William Livingston (17231790), by John Wollaston
Livingston, William [pseud. the American Whig] (17231790), lawyer, political writer, and colonial governor, was born in Albany, New York, on 30 November 1723. He was the son of Catherine Van Brugh (16891756) and Philip Livingston (16861749), second lord of the Livingston Manor, one of the large landed estates created by colonial governors which possessed unique privileges, including the right to send a representative to the colonial assembly. He was the younger brother of , New York merchant and political leader. Livingston attended Yale College from 1737 to 1741, and then studied law in New York as an apprentice to two of the colony's most prominent attorneys, James Alexander and William Smith senior. He practised law, often in conjunction with two Yale colleagues, William Smith junior and John Morin Scott. The three became known as the triumvirate or, from their Anglican opponents, the Presbyterian triumvirate. On 2 March 1747 Livingston married Susannah French (17231789).
Livingston was fairly successful in the law, handling both civil and criminal cases and working assiduously to raise standards for admission to the bar, eliminate pettifoggers, and professionalize the law among those already practising. In this last respect one of the most ambitious of his efforts was the organization in 1770 of a legal debating society called the Moot, where practising attorneys debated legal issues much on the model of the English inns of court. Livingston himself was admitted to the Middle Temple, though he never attended its sessions.
A versatile and talented writer but a poor speaker, Livingston soon began writing poetry and essays. His poem Philosophic Solitude, or, The Choice of a Rural Life (1747), largely imitative of Pope and representing a popular genre that praised the virtues of country living, was one of New York's earliest poetic productions, went through thirteen editions, and was widely quoted throughout the colonies. A more serious and controversial publication, The Independent Reflector, was begun by the triumvirate in 1752 in imitation of The Tatler and The Spectator. However, its essays on morals and manners soon turned to more serious subjects, such as the contract theory of government, limitations on monarchical power, and the rights and liberties of the people, modelled after Thomas Gordon's and John Trenchard's radical English whig journals, Cato's Letters and The Independent Whig. The Reflector's contents encapsulated almost perfectly the radical whig ideology expressed by American patriot leaders in their contest with Great Britain in the years immediately preceding the American War of Independence.
The Reflector's most serious crusade was against the attempt by New York's Anglicans to establish in the colony an Episcopalian college chartered by the crown. Livingston and his friends proposed a non-sectarian college chartered by the New York assembly. In the heated contest that followed Livingston managed to mobilize public opinion, create a vigorous exchange of articles in the press, and introduce New Yorkers to popular politics, though the triumvirate lost its battle when the governor chartered King's College along the lines advocated by the Anglicans. But it was in the course of the Reflector's crusading that Livingston expressed most eloquently the principle of freedom of religion and separation of church and state, a view he maintained throughout his life. Matters of Religion relate to another World, and have nothing to do with the Interest of the State, he wrote in 1753 (Independent Reflector, 307), and he repeated the belief twenty-five years later: the consciences of men are not the object of human legislation (New-Jersey Gazette, 18 Feb 1778).
While Livingston became a spokesman of the Livingston party in opposition to its rival, one led by the colony's lieutenant-governor and chief justice, James De Lancey, he never became a popular political leader, and was uncomfortable in crowds and unimpressive as a public speaker. His talents were instead put to use in penning anti-British essays in the press and writing petitions to the crown and parliament on behalf of the New York assembly. One other dispute in which he did take an active part was the effort in 1768 on the part of some New York Anglicans to secure appointment of a bishop for the American colonies. This led to another heated public controversy, in which Livingston took a leading role as a columnist under the pseudonym The American Whig. Both these essays and the ones in the Reflector made him well known among the American leadership in other colonies.
Livingston moved to New Jersey in 1772, having built a country home where he thought he could indulge in the contemplative life of which he had written years earlier in his poem Philosophic Solitude, but his reputation soon made him the obvious choice as leader of the revolutionary cause in New Jersey. He was elected a delegate from that colony to the first and second continental congresses, was recalled to head the New Jersey militia, and then was elected governor in 1776 under the state's new constitution, a position to which he was re-elected annually until his death in 1790.
The governor possessed very limited powers under the New Jersey constitution, and Livingston constantly fretted about his inability to provide stronger leadership for a colony that was the scene of many battles between the British and the Americans, and was adjacent to New York city, which was in British hands throughout the revolution. New Jersey was faced with frequent British invasions, tory incursions, and illegal intercourse between it and New York city. Livingston urged strong measures to mobilize the state's militia and impress supplies for George Washington's forces, but he often met with intransigence from the state's legislature. His most forceful role, however, was again played with his pen. His addresses to the legislature urged the Americans to persist in the war effort, and these addresses were often reproduced in newspapers in other colonies. He also engaged in correspondence with friends abroad, urging support for the revolutionaries, and contributed a series of essays to the New Jersey newspaper the Gazette, again reminding the state's residents of their obligation to contribute manpower, money, and supplies for the American cause, and to resist efforts by the British to bring about a reconciliation and a return of the colonies to the empire. His pen gave Livingston a reputation as the ablest propagandist, next to Thomas Paine, on the American side.
At the war's end Livingston complained of his countrymen's loss of public spirit, exemplified by the depreciation of the currency, quarrels between the states, and an unwillingness to grant the government adequate taxing powers under the articles of confederation. He was chosen a delegate to the constitutional convention, where he played a fairly silent role, but he praised the body's finished work and urged its ratification by New Jerseyites. The constitution represented for Livingston the kind of balanced government he had once admired in Britain, with an executive possessed of ample powers yet curbed by republican institutions such as the house of representatives.
Livingston died at Elizabethtown, New Jersey, on 25 July 1790, and was buried at the town's Presbyterian church two days later. His death came too soon for him to see the new constitution in operation. He was not forgotten at the time by his fellow Americans, who recalled his vigorous exposition of whig principles before the revolution, but his basic inclination to trust aristocratic leadership more than popular democracy made him a forgotten figure as the United States became more democratic in time. Nevertheless, as an early spokesman for whig ideology he occupies a distinctive position in American history, even if, on balance, among the American patriot leadership of the revolution he must be considered a secondary figure, albeit an important one.
Milton M. Klein
M. M. Klein, The American Whig: William Livingston of New York (1993) · M. M. Klein, ed., The Independent Reflector (1963) · M. L. Levine, The transformation of a radical whig under republican government: William Livingston of New Jersey, 17761790, PhD diss., Rutgers University, 1975 · The papers of William Livingston, ed. C. Prince and others, 5 vols. (197988) · T. Sedgwick, jun., A memoir of the life of William Livingston (1833) · C. E. Prince, Livingston, William, ANB · Bible of Catherine Livingston, Mass. Hist. Soc.
Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, Hyde Park, New York, LivingstonRedmond Collection
Mass. Hist. Soc.
New York State Library, Livingston family letters
NYPL, Livingston family MSS | Dartmouth College, LivingstonWheelock MSS/corresp.
Mass. Hist. Soc., Sedgwick MSS
NYPL, William Smith MSS
South Carolina Historical Society, Laurens MSS, LivingstonHenry Laurens corresp.
Yale U., Johnson MSS, LivingstonWelles corresp.
attrib. J. Watson, portrait (in youth), priv. coll. · J. Wollaston, portrait, Fraunces Tavern Museum, New York [see illus.] · portrait, repro. in P. M. Hamlin, Legal education in colonial New York (1939), following p. 96
Wealth at death
approx. $60,000: Klein, The American Whig