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

A cautionary tale

Some Republicans want to pass a comprehensive immigration bill and some voted to do so in the Senate.  And now two of them, Marco Rubio and Lindsey Graham, will likely have challengers from the Tea Party wing.  Which brings me to the cautionary tale.  They should read some history and look at what happened to the Federalist Party.  They could begin by reading the very interesting piece in yesterday’s New York Times by James Traub.

Tea Partyers often style themselves as disciples of Thomas Jefferson, the high apostle of limited government. But by taking the ramparts against immigration, the movement is following a trajectory that looks less like the glorious arc of Jefferson’s Republican Party than the suicidal path of Jefferson’s great rivals, the long-forgotten Federalists, who also refused to accept the inexorable changes of American demography.

The Federalists began as the faction that supported the new Constitution, with its “federal” framework, rather than the existing model of a loose “confederation” of states. They were the national party, claiming to represent the interests of the entire country.

Culturally, however, they were identified with the ancient stock of New England and the mid-Atlantic, as the other major party at the time, the Jeffersonian Republicans (no relation to today’s Republicans), were with the South.

John Quincy Adams portrait. "John Quincy ...

John Quincy Adams portrait. “John Quincy Adams”. Metropolitan Museum of Art . . Retrieved September 4, 2009 . (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And then came the Louisiana Purchase.

“The people of the East can not reconcile their habits, views and interests with those of the South and West,” declared Thomas Pickering, a leading Massachusetts Federalist.

Every Federalist in Congress save John Quincy Adams voted against the Louisiana Purchase. Adams, too, saw that New England, the cradle of the revolution, had become a small part of a new nation. Change “being found in nature,” he wrote stoically, “cannot be resisted.”

But resist is precisely what the Federalists did. Fearing that Irish, English and German newcomers would vote for the Jeffersonian Republicans, they argued — unsuccessfully — for excluding immigrants from voting or holding office, and pushed to extend the period of naturalization from 5 to 14 years.

They even thought about separating New England from the rest of the country.

,,,in the fall of 1814, the Federalists convened the Hartford Convention to vote on whether to stay in or out of the Union. By then even the hotheads realized how little support they had, and the movement collapsed. And the Federalists, now scorned as an anti-national party, collapsed as well.

Contrast that defiance with Jefferson’s Republicans, who stood for decentralized government and the interests of yeoman farmers, primarily in the coastal South.

They ruled the country from 1801 to 1825, when they were unseated by Adams — who, after splitting with the Federalists, had joined with a breakaway Republican faction.

In response, Jefferson’s descendants, known as the Old Radicals, did exactly what the Federalists would not do: they joined up with the new Americans, many of them immigrants, who were settling the country opened up by the Louisiana Purchase.

Their standard-bearer in 1828, Andrew Jackson, favored tariffs and “internal improvements” like roads and canals, the big-government programs of the day. The new party, known first as the Democratic-Republicans, and then simply as the Democrats, thrashed Adams that year. (Adams’s party, the National Republicans, gave way to the Whigs, which in turn evolved into the modern Republican Party.)

Will the Republicans disappear like the Federalists?  Traub doesn’t think so.  But hey are, like the Federalists, on the wrong side of history.