William Livingston’s American Revolution

On a scale of 1 (fie!) to 10 (huzza!)

8
8

William Livingston’s American Revolution by James J. Gigantino II (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018)

For some students of the American Revolution, the name Livingston may ring a bell. William Livingston did, after all, hail from a prominent New York family that produced several politicians. Although Livingston does not garner the attention or acclaim of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, or Alexander Hamilton, Livingston was involved politically from the Continental Congress through the Constitutional Convention and fulfilled necessary functions at the state level during wartime. He was furthermore the only state governor to serve for the duration of the conflict. However, despite his constant service during the country’s formative years, he is seldom studied in his own right; the last biography of Livingston was published in the 1830s.

In William Livingston’s American Revolution, author James Gigantino studies the role that Livingston occupied as a “second tier” Founding Father. Livingston’s political service provides a window into the execution of higher political agendas and ideals at the state level and his role of mediator between national demands and the local populace. Livingston’s life provides Gigantino a lens through which to view issues that particularly affected New Jersey during the Revolution, including the unique political circumstances generated by its geographic location near Philadelphia and New York and the division between East and West Jersey that created civil-war-like conditions within the state as well as constantly shifting loyalties.

Hailing from New York, Livingston made his living as a lawyer and devoted much of his time to writing letters and pamphlets supporting his religious and political agendas, honing a skill that would come in handy later in his political career. The eve of the Revolution found Livingston relocated to Elizabethtown, New Jersey, hoping for a quiet, pastoral retirement filled with the leisurely pursuits of a gentleman. The dissension between the Crown and the colonies pulled Livingston back into the public arena, however, to serve in the Continental Congress. Although he seldom spoke on the record, he often adopted the role of mediator. Livingston continued this role of mediator after his appointment as a brigadier general in the New Jersey militia for a period of time prior to his election as governor in 1776, a position he held until his death in 1790. In addition to his wartime service, Livingston attended the Constitutional Convention and was one of the signers of the document it produced.

Although not a typical biography in that Gigantino is writing as much a history of New Jersey in the Revolution as he is about Livingston’s life, the book proceeds in a generally chronological fashion. Gigantino includes some details about Livingston’s personal life, particularly in the opening chapter, but much of the typical biographical information is omitted if it does not pertain to New Jersey’s political and military situation. He centers the narrative on several themes, which include the decision to go to war, Livingston’s role in prosecuting the war, loyalty, and the interplay between the administration and an often uncooperative public.

Gigantino’s examination of loyalty is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book. He explains Livingston’s reluctance to embrace independence as a desire for the status quo and trepidation about going to war with Great Britain. Livingston did not altogether oppose independence, but rather preferred to have alliances in place first and to declare independence as a last resort. Although a reluctant revolutionary, once the colonies were committed to independence Livingston committed himself to battling loyalism, which he viewed as an extreme fault. Much of his service during the war combatted loyalism and sought ways to prosecute loyalists. As Gigantino illustrates, however, combating loyalism in New Jersey proved exceedingly difficult due to its citizens’ frequently shifting loyalties.

Many recent studies have expanded how affiliations were determined and account for the role of personal circumstances in determining sympathies. Gigantino’s book, on the other hand, demonstrates that loyalty was not a matter of choosing one side over the other and committing; rather, many individuals viewed loyalty situationally and as subject to change according to circumstances, most especially economic and familial circumstances. Livingston derided loyalists and those who kept contact with those sympathetic to the loyalist cause, a common feature of many lives living so close in proximity to New York City. Livingston was quick to deny passage to New Jersey citizens to acquire goods or visit family in New York, citing his oft-touted virtue of self-sacrifice.

Matters of loyalty illustrate a key way that high politics departed from the masses; most citizens did not concern themselves with political ideology but with their own economic well-being and their families. Livingston’s derision of loyalist ties, even to one’s own family members, is just one example of how his high ideals clashed with those of ordinary people. Livingston feared lower classes having control and he pushed consistently for greater executive control, fighting both the populace and a Whig-controlled legislature that reflected their attitudes. Livingston found himself frustrated with people who ultimately wanted to look out for themselves rather than make sacrifices for their country.

Continuing a line of recent scholarship that greatly expands the understanding of loyalty and motivation as well as providing an in-depth look at state-level government during the Revolution, this book will appeal to readers who are interested in the political prosecution of the war and the relationship between political ideals and ordinary citizens. Challenging perceptions of a patriotic and politically involved populace, Gigantino paints an eye-opening picture of widespread unwillingness.  Revolutionary politicians battled not only Great Britain, but their own constituents as well.

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4 Comments

  • William Livingston was a spirited writer and orator. I am sorry to hear is thought so harshly when it came to those with relations on the other side of the conflict, but I look forward to reading this book.
    Thank you for this interesting review!
    Carl Prince edited 5 volumes of The Papers of William Livingston, covering 1774 to 1790. Published by the New Jersey Historical Commission, those volumes do not cover his 1750s work in New York as a lay Presbyterian activist, alarmed at the possibility of an Anglican bishop in the American colonies.
    Livingston’s rousing speeches to the New Jersey assembly and his columns for New Jersey papers read like powerfully well-crafted sermons.

    • Hi there–sorry for the belated response. Yes, his faith is discussed to some extent, especially in the first chapter when the author discusses the pamphlet writing campaigns Livingston engaged in pre-Revolution. I wouldn’t say his faith is ever a real focus object, but it comes up here and there as it pertains to Livingston’s political career.

  • A nice review of a book well worth reading!
    Gigantino provides an excellent case study that salient Revolutionary leadership included more than Generals and Members of the Continental Congress. Readers gain a comprehensive view of the operation and leadership of the New Jersey State government from 1773-1789. In many ways, State governments were more important to sustaining the war effort than either the Continental Army or Congress. Oft neglected, he delves into political control of the militia including terms of service, membership, and deployments.
    Also, the author does an outstanding job in describing Livington’s philosophical, cultural and political complexities. For example, Livingston exhibited an interesting ambivalence on the issue of slavery. One the one hand, he freed two of his enslaved people and on the other hand, Livington continued to control two enslaved people on behalf of his daughter.

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