Tuesday, January 15, 2013

January 15: Philip Livingston: Landed Gentry, Revolutionary

He was a member of the landed gentry of New York, a wealthy businessman, a philanthropist, and a political conservative who was among the signers of the Declaration of Independence and a man who risked his fortune and security to support the American Revolution.

Philip Livingston, Jr. was born into a family of wealth a prestige on January 15, 1716, at his father’s townhouse in Albany, New York colony. 

His grandfather, Robert Livingston, had immigrated to the newly conquered colony of New York in 1673 from his native Scotland and settled in Albany.  He spoke both English and Dutch fluently, and so successfully integrated with the original Dutch settlers as well as their English conquerors that he became very a very successful merchant in the fur trade, married well into the former Dutch aristocracy, held a number of political appointments, and – in 1687 – was granted  ownership of the “Lordship and Manor of Livingston” (160,000 acres on the east side of the Hudson River) by the English Royal Governor, Thomas Dongan.  With this, he became a “Lord”.

Robert had three sons – Robert, Gilbert, and Philip – and it was Philip (the 2nd Lord of the Manor) and his wife, Catharine Van Brugh, who became the parents of Philip Livingston Jr. in 1716.  Catharine was the daughter of the mayor of Albany. 

This was an era before public education, and it was the responsibility of the fathers to educate their children.  The wealthier fathers, such as the 2nd Lord of the Manor, Lord Livingston, would do some of the education process himself, but usually hired tutors to instruct their children – especially the male children – in a variety of topics, including such studies as the rudiments of math, geography Latin, reading, and writing.

Because of – and thanks to – his social position, Philip “the Signer” Livingston was provided with a liberal education.  There were no colleges in New York colony (until 1754), so those gentlemen who wished to attend college were either sent to New England, or abroad.  Education was important to the Livingston’s, and as a result Philip attended Yale College, graduating in 1737 at the age of 21.

New York beckoned, and Livingston settled there after leaving college in 1737, engaging in a mercantile life by establishing an import business.  He became a prosperous and well respected merchant.

He married Christina Ten Broeck on April 14, 1740.  The union provided the Livingston’s with nine children – five boys and four girls.  After his marriage, Livingston moved into a townhouse on Duke Street in Manhattan, and worked on raising a family – and a fortune from his business dealings.  Especially valuable was his experiences as a trader-privateer during the French and Indian War, which lasted from 1754 to 1763.  It was after this period of his life, in 1764, that he acquired a 40-acre estate on Brooklyn Heights, overlooking the East River and New York Harbor.

Livingston prospered as a merchant, and was one of those who ‘gave back’ to the community.  He either helped to start, financially aided, or helped to administer several public institutions, including King’s College (which later became Columbia University); the New York Society Library (1754); St. Andrew’s Society; the New York Chamber of Commerce (1770); and the New York Hospital (elected as one of the governors in 1761).  He also established a Professorship of Divinity at Yale (1746); built the first meeting house for a Methodist society in America;

He also served as a New York City alderman from 1754 to 1763, and served for a decade in the colonial legislature, from 1759 to 1769.  As tensions between the British and the colonists began to increase after the French and Indian War, Livingston was like many other early patriots:  he did not initially desire to make a complete break from England, but he would increasingly align himself with the rising opposition to the various arbitrary British measures and legislation that were being imposed by the British Crown on the colonists. In the colonial legislature, he increasingly backed the Whigs in their quarrels with the Royal Governor of New York, and was a delegate to the 1765 Stamp Act Congress.
Livingston's Brooklyn Manor
He also assisted in preparing an address as a response to a speech by Lieutenant-Governor Colden in which Livingston illustrated his concerns – concerns which eventually led to his standing in open rebellion to the Crown, and affixing his signature on the Declaration of Independence:
"But nothing can add to the pleasure we receive from the information your honor gives us, that his majesty, our most gracious sovereign, distinguishes and approves our conduct. When his service requires it, we shall ever be ready to exert ourselves with loyalty, fidelity, and zeal; and as we have always complied, in the most dutiful manner, with every requisition made by his directions, we, with all humility, hope that his majesty, who, and whose ancestors, have long been the guardians of British liberty, will so protect us in our rights, as to prevent our falling into the abject state of being forever hereafter incapable of doing what can merit either his distinction or approbation. Such must be the deplorable state of that wretched people, who (being taxed by a power subordinate to none, and in a great degree unacquainted with their circumstances) can call nothing their own. This we speak with the greatest deference to the wisdom and justice of the British parliament, in which we confide. Depressed with this prospect of inevitable ruin, by the alarming information we have from home, neither we nor, our constituents can attend to improvements, conducive either to the interests of our mother country, or of this colony. We shall, however, renew the act for granting a bounty on hemp, still hoping that a stop may be put to those measures, which, if carried into execution, will oblige us to think that nothing but extreme poverty can preserve us from the most insupportable bondage. We hope your honor will join with us in an endeavor to secure that great badge of English liberty, of being taxed only with our own consent; which we conceive all his majesty's subjects at home and abroad equally entitled to."

 In 1774 Livingston was a member of the Committee of fifty-one.  This committee chose the New York delegates to the First Continental Congress – and Livingston was one of the five that were selected.  He was able to both serve in the Continental Congress, and to retain his seat in the New York State Provincial Assembly.  He was elected President of the Assembly in 1775. 

Livingston was not a rabble-rouser, and resented the more physical demonstrations favored by such groups as the Sons of Liberty.  He tried to stick with the more dignified methods, depending on the law and precedent to preserve the peace… or to follow the steps to separation. It was in July, 1775, that he signed what was to be a final attempt to achieve an understanding with the British Crown concerning the grievances of the colonies – the Olive Branch Petition.  However, the King ignored the Petition, declaring the colonies to be in a state of rebellion.

Livingston was one of three Livingston’s who were members of the Continental Congress… but he was the only one to sign the Declaration of Independence.  His brother, William, was called on to command the New Jersey Militia, and could not be at the debates or the signing of the Declaration.  Nor could his cousin, Robert, who had helped draw up the Declaration, but who also was a member of several important New York State committees, and probably was not present in Philadelphia when the Declaration was signed.
Philip Livingston suffered because of his signature on the Declaration.  The British used his Duke Street home as a barracks, and his Brooklyn Heights residence as a Royal Navy hospital.  Many of his business interests were confiscated by the British, and he sold some of his remaining property to support the Revolution.  He had to flee his home because of the British advance into New York.

His health failing, he continued to serve his country in the Continental Congress.  He passed away at the age of 62 on June 12, 1778 – the third signer of the Declaration to die.  He was first buried in the churchyard of the German Reformed Church on West Market Street, York, Pennsylvania. When the land was needed to build a Sunday School addition, all graves were moved to Prospect Hill Cemetery, York, Pennsylvania.

Even after death, it seems, he contributed to the needs of the community.


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