Thomas Dongan, 2nd Earl of Limerick, a member of the Irish Parliament, Royalist military officer during the English Civil War, and Governor of the Province of New York, dies in London on December 14, 1715. He is noted for having called the first representative legislature in New York and for granting the province’s Charter of Liberties.
Dongan is born in 1634 into an old Gaelic Norman (Irish Catholic) family in Castletown Kildrought (now Celbridge), County Kildare. He is the seventh and youngest son of Sir John Dongan, Baronet, Member of the Irish Parliament, and his wife Mary Talbot, daughter of Sir William Talbot, 1st Baronet and Alison Netterville. As Stuart supporters, following the overthrow of King Charles I, the family goes to King Louis XIV‘s France, although they manage to hold onto at least part of their Irish estates. His family gives their name to the Dongan Dragoons, a premier military regiment.
After the Treaty of Nijmegen ends the Franco-Dutch War in 1678, Dongan returns to England in obedience to the order that recalls all English subjects fighting in service to France. Fellow officer James, Duke of York, arranges to have him granted a high-ranking commission in the army designated for service in Flanders and a pension. That same year, he is appointed Lieutenant-Governor of English Tangier, which had been granted to England as part of the dowry of Catherine of Braganza. He serves as part of the Tangier Garrison which defends the settlement.
In September 1682, James, Lord Proprietor of the Province of New York, appoints Dongan as Vice-admiral in the Navy and provincial governor (1683–1688) to replace Edmund Andros. James also grants him an estate on Staten Island. The estate eventually becomes the town of Castleton. Later, another section of the island is named Dongan Hills in honour of Dongan.
Dongan lands in Boston on August 10, 1683, crosses Long Island Sound, and passes through the small settlements in the eastern part of the island as he makes his way to Fort James, arriving on August 25.
At the time of Dongan’s appointment, the province is bankrupt and in a state of rebellion. He is able to restore order and stability. On October 14, 1683, he convenes the first-ever representative assembly in New York history at Fort James. The New York General Assembly, under the wise supervision of Dongan, passes an act entitled “A Charter of Liberties.” It decrees that the supreme legislative power under the Duke of York shall reside in a governor, council, and the people convened in general assembly; confers upon the members of the assembly rights and privileges making them a body coequal to and independent of the British Parliament; establishes town, county, and general courts of justice; solemnly proclaims the right of religious liberty; and passes acts enunciating certain constitutional liberties; right of suffrage; and no martial law or quartering of the soldiers without the consent of the inhabitants.
Dongan soon incurs the ill will of William Penn who is negotiating with the Iroquois for the purchase of the upper Susquehanna Valley. Dongan goes to Albany, and declares that the sale would be “prejudicial to His Highness’s interests.” The Cayugas sell the property to New York with the consent of the Mohawk. Years later, when back in England and in favor at the Court of James, Penn uses his influence to prejudice the king against Dongan.
On July 22, 1686 Governor Dongan grants Albany a municipal charter. Almost identical in form to the charter awarded to New York City just three months earlier, the Albany charter is the result of negotiations conducted between royal officials and Robert Livingston and Pieter Schuyler. The charter incorporates the city of Albany, establishing a separate municipal entity in the midst of the Van Rensselaer Manor.
Dongan establishes the boundary lines of the province by settling disputes with Connecticut on the east, with the French Governor of Canada on the north, and with Pennsylvania on the south, thus marking out the present limits of New York State.
James later consolidates the colonial governments of New York, New Jersey and the United Colonies of New England into the Dominion of New England and appoints Edmund Andros, the former Governor-General of New York, as Governor-General. Dongan transfers his governorship back to Andros on August 11, 1688.
Dongan executes land grants establishing several towns throughout New York State including the eastern Long Island communities of East Hampton and Southampton. These grants, called the Dongan Patents, set up Town Trustees as the governing bodies with a mission of managing common land for common good. The Dongan Patents still hold force of law and have been upheld by the Supreme Court of the United States with the Trustees—rather than town boards, city councils or even the State Legislature—still managing much of the common land in the state.
Dongan lives in London for the last years of his life and dies on December 14, 1715. He is buried in the St. Pancras Old Church churchyard, London.
(Pictured: Portrait of Thomas Dongan, 2nd Earl of Limerick, from Castleton Manor, Staten Island licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license)