Last time around we discussed George Rogers Howell’s comprehensive and descriptive list of the English colonial governors of New York, from his Bi-Centennial History of the County of Albany, 1886. He elaborated on some of his brief tabular descriptions with some more detailed evaluations of the shortcomings of several of the governors, whom Howell notes “were often recalled on account of manifest incompetency or glaring dishonesty and fraud.” He held Albany and its citizens apart, saying “it is easy to see what Albany thought of these matters by the class of men put forward to direct public affairs at home, or to represent them in the Assemblies when they were allowed. Though generally loyal subjects of the government, at the same time they were friends of popular representation and the advancement of the true interests of the colony.”
Howell writes that at the end of Dutch rule, the English who resided in New York City were tired of the stubborn tyranny of inflexible Dutch Governor Peter Stuyvesant, and expected some of the liberties allowed in New England under Governor Nicolls. Apparently they were disappointed, but Howell describes Nicolls’ administration as “mild,” and notes that “he did not impair the city liberties of Albany, nor interfere with its trade. After its peaceable surrender, September 24, 1664, things went on as usual . . . It was decided that the Dutch patents must be renewed as invalid, bringing wealth to the Governor by his enormous fees for granting new titles.”
Of Francis Lovelace, who followed Nicolls, the same could not be said. “The odious Lovelace listened to nothing asked by the people. He told them that their business was to work and pay their taxes. He ordered their remonstrance to be burned by the common hangman.” Then came the brief period when the Dutch retook the colony, with Anthony Colve as Director-General. It lasted a bit more than a year; when peace was declared between Holland and England, New Netherlands was again given over to the British, and Edmund Andros was named governor, an office he served on three non-successive occasions. The “hated tyrant,” as Howell called him, “held sway over a colony of unsubmissive subjects. He filled his position as Governor about five years and a half in all, and never secured confidence and respect.” While governing from New York, he did visit Albany, usually in connection with Indian affairs (at which some writers find him quite deft). In 1676, he had a new stockade fort built
near the present site of St. Peter’s Church, so as to defend and command the whole town of Albany. It had four bastions and room for twenty-four guns. It was occupied in June, in command of Captain Sylvester Salisbury. During his time he was frequently called upon in settling church difficulties at Albany, and settling Indian questions, which he generally adjusted acceptably. Andros was loyal to his king, but oppressive. In 1689, he was arrested in Boston by the people, confined in the fort, and his under officers shipped to England.
More on that soon. After Andros’s first term, it was under Thomas Dongan that government really started to form.
Dongan called the first representative Assembly, which met at Fort James, October 17, 1683. The names of the two members from Albany and two from Rensselaerwyck are not known. This Assembly adopted a charter of liberties, and divided the province into counties, as stated in another part of this volume. During his time, the claim of the Patroon over the territory of Albany, neglected by Andros, was adjusted amicably and wisely, and Albany received its city charter July 22, 1686 … Dongan, though not in sympathy in religious views with a majority of the people, was a man of moderation and gentle manners, and attended faithfully to the interests of the colony in the matters of the French, who were still endeavoring, by religious influence, to seduce the Mohawks. He visited the new city several times, and advanced its policy by good counsel and good appointments. There was some feeling against him, chiefly on account of his religion, at a time of less liberality than now. [Now being 1886.]
Then came the abdication of King James II, the ascension of William and Mary in a “glorious revolution,” and the huge controversy occasioned by the assumption of power by Jacob Leisler. This occasioned a crisis in the colony and in Albany, and inflamed tensions with the frontier town of Schenectady. Leisler, who while in Albany had made an enemy of Rev. Nicholas van Rensselaer (and lost a lawsuit with him over a matter of theology), was appointed a commissioner of the court of admiralty in New York by Dongan, and captain of a military company in New York City when Lieutenant Governor Francis Nicholson took command of the colony while Governor Edmund Andros was in Maine and Massachusetts dealing with colonial aggressions against Indian tribes. There was a bit of a religious divide in the colony at the time, given that the revolution of William and Mary was not being reflected by changes in New York society and offices. Leisler was a populist, and popular, and when it was learned that Governor Edmund Andros had been imprisoned in Boston, supporters of Leisler took control of Fort James at the tip of Manhattan on May 31, 1689, renamed it Fort William, and said they would hold it until a new governor appointed by William arrived.
They sent for Leisler, who at first refused to lead them but then acceded. A committee of safety was formed, with a provisional government with Leisler in charge as captain of the fort. In June, Nicholson left for London, for his own safety. The mayor of New York and others moved to Albany, which held out against Leisler’s authority. To add to the already tense relationship between the two towns, Schenectady was home to a strong pro-Leisler sentiment. In November of 1689, Leisler sent an armed force to Albany to assist in defense against potential Indian attacks, on the condition of Albany accepting Leisler’s authority. The offer was not accepted. Three months later, the French and Indians massacred and burned Schenectady; soon after Albany accepted Leisler’s authority.
Howell was clearly a fan of Leisler:
The assumption of authority by Jacob leisler, a merchant and militia captain of New York City, made much trouble in Albany. He held his position with the approval of the people. The aristocracy were opposed to him as a Commander-in-Chief of the Province. He was acting governor for the time. Lieutenant-Governor Nicholson had gone to England, and the colony had no governor. Leisler may have been ambitious, but he was honest and patriotic. He was brave and popular. It was his purpose to give up the trust committed him by the people as soon as a Governor appointed by William and Mary should reach New York.
Meanwhile he proffered aid to protect the frontiers at Albany and Schenectady, now in danger of invasion from the French and Indians, and claimed possession of the fort at Albany and recognition of his right to command. He sent his son-in-law, Jacob Milborne, to persuade the people of Albany to yield to Leisler’s government. Some of the people looked favorably upon the matter. But the city government regarded the course of Leisler and Milborne as without authority of William and Mary, and therefore seditious. The Mayor, Peter Schuyler, took charge of the fort, and successfully resisted all attempts of Milborne and his troops, who had been sent up from New York for that purpose, to take possession of it. The citizens were divided in their sympathies. They sent for aid to Connecticut, and aid came; to Massachusetts, and they were advised to yield to Leisler and have peace. This they did, because of their fear, especially after the burning of Schenectady, of invasion and devastation.
It didn’t end well for Leisler. Governor Sloughter arrived with a commission from the crown on March 19, 1691.
Leisler readily yielded the authority, claimed as from the people. He was no usurper. But the aristocratic haters of popular rule were not satisfied. They caused the immediate arrest of Leisler and Milborne, and had them cast in prison, tried and convicted on the charge of treason. Sloughter, during a drunken debauch, signed the sentence of execution, and they were hanged May 16, 1691. History writes the actors in this malicious murder as traitors against freedom and humanity.
Howell had worse things to say about the next governor. He said that Fletcher was one of the most arrogant and covetous governors, who “visited Albany as most of the Governors did, to display his authority . . . Boastful of military skill, he was cowardly and imbecile in action. A hater of all religion, he was a professed Episcopalian, and made himself odious by an endeavor to make it the only sect recognized by the State and supported by general tax.”
Next, the Earl of Bellmont’s brief terms “were those of judicious management.” Lord Cornbury “left a record of unscrupulous villainy and licentiousness that puts his name in lasting contempt.” Governors Hunter and Burnet were better received, but William Cosby “was narrow in his prejudices and a petty tyrant. The famous Zenger libel case occurred in his time, in 1734.”
Howell went on. More tomorrow.