- Historic Sites
His Most Detestable High Mightiness
Besides being a bigot, a fop, and a thief, the British governor Lord Cornbury, had some peculiar fetishes
April 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 3
No word of Cornbury’s bizarre doings seems to have reached London—or if it did, it was not taken seriously —for at the end of 1702 Queen Anne signified her confidence in his stewardship by naming him governor of New Jersey as well as New York. (New Jersey, previously ruled by proprietary lords, had recently been returned to the Crown.)
The English colonies were then at war with the French in Canada, and the following spring the people of both New York and New Jersey were alarmed by the appearance off their coasts of a French privateer bristling with guns. The privateer stationed itself off Sandy Hook and began to harass ships entering and leaving New York’s outer harbor. In April, Cornbury announced that he had received, from private sources, information that the French intended to attack the city by sea that summer, and he urged the assembly to appropriate £1,500 for the erection of batteries on both sides of the Narrows, the mile-wide strait between Staten Island and Long Island that leads to the inner harbor. The legislators obediently levied special taxes, the receipts of which were to be turned over to Cornbury, and went home satisfied that they had done their patriotic duty.
The ensuing months were anticlimactic, however; the French men-of-war failed to appear, but so did the batteries; and by August, when Cornbury finally took his oath as governor of New Jersey, New Yorkers were mystified as to where their money could have gone. The sharpereyed among them, however, had noticed a house going up on Governor’s Island, Cornbury’s private retreat off the tip of Manhattan. Three years later, addressing the council on the matter, Cornbury coolly alleged that the funds had never been collected: “I am sensible,” he went on in a wounded tone, “that some malicious, ill-minded people have reported that I have taken that money into my hands. …” But the New Yorkers—malicious and ill-minded or not —knew perfectly well that they had paid the taxes and that Cornbury had built his island sanctuary with them; no one was deceived.
In August of that year, 1706, Lady Cornbury suddenly died, aged thirty-four, and was buried with pomp in Trinity Church. His High Mightiness was undone with grief. Among the mourners were a number of cronies he had enriched with grants of land in return for ready cash—men like Peter Fauconier, his secretary. On Fauconier and eight others Cornbury conferred a large and fertile tract up the Hudson, which the partners, invoking his family name, dubbed Hyde Park—unwittingly linking for future generations the memories of New York’s worst governor and one of its best, Hyde Park’s most famous son, Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Notwithstanding his defects of character Cornbury was a staunch upholder of established religion—i.e., the Church of England—and a merciless scourge of its foes, to wit, any competing brand of Protestantism. (Catholics were so scarce in his domains as to be practically invisible.) In New York his favorite targets were Presbyterians; at Jamaica on Long Island, for instance, where he fled one summer from the smallpox and yellow fever raging in the city, he seized their church and handed it over to the Anglicans. On another occasion he arrested Francis Makemie, the chief founder of Presbyterianism in America, and jailed him for six weeks, claiming that a clause in his instructions forbade him to allow any minister to preach without either a certificate from the Bishop of London or permission from himself. (This clause later proved to be entirely spurious, having been forged by—who else?—His High Mightiness.)
In New Jersey, Cornbury was particularly relentless toward the Quakers, who were prominent in the western part of that province bordering Pennsylvania. He tried to disenfranchise them on the grounds that in obedience to the teachings of their faith they would neither swear allegiance to the Crown nor—unpardonably in time of war —bear arms. When the voters of West Jersey elected three Quakers to the provincial assembly, Cornbury refused to let them take their seats. This enraged the Quakers’ powerful allies in East Jersey, who were indignant enough already about the governor’s practice of rewarding his supporters with public land and government favors in exchange for bribes. One of their number, the redoubtable Lewis Morris, wrote the queen’s secretary of state to complain of Cornbury’s corruption and mismanagement and of “his dressing publicly in woman’s cloaths every day, and putting a stop to all publique business while he is pleaseing himself wth y’ [that] peculiar and detestable magot.” (A maggot or magot is, according to the Oxford English Dictionary , “a whimsical or perverse fancy; a crotchet.”)
In May, 1707, the New Jersey assembly adopted a remonstrance against Cornbury’s policy that its speaker read aloud, pausing dramatically between counts of the indictment to stare at the governor. In his critical role as initiator of royal rule in the province of New Jersey, Cornbury had been a total failure. Perhaps because they had known royal governors before, including some pretty bad ones, the New Yorkers were slower to rebel, but in September, 1708, their assembly, too, adopted resolutions condemning his misrule in uncompromising terms.