A noted lawyer, essayist, and political polemicist from New York, William Livingston was also elected the first Governor of New Jersey. Livingston also served as a New Jersey delegate to both the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention, and one term as a member of the General Assembly of the Colony of New York from 1759 to 1761. Livingston commanded the New Jersey militia from 1776 until 1783, which required regular correspondence with General George Washington.
Born in Albany, New York, Livingston was a scion of one of the colony's most wealthy and influential families. After graduating from Yale College in 1741, he became a successful lawyer in New York City. While in New York Livingston became engaged in the colony’s acrimonious provincial politics, to which he made his largest contribution as a writer of polemical pamphlets and newspaper essays.
In 1752, Livingston began co-writing and publishing the colony's first periodical, The Independent Reflector, a weekly journal dedicated to political and cultural criticism. In the mid-1750s, he became embroiled in a struggle with the Anglican hierarchy over the character and establishment of the colony's first college, King's College (now Columbia University). As a part of his efforts to improve the city’s cultural life, in 1754 he co-founded the New-York Society Library, the city’s first public subscription library.
During the 1760s, Livingston was a forceful opponent of British policies, writing a series of newspaper essays criticizing the Stamp Act, entitled "An American Whig." Toward the end of the decade, he staunchly opposed plans to establish an Anglican bishopric in the colonies. In 1772, Livingston retired from New York politics and the law and moved to his new home, "Liberty Hall," in Elizabethtown, New Jersey. However, his plans to live out the rest of his life in "philosophic solitude" were soon dashed when relations with Britain became increasingly strained.
His fellow New Jerseyans quickly drafted Livingston, whose political and literary reputation was known throughout the colonies, into the resistance movement. He led the colony’s Committee of Correspondence and its militia, and served as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress.
Following separation from Britain in 1776, Livingston was elected the first Governor of New Jersey and re-elected each year until his death in 1790. He also was appointed Brigadier General of the state militia. Due to these roles, and New Jersey’s centrality to much of the war effort, Livingston corresponded often with General George Washington. Livingston supported Washington throughout the war, even when others were campaigning for his dismissal following defeats at Brandywine and Germantown in the fall of 1777. In the spring of 1778, Livingston published a poem in tribute to Washington under the pseudonym, "Hortensius," in the New Jersey Gazette. In it, Livingston likened Washington to such republican heroes as Brutus, John Hampden, and Algernon Sidney, and implored the General to not be "dismay'd/At foreign myriads, or domestic foes."
Following the war, Livingston served as a New Jersey delegate to the Constitutional Convention and was one of the signers of the Constitution. Despite their frequent correspondence and mutual respect, Livingston and Washington do not appear to have had any significant relationship beyond that which developed in their official capacities.
Michael D. Hattem
Klein, Milton M. The American Whig: William Livingston of New York. Rev. ed. New York: Garland, 1993.
Levine, Michael L. "The Transformation of a Radical Whig under Republican Government: William Livingston, Governor of New Jersey, 1776-1790," PhD diss., Rutgers University, 1975.
The Papers of William Livingston, 5 vols., ed. Carl E. Prince (Trenton: New Jersey Historical Commission, 1979-1988).