Ex Governors of New York



Benjamin Fletcher succeeded Sloughter as governor of New York. He was a man of violent passions, weak judgment, greedy, dishonest and cowardly, and as dissolute as his predecessor. How he came to be entrusted with the governorship at all, and especially with the large powers of commander of the militia of Connecticut, New York and New Jersey with which he was invested, is a problem not easily solved. He soon disgusted all parties; and the recklessness of his administration caused more decided resistance to imperial power than ever before. Among his acts of petty tyranny, which displayed his folly and weakness, was his visit to Hartford, with Colonel Bayard and others, late in the autumn of 1693, to assert his disputed military authority there, by ordering out the Connecticut militia at a season when parades had ceased. The charter of the colony denied Fletcher's jurisdiction, and the Assembly, then in session, promptly gave utterance to that denial on this occasion. "I will not set my foot out of this colony, till I have seen his majesty's commission obeyed," said Fletcher to the governor of Connecticut. The latter yielded so much as to allow Captain Wadsworth to call out the train-bands of Hartford.

When the troops were assembled, Fletcher stepped forward to take the command, and ordered Bayard to read his excellency's commission. At that moment Captain Wadsworth ordered the drums to be beaten. "Silence!" angrily cried the petulant governor, and Bayard began to read again. "Drum! drum! I say," shouted Wadsworth; and the sonorous roll drowned the voice of Bayard. Fletcher, in a rage, stamped his foot and cried "Silence!" and threatened the captain with punishment for insubordination. Whereupon Wadsworth stepped boldly in front of the governor and said, while his hand rested on the handle of his sword: "If my drummers are interrupted again, I'll make the sunlight shine through you. We deny and defy your authority." The cowardly governor sullenly folded up his commission, pocketed it and the affront, and with his retinue returned to New York in a very angry mood. He complained to the king. The matter was compromised by making Fletcher commander of the Connecticut militia only in time of war.

During the whole of Fletcher's administration of seven years, party rancor, kindled by the death of Leisler, burned intensely, and, at one time, menaced the province with civil war. At the same time it was threatened with a destructive invasion by the French and Indians from Canada, under the guidance of the venerable Count Frontenac, the energetic governor of that province. These foes were then traversing the wilderness in northern New York, seeking for a passage through the country of the Five Nations to the English settlements below. Fortunately the governor listened to the wise advice of Mayor Schuyler, of Albany, who had a marvellous influence over the Iroquois Confederacy; and under his leadership, about three hundred English and as many Mohawk warriors beat back the foe to the St. Lawrence. They so desolated the French settlements in the vicinity of Lake Champlain, slaying about three hundred French and Indians at the north end of the lake, that Frontenac was glad to remain quiet at Montreal.

Although the New York Assembly was filled with the bitter enemies of Leisler, they, as boldly as he, asserted the supremacy of the people, and would suffer no encroachments on colonial rights and privileges. They rebuked the interference of the governor in legislation, by insisting upon amendments to bills, and drew from him, on one occasion, the reproachful words which tell of their independence and firmness: "There never was an amendment desired by the Council Board, but what was rejected. It is a sign of a stubborn ill-temper." With that "stubborn ill-temper" of the Assembly, Fletcher was almost continually in conflict; and when, in 1698, he was superseded by the Earl of Bellamont, he seemed as glad to leave the province as the people were to get rid of him.

Bellamont was an honest and energetic Irish peer. He had been on the Committee of Parliament appointed to make inquiry concerning the trial and death of Leisler, and was well acquainted with the questions which divided the factions. He rebuked the little aristocratic oligarchy who had hovered around Fletcher; and his wise and liberal course strengthened the republican cause. It opened the way to just legislation, and the ascendency of liberal men in the Assembly. That body, in the year 1700, on receiving a letter from the king, asking them to indemnify the family of Leisler from a "gracious sense of the father's services and sufferings," confirmed the verdict of Parliament in favor of the innocence of the martyr by granting the request.

Bellamont labored earnestly to reform existing abuses in the management of public affairs. It was a sharp commentary on the character of his predecessor, when he uttered the promise: "I will pocket none of the public money myself, nor shall there be any embezzlement by others." Such confidence had the Assembly in his integrity, that they voted a revenue for six years and placed it at the disposition of the governor. Notwithstanding his character was above reproach, it passed under a cloud because of his unfortunate connection with the famous pirate, Captain William Kidd. The story may be briefly told: English commerce suffered greatly from the depredations of pirates and French privateers. The English government could not suppress the evil. A company was formed to do that work. It was composed of several English noblemen and the king, and Robert Livingston, the first "Lord of the Manor," and Governor Bellamont, in America. They fitted out a galley called the Adventure, as a privateer. Livingston, then in England, recommended Captain Kidd, of New York, to be here commander, and he was duly commissioned as such by the king. In the Adventure, Kidd did noble service in protecting the commerce in American waters from the sea-robbers. He recruited from time to time, until his crew numbered one hundred and fifty men. Then he resolved to measure strength with the pirates of the Indian Ocean. Arming his men with pistols, cutlasses and pikes, and the Adventure with a swivel gun at her stem and stern, he sailed for Madagascar, where he turned pirate. He respected no flag, no nationality, no circumstance; but swept the seas for booty alone, roving over the vast expanse of ocean from Farther India westward to the coasts of South America. Thence he sailed up among the West India Islands and along the shores of North America, to the vicinity of his home; and on Gardiner's Island, eastward of Long Island, he buried much treasure, consisting of gold, silver, and precious stones.

The piracies of Kidd were long known in England before the Company noticed them. At length the matter became so scandalous that they felt it necessary to vindicate their character. The belief was general that the king, the earl, the "lord of the manor," and their associates had shared the plunder with Kidd, and the odium of complicity in piracy rested heavily upon them. They needed a scape-goat, and Kidd was made the victim. He appeared openly in the streets of Boston, unsuspicious of real danger, for he had his king's commission in his pocket, and Bellamont was his business partner. But the governor, expressing horror at his crimes, ordered his arrest, and very soon the pirate appeared before the earl a prisoner in irons.

Kidd now saw that he was to be sacrificed, and he sought to win the earl's favor and aid, by telling Bellamont where he had hidden the treasure. In immovable firmness at that critical moment lay the governor's safety; and he turned a deaf ear to the prayers of the prisoner with bowed head, and the entreaties of his wife who begged for mercy, human and divine, for her erring husband. There was a struggle between the pride and fear, and the better nature of Bellamont. The former triumphed. Kidd was sent to England and tried for murder and piracy. Convicted of the former, he was hanged. So the penalty of the sins of omission, at least, of the monarch and nobles and rich civilians, were borne by the commoner on the scaffold. The earl received the buried treasure, and at his coffers its history ends in impenetrable mystery.

The king and the earl died soon after Kidd perished, and Sir Edward Hyde, uncle of Queen Anne, who was then monarch of England, became governor of New York. He was a libertine and a knave, who cursed the province with misrule for about seven years. He was a bigot, too, and persecuted all denominations of Christians outside of the Church of England. He embezzled the public money, involved himself heavily in debt, and on all occasions was the persistent enemy of popular freedom. "I know no right which you have as an assembly," he said to the representatives of the people, "but such as the queen is pleased to allow you." That was in 1705, the year when that Assembly won the first substantial victory for democracy over absolutism or despotic rule. They obtained from the queen permission to make specific appropriations of incidental grants of money, and to appoint their own treasurer to take charge of extraordinary supplies. That was a bold and important step in the direction of popular independence and sovereignty.

So the very vices of the governor disciplined the people to resistance of oppression, and secured to them the recognition of rights which might have been postponed for many years. The governor, who was weak-minded, mean-spirited and vacillating, was so overpowered by the indomitable will of the people-a hardy, mixed race-that he meekly submitted to reproof, and in his poverty of soul and purse humbly thanked the Assembly for simple justice. In 1708, the queen, yielding to the wishes of the people, recalled him. When he left the chair of state his creditors cast him into prison, where he remained until the death of his father made him Lord Cornbury. Then he was released by the unjust law of England yet in force, which will not permit a peer of the realm, and consequently a member of the House of Lords, to be arrested for debt.

Lord Lovelace was Hyde's successor. With his brief administration began those contests between democracy and absolutism in the province of New York which ended only with the victory of the former at the close of the old war for independence. Already the political friends of Leisler had achieved a signal triumph over his enemies. Colonel Bayard and others, who had published libels on the royal lieutenant-governor (Nanfan) before Hyde's arrival, had been arrested by that energetic officer and tried for and convicted of treason under a law which these men had made in 1691 to meet Leisler's case. Bayard was sentenced to be "hanged, drawn and quartered," but was reprieved until the pleasure of the monarch should be known. When Hyde arrived, soon afterward, he reversed the attainder, and the offender was set at liberty. The power of the self-constituted aristocracy was broken, and their controlling influence disappeared. When Lovelace came, and the crown demanded a permanent revenue without appropriation, the legislature of New York, in the exercise of popular sovereignty or rule of the people, and taking the ground that "taxation without representation is tyranny," would raise only an annual revenue for specific purposes. From that time, until 1732, the royal representatives, unable to resist the will of the people, as expressed by the Assembly, allowed democratic principles to grow, flourish, and bear fruit.

From Lovelace to Cosby, there were three governors-Robert Hunter, William Burnet and John Montgomery-and three acting governors. The first was a literary man, fond of good cheer, but unfitted by temperament to be governor of New York at that crisis. He brought with him three thousand German Lutherans from the Palatinate of the Rhine, who had been driven from their homes by the persecution of Louis the Fourteenth. These settled in different parts of the province of New York, and in Pennsylvania. They were chiefly the ancestors of the German population of the latter State.

Hunter and his council, under instructions, insisted that the popular Assembly, like themselves, existed only by the mere grace of the crown. The Assembly as vehemently insisted that they possessed an inherent right to legislate, that was derived not from any commission or grant from the crown, but "from the free choice and election of the people who ought not, nor justly can be, divested of their property without their consent." The governor could not assent to this doctrine. The Assembly were inflexible; and Hunter's administration was marked by violent political contests between the chief magistrate and the representatives of the people. "I have spent three years," he wrote at one time, "in such torture and vexation that nothing in life can make amends for it." He loved his ease, and sighed for quiet. Failing health compelled him to return to England in 1719, when he left the government in the hands of Peter Schuyler, the oldest member of the council. That accomplished gentleman completely restored the friendship between the English and the Five Nations, which had been disturbed.

Hunter was succeeded by William Burnet, son of the celebrated Bishop Burnet. For awhile he was very popular, but at length he incurred the displeasure of a powerful party of merchants who controlled the Assembly, and his position was made so very uncomfortable that he was transferred to the government of Massachusetts. It was during his administration, that William Bradford, in the autumn of 1725, established the first public newspaper in New York. He had set up the first printing-house in the province, in 1693, when Fletcher was governor. His paper was entitled "The New York Weekly Gazette." John Montgomery succeeded Burnet in 1728. Death closed his uneventful administration, in the summer of 1731, when Rip Van Dam, the senior member of the council, took charge of public affairs until the arrival of Williams Cosby as governor, in 1732.

Cosby was avaricious and arbitrary by nature, and opportunity made him exercise his passions almost without stint. His first act was to demand of Van Dam an equal share of that councillor's salary received by him while acting as governor. "Give me half the perquisites of your office from the time of your appointment until your arrival," said Van Dam, "and I will agree to your proposition." This fair proposal was rejected, and Van Dam refused compliance with the governor's requisition. Cosby sued him in the Supreme Court. A majority of the judges were the governor's personal friends, and gave judgment against Van Dam. Chief-Justice Morris decided against the governor. The latter removed the chief justice without consulting his council, and put James De Lancey in his place.

The sympathies of the people were with Van Dam, and the governor's high-handed proceedings aroused their indignation to an intense pitch. They induced John Peter Zenger, who had been an apprentice and business partner with Bradford, to establish a newspaper to be the organ of the democratic party. He did so in November, 1733, calling it the "New York Weekly Journal," with Van Dam behind him as financial supporter. Bradford's paper was then controlled by the government.

The "Journal" made vigorous warfare upon the governor and his political friends. It kept up a continual fire of squibs, lampoons and satires, and finally charged them with violating the rights of the people, the assumption of tyrannical power, and the perversion of their official stations for selfish purposes.

The officials endured these attacks for a year. In the autumn of 1734, the governor and council ordered Zenger's papers, containing his offensive articles, to be burned publicly by the common hangman, and he was arrested and thrown into prison on a charge of libelling the government. The Grand Jury refused to find a bill of indictment for this offence, but he was held by another process, and was kept in jail until early in the next August, when he was brought to trial in the City Hall, New York. The case excited intense interest throughout the whole country, for it involved the great question of liberty of speech and of the press.



Meanwhile an association called the "Sons of Liberty" had worked diligently for Zenger. The venerable Andrew Hamilton, of Philadelphia, then eighty years of age and the foremost lawyer in the country, was engaged as the prisoner's counsel. On the hot morning when the trial commenced, the court-room was densely crowded. Chief-Justice De Lancey presided. A jury was empaneled. The prisoner pleaded "Not Guilty," but boldly admitted the publication of the alleged libel, and offered full proof of its justification. The attorney-general had just risen to oppose the introduction of such proof, when the venerable Hamilton unexpectedly entered the room, his long white hair flowing over his shoulders, instead of being queued in the fashion of the day. The excited audience, most of them in sympathy with the prisoner, arose to their feet, and in spite of the voice and frowns of the chief-justice, waved their hats and shouted loud huzzas. When silence prevailed, the attorney-general took the ground that facts in justification of an alleged libel were not admissible in evidence. The court sustained him.

When Hamilton arose, a murmur of applause ran through the crowd. In a few eloquent sentences he scattered to the winds the sophistries which supported the pernicious doctrine that "the greater the truth the greater is the libel." He declared that the jury were themselves judges of the facts and the law; that they were competent to judge of the guilt or innocence of the accused, and reminded them that they were the sworn protectors of the rights, liberties and privileges of their fellow-citizens, which, in this instance, had been violated by a most outrageous and vindictive series of persecutions. He conjured them to remember that it was for them to interpose between the tyrannical and arbitrary violators of the law and their intended victim, and to assert, by their verdict, in the fullest manner, the freedom of speech and of the press, and the supremacy of the people over their wanton and powerful oppressors.

Notwithstanding the charge of the chief-justice was wholly adverse to the doctrines of the great advocate, the jury, after brief deliberation, returned a unanimous verdict of "Not Guilty." Then a shout of triumph went up from the multitude, and Hamilton was borne out of the court-room upon the shoulders of the people to a grand entertainment which had been prepared for him. On the following day a public dinner was given him by the citizens. At the close of September following, the corporation of the city of New York presented to Mr. Hamilton the Freedom of the City and their thanks, in a gold box weighing five-and-a-half ounces, made for the occasion. In this document they cordially thanked him for his "learned and generous defence of the rights of mankind, and the liberty of the press," and for his signal service which "he cheerfully undertook, under great indisposition of body, and generously performed, refusing any fee or reward."

This triumph of the popular cause--this vindication of the freedom of the press--this evidence of the determination of the people to protect their champions, and this success of an organization in its infancy which appeared in power thirty years later under the same name of "Sons of Liberty," was a sure prophecy of that political independence of the colonies which was so speedily fulfilled. Yet the stupid governor, staggered by the blow, could not understand the meaning of the prophecy; and only his death, a few months after the trial, put an end to his vindictive proceedings.

From the arrival of Cosby until the beginning of the French and Indian war at the middle of the century, the history of the province of New York is composed chiefly of the records of party strife. Only one episode in that history demands special attention here. It is known in our annals as the "Negro Plot;" as unsubstantial in fact as was the "Salem Witch craft." Several incendiary fires had occurred in quick succession in the city of New York, in 1741. The idea suddenly took possession of the minds of the inhabitants that it was the work of negroes, who had conspired to burn and plunder the city, murder the white inhabitants and set up a government under a man of their own color. A fearful panic ensued. Suspected negroes of both sexes, and some white men and women, were arrested and tried; and before the excitement was over, four white people were hanged, and eleven negroes were burned. Eighteen of the latter were hanged, and fifty were sent to the West Indies and sold as slaves. On the site of the present City Hall, three negroes were burnt at the stake at one time. Two of them were men and one was a woman. All who suffered at that time were, undoubtedly, innocent victims of terror created by imaginary danger.





Return to Our Country, Vol. I