Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Aid For Tall Men Sought By Mc Vitty

Today we have a guest author for the blog. Rex McVitty, husband of Honoria Livingston, wrote this article for his Florida newspaper after trying to test drive a car in 1959.

Rex McVitty (Right) and Honoria Livingston
I can’t very well remember any time in my life, that I wasn’t conscious of being too tall. Even when my mother packed me off to boarding school, she had to buy my suits about three sizes too large because she well knew that before the three month term was over, they would be much too small. So I felt that I was never sartorially right. Either my coat fitted like a frock coat or there was a draft between the top of my trousers and the bottom of my coat.
            I had similar problems in India. There, the standard price set by the Guild of Tailors for a white drill suit was three rupees eight annas (this as you may well guess was quite a long time ago). Now when I went for a suit, the tailor would look at me and figure he was bound to lose money on the deal, so he cut corners as much as he could. The result was a suit that fitted me like a glove, only the first time it went to the dhoby (wash) it shrunk, and from then on it would be just one more  “too small suit!” I used to plead with tailors “make me a suit larger, I will pay you more money, gladly.”
            “Sorry, sahib, no can do, guild price- three rupees eight annas.”
            So there I was, sentenced to a life of ill fitting clothes.
            On board ship, the bunks were too short and the deck headroom too low. I found a cork topee a most expensive luxury, and only “mad dogs and Englishmen” went about without them. I was always smashing mine on watertight doors or low ceilings. I wonder that my head is as sound as it is, I have cracked it so often. I often fancied that I had developed a kind of radar in the top of my head that warned me of low doors but I couldn’t always rely on it. I remember crossing over on one of the White Star liners-maybe it was the Georgic. The White Star Line is no more, having been absorbed by the Cunard, but in its day it boasted of having many fine ships including the ill fated Titanic.
The Georgic
            Well anyway, on the Georgic, we lived on the far side of one of the watertight doors, and any of you who have travelled on ships will know exactly what I am talking about. Do you know I avoided crowning myself for six day and six nights. You couldn’t but have admired the graceful way in which I slid under that sharp edge. When we were going up the gang plank in New York, I suddenly remembered having left my wrist watch by my pillow rushed back to get it, hit my head against the watertight doo and was carried ashore feet first on a stretcher.
            Well that’s the way it is. People have been awfully nice about it. On one small craft, the carpenter cut a hole for me in the wardrobe standing at the foot of my bunk so that I could shove my feet into the wardrobe and my top coat kept them warm. And one time on battleship, when we had to sleep on the gun-deck in hammocks, on eof shipmates got the brilliant idea of hanging his clothes on my feet which were sticking a good foot out of the end of the hammock and so were very cold. Instead of folding them up and putting them in his chest, his clothes looked better and my feet were kept warmer.
            I wonder could you guess the seed that is germinating in my mind-the one that is responsible for this entire outburst. Here in this United States, they have lowered the ceiling in the 1959
automobiles so that they rest on my head when I am driving. This my friends is the final blow. I get in, sit in the driver’s seat and you couldn’t insert a dime between the top of my head and the roof of the car. First time I hit a bad bump, I would probably break my neck, and this has happened in a country that is noted for having tall men. Last time I was abroad people would say to me: “You’re an America, aren’t you?”
            I didn’t think it was my accent or brogue that was giving me away, so I would enquire “How did you know?” only to be told “you are so very tall.”-It sure beats me!
            Of course, everything is not on the debit side. I can reach higher and wade in deeper water than the average man. They used to say to me when I was in the Navy “Paddy, I wish that I had your height a beer.” Maybe beer does taste better when it has such a long way down, splashing all the way.
            Then there was a time right here in Sarasota. They were having a baby parade on a Saturday afternoon- and I was walking along Main Street-the crowd were packed pretty densely along the curb, but as I walked by, I could see over their heads so for me to see the parade was a cinch. I noticed one undersized little party desperately trying to squeeze in so he could see what was going on. All of a sudden he spied me, cried out, “Brother you are lucky! You have a built in soapbox!”

            Now what can you do in a case like that but count your blessings? But I do think the time is right for the organization, a benevolent and protective one, for all likely lads who just forgot to stop growing after they had reached a useful height, to agitate for longer beds, higher automobiles and doorways. How about it, eh?

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Do Not Expose Yourself Needlessly

Margaret Beekman Livingston, a real person
Margaret Beekman Livingston was a strong woman. There is no denying that. She raised ten children, nine of whom turned out pretty well. She was known as a competent business woman, running her massive estate for twenty-five years after the unexpected death of her husband, Judge Robert Livingston.

When the British burned down her house and all of her outbuildings in the fall of 1777 she was able, through sheer force of will and perseverance, was able to convince Governor George Clinton to
release men from their militia obligations so they could be free to rebuild her house. She met military and political leaders, from George Washington to John Jay, and charmed them all.

Not that George Clinton
That's the one
Robert R. Livingston

On August 15, 1776 Margaret wrote a letter to her eldest son Robert Livingston where she revealed that under her tough demeanor was a mother, scared for her child’s safety. A letter that could have been written by any mother to any child in any time of war.  She wrote:

“I hear you are to be with Genl. Washington but in what capacity I cannot hear – must you too be exposed to the fire of our Enemies oh my Dear Child Consider your situation with respect to myself, and my other children Do Not Expose yourself needlessly. You are in the Civil Department let others be in the Military your country has need of yr counsel as well as your family”

The letter in question
The British Army had landed on Staten Island on July 2, 1776, the same day Congress had declared Independence. By August 1, 1776 the British had more than 32,000 soldiers in New York Harbor along with a fleet of some 400 ships. Margaret, like Washington, was concerned with where the British would land next. Which of her sons would be in danger? Would any of them die like her son in law Richard Montgomery at Quebec? Would she and her family be in danger if the British came up the river? The British landed on Long Island a week after she wrote her letter. Robert was not with the army but her son Henry, a Lieutenant Colonel in the 2nd New York Regiment was trapped behind enemy lines for a period of time until he could escape to Connecticut.

Which brings up another reason for Margaret to be concerned about Robert’s safety. If something happened to him Henry Beekman Livingston would become the “man” of the family. While she had not kicked him out of the family as she later would he was still considered disagreeable at best.(Click here to read about Henry Beekman Livingston's less than stellar life)

Letters like this give us a glimpse into the real person, the very human, emotional person, who lived beneath the grand historical veneer that the Gilbert Stuart portrait puts upon her. We talk about her many accomplishments but can easily forget that she was a living breathing woman who feared for the safety of at least some of her children. 

Monday, September 18, 2017

The Chancellor and the Ditch

The First Lord of Livingston Manor
2017 marks the bicentennial of the beginning of construction of the Erie Canal. It was the canal that turned New York into the Empire State. Of course, it took a long time to arrive at the first shovel of dirt. In fact, Robert Livingston, First Lord of Livingston Manor had traveled into what was then Indian territory in what would be western New York. He reported to several successive royal governors that improvements to the natural waterways of the colony would allow access to the abundant resources of the western lands. He was ignored.

The first commission on the Erie Canal was formed in March of 1810. It was carefully assembled to include federalist and democratic-republicans. The committee included Gouverneur Morris, Stephan Van Rensselaer, William North, Thomas Eddy,
DeWitt Clinton
DeWitt Clinton, Simeon DeWitt and Peter Buell Porter. Gouverneur Morris was the titular head of the committee but it was widely known
that DeWitt Clinton was the driving force behind what would become known as “Clinton’s Ditch.”
Gouverneur Morris
The major accomplishment of the committee was to convince the New York State Legislature that the canal was in face a feasible project. In June of 1810 the entire committee, except for Morris, traveled by water as far as they could on the Mohawk River then, joined by Morris, traveled to Lake Erie by carriage. They then produced a report that spurred the Legislature to act.

On April 8, 1811, the legislature approved $15,000 for the commission to begin their work. They also added two new members to the commission, Robert R. Livingston and Robert Fulton. Livingston and Fulton. Livingston and Fulton had a monopoly for steamboat travel on the Hudson River and were in the process of building a steamboat to ply the Mississippi River which would give them a monopoly on that river as well. Having them on board would provide an even greater economic incentive for farmers and merchants to use the canal.
Robert Fulton

The Chancellor
Fulton and Livingston quickly found important roles on the commission. Fulton was to help find designers who could build the canal while Livingston would work with DeWitt Clinton to try to find national sources of funding for the project. In October, 1811 they sent a letter to the governments of all American states and territories pointing out that the canal would benefit the entire country and that they should either pay New York to help build it or pressure the federal government to give New York funds to offset the cost of construction.

It didn’t go well.

The states that bothered to respond at all sent resounding no’s.

Shortly thereafter the War of 1812 put the canal on hold although the commission retained its power and in 1812 was legally allowed to create a fund to pay for the canal. (This was repealed in 1814).

Livingston had one more role to play in the commission’s history, which he did by dying in February of 1813. Opponents of the canal in the New York legislature took the Chancellor’s death as an opportunity to challenge the authority of the entire commission, claiming that it ended when one member died and the committee would have to be reformed. Eventually Attorney General of New York, Abraham Van Vechten ruled that the power of the commissioners did not end with any particular member’s end.

It would be another four years before construction on the canal would begin. The canal was not finished until 1825.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

How to Blow Up a Gunpowder Mill

I recently received a few letters I had requested from the Gilder Lehrman Center and immediately answered a question that has nagged me for years. We know that in late 1775 the mill exploded.
But why? I mean, yes, it was a gunpowder mill and if you make it right, gunpowder will explode. But what actually happened at Judge Robert Livingston's mill?

As it turns out it was the age old story. Stupidity.

Judge Robert Livingston wrote in a letter dated 15 November 1775 to his son in law, General Richard Montgomery, that

Judge Robert Livingston
"three stupid fellows fired a piece two or three yards from the place where the powder was drying" (The Judge had been sent a load of damaged powder from Fort Ticonderoga to try to salvage but you read my previous blog on the mill so you know this) He goes on "which set fire to the pans & then to the powder mill which unfortunately blew up, & they with the poor powder maker are most unfortunately burnt that they live is very extraordinary about 500 lbs of powder was blown up"

Wow. There's a lot there to dig into. The Judge tells us that the cause of the explosion were three chuckleheads. Its unlikely that they were employees of the mill but more likely militia men sent to guard it. He also tells us that the four men at the mill survived the explosion but were badly injured. We also know that 500 lbs of gunpowder were destroyed. I'm not sure I can fathom what 500 lbs of gun powder looked like when it exploded but it must have been exciting.

Maybe something like this? I don't know. I'm guessing at least one of the guys got burned trying to walk away all slow without looking back.

He also reveals where the gunpowder was supposed to go when it was ready. Again to Montgomery the Judge wrote "I should have been much more affected with my loss had you not met with so lucky a supply." This seems to indicate that the gunpowder was bound for the invasion of Canada. The "lucky supply" was gunpowder that Montgomery had captured from the British during his early successes during the invasion.

So one nagging historical question I've had is answered. The gunpowder mill blew up because of three yokels playing with guns. 

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

An insatiable Ambition devours the Chancellor: Robert Livingston, John Jay, A Treaty, An Election and the Death of a Founding Friendship

Robert R. Livingston
Chancellor Robert R. Livingston could be a powerful and influential friend to have. Unfortunately, it was very easy to earn the man’s enmity. As a result, Livingston retained few friends for long periods of time. His three most significant friends from before the Revolution were Richard Montgomery, Gouverneur Morris and John Jay. All three men were at one time or another as close as brothers to the Chancellor but over the years the closeness ended.
            Richard Montgomery was married to Chancellor Livingston’s older sister, Janet. The two men became close friends often spending time talking science, agriculture and politics. Both had similar political leanings. Both were sent to New York to guide New York in the early days of the war. Livingston was chosen to go to Congress in Philadelphia while Montgomery remained in New York. With Livingston’s influence, Montgomery was selected as a brigadier general in the new army. On the last day of 1775 his friendship with Livingston came to a sudden and rather violent end when he was struck by several grapeshot while leading an assault on the city of Quebec.
Gouverneur Morris
Ladies man and leading Peter Stuyvesant
impersonator of the 18th century (not really, probably)
The real death of Montgomery was less poetic and neat and
more grapeshot in the head
            Gouverneur Morris met Livingston at King’s College, when he entered a few years behind the Chancellor. Morris and Livingston had similar backgrounds, both were from landed family, and, again, similar political leanings. During the war they frequently served together in various bodies or corresponded about their respective duties. Livingston even had Morris check into the background of Thomas Tillotson when he proposed marriage to one of the Chancellor’s younger sisters. If there was one thing about Morris that Livingston particularly disliked, it was Morris’s penchant for the ladies. Livingston once even took the time to write a letter to Morris admonishing him for spending time with ladies when he should have been attending to his Congressional responsibilities. Given his reputation as a Lothario it is unlikely that Livingston would trust Morris alone with his wife, mother, daughters, or sisters. After the war Morris moved to Pennsylvania and his duties took him away for long periods of time. While he and Livingston never formally ended their friendship they had lost the closeness they once shared.
John Jay
Decent judge, terrible diplomat
            John Jay was the Chancellor’s closest friend for many years. The two had also met at King’s College. After graduating they served their time as law clerks at the same time and passed the bar together. They briefly operated a law firm together and became fairly prominent in New York City society life. Jay even married a cousin of Livingston’s. As they matured they became the god father to each other’s children. In 1776 they made plans to live together with their wives while attending Congress but an illness for Sarah Jay prevented this from happening. During the war the men wrote the lion’s share of the New York Constitution together, they worked on the defense of the Hudson River together and they were even involved in some counter espionage together.
            The brother like closeness these two men shared makes the ending of their friendship all that much more tragic. The first cracks appeared during the war. In 1777 Jay tried to slip some anti-Catholic clauses into the New York Constitution which Livingston prevented. Later when Livingston was Secretary of Foreign Affairs and Jay was one of the peace negotiators in France, Livingston rebuked the negotiators for exceeding their authority and keeping the French in the dark about their negotiations. Jay responded with an enormously long letter explaining their reasoning.
            After Livingston issued the oath of office to George Washington, making him the first President of the United States of America, his relationship with his friend Jay was further strained. Jay was made Chief Justice of the Supreme Court while Livingston received no federal title. Not only was Jay earning his enmity but so was the entire Federalist party.
            In a relatively short amount of time Robert Livingston would switch his allegiance to the Democratic-Republican party and bring along most of his family or “faction” as his political enemies preferred to call it. In 1795 John Adams celebrated the defeat of Tillotson for office as a victory over the Chancellor in a letter to his wife. “Mr. King is re-elected by the Legislature of New York by a majority of five in the House and two in the senate, in opposition to Mr. Tillotson, whom you know, to have married a Sister of Chancellor Livingstone. This is a great Point gain’d.”[i]  Of course Adams had always hated Livingston although he blamed their animosity on Livingston saying “The Passion which has influenced the Chancellor, through Life has been envy of Mr. Jay, and consequent Jealousy of the Friendship between Mr. Jay and me. He hated me because I was the friend of Mr. Jay.”[ii] The relationship between the Livingstons and the Federalists became so bad that a cousin of Livingston’s, Maturin Livingston, very nearly dueled Alexander Hamilton in 1796 but Hamilton begged off because he already had another duel scheduled.[iii]
            It seemed that Livingston and Jay had a chance to become friends again in 1794, until Washington sent Jay to England to negotiate a new treaty that would tie up some loose ends from the Revolution. When the text of what became known as the “Jay Treaty” became generally known John Jay became one of the most hated men in America. People felt he had conceded far too much to the British. Jay was quoted as saying he could have traveled from Boston to Philadelphia at night by the light of his burning effigies. Livingston was perhaps the loudest voice criticizing the treaty. He published a series of letter under the pen name “Cato” blasting the treaty and even wrote directly to Washington to pressure him not to ratify it. To Washington he wrote; “Nothing but your glory can save under these circumstance the honor of our nation.”[iv]
Nope, still not this George Clinton
            In 1795, while he was still in England, Jay had been elected governor of New York when long time governor George Clinton declined to run again. Many had expected Livingston to be Jay’s opponent in the election but the Democratic-Republican surprisingly chose Robert Yates, whom Jay easily defeated.
Abigail Adams,
Actually thought the Chancellor was
worse than Satan
            Three years later the Chancellor was chosen to run against Jay. The election was tough and dirty. Vicious ads and letters filled the newspapers. It attracted the notice of people in other states. Abigail Adams wrote to her son John Quincy Adams of the Chancellor “An insatiable Ambition devours the Chancellor. To see Mr. Jay stand higher in the publick estimation and Elected chief over him; fills him with the same sensations, which Milton puts into the mouth of the Arch Fiend. “Better to Reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven.””[v] That’s right. She compared him to Satan. Thomas Jefferson wrote to James Madison “Hard elections are expected there between Jay & Livingston.”[vi]
 Worse yet the Federalists of New York moved in masse against the Chancellor. Alexander Hamilton, who had never forgiven Livingston for opposing his financial plans in the 1780’s, went so far as to write to Timothy Pickering to ask him to examine the papers of the Chancellor from his time as Secretary for Foreign Affairs looking for ammunition to use against him.[vii]
Philip "Ow, My toe hurts to much to fight" Schuyler
            At one point during the campaign Livingston paid a visit to Philip Schuyler at Schuyler Mansion in Albany. Livingston and Schuyler had often found themselves on the same side during the war, even though a very convenient case of gout kept Schuyler from commanding the expedition against Canada which effectively ended with Montgomery’s death. Livingston complained of Jay and the federal government, perhaps forgetting the Schuyler was Alexander Hamilton’s father-in-law. No sooner had Livingston finished his rant and departed the house than Schuler put quill to paper to report the meeting to Hamilton; “he and his friends are Assiduous in blackening Mr. Jay’s character.”  He went on to say of the Chancellor “The man my dear Sir has worked himself up to such a pitch of Enmity against our Government as approaches Madness.”[viii]
            Livingston lost the election. Three years later Thomas Jefferson sent him to France. He returned a few years later having doubled the size of the country with the Louisiana Purchase and went on to a life of success in agriculture and business. In the meantime, his “faction” had seen to the end of the political careers of Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton. Jay had retired from public service in 1801 to become a farmer but he and Livingston never spoke again.

[i] John Adams to Abigail Adams 29 January 1795 Adams Papers
[ii] John Adams to Francois Adriaan Van Der Kemp, 23 August 1806 Adams Papers
[iii]  See letters between Hamilton and Maturin Livingston January 18, 20 and 21, 1796. Hamilton Papers
[iv] Robert R. Livingston to George Washington, 8 July 1795 Washington Papers
[v] Abigail Smith Adams to John Quincy Adams 27 May 1798, Adams papers
[vi] Thomas Jefferson to James Madison 3 January 1798, Madison Papers
[vii] See letters between Alexander Hamilton and Timothy Pickering 10 February and 5 April 1797 Hamilton Papers.
[viii] Philip Schuyler to Alexander Hamilton, 31 March 1798, Hamilton Papers