Sunday, February 28, 2021

The Career of Henry Brockholst Livingston: Soldier, Lawyer, Judge


            Henry Brockholst Livingston or Brockholst Livingston as he preferred to be called was born on November 25, 1757, the son of William Livingston, future governor of New Jersey, and his wife Susanna French Livingston. He was educated, eventually graduating from the College of New Jersey in 1774. One of his classmates was James Madison. Brockholst intended to continue his studies but the Revolutionary War got in the way.


Philip Schuyler

Brockholst rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel in the army. He served first as an aide to Philip Schuyler, then as an aide to Benedict Arnold during the Battle of Saratoga. He was one of the officers who signed a letter beseeching Arnold not to abandon the army between the two Battles of Saratoga.[1]
Benedict Arnold

            In 1779 he left the army on furlough to serve as personal secretary to John Jay, his brother in law and newly appointed minister to Spain. They learned French on the way across the Atlantic. Brockholst also picked up Spanish quickly in Spain. He held the post until 1782 when he returned to America. On the way back to the States, his ship was captured by the British and he was taken to New York as a prisoner. Three weeks later General Guy Carleton arrived in New York City and paroled Brockholst as a lieutenant colonel in the army. Brockholst was shocked to find that in his absence he had been “retired” from the army. He wrote to Washington, unsure if he had violated a rule of war.[2] Washington assured him he had done nothing wrong.[3]

John Jay

Henry began reading the law and in 1783 passed the New York Bar. He was in private practice from 1783-1802. In 1785 he survived an assassination attempt. He wen on in 1790 to deliver a Fourth of July address at St. Paul’s Chapel in New York City in front of President Washington and both houses of congress.[4]

            In 1798 Brockholst was accosted by a Federalist in the street (Brockholst was an ardent anti federalist) who struck his rather prominent nose. A duel ensued in which the other man was killed. (Read more about that here)

            In 1800 Brockholst, Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton served as the defense team for Levi Weeks who was accused of murdering Gulielma "Elma" Sands, a young woman who he was either courting or engaged to. Despite overwhelming evidence against Weeks, he was acquitted after five minutes of jury deliberation.

Alexander Hamilton

Aaron Burr


   In 1802 Brockholst was made a justice of the New York Supreme Court. A few years later Thomas Jefferson appointed him an associate justice of the Supreme Court in a recess appointment. This was probably a reward for the work Brockholst had done for Jefferson in New York in helping him get elected. He spent a great deal of his time on the bench agreeing with Chief Justice John Marshall. Although he was twice cited for violating judicial ethics. Once for telling John Quincy Adams the decision of a case before it was announced publicly and once for letting an old acquaintance influence one of his decisions.

Chief Justice John Marshall

            Brockholst held his supreme court seat until he died in Washington D.C. in 1823. He was buried in Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York. He was mourned by nine children from three wives. 

Brockholst's grave in Brooklyn


[1] Robert R. Livingston Papers, Reel 1

[2] “To George Washington from Henry Brockholst Livingston, 16 June 1782,” Founders Online, National Archives,

[3] “From George Washington to Henry Brockholst Livingston, 3 July 1782,” Founders Online, National Archives,

[4] “[Diary entry: 5 July 1790],” Founders Online, National Archives, [Original source: The Diaries of George Washington, vol. 6, 1 January 1790 – 13 December 1799, ed. Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1979, pp. 85–86.]

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Losing the Duel

          We have written here in the past about the successful duel that Brockholst Livingston fought over the size of his nose (Read all about it here) but not all the Livingstons had as much luck when they fought duels.
            First we have the case if William Alexander Livingston, who was Sarah Livingston Jay's cousin.
Sarah Livingston Jay

In 1776 he was living in Florida where he sided with the Loyalists. He traveled from there to New York to join them. But in 1777 he apparently had second thoughts, expressed a desire to change sides but traveled to the West Indies instead. In 1779 when he attempted to return to America he was captured at sea and brought to Connecticut as a prisoner. 
William Livingston

William Livingston wrote "I am sorry that a single individual of his name should chuse to be such a subject. But all families are liable to have degenerate members. Even Adam's had its Cain, that of Isaac its Esau and among the Twelve Apostles there was at least one traitor."
            Soon Livingston was  on parole from Connecticut and back in New York City. Then comes the mystery. Livingston, the presumed loyalist, was in the American Army camp in September of 1780 when he found himself in a duel with one Mr. Steaks or Stakre. No reason for the duel is given and no information on who incited the duel is given. Either way Livingston lost the duel and was buried outside the camp on September 6, 1780.
            The other duel we've recently discovered involves John Livingston of Livingston Manor. Born in 1782 the young man found himself in a duel in 1801 at the age of 18 or 19. His opponent was "Young Williamson" of Elizabethtown, New Jersey. John R. Livingston, Chancellor Livingston's brother wrote to tell him of the results. The younger John was "shot through the head and immediately expired."

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Pointy End Toward The Bad Guy: Chancellor Livingston's Sword


The Chancellor's colichemarde from the collection of the New-York Historical Society

Chancellor Robert R. Livingston was nothing if not a fashionable man. As such he frequently carried a sword. He was not a soldier, but the style of the time called for men of a certain position to carry a blade.

One of the swords that the Chancellor carried during his life was a small sword known as a colichemarde. The colichemarde was developed in the 1680’s and was extremely popular for about the next half century. The sword itself was transitional in nature, shorter and lighter than the rapier’s that proceeded it, hence “small sword”. Not that it was particularly small, the Chancellor’s sword was 39 ½ inches long from its steel tip to its ornate silver hit and grip. The silver work was created by silversmith John Parry of London. [i]

            Colichemarde blades were triangular in shape. The blade started fairly wide near the hilt, which made an excellent surface for parrying a blow from an enemy, but after several inches narrowed sharply to a thin blade with shape edges for slashing and a very sharp point made for lethal thrusting. These swords were ideal for use in duels.

            The colichemarde sword was on its way out as a fashionable sword when the Chancellor was wearing it. Perhaps it would have gone completely out of style had not another famous American taken to wearing one during the French and Indian War, George Washington. Washington’s sword was even more ornate than the Chancellor’s. Historians at Mount Vernon believe that Washington is wearing the sword in at least two portraits done of him.[ii]

The hilt of the sword at Washington's hip appears to match the hilt of his colichemarde

Again, the hilt of the sword shown seems to match the hilt of Washington's colichemarde

            Click here to see one of Mount Vernon’s curators explore George Washington’s colichemarde.  

            As far as we know the Chancellor never fought a duel with his colichemarde, but he would have proved a lethal adversary with this blade in his hand. Had he. Perhaps his size and the sword on his hip prevented many duels he could have found himself in, were he a smaller man or carrying a different sword

[i] The Chancellor’s sword is in the collection of the New York Historical Society. Information about the blade comes from their online collections guide.

[ii] Information on George Washington’s colichemarde comes from George Washington’s Mount Vernon