Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Was Robert Livingston a Scoundrel?

Was Robert the Founder, the patriarch of the Livingston family, a scoundrel? A quick glance at his history would seem to confirm it. Robert is infamous for his “interpretation” of his land patent which allowed him to take an extra 150,000+ acres for his estate. He's also famous for failing to provide food for the Palatine workers after he didn't get paid by Britain, allowing the workers to go hungry.
Robert was unpopular among many of his contemporaries because of his moneymaking ways. According to one British source, Livingston "pinched a fortune out of the soldier's bellies," as the provider of food and supplies for the British army. That was more polite that Governor Fletcher's verdict, "Beginning as a little bookkeeper, [Livingston] has screwed himself into one of the considerable estates in the province."
But judging Robert by the verdict of his political opponents and financial rivals has some obvious problems. Even greater than that, however, is the problem looking at Robert in isolation. As the historian Sung Bok Kim reminds us in his essay, “Robert Livingston and Moral Judgment,” Livingston operated in a community of cut-throat merchants and ambitious young politicians. The former New Netherlands, and particularly Albany, were home to speculators and money-makers of every type.
The Dutch had founded the New Netherlands as a merchant colony – in other words, to make a buck. Livingston was one of its true sons, but only one of many. He was simply more successful at it than most. As Kim reminds us, Livingston's famous play with the wording of his patent was extreme, but nearly every other patent from this period was being liberally interpreted as well.
If you've read Richard Zacks' history of Captain William Kidd, The Pirate Hunter, you're probably familiar with idea of Livingston, "the spider," as a schemer and a double crosser. As one of his illustrations of “the moral character of Kidd's future business partner, Robert Livingston,” Zacks describes a case where it appears that Livingston – a British citizen - was involved in a venture that smuggled goods to a French port.
England and France were warring at the time, and those goods probably helped to support a French invasion of a British port in Jamaica. If Zacks is right, Livingston was aiding the enemy during a time of war. But if Livingston did so, he was not the only one.
In fact, as Thomas Truxes demonstrates in his recent work Defying Empire, New York merchants continued to trade with the French right up to and during the French and Indian War. Even while French troops were threatening the colonies, New York businessmen were using various schemes to sell goods to the French ports in the Caribbean. One of these merchants was Phillip L. Livingston, grandson of the founder and signer of the Declaration of Independence.
And so we're stuck trying to judge a man who was likely little better or worse than his contemporaries. By our standards, Livingston was a scoundrel, but that simply means he fit in with Colonial New York. Clermont is here today because Robert Livingston was more effective at being a scoundrel that his competitors.

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