Thursday, June 17, 2010

Philip "The Signer" Livingston

In honor of the approach of Indpendence Day, I think it is time we paid a little tribute to the Livingston who signed the Declaration of Independence.

A large portait of Philip Livingston hangs in a place of honor in Clermont's drawing room. He is a fashionably-dressed--if not flashy--man with only hansome white ruffles at his wrists and fine wig to display his considerable station in life.
When Alice Livingston hung this portrait here in the 1920s, it was a way to lend status to her family when other well-heeled guests came a-calling: Philip bears the distinction of signing the Livingston name to the Declaration of Independence, making Alice a decendant of some pretty fancy stock.
Taking a moment to sign a treasonous document at risk to his own wealth, status, and life was not his only acheivement though. Like many others who participated in the was, Philip was commited enough to put his life in grave danger, eventually dieing in service of the cause, far from home and family.

Philip never lived at Clermont; born in 1718, he grew up at Livingston Manor (interesting fact: Clermont was divided out of Livingston Manor in 1728 and the cousins on either side of the creek that divided the two were regularly at odds. See the map below. Clermont is in yellow; Livingston Manor is in orange). As fourth son he did not inherit land from the manor. Instead he, his Yale education, and his wealthy Ten Broeck (a Dutch family) wife headed to New York City to become a wealthy merchant.
They built a country estate out in Brooklyn, and he did all the things that a civic-minded wealthy man should do in the eighteenth century: he served as an alderman for the city and speaker in 1768. When the taxes of King George began gnaw at certain colonial residents, Philip was quick to speak out. He was a leading voice against the Stamp Act at the Provincial Assembly in 1765, and he was elected to the Continental Congress in 1774. He returned in 1776, leaving behind business and family in an increasingly unsteady environment, for the Second Continental Congress (you can read his correspondance from this time at the Library of Congresss website if you search his name).
The mansion he left behind was situation well enough to serve the Continental Army, where Washington used it as his headquarters for a time that year. The English liked the house too; they later used it as a hospital for the Royal Navy.

In August of 1776, while Philip's cousin Robert R. "the Chancellor" Livingston headed back to Clermont where he could be more active in state government, Philip stuck it out in Philadelphia long enough to sign his name onto the infamous Declaration of Independence. He too was traveling back and forth however, trying to balance local government with this cumbersome new continental one.

But in 1778 Philip was sick--too sick in his opinion, or maybe his family's, to rejoin Congress in central Pennsylvania. Having fled Philadelphia after Washington's defeat at Brandywine, Congress huddled a few days west in York, Pennsylvania, far from the more commodious accomodations they had been enjoying before. Governer Clinton of New York would give Philip no rest however, and believing him vital to the situation, urged him to make the perilous journey through contested territory to join with the rest of Congress there. (You can learn more about York County, PA history at their blog here)

The trip was exhausting. Several days on horseback with a single companion to give him support took their toll on Philip. Settling down at the villiage inn, he joined in the celebrations on May 4th when the group received news that France would be joining their side in the war--finally some good news! But Philip's health could not take the trip. Realizing the seriousness of his condition, Philip drew up his will in a hurry, and several of his fellow delegates made trips to his bedside to offer their wishes. Three delegates were well-respected physicians, and they did everything that 18th century medicine could do for a dieing man. But in the end, Philip succumed there in York.
His wife and children were not even given the chance to say any final farewells, since transporting a body about 200 miles in the early summer heat, across a war zone was pretty much out of the question. Philip was burried in York, and his body stayed there until 1858, when it was moved to Prospect Hill Cemetary.
When Trumbull imagined the scene of the signing of the Declaration of Indpendence and made this painting some 40 years later, he stuck Philip way out on the right-most edge of the painting where he would be forever find himself cropped off the two dollar bill and out of many internet images.
But Philip "the Signer" Livingston did more than just sign his name to a major historic document. His commitment to the cause of American Independence was fierce one, leading him to speak up on many committess and travel great distances to fullfill, and it was one that followed him to the end of his life.

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