The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath.
He had a broad face, and a little round belly
That shook when he laugh'd, like a bowl full of jelly

Chapter 11: Smoke-filled Rooms: New York Politics

The Livingston family was one of the most important colonial families in America. When Robert Livingston, the head of the family, first came to America from Holland, he worked for Rev. Nicholas Van Rensselaer, the minister sent to America by the Van Rensselaer family to look out for the interests of the minister's two underage nephews, heirs to the vast Van Rensselaer estate. But the reverend looked after his own interests as well, and married Alida Schuyler, the daughter of the vice-director of Albany. A year after Nicholas died, Robert Livingston married his employer's young widow.

Together Robert and Alida built the Livingston Manor, an estate that covered sixteen thousand acres. That much land gives you a political voice that can whisper and still be heard.

Among the many offices he held, Robert was secretary of Indian Affairs, a member of the New York Provincial Assembly for eleven years, where he was Speaker of the Assembly for seven. He was also commissioner of excise, receiver of quit rents, town clerk, clerk of the peace, and clerk of the common pleas for the city and county of Albany.

That is, he was when he wasn't in exile to avoid being put in jail, or in England trying to get his Manor and offices back. Politics was an extreme body-contact sport in the days when Robert played the game. His frequent trips back to England to cover his political butt are what gave rise to the new and improved Livingston family crest. For Robert, they added a shipwreck!

Henry Jr. grew up breathing the secondhand smoke of New York politics. There wasn't an important governmental body in all of the state that hadn't included at least one of Henry's relatives. Grandfather Gilbert was registrar of the Colonial Court of Chancery, county clerk of Ulster, and a member of the Assembly for his father's Manor for ten years. Gilbert's father-in-law, Hendrick Beekman, had been a prominent New York politician for over forty years, and the son of Wilhelm Beekman, who had been Governor of the Swedish colony in Delaware before the English threw the Dutch out of power and, later, sheriff of Kingston and mayor of New York.

Henry's father, Henry Sr., held the position of clerk of Dutchess County as a lifetime appointment. He also acted as the political lieutenant for his mother's brother, Uncle Henry Beekman. When Beekman finally retired from New York government, he gave the nod for the two seats he controlled to go to his nephew, Henry Sr., and to his son-in-law, Robert R. Livingston, the father of Chancellor Livingston.(1) In the 28th Assembly of 1759, out of a total of only twenty-seven members, there were four representatives named Livingston: Henry Sr. and three of his first cousins; Robert R., who would become a New York Supreme Court Justice; William, who would become the Governor of New Jersey; and Philip, who would sign the Declaration of Independence.

When historians talk of the power of the Livingstons, they're usually talking about the descendants of Robert's two sons, Philip and Robert. The only descendant of Gilbert usually mentioned is Rev. John Henry Livingston, who married Philip's granddaughter. Historians have so little knowledge of Gilbert's descendants that books and archive files will sometimes assign documents belonging to Gilbert descendants to individuals in the other two lines!(2) Though there are many very famous, and very wealthy, descendants of Gilbert, they all share a dark family secret. They descend from daughters instead of from sons.

Genealogists are usually the culprits in this secret sexist pact. Interested usually in only a single surname, genealogists will follow male descendants down through the generations. The female descendants? They usually get listed along with their husband and the names of their children. And then the daughter is supposed to fade into grateful obscurity under her husband's surname. This interest in only the male children who carry the name affects historical understanding, because historians will, to some extent, rely on genealogical research. Women as valid descendants and ancestors, rather than as a dead end for genes, is a topic that could use some serious feminist examination.

Since there aren't any sexists here, we can happily see that the names of Gilbert's descendants is a Who's Who of history that includes:

Dutchess County Sheriff James Livingston
NY Congressman Gilbert Livingston
Lt. Governor Edward Philip Livingston
Lt. Governor Stephen Van Rensselaer
Mayor Philip Schuyler Van Rensselaer
Governor Hamilton Fish
Senator Elisha Kent Kane
and the senator's namesake, Arctic explorer Elisha Kent Kane
Judge John Kintzing Kane
Senator and Illinois Chief Justice Sidney Breese
Rear Admiral Samuel Livingston Breese
Commodore Samuel Livingston Breese
Brig. Gens. Robert L. Denig, Sr. and Jr.
Brig. Gen. Henry Livingston Lansing
Brig. Gen. Henry Seymour Lansing
Commodore Melancthon Taylor Woolsey
General Thomas Leiper Kane
Episcopalian Archdeacon William Reed Thomas
and the wealthy Nicholas William Stuyvesant.

And did I forget Eleanor Roosevelt, President George Herbert Walker Bush and President George Walker Bush? Not to mention Henry Jr., himself!

Poughkeepsie, during and soon after the Revolution, was a political center. The first session of the Provincial Congress under the New York Constitution met at Kingston, and ran for a month in the autumn of 1777. They left when the British, annoyed by meeting resistence from the town, burned it. So the government picked up lock, stock, and legislation and moved to Poughkeepsie. With the center of New York government in Henry's home town, there was no way he could ignore politics. Walter Livingston,(3) Henry's second cousin, was Speaker of the Assembly, of which brother Gilbert was a member. Cousins John Jay and Sarah moved in next door to Gilbert, and Uncle Pierre Van Cortlandt was elected Lt. Governor, frequently taking charge of the state when General, as well as Governor, Clinton was away on military business.

Clinton was described by his contemporaries as a physically impressive man; he was 6 feet tall and of massive size, with the nickname of "Magnus Apollo". Considered a man of broad learning and humane ideals, he could also be overbearing and tactless.(4) Mrs. William Smith, John Adams' daughter and a member of high society, noted that Clinton lived modestly and was mostly a homebody, and was not much loved or respected. Ms. Smith also noted that the Governor's wife, Cornelia Tappen, "is not showy, but is a kind, friendly woman."(5) Add in the fact that the Clintons were members of the Dutch Reformed Church, and you get a picture of a family that might not have run with the tops of society, but who were probably very comfortable in the down-to-earth world of Dutch New York.

Clinton's wife was the sister of Dr. Peter Tappen, who was married to the sister of Henry's brother Gilbert's wife. Dr. Tappen's daughter Caty married Henry's younger brother Robert Henry, which makes Henry's sister-in-law the niece of Governor Clinton. Binding the families even closer, Clinton's daughter Maria married Henry's young first cousin, Stephen David Beekman, the grandson of Aunt Cornelia and General Pierre Van Cortlandt, and Clinton's eldest daughter Catherine married the general's son. And Henry's son-in-law, Arthur Breese, was a personal friend of the Governor, traveling with him down the Mohawk to Albany when the river was so shallow that passengers and sailors had to continually pull the boat from the mud.(6)

If you're starting to see the tree branches of the extended Livingston clan as a plate of spaghetti, congratulate yourself. You understand perfectly. And just to tie the knot a little tighter, Governor Clinton was the brother of Colonel James Clinton, Henry's commander under Montgomery and a later Governor, DeWitt Clinton, was the son of Colonel James. Old Dutch New York towns like Poughkeepsie tended to run on family ties. And because the Dutch had large families, there were a lot of people tied together!

With all these connections to the Governor and Lt. Governor, it's not surprising that the Poughkeepsie Livingstons had their share of government posts. Brother Gilbert was named Surrogate in 1778 and Master in Chancery in 1781. Henry Jr. served as Commissioner of Sequestration from 1777 through 1781,(7) responsible for confiscating the property of Tories and selling or leasing it to support the revolutionary government. At the same time he was a commissioner, Henry was also a Dutchess County Coroner(8) and by 1785, a Justice of the Peace. But a career in politics was definitely not the goal of his life. Henry aimed a little closer to home.

The Soliloquy of a careless Philosopher.

I rise when I please, when I please I lie down,
Nor seek, what I care not a rush for, renown;
The rattle called wealth I have learnt to despise,
Nor aim to be either important or wise.

Let women & children & children-like men
Pursue the false trollop the world has called fame.
Who just as enjoyed, is instantly flown
And leaves disappointment, the hag, in her room.

If the world is content not to stand in my way
The world may jog on both by night and by day
Unimpeded by me - not a straw will I put
Where a dear fellow-creature uplifteth its foot.

While my conscience upbraids not, I'll rise and lye down,
Nor envy a monarch His cares and his crown. R--(9)

In fact, Henry appears not to have been any more political than he needed to be to hold down his political jobs. His Carrier's Address from 1787 was almost apolitical

When earth quakes make old chimnies rattle
Or gossips in a corner tattle
Or twenty pumpkins in a row
Enormous on one tendril grow.
When flush'd with wine (the modern nectar)
Two Beaus as bluff & bold as Hector
Like lions meet and nobly dare
To flash their pistols in the air.
When sons of Neptune stoutly try
Who shall affirm the toughest lye
And swear they saw a fish, complete
From stem to stern, twelve thousand feet.(10)

But you couldn't live in Poughkeepsie and ignore politics. Even after the New York government moved out of town, the town was still a draw for other political events, such as the 1788 Constitutional Convention, where New York would decide whether or not to ratify the new U.S. Constitution. Brother Gilbert and Chancellor Robert R. Livingston, Jr. were both members. As Governor, Clinton had managed to stack the deck so that the attendees were 46-19 on his side, which was against ratification, and he was elected President of the Convention. The Governor's fear was that there weren't enough protections for the rights of individuals and of states. The camp opposing Clinton was led by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison, who pushed public opinion towards ratification in a series of pamphlets known as the Federalist Papers. Clinton countered with his own articles under the pseudonym "Cato,"(11) while brother Gilbert and John Lansing (later Chancellor Lansing) wrote Anti-Federalist Paper No. 65, "On the Organization and Powers of the Senate (Part 4)."(12) In the end, New York ratified the Constitution by just one vote, with Gilbert voting to ratify. In a book on the "What Ifs" of history,(13) the question is put, " "[What] If Gilbert Livingston Had Not Voted New York Into the Union." The answer Chamberlin gives is that Rhode Island and North Carolina would have not ratified the constitution, and the country would never have been joined into a truly United States.

Henry, as usual, took his delight in deflating the pomposity that surrounded such events.

The Procession

For the Country Journal.

The legislators pass along
A solemn, self-important throng!
Just raised from the common mass,
They feel themselves another class.
--But let them in the sunshine play
For every dog must have his day.

There moves the law's close-wedged band
The scourge and terror of the land!
Pandora's box replete with ills
Not half so baleful as their quills.

The sons of Galen, ghastly crew!
Next pass in horrible review:
Arm'd with each instrument of death
To sap the citadel of Health.
Ten thousand times ten thousand fall
And physic's monster gulps down all.

Bellona's sons, a num'rous train,
now darken all the dusky plain!
--War, their amusement, Death their trade
And the one sin, to be afraid.
They're but another dire disease
The soul from prison to release:
And man forlorn, as well may be
A prey to steel as malady:
Explore he must the mortal road,
The only diff'rence is the mode.

The men in black bring up the rear,
More warm to preach than folks to hear:
Each points to his own fav'rite road
As leading to the blest abode;
Proclaiming loud that all are wrong
Who don't around his banners throng,
Till, all confounded, FAITH retires
And frighten'd CHARITY expires.(14)

The year 1789 was exciting. George Washington had been elected president, with cousin Robert R. Livingston, Jr. administering the oath of office, then becoming, himself, Chancellor of New York. Uncle Pierre Van Cortlandt was still New York's Lt. Governor and, back from Spain, John Jay became Chief Justice of the first U.S. Supreme Court. In the New York Assembly, brother Gilbert was joined by Rev. John Henry Livingston's nephew, Stephen Van Rensselaer.

In 1790 baby sister Helen married Jonas Platt, the son of politician Zephaniel Platt, bringing another budding politician into the family. Henry, as usual, had a poem for the occasion.

'Twas summer, when softly the breezes were blowing,
And Hudson majestic so sweetly was flowing,
The groves rang with music & accents of pleasure
And nature in rapture beat time to the measure,
When Helen and Jonas, so true and so loving,
Along the green lawn were seen arm in arm moving,
Sweet daffodils, violets and roses spontaneous
Wherever they wandered sprang up instantaneous.
The ascent the lovers at length were seen climbing
Whose summit is grac'd by the temple of Hymen:
The genius presiding no sooner perceived them
But, spreading his pinions, he flew to receive them;
With kindest of greetings pronounced them well come
While hollidays clangor rang loud to the welkin.

In the 1791 election, it looked as if George Clinton's hold on the governorship would finally end. John Jay had run a strong campaign against him but, with defeat almost certain, challenges were made by Clinton's supporters to the ballots from three strong Jay counties on the grounds that they had been improperly delivered to the Secretary of State. By excluding those three counties, Clinton won by 8,440 votes to Jay's 8,332 - a winning margin of eight votes!

Jay's supporters were outraged, and it took Jay's calm voice to keep them from taking the election into their own hands. But even without winning the governorship, Jay still had coattails long enough to bring in a Federalist legislature. The party was so angry at the wrong done to their candidate, that they threw Clinton patronage incumbents out, and replaced them with Federalist appointees, such as brother-in-law Jonas Platt, who became Clerk for Herkimer County. But even with the dosey-doh-left and dosey-doh-right of Clintonians and Federalists, Henry promenades down the middle, now as an Assessor and Commissioner of Bankruptcy.

But there were still family ramifications to this election. In 1785, brother Gilbert had taken in as a law partner a young, newly married lawyer, James Kent. The young man, a Yale graduate at eighteen, was a hothead and a passionately partisan Federalist. On the 26th of May, 1790, Kent had won election to the New York Assembly. With the hope that he might be able to help the effort being made to overturn the 1791 election and give it to Jay, Kent wrote two pieces for the Daily Advertiser. The effort failed, and Kent's relationship with Gilbert Livingston became so severely strained that in the next Assembly election, Livingston and his family and friends supported Kent's wife's brother as a candidate against Kent, Livingston's own partner! The brother-in-law won and the partnership split apart. Kent was bitter. "The partnership with Mr. Livingston had by this time become a heavy and mortifying burden, and this was my principal inducement to quit Poughkeepsie and remove to New York the last of April, 1793."(16)

It might well have been this same election that turned Henry in a more political direction because he became active in 1795 in Jay's next campaign for the governorship. What made it easier for Henry to support Jay, a friend and a cousin, was that the election of 1795 was the first year that Governor Clinton was not running for reelection. When the results were in, John Jay was Governor and young Stephen Van Rensselaer, Lt. Governor. Jonas Platt was elected to the state Assembly in 1796, where he was joined the next year by Henry's son-in-law, Arthur Breese.

In the election of 1798, things got a little sticky. John Jay's opponent was also family - Chancellor Livingston. Although the Chancellor and John Jay had once been friends, Robert Livingston was deeply upset at being passed over for national office. After subtle suggestions failed, he had written Washington directly, suggesting he be made Secretary of the Treasurer or Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. He received neither post, and took himself and the Clermont Livingston branch out of the Federalist camp.(17) But his disappointment was so great that he also aimed a public attack on John Jay, who had received the post that Livingston wanted.

So when Henry decided to support Jay over his second cousin, he had to do it very, very carefully. After noting the praises that Livingston supporters had given their candidate, Henry seconded those opinions, then went on to argue that Jay had those same virtues and deserved to be continued in the office he had filled to universal praise.(18) Jay won again, and Henry was appointed Principal Assessor for the 2nd assessment district.(19) In the election of 1800, the tide had turned against the Federalists and toward the Jeffersonian Republicans, who had evolved from the supporters of George Clinton. Gilbert Livingston was elected again to the New York congress, and was also made a presidential elector, casting his vote for Thomas Jefferson.

In the last six months of his second term, Jay found himself locked in a corner by the New York Constitution. As governor, Jay alone had the power to suggest appointments to various offices, but the Council of Appointments had to approve his suggestions. When the power in the Council went against Jay, they were at an impasse.

His Excellency the Governor having nominated Jesse Thompson, for the office of sheriff of the County of Dutchess, the Council, excepting Mr. Sanders, did not consent to his appointment. His Excellency proceeded to nominate John B. Van Wyck ... Samuel Clift ... William Emott ... Aaron Stockholme ... Isaac Smith ... Henry Livingston of Poughkeepsie ... (and) Samuel Augustus Barker for the said office; the Council, excepting Mr. Sanders, did not consent to his (their) appointment(s).(20)

Jay wouldn't nominate the Council's candidates, and the Council of Appointments wouldn't approve his. Stalemate. The upshot was that Jay refused to convene the Council again.

Jay annoyed his fellow Federalists, as well as the opposition. When they supported John Jay for governor, his party had expected that he would send the goodies home in Federalist wheelbarrows. But that just meant that they hadn't done enough screening on their candidate. Jay was a man of integrity, and he wanted the right person in the right job. If that happened to be a Clintonian incumbent, so be it. Jay accomplished a great deal during his two terms in office, and he did it in a way that made him an extremely popular governor, even if he was on the bad side of both parties. Jay was pro-business at the same time that he worked to improve everyday life in New York. And, in his second term, Jay used that popularity to get a bill passed that would eventually abolish slavery. It stopped all importations of slaves into New York, and declared that all children born of slaves were free, though indentured until their majority to cover the cost of their childhood support.

Former governor George Clinton was brought back in 1801 to put the Federalists out of power when Jay retired at the end of two terms, and he promptly did. When Clinton won, there was a political bloodbath. Every Federalist incumbent was out, replaced by a Jeffersonian Republican. In fairly fast order, they created a huge political machine that reached down into every local district. As for Henry, he still appears as a Commissioner of Bankruptcy from 1801 to 1804, so he seems to have maintained some support in both camps. But he was definitely not happy about the political squabbling, as he made clear in his 1803 Carrier's Address.

Well -- since from abroad no great tidings are brought,
Let us see what at home there is, worthy of note;
Why here we find little to trouble hour heads,
Except paper-battles 'twixt Demos and Feds;
Abusing and squabbling and wrangling and spite,
Though I, for my life, see not what they get by't,
Unless 'tis the pleasure their venom to spit
And make folks believe they've abundance of wit;
But in this they mistake, for abuse, 'tis well known,
Is the wit and the wisdom of blackguards, alone.(21)

The election of 1810 was another big one for the Poughkeepsie Livingstons, with U.S. Representative and brother-in-law Jonas Platt running for Governor against Daniel Tompkins, who had succeeded Morgan Lewis. Platt lost that race, but did win a seat in the New York Senate. And it was in that legislative body, on March 12th 1810, that Jonas Platt made a motion to examine and survey a possible route between the Hudson River and Lake Ontario. That vision would someday become the Erie Canal,(22) one of Henry's passions.

In 1818, Gilbert's son-in-law, Smith Thompson, became Chief Justice of the New York Supreme Court, but resigned his position to become James Monroe's Secretary of the Navy. That same year, Thompson's son, Gilbert Livingston Thompson, consolidated the political families and married Arietta Tompkins, the daughter of then Vice-President Daniel Tompkins.

Secretary Thompson was offered a lifetime seat on the U.S. Supreme Court, but held off accepting it while he considered running for the Presidency in 1824. When he became convinced that he could not win the nomination, he took the position as Justice. In 1828, while still serving on the court, Thompson ran for the governorship of New York, but lost. Henry Livingston died before the election took place, never knowing the results of Thompson's run. Three years after the death of Thompson's wife in 1833, he married her first cousin, Elizabeth Davenport Livingston, the daughter of Henry Livingston. For the last seven years of Thompson's service on the Supreme Court, Eliza was his Capitol hostess.

When Thompson died, Eliza married the widower of another first cousin, Judge Richard Ray Lansing, whose first wife had been the daughter of Jonas Platt and Helen Livingston. While on a fishing trip, Lansing had stopped at a favorite tavern/store for supplies. A meeting was in progress to choose a name for their town, and it was going nowhere until one of the residents suggested that, as Dick Lansing was a favorite among them, they name their town for him. Everyone immediately agreed, and so the town was named Lansing Michigan.

In 1879, Eliza Livingston Thompson Lansing wrote to her cousin Annie Thomas.

Your letter has just reached me, and I hasten to tell you all I know about the poem 'Night Before Christmas.' It was approved and believed in our family to be Father's, and I well remember our astonishment when we saw it claimed as Clement C. Moore's.

My father had a fine poetical taste, and wrote a great deal both prose and poetry, but not for publication, but for his own and our amusement; he also had a great taste for drawing and painting. When we were children he used to entertain us on winter evenings by getting down the paint box, we seated around the table, first he would portray something very pathetic, which would melt us to tears, the next thing would be so comic, that we would be almost wild with laughter. And this dear good man was your great-great-grandfather.(23)

Chapter 12: The Faith That Banishes Fear

Chapter 11 Notes:

1. Edgar A.,Werner, Civil List and Constitutional History of the Colony and State of New York (Albany NY: Weed, Parsons & Co., 1886).

2. Jacob Judd [Ed.], Correspondence of the Van Cortlandt Family of Cortlandt Manor 1748-1800, ibid p.3. New York State archive files of Henry W Livingstons.

3. Walter Livingston was the son of Colonel Robert Livingston, the 3rd Lord of Livingston Manor, and brother John Henry's wife's first cousin.

4. Alvin Kass, Politics in New York State 1800-1830 (Syracuse University Press, 1965).

5. Alfred F. Young, The Democratic Republicans of New York (Chapel Hill NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1967).

6. James Eglinton Montgomery, Personal Reminiscences of the late Mrs. Sarah Breese Walker, 1884.

7. New York State Council on Appointments (original documents), New York State Archives, Albany NY.

8. New York State Council on Appointments, ibid.

9. Henry Livingston, Jr., "Careless Philosopher's Soliloquy" (MS Poetry Book p.53; Country Journal and Poughkeepsie Advertiser, Sep 5, 1787, by R).

10. Henry Livingston, Jr., "A New Year's address of Richard and George two boys of the printer N. Power," (MS Poetry Book; Political Barometer, Jan 1, 1787) p.45.

11. Grolier Encyclopedia, http://www.gi.grolier.com/presidents/aae/vp/vpclint.html

12. Gilbert Livingston and John Lansing, "On the Organization and Powers of the Senate (Part 4)," Anti-Federalist Paper No. 65, June 24, 1788.

13. Joseph Edgar Chamberlin, The Ifs of History (Henry Altemus 1907).

14. Henry Livingston, Jr., "A Procession" (MS Poetry Book p.59; Country Journal and Poughkeepsie Advertiser, Mar 10, 1789, by R).

15. Henry Livingston, Jr., "Epithalamium" (MS Poetry Book p.59; New-York Magazine, Mar 10, 1789; by R, Feb 1791).

16. William Kent, Memoirs of Chancellor Kent, (Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1898).

17. Clare Brandt, An American Aristocracy The Livingstons (New York, Doubleday, 1990) p.130.

18. Henry Livingston, Jr., "Three years have elapsed since you called Mr. Jay to fill the executive chair" (Poughkeepsie Journal April 17, 1798).

19. New York State Council on Appointments (original documents), New York State Archives, Albany NY.

20. Hugh Hastings [Ed.], Military Minutes of the Council of Appointment of the State of New York, 1784-1821 (Albany NY: James B. Lyon, State printer, 1901).

21. Henry Livingston, Jr., "Carrier's Address for the Political Barometer," Jan 1, 1803.

22. David Hosack, Memoir of De Witt Clinton 1829. with an Appendix, Containing Numerous Documents, Illustrative of The Principal Events of His Life (New-York: J. Seymour, 1829).

23. Eliza Livingston Thompson letter to Annie Thomas, Mar 28, 1879, Thomas Collection.


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