Tuesday, January 17, 2017

"The Gentleman Does Not Reason From Facts": Chancellor Robert R. Livingston and the Fight to Ratify the Constitution in New York

Not that George Clinton
That George Clinton
Yes I know I've done this joke
before but its still funny
When the Constitutional Convention adjourned in Philadelphia the fight to create a unified country out of thirteen individual states was far from over. In every state another convention was to be held where the leaders would decide whether or not to ratify the new Constitution. Influential individuals were still rife with fears left over from the Revolution; fear of a standing army, fear of a strong central government and fear of loss of control. New York was not exempted from these fears, in fact anti-federalist ideas may have been held even stronger by members of New York’s ratification convention as they had vivid recollections of the long British occupation of New York City and bitter fighting in a significant portion of the state. Chief among the anti-federalists was New York’s long time governor George Clinton.
Alexander Hamilton,
Not really important to the story but his name gets
the hits
The Constitution had many valiant defenders in New York, including Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton was not alone in these efforts though. He was ably joined by John Jay on the Federalist papers but on the debate floor it was Robert R. Livingston who became a force of nature although he receives almost no credit for his efforts.
Chancellor Robert R. Livingston
Smarter than you, richer than you and he knows it.
Livingston had not been in Philadelphia to help draft the Constitution although his name had been considered as a delegate. He had come to realize the importance of a strong central government during his time in the Continental Congress and as Secretary for Foreign Affairs. Following his time has secretary Livingston had returned to New York to reassert himself as the Chancellor of New York, a role which had been challenged while he was out of the state.
In Poughkeepsie, where the ratification convention was held, Chancellor Livingston quickly became notorious among the anti-federalists for converting their members to the federalist cause. He was known to single out members of their faction and take them to a tavern, sometimes with Jay or Hamilton, and ply them with food and drink until they had converted them to the federalist side. The anti-federalists simply had no one with the near bottomless purse of the Chancellor who could treat delegates in that fashion.[i]
Livingston’s influence was best shown on the floor of the debate though. He spoke frequently in a sarcastic and condescending tone about specific tones as well as the idea of anti-federalism in general. Melancton Smith was a frequent sparring partner of the Chancellor’s. Smith insisted that a federal system would be dominated by the aristocracy who would be by their very nature corrupt, or intemperate in his words.  To this the Chancellor replied:
Melancton Smith
Perhaps sparring partner is too strong,
maybe verbal punching bag?
“Will he presume to point out to us the class of men in which intemperance is not to be found? Is there less intemperance in feeding n beef than on turtle; or in drinking rum than wine? I think that the gentleman does not reason from facts.”
He went on to ask, rhetorically, who would lead the country in Smith’s world;
“But who in the name of common sense will he have to represent us? Not the rich; for they are sheer aristocrats. Not the learned, the wise, the virtuous for they are all aristocrats.”[ii]     
This sentiment echoed a point he had made in an oration to the New York Society of Cincinnati on July 4, 1787 when he said;
“Can it be thought that an enlightened people believe the science of government level to the meanest capacity? That experience, application, genius and education are unnecessary to those who are to frame laws for the government of the State.”[iii]
Clearly the Chancellor favored a strong central government led by the best society had to offer dedicated to what was best for the country as a whole. On June 24, 1788 Livingston found himself in the odd position of having to clearly explain the role of the senate to his fellow delegates after their status came up in the debates. He said;
“The Senate are indeed to represent the State governments; but they are also the representatives of the United States, and are not to consult the interest of any state alone but that of the union.”[iv]
            During the debates the Chancellor rarely let an opportunity pass to make a point without belittling anti-federalism. Once he compared anti-federalist arguments to “children blowing bubbles.” Later when disputing a point started with “let us see if we cannot, from all this rubbish, pick out something which may look like reasoning.” He could not.[v]
            When many anti-federalist insisted that the individual states should control separate military forces the Chancellor was forced to illustrate how ridiculous that idea was;
“How is Congress to defend us without a sword? You will also keep that. How shall it be handled? Shall we all take hold of it? I never knew, till now, the design of a curious image I have seen at the head of one of our newspapers. I am now convinced that the idea was prophetic in the printer. It was a figure of thirteen hands, in an awkward position, grasping a perpendicular sword. As the arms which supported it were on every side, I could see no way of moving it, but by drawing it through with the hazard of dangerously cutting their fingers.”[vi]
            If anything the Chancellor seemed to enjoy the enmity he earned from the antifederalists. When his tactics were questioned because they seemed to arouse so much hatred toward him he reportedly said “that if he had no wit himself, he had been the occasion of wit in others…”
            Not even family was safe from the Chancellor’s barbs. When a cousin, Gilbert Livingston, argued a point with the Chancellor, Livingston turned to the rest of the assemblage and said;
John Jay
A long time friend of the Chancellor until he
wasn't but that's a story for another day
“that my worthy kinsman across the table, regardless of our common ancestry, and the tender ties of blood, should join his dagger to the rest, and compel me to exclaim in the dying words of Caesar, “And thou, too, Brutus.””[vii]
Thoroughly rebuked, when the time came to vote on the Constitution, Gilbert voted with the Chancellor.
            New York’s delegates were still debating when word reached them that New Hampshire had ratified the Constitution. This meant that enough states had ratified the document that it could take effect. The Chancellor took the floor and declared “The confederation was now dissolved.” In short, there was no going back.
            In the end it was the Chancellor’s friend (at least at that point) John Jay who finally moved that the body vote to accept or reject the Constitution. After a final attempt to delay by the anti-federalists the Constitution was ratified in New York on July 26,1788.

The Chancellor can be seen in his judge's robe carefully orchestrating the hand shake between
George Clinton and Alexander Hamiliton



[i] Dangerfield, George Chancellor Robert R. Livingston of New York, 1746-1813 p 224
[ii] The Debate on the Constitution Bernard Bailyn ed. P777-778
[iii] Livingston, Robert R. An Oration Delivered Before the Society of Cincinnati at the State of New York in Commemoration of the Fourth Day of July. p.10
[iv] The Debate Bailyn p 792
[v] The Debate Bailyn p 837
[vi] Elliot’s Debates Volume 2 p 386.
[vii] Elliot’s Debates Volume 2 p 394-395






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