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, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-08702

[3] “From George Washington to Henry Brockholst Livingston, 3 July 1782,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-08829

[4] “[Diary entry: 5 July 1790],” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/01-06-02-0001-0007-0005. [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.]

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