Robert Livingston: forgotten man of the Revolution

A couple of days ago, I read a story in the New York Times about the discovery of a draft of a letter written in July 1775 to the British people from the American revolutionaries that was a last ditch effort at reconciliation.  While the name Robert Livingston rang a faint bell, I did not remember learning anything about a letter back to England.

According to the Times story

It was lying in a drawer in the attic, a 12-page document that was not just forgotten but misfiled. Somehow it had made its way into a folder with colonial-era doctor’s bills that someone in the 1970s decreed was worthless and should be thrown away.

Luckily, no one did. For when Emilie Gruchow opened the folder last summer and separated it from the doctor’s bills, she recognized it as a one-of-a-kind document.

Ms. Gruchow, an archivist at the Morris-Jumel Mansion, was an intern at the museum in Upper Manhattan when she made her discovery. The mansion served as George Washington’s headquarters during the Revolutionary War. She realized the document was the draft of an urgent plea for reconciliation from the Continental Congress. It was addressed to the people of Britain, not King George III and his government, and began by mentioning “the tender ties which bind us to each other” and “the glorious achievements of our common ancestors.”

The letter, which Ms. Gruchow found last summer, was written in 1775 by the New York jurist Robert R. Livingston.

The letter, which Ms. Gruchow found last summer, was written in 1775 by the New York jurist Robert R. Livingston.

A little searching led me to Yale University’s Avalon Project and the discovery that there had been two letters:  one to the King and one to the “FRIENDS, COUNTRYMEN, AND BRETHREN!”.  Both were from the Continental Congress.  The letter to the King does not list all of the colonists grievances, but mentions them more generally.

We shall decline the ungrateful task of describing the irksome variety of artifices, practiced by many of your Majesty’s Ministers, the delusive presences, fruitless terrors, and unavailing severities, that have, from time to time, been dealt out by them, in their attempts to execute this impolitic plan, or of traceing, thro’a series of years past, the progress of the unhappy differences between Great Britain and these colonies, which have flowed from this fatal source.

The open letter to the British people is a precursor to the Declaration of Independence with a list of grievances.  For example this mention of Boston

We could wish to go no further, and, not to wound the Ear of Humanity, leave untold those rigorous Acts of Oppression, which are daily exercised in the Town of Boston, did we not hope, that by disclaiming their Deeds and punishing the Perpetrators, you would shortly vindicate the Honour of the British Name, and re-establish the violated Laws of Justice.

That once populous, nourishing and commercial Town is now garrisoned by an Army sent not to protect, but to enslave its Inhabitants. The civil (government is overturned, and a military Despotism erected upon its Ruins. Without Law, without Right, Powers are assumed unknown to the Constitution. Private Property is unjustly invaded. The Inhabitants, daily subjected to the Licentiousness of the Soldiery, are forbid to remove in Defiance of their natural Rights, in Violation of the most solemn Compacts. Or if, after long and wearisome Solicitation, a Pass is procured, their Edects are detained, and even those who are most favoured, have no Alternative but Poverty or Slavery. The Distress of many thousand People, wantonly deprived of the Necessaries of Life, is a Subject, on which we would not wish to enlarge.

Became

He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.

and

For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:

as well as

He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.

Robert Livingston

Robert Livingston

Which brings us to Mr. Livingston.  According to the Times

Until Ms. Gruchow found it, only the final, printed version from July 1775 had been known to exist. She consulted with Michael D. Hattem, a teaching fellow and research assistant on The Papers of Benjamin Franklin at Yale. He analyzed the handwriting on the yellowed pages of the manuscript and did textual analysis that led to an unexpected conclusion: The document was written by Robert R. Livingston, a prominent New York jurist who had been on the fence about whether to support independence for the colonies.

The following year, Congress tapped Livingston to draft the Declaration of Independence along with Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and Roger Sherman.

Curiously, Mr. Livingston (1746-1813) did not actually sign the Declaration because he was recalled to New York before he could do so.  I’ve searched, but could find no reason for his recall.  He did go on to administer the oath of office to George Washington and, under the Jefferson administration, to help negotiate the Louisiana Purchase.  And now we know that it is his list in a letter to the British people which likely inspired the list in the Declaration of Independence.

Photograph of Document: Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times

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