History of the American Nation by William J. Jackman

Author: William James Jackman

Philip Livingston

Born, January 15, 1716; Died, June 12, 1778.

A scholar, merchant and patriot, who in his declining years gave up everything for the rights of the people, to whom he belonged, and who, when his body was undermined by illness, and labor meant death, willingly paid the price in order that he might assist the cause of liberty, was Philip Livingston, better known in historic annals as Philip the Signer of the Declaration of Independence.

He was a great grandson of the Rev. John Livingston, the famous Scottish Divine, who on account of his faith was obliged to leave Scotland for Holland in the middle of the seventeenth century. His grandfather Robert came to the New World and settled in New York, where he bought a vast tract of land in what is now Columbia and Dutchess counties, and for which, he obtained a grant from King George I. This made the Livingstons Lords of the Manor of Livingston and put them on a legal and social par with the Dutch patroons. They were a stern, devout and intellectual race, and possessed to a marked degree the qualities which insure success in any calling, involving the steady exercise of the mental faculties.

Philip the Signer was a fair type of his race, differing from his ancestors in a greater suavity and pleasanter manners. These doubtless represented the softening influence of the New World. Education was at a low ebb in the Colony of New York so far as the higher branches were concerned. Philip received his first training, as did most of the youths of his class, from his mother, tutors, and the village clergyman. He progressed so rapidly as to attract notice from his parents’ many friends. Upon their advice his father sent him to Yale college in 1733. This was an extraordinary event in those days for many reasons. There was considerable jealousy between New York and Connecticut, and more especially between the lords of the manors and the Connecticut Yankees. In addition were the religious prejudices of the age. The Livingstons were strict Presbyterians, a sect at that time closely allied to the Dutch Reformed Church. Both of these were suspicious of the Anglican Church, and for excellent reasons, and at the time there was a strong though unjust suspicion that Anglican influences were at work in Yale.

The young man matriculated, studied hard, made a fine record for scholarship and was graduated in 1737.

After graduation, he was apparently entered by his father as a student in the Middle Temple, London, but from the first he seems to have had no great taste for the law, but a strong tendency toward commerce. Three years afterwards, he was an active business man in New York who was held in high esteem by the merchants of the time. He was one of the first college-bred merchants in the city, and even in 1746 was described "as one of the fifteen persons in the colony of New York, who possessed a collegiate education."

He must have had the same broad commercial talent that marked John Hancock in Boston, and in fact the careers of the two men present a striking parallel. At the age of thirty-five Livingston was not only wealthy but was looked upon as one of the commercial leaders of the little city. He did not allow the pursuit of wealth to dominate his nature. He kept up his family relations by regular visits to Albany and the Manor. He took part in public affairs and was active at the local elections. A college man himself, he was solicitous for the elevation of educational standards, and was one of the group of men through whose efforts Kings, afterwards Columbia College, came into being in 1754.

At this time he became one of the seven aldermen of New York. He made so excellent an official that his constituents returned him eight consecutive times. His electioneering was notable for its stately courtesy and activity. New York had less than fifteen thousand population, and probably not more than two thousand electors. In his district were some four hundred of these, and upon each one he called during the campaign. The population was of mixed nationality, Irish and Germans giving variety to the Dutch, English and New England citizenship. He was elected to the Twenty-eighth Provincial Assembly as a delegate from New York city, in 1759. Here his record was admirable, and was rewarded by reelection to the Twenty-ninth and Thirtieth Assemblies as a member from New York, and to the Thirty-first as a member from Livingston Manor.

This change in district conceals a number of notable facts. In the Twenty-ninth and Thirtieth Assemblies, which lasted from 1761 to 1769, Livingston had been a strong upholder of Colonial rights. When the Thirtieth Assembly was dissolved in January, 1769, he had incurred the animosity of the Governor. So many complaints had come from England that the Governor’s party determined as far as possible to carry the Thirty-first Assembly. They managed affairs so well that Livingston found that there was no chance of his being elected in New York, his former position having been given to John Cruger. He therefore had himself elected from the Livingston Manor, belonging to his family. This was a thunderbolt to the Tories, who immediately set about concocting some scheme which would undo his election. They unearthed precedents in regard to domicile, and although these contravened the Livingston Manorial rights yet they presented them, when the Thirty-first Assembly convened and put them through, dismissing their foe from his seat for non-residence in May, of that year, 1769.

His development into a revolutionary advocate was very gradual. As late as 1759, Great Britain had no more loyal son than Philip Livingston. In the General Assembly of that year he was the leader on the floor of what was then the patriotic party. War was raging between England and France, and the Mother country needed the assistance of its Colonies. New York responded nobly and supplied men, munitions and money with a generous hand, Livingston contributed from his private purse, and through his vast knowledge and mental discipline was enabled to act as an executive in the Colonial war movement in New York. And yet in this very action it is easy to see the same class of motives that were to influence him before another decade had passed.

In those days the Colonial merchant in the English colonies enjoyed a freedom which his colleague in French territory did not possess. While France was theoretically kind, and helpful in its paternal rule, yet the theory did not work, nor coincide with practice. Monopolies, official fees and cruel laws harassed colonial commerce to such an extent that Canadian trade paid profit to scarcely any one save the courtiers, who benefited by the fiscal system. Livingston with his trained eye saw that the expulsion of France from the New World meant more than the extension of freedom; it involved a far greater commercial future which was to benefit both Canada and the English colonies. From the first, he favored the movement which would extend the British ensign over the American continent.

The wisdom of his views in matters of this sort was exemplified in another way by his correspondence with Edmund Burke. The English statesman had been appointed Colonial Agent for both the State and the city upon the death of Robert Charles, the former incumbent. Livingston was the chairman of the special committee which conducted the official correspondence with the agency, and in fact wrote himself, it is said, many of the letters which passed from New York to London. These were models which were long held up for admiration in the eighteenth century. Excellent from a literary point of view, they were marked also by a wonderful and accurate knowledge of facts, a grasp of legal and commercial principles, and a breadth of judgment which amounted to practical statesmanship. Burke recognized the strong personality on the other side of the ocean and put these letters by, as authoritative literature on all matters pertaining to the new world. They were, indeed, a series of lectures more thorough and complete than any publications to be had upon the subject. They gave Burke the information, whose vast extent astonished his admirers in Parliament and enabled him to disprove and even annihilate arguments adduced by the British Ministry. He generously gave credit to his American correspondent in the premises.

In 1764, Livingston drew the address to Lieutenant-Governor Cadwallader Colden in which he used language so outspoken in regard to Colonial freedom and royal taxation that several Tories pronounced the document treasonable. The following year he was sent as a delegate from New York to the Colonial, better known as the Stamp Act Congress. Only nine Colonies were represented in this body, the Governors of Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia refusing to call special Assemblies for what they regarded as improper and unconstitutional purposes. The fourth absentee Colony, New Hampshire, regarded it as imprudent to send delegates, but forwarded a dispatch in which they declared their sympathies with the movement and promising to stand by all that was done.

New York sent Livingston as a delegate to the First Continental Congress which met in Philadelphia, September 5, 1774. The City of Brotherly Love in that era was not two hours distant from New York. The voyage was a memorable event, and on this occasion it was made a gala affair by the patriotic citizens of the little Metropolis. The people turned out en masse with flags flying and music playing to escort their delegates to the wharves from which they set sail for Amboy. Livingston, accompanied by James Duane and John Alsop, walked down Broad street to the foot of the thoroughfare, and there embarked upon a ferryboat. From house to wharf the delegates were accompanied with an enthusiastic throng which increased at every step until it was a solid army of cheering men and applauding women. When they reached the Exchange the street was blocked and the crowd called for a speech. Alsop thanked the people in a short but forceful address and promised that he and his colleagues would leave no stone unturned to bring back happiness to the colony.

At the wharf there was another demonstration and Livingston replied with eloquence and power. As the boat cast off the people cheered madly and gave a salvo of artillery from some field pieces which they had borrowed for the occasion. The leaders of the procession then adjourned to St. George’s Tavern where they drank confusion to the British Ministry and health and success to their delegates. Dame Rumor says that Livingston, Alsop and Duane had left five pounds with the landlord to supply the wants of those who were too poor to buy their own beverages.

The Congress, though brief, voiced in its proceedings the sentiments of the thirteen commonwealths. It approved the opposition of Massachusetts to the enforcement of the tyrannical laws which had been passed respecting that colony. It adopted a declaration of rights in which it asked the repeal of the eleven enactments which had created the troubles between the Mother country and themselves. It unanimously resolved to import no merchandise from Great Britain after the first day of the ensuing December, unless the colonial grievances were redressed. It appointed a Committee, on which was Philip Livingston, to prepare an address to the people of Great Britain. It closed on October 26th with a Petition to the King for justice, which like the appeal to Pharaoh merely hardened the heart of that unjust monarch. And then as if to give warning of more important action thereafter, it made all the arrangements for the holding of a new Congress the next May.

The following spring a Provincial convention was held in New York city, which appointed delegates to the Second Continental Congress. The new delegation had a stronger personnel than its predecessor, and foremost in its ranks was Philip Livingston. In addition to these honors, it should be remembered at this point that Livingston had also been a member of the Committee of Fifty, and thereafter of the Committee of Sixty, better known as the Committee of Observation.

The following year the Continental Congress passed the Declaration of Independence, and on the fifteenth day of July such delegates as had not gone to their various posts of duty signed that immortal instrument. Of the New York delegation but four had remained at Philadelphia and of these Philip Livingston was one. His signing was a fitting climax to the arduous labor he had performed for popular rights and liberties. Overwork had broken down his health and in 1775 and 1776 he suffered constantly from dropsy and cardiac troubles. It was against the advice of his physician and the entreaties of those near and dear to him that he had gone to Philadelphia, White Plains and other places where political duty called him. There was something singularly heroic in this man braving risk and danger and leaving a great business and a happy and beautiful home to take part in exciting scenes where death was liable to come to him at a moment’s notice. It required a deeper courage than that of the soldier who goes into battle under the fierce excitement of war’s display. Congress appreciated the man’s mercantile talents by appointing him a member of the Board of Treasury, and the following year a member of the Marine Committee. He worked steadfastly in both committees as well as in Congress, found time to attend to other duties in New York, and was a member of the association formed to carry out the commercial boycott against Great Britain.

Of the Provincial Congress and the Assembly, he was a distinguished member, and in 1777, under the new State constitution was elected a State Senator from New York city. At these various conventions, where he was so conspicuous a figure, he must have felt the highest kind of family pride and joy upon realizing the superb strength of the race to which he belonged. Every roll call was almost a roster of his race. From Albany county in the North came Peter R. and Walter; from Dutchess, Gilbert, James, Robert R., and Robert R. II; from New York, Peter Van Brugh and himself. These were visible to his eye, while in his mind’s eye rose the stalwart forms of twenty younger men of his race ready to come forward and take the places of their elders, the moment duty called them. Across in Jersey was the dauntless William Livingston, who was to be the war governor of that State, while from New York to Albany were thirty nephews and cousins on the maternal side of the house, who were as patriotic and dauntless as those of his own name.

This feeling of pride must have offset the consciousness that his hours were numbered and that at any moment he was liable to pass away. At Philadelphia, during the memorable debate that preceded the Declaration of Independence he was so overcome by the heat and excitement that for several days he had to be helped in and out of the hall. After he had signed the document, he shook hands with his Congressional colleagues, telling them it was for the last time and then added, "But I pray that I get to New York and do a little more for the cause, before I am called."

In May, he left home to attend to his official duties knowing that he was on the verge of another world. Disease had made such progress that his life was a question of days, if not of hours. Foreseeing the end he wrote his people a valedictory letter in which he said that he would never see them again and that much as he desired to die in his own home, he must blot out all desires for the sake of the public good.

He expired on June 12th, with none of his kindred near him, excepting his son Henry, then eighteen years of age, who was serving as a secretary-clerk to General George Washington.

Congress honored him in death by appropriate obsequies, and by going into mourning for one month. It passed resolutions of respect and gratitude, which have been forgotten. His life’s work and his consecration to the American people were and will be his epitaph.


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Chicago: William James Jackman, "Philip Livingston," History of the American Nation by William J. Jackman in William J. Jackman, Jacob H. Patton, and Rossiter Johnson. History of the American Nation, 9 Vols. (Chicago: K. Gaynor, 1911), Pp.2475-2487 Original Sources, accessed July 16, 2024, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=D9X79U6D7T89IWM.

MLA: Jackman, William James. "Philip Livingston." History of the American Nation by William J. Jackman, in William J. Jackman, Jacob H. Patton, and Rossiter Johnson. History of the American Nation, 9 Vols. (Chicago: K. Gaynor, 1911), Pp.2475-2487, Original Sources. 16 Jul. 2024. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=D9X79U6D7T89IWM.

Harvard: Jackman, WJ, 'Philip Livingston' in History of the American Nation by William J. Jackman. cited in , William J. Jackman, Jacob H. Patton, and Rossiter Johnson. History of the American Nation, 9 Vols. (Chicago: K. Gaynor, 1911), Pp.2475-2487. Original Sources, retrieved 16 July 2024, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=D9X79U6D7T89IWM.