Thursday, May 2, 2013

An Historian Remembers Chancellor Livingston

Reposted by permission of Tom Shanahan from the Register Star of Hudson, NY

It’s an anniversary which passed with little public notice – even here in his home county. That’s a shame.
February marked the death, 200 years ago, of Chancellor Robert R. Livingston. A leader in politics, diplomacy and business, he played a critical role in the development of this state and nation. His descendants still live here in the Hudson Valley.

A member of the “Committee of Five” which drafted the Declaration of Independence, he never actually got to sign the document he helped create, because he was recalled to New York to help draft this state’s first Constitution.

He was called “Chancellor” Livingston, not because he was the person who ran SUNY, but because he was Chief Judge of the Court of Chancery – the highest court in New York at the time. That made him the highest ranking judicial officer in the new national Capitol in New York City when the U.S. Constitution took effect, so it was his duty to administer the oath of office to George Washington for the first time.

As Ambassador to France, he negotiated the Louisiana Purchase – doubling the nation’s size for the bargain basement price of three cents an acre.

In France, Livingston met a fellow American, an inventor who was trying to sell a new method of naval propulsion to the French Emperor. Napoleon had spent the entire $15 million dollars earned from the sale of Louisiana on plans to invade England. Getting his entire army across the English Channel was a difficulty which would require at least three days. But when presented with the inventor’s idea of doing it mechanically, Napoleon dismissed it out of hand: “What, sir,” Bonaparte is reported to have said, “Would you make a ship sail against the wind and currents by lighting a bonfire under her deck? I pray you, excuse me, I have not the time to listen to such nonsense.”

Unlike Napoleon, Livingston saw the ingenuity in Robert Fulton’s idea. With his financing, Fulton’s genius, and the benefit of a monopoly franchise for steamboat operations on the Hudson – awarded them by the New York State legislature – they created the North River Steamboat of Clermont, the first practical use of a steam engine to propel a boat commercially. Clermont, of course, was the name of the Livingston family estate.

The steamboat Livingston had the vision to finance, transformed the nation. It made the 150-mile trip upriver from New York to Albany in 32 hours – essential, because their boat had to achieve speeds in excess of four miles an hour to maintain that monopoly.

But Livingston’s vision extended far beyond the banks of the river which flowed past his home. Even as the steamboat chugged past Clermont, Livingston knew that mechanized vessels plying the massive rivers of the territory he had negotiated away from Napoleon, were essential if that distant territory was to be inhabited by more than just a few adventurous souls. Together with Fulton and Nicholas Roosevelt, they built the first steamboat to travel the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.

That wasn’t his only important financial venture. He was the largest investor in an enterprise conceived by Aaron Burr, the Manhattan Company. It was supposedly formed to provide drinking water to New York City, but was really a back door way to charter a bank – to compete with Alexander Hamilton’s Bank of New York, at a time when Hamilton controlled the state legislature and could block any competition.
Two financial institutions, competing for business, helped generate the capital to fund the industrial revolution, forced on this country by British blockades during the War of 1812. Without financing to develop expensive new machinery, the industrial revolution might have taken root here years after it actually did.

We will always owe a debt of gratitude to the Founders – brave men like Livingston who risked their lives to pluck this country from British rule.

But how relevant are Livingston’s other contributions today, when steamboats are a pleasant anachronism for gamblers to play on, our country has spread far beyond the boundaries of the Louisiana Purchase, and the industrial revolution is now concentrated in Asia?

Consider this – the successor institution to that original bank and water business called the Manhattan Company, still exists. It’s now called J.P. Morgan Chase.

Robert Livingston’s marble statue stands as one of New York’s two contributions to Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol (the other being George Clinton). There’s a reason for that. The last 200 years might have turned out very differently, were it not for Chancellor Robert R. Livingston.


Tom Shanahan is Executive Producer of the Webumentary: 1812 – Uncle Sam’s First War, and is a speaker in the New York Council for the Humanities Speakers in the Humanities program, on the same topic.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful. I grew up near Clermont and knew something about Livingston but learned more here. Thanks!