Founding Fathers Friday: Philip Livingston

by Derrick G. Jeter

Philip Livingston was exasperating. But he was a dandy whose family owned prime real estate in New York—160,000 acres in upstate, east of the Hudson River—so maybe he thought he could be a pain in the butt. But the 160,000 acre manor estate wasn’t enough for this prince of New York. He also owned a modest forty-acre place in Brooklyn Heights, where he would watch his cargo ships sail to and fro from New York Harbor, and he owned a little shanty on Duke Street in Manhattan—near Wall Street. These places must have given him the notion that he could also be a pain in the neck.
Because he was a Livingston—really because he owned so much real estate—ol’ Phil was automatically awarded a seat in the royal legislature and a gavel to serve as a judge within his vast territories. It was better to be the king, but it wasn’t too bad to be a Livingston.
Livingston took his seat in the assembly in 1758. And as the debate about Stamp Act was heating up in the colonies, Livingston was cool—unless it was to take New Englanders to task. Livingston was in the import business and he needed business to be good, after all he had three houses and some 200,000 acres to take care of, not including nine children. One day during the debates Livingston took the floor and gave, what was for him, an impassioned plea: “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.” Hardly the stuff of Sam Adams or Patrick Henry, but for Philip Livingston it was a bold stroke.
Warming to the patriot cause over the intervening years, Livingston went to Congress in 1774. And this is where he became a royal pain, especially to easily exasperated John Adams. John, along with his cousin Sam, was the leading voice for independence. Well, Adams’s independent voice was too shrill for Livingston’s ears, prompting him to describe the notion of breaking from England as “the most vain, empty, shallow and ridiculous project” every conceived. That August—after much successful stonewalling by Livingston to move the Congress toward independence—Adams wrote of his nemesis: “There is no holding any Conversation with him. He blusters away. Says if England should turn us adrift we should instantly go to civil Wars among ourselves to determine which Colony should govern all the rest.”
But something happened to princely Phil over the next two years. He mellowed. By the summer of 1776 he was no longer putting up the fight he had two years earlier. But neither did he vote for independence. British troops had New York in their sites, so Livingston didn’t leave New York City until June 30. It’s doubtful that he made it to Philadelphia by July 2, when the vote was cast. But it wouldn’t have mattered. New York abstained from voting anyway. New York only came around a month later, and on August 2, patriot Phil signed his name to the Declaration.
A few week later, on August 27, 1776, after George Washington’s Continental arm was routed by crack British troops on Long Island, the general retreated to Livingston’s Brooklyn forty-acre estate. Washington held a council of war in Livingston’s living room (parlor) and decided they should move the army north, out of the city. Livingston’s family fled north as well, along the Hudson River to Kingston, where the New York assembly had moved the capital. When the British marched into Manhattan they seized Livingston’s Duke Street home, using it as a barracks, and his Brooklyn estate and transformed it into a hospital. The Brooklyn property later caught fire and burned to the ground.
Livingston, for all his early coolness to the patriot cause—and being a pain in the neck to John Adams—actually suffered financial loss in the initial boycott of British goods. He even had to sell off some of his vast land holdings to keep his credit clear. But pity the Livingston’s not; they recovered quite nicely, thank you. The family eventually built forty mansions along the Hudson and acquired enough land to have qualified as their own state (an amount equal to the size of Rhode Island).
Unfortunately for Phil, he never got to see if the vain, empty, shallow, and ridiculous idea of independence paid off. He died two years after signing his name, in 1778. Feeling duty-bound to attend the runaway Congress in York, Pennsylvania, Livingston died of “dropsy” (congestive heart failure) soon after arriving. He was the third signer to die, after John Morton of Pennsylvania and Button Gwinnett of Georgia
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