity to declare himself lieutenant governor, and took control of the colony.
In February 1690, a French and Indian war party attacked and destroyed Schenectady, New York. Feeling the need for assistance, the citizens of Albany asked Leisler for help. He called for a meeting of the colonial governors of Massachusetts Bay, Plymouth, and Connecticut; the meeting was held in New York City in April. Energetic and decisive, Leisler set in motion an ambitious two-pronged campaign to seize French Canada.
Although the plan failed, Leisler had begun an important pattern of intercolonial cooperation.Meanwhile, in January 1691, Richard Ingoldesby arrived in New York as the advance guard for the new governor, Henry Sloughter.
Leisler refused to surrender his place to Ingoldesby and in March, Leisler hesitated to yield to Sloughter himself. Sloughter captured the fort, and Leisler, his son-in-law Jacob Milborne, and eight others were arrested for treason. They were tried, found guilty, and sentenced to death.
Leisler and Milborne were executed on May 17, 1691.At King William Ill’s insistence, Parliament reversed the judgments in 1695, and the properties that had been confiscated were returned to the Leisler family.