Philip Livingston

Cynthia A. Kierner
published in
American National Biography

Philip Livingston (15 Jan. 1716-12 June 1778), merchant and political leader, was born in Albany, New York, the son of Philip Livingston, a merchant and proprietor of "Livingston Manor," and Catrina Van Brugh. Livingston enjoyed the benefits of membership in one of New York's leading families. At a time when most Americans lacked formal education, four of six surviving Livingston brothers earned Yale degrees. Upon graduation in 1737, Philip Livingston returned to Albany to serve a mercantile apprenticeship with his father. Livingston learned the Albany trade and, through his father's efforts, obtained potentially valuable clerkships in Albany's local government. In 1740 he married Christina Ten Broeck, daughter of Colonel Dirck Ten Broeck, mayor of Albany. They had nine children, of whom eight survived infancy.

After several years in Albany, Livingston moved downriver to New York, where he established himself as a general merchant. He traded mainly with the British sugar islands although, like many New York merchants, he probably engaged in illicit trade with the French and Spanish island colonies. During King George's War (1744-1748), Livingston made his fortune provisioning and privateering. During the French and Indian War (1754-1763), he owned shares in six privateers, making him one of the colony's leading investors. Livingston also speculated heavily in real estate, accumulating more than 120,000 acres of unimproved land in New York and lesser holdings in New Jersey and Connecticut. He owned urban property in Albany and New York City, including his Manhattan home on Duke Street and a country estate in Brooklyn Heights.

The financially secure Livingston was a leader in the civic life of his community. In 1746 he endowed a professorship of divinity at Yale College. In 1754 he was one of six founders of the New York Society Library. Two years later he was president and founding member of the St. Andrew's Society, New York's first enevolent organization. Livingston also participated in efforts to establish a college in New York and, in 1766, was one of the original trustees of Queen's College in New Jersey. He helped organize the New York Chamber of Commerce in 1768 and, in 1771, was cofounder of the New York Hospital and a member of its first board of governors. An elder and a deacon of the Dutch Reformed church, Livingston was also a benefactor of New York's Anglican King's College and of the city's Presbyterian and Methodist congregations.

By the 1750s Livingston was also increasingly active in politics at both the local and provincial levels. Between 1754 and 1763 he served as alderman for New York's East Ward. In 1758 New Yorkers elected him to the provincial assembly, where in 1764 he helped pen a remonstrance against Parliament's unprecedented attempt to raise revenue in America. The following year he represented New York at the Stamp Act Congress.

Livingston's career in colonial politics culminated in 1768 with his election as the assembly's Speaker. By 1769 new factional alignments pitted an alliance of merchants, Anglicans, and radical Sons of Liberty against a coalition of landowners, religious dissenters, and more moderate opponents of British imperial policies. Livingston followed most of his relatives into the latter party and did not win reelection. His party remained in opposition for the rest of the colonial era.

Livingston and his allies were, however, prominent in the extralegal committees that orchestrated New York's firm but orderly resistance to British imperial policies. In May 1774 Livingston was one of the Committee of Fifty-One that nominated candidates--of which he was one--for the First Continental Congress. In November he was a member of the Committee of Sixty that enforced the Continental Association. In May 1775 he served on the Committee of One Hundred, which was New York's de facto government until the meeting of the first provincial Congress. That autumn, fearing naval bombardment of Manhattan, Livingston fled to Kingston in Ulster County. In 1776 he was mentioned as a possible candidate for governor. When New Yorkers enacted their state constitution in 1777, Livingston represented the British-occupied city of New York in the new state senate.

Between 1774 and 1778 Livingston was far more active in continental than provincial politics. He regularly attended the Continental Congress, where his business experience made him a valued member of several key committees. In September 1775 he was one of nine men appointed to the Secret Committee--later known as the Committee on Commerce--charged with arranging the importation of arms and gunpowder for the patriot forces. Livingston remained a member of this committee throughout his time in Congress, and, with other merchant congressmen, he advanced funds to the government in the course of filling its military contracts. Livingston also served on the Marine Committee and the Committee on Provisioning. In 1777 he was one of three members of Congress chosen to investigate complaints in the commissary's department.

In 1776 Livingston signed the Declaration of Independence, but he was absent when Congress debated the independence resolution. Like many conservative Whigs, Livingston accepted independence reluctantly, dreading the resulting social upheaval. In his 1774 pamphlet, The Other Side of the Question, Livingston had invoked both historical precedent and Lockean political theory to defend colonial opposition to parliamentary taxation, but he deemed American independence "the most vain, empty, shallow, and ridiculous project." In 1774 John Adams (1735-1826) confided to his Diary that Livingston was a "rough, rapid mortal," who "says if England should turn us adrift, we should go instantly to civil wars among ourselves." Livingston feared the "levelling spirit" of revolution. In 1777 he disparaged the abilities of New York's new leaders, regretting the state's lack of experienced governors.

Livingston was an exemplar of conservative patriotism in revolutionary America. A conscientious leader, possessed of an aristocrat's sense of social responsibility, he accepted republicanism without embracing its democratic implications. He died in York, Pennsylvania, while attending the Continental Congress.

Author's Bibliography:

Many of Livingston's papers are in the New York Public Library. Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774-1789 (1976-), contains some of Livingston's wartime papers and is an important source for his career in Congress. Cynthia A. Kierner, Traders and Gentlefolk: The Livingstons of New York, 1675-1790 (1992), examines the economic activities and political ideals of Livingston and his family. Patricia U. Bonomi, A Factious People: Politics and Society in Colonial New York (1971), and Carl Lotus Becker, The History of Political Parties in the Province of New York, 1760-1776 (1909), are the standard political histories. William H. W. Sabine, ed., Historical Memoirs . . . of William Smith . . . (2 vols., 1956-1958), includes contemporary observations on Livingston's political attitudes and activities.

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