Edward Livingston: A Famous Man That Few Have Heard Of
Many people are born into obscurity, lead undistinguished lives, and die in obscurity. They never arrive at prominence, and neither do they feel any particular need to appear in the limelight. No statues are erected in their honor, no streets are named after them. And neither they nor their descendants feel at all slighted that there is nary a mention in the history books of their dear departed. The fact is that most people expect to be forgotten, because even in life they are not well known, except to a handful of their friends and relatives.
And then there is another class of people: those who are known, but nobody quite knows what they are known for. The people who have streets named after them, or colleges and universities, or at least buildings on campus, but they have not done anything all that remarkable, and people assume they must have simply bought their fame. They were born into rich families, and they donated a lot of money, so their name is there, but they didn’t do anything to deserve their fame. And in fact, they are not famous, even though their names have been preserved.
And then there is a third class of people: the ones who are famous and rightfully so, but hardly anyone except for historians has ever heard of them. Edward Livingston (May 28, 1764 – May 23, 1836) is one of those!
Born into a prominent family, and always involved in public affairs throughout his life, Edward Livingston made valuable contributions in matters of law, diplomacy and warfare. His level of civic involvement was greater than normal for a public figure, and he demonstrated independent thinking, tact, courage in a crisis, loyalty to friends who were in trouble and personal responsibility that went above and beyond the call of duty. Nevertheless, his rise to positions of power was cut short on a number of occasions due to events that were outside his control. In each case, whenever he suffered a difficult loss, Edward Livingston picked himself back up, took responsibility for his own actions and of those who served under him, and managed to work himself back up the ladder. But each such event cost him dearly.
He served as Mayor of New York, United States Attorney for the State of New York, United States Senator from the State of Louisiana, as Secretary of State under President Andrew Jackson and United States Minister to France. Any one of those offices, if held by another person, might have represented an honorable culmination of a successful career. But somehow, after following Edward Livingston’s life story, one has the feeling that these were all consolation prizes, and that if he hadn’t so often landed in impossible situations by reason of events outside his control, Edward Livingston might easily have been elected president of the United States.
The Livingston family had been prominent for many generations, even before they moved to the new world. Edward Livingston’s ancestor, Sir Alexander Livingstone, was appointed as one of two joint regents during the minority of James II of Scotland, and after the death of James I in 1437. Sir Alexander Livingstone was named as “Keeper of the King’s Person” while his rival, Lord Crichton was made Chancellor. However, Crichton kidnapped the young King and Alexander Livingstone was able, through various “strategems” to restore him to his mother the Queen Dowager. Later, Crichton and Alexander Livingstone became reconciled, and they are even known to have plotted the death of a young Earl of Douglas. (There is a poem about it:)
The Livingstons had a long tradition of maintaining good relations with people from many walks of life. Even before Edward Livingston’s association with Jean Laffite, it was said that it was a Livingston who represented Blackbeard.
A Fall From Grace
Edward Livingston’s early life was marked with great success. He graduated from Princeton, passed the New York bar and ran for public office. He stood against the Alien and Sedition Act, which was the equivalent of today’s Patriot Act under the Adams administration. Livingston was a good friend of Aaron Burr, and was elected a U.S. Representative from the party that elected Jefferson and Burr to office in 1800 (the Democratic-Republicans). He received an appointment from President Jefferson to the post of United States Attorney for the State of New York, at the same time as he was elected as Mayor of New York City. And then a terrible thing happened. An epidemic of yellow fever descended on the the City of New York. Going beyond the call of duty, Livingston went the rounds of the city, seeing if there was anything he could do to relieve the suffering and put a stop to the spread of the disease. In the process, he fell gravely ill himself. When he awoke from his fever, he found that an underling of his had absconded with all the funds of the United States District Attorney office that was under his direction.
Unlike the politicians of today, Edward Livingston understood that anything that was done on his watch was his responsibility, even if he was sick at the time and was not able to supervise. Livingston resigned from both his offices, sold all his possessions, remitted all his fortune to the United States Treasury and pledged to spend the rest of his life earning enough money to pay off the remainder of the debt. Then he left New York and traveled to Louisiana Territory, where he hoped to make his fortune.
Livingston worked hard building a law practice in New Orleans. He married a refugee from St. Domingue. He made new friends in Louisiana Territory and kept up his contact with old friends. When Aaron Burr went on a tour of Louisiana Territory, drumming up support for his projected expedition into Mexico, one of his hosts was Edward Livingston.
However, when General James Wilkinson charged Burr with plotting treason against the United States, and Thomas Jefferson declared Burr’s guilt in advance of trial, Livingston very narrowly escaped suspicion himself. Because he had owed some money to Aaron Burr, and when presented with a draft drawn on him by Burr to the credit of Erich Bollman, he immediately paid the debt, Edward Livingston was seen as being financially involved in “the Burr Plot.” Erich Bollman was whisked away to the capital to be interrogated personally by the President without benefit of counsel, but Edward Livingston escaped such a fate.
Nevertheless, Jefferson, who even after Burr’s acquittal, did not relent against his former Vice President, also held a grudge against Livingston. When Livingston received a plot of land called the Batture de Sainte Marie as part of his payment on a title suit he won for a client, Jefferson intervened and confiscated the land, saying that it did not belong to Livingston. When Livingston appealed to the Supreme Court to have the matter adjudged, the case was dismissed for lack of jurisdiction.
Livingston was still trying to pay his off his debt to the United States Treasury. Any money he would have made on the sale the Batture would have been remitted forthwith to the United States government. And yet Jefferson was determined to rob him of any such opportunity to pay down his debt to the nation. Even after Jefferson was no longer the president of the United States, he still published a pamphlet at his own expense to defend his actions against Livingston.
Edward Livingston, even under the most desperate situations, was known for his droll sense of humor. He replied to Jefferson’s tract in a pamphlet of his own, which you can purchase even today on Amazon.com. It is well reasoned and not a little funny.
Edward Livingston’s Contributions During the War of 1812
When the War of 1812 broke out, during James Madison’s presidency, New Orleans was a hotbed of political corruption, ethnic strife and at times complete lawlessness.As a result of the Embargo Act, which outlawed international commerce for Americans, and the somewhat less extreme No Intercourse Act that followed it, many smugglers and foreign privateers had made their base in the vicinity, among them Jean and Pierre Laffite. While their initial contribution to the local economy had been to smuggle goods whose exportation and importation had been outlawed, later on the Laffites specialized in privateering against British and Spanish vessels. Instead of commending the privateers for battling against their common enemies, the local authorities, including the Governor and the Revenue Service, deplored the fact that duty was not paid on the goods that the Laffites sold at auction, undercutting local merchants and depriving the United States Treasury of an income.
The British turned to the Laffites for help in capturing New Orleans, but the privateers relayed a copy of the British offer to the Americans, hoping to join forces with them in fighting the British. The local governor turned this information over to Commodore Patterson of the United States Navy, who went on an expedition against the Laffites. Refusng to fight the Americans, the Baratarian privateers retreated and went into hiding and asked for help from the one man who would listen to them: Edward Livingston.
Edward Livingston, unlike most other politicians in New Orleans, recognized the true value of the help offered by the Laffites. He organized a committee of citizens and made direct contact with President Madison and General Andrew Jackson, bypassing the local corruption and negotiating for a concerted effort against the British. Without Edward Livingston’s fair, far sighted intervention, the Battle of New Orleans would in all likelihood have been lost.
Edward Livingston as Jurist and Statesman
Following the war, Livingston was elected to the Louisiana state legislature. From 1821 to 1826, Edward Livingston spent much of his creative and intellectual effort on devising a code of criminal law for the State of Louisiana. Written in both English and French, it covered the following legal subjects: crimes and punishments, evidence, procedure, and reform. While the “Livingston Code” became well known in Europe and South America as a model criminal code, it was never passed into law in Louisiana.
Andrew Jackson never forgot Edward Livingston’s service during the War of 1812, and when he became president he appointed him Secretary of State (1831-1833). Livingston also served as minister plenipotentiary to France from 1833 to 1835.
The Legacy of Edward Livingston
Edward Livingston did pay his debt to the Federal Treasury in full. He is an example of a virtuous man and a public servant who actually put public service ahead of any other goal. In an age of corruption, he was able to cut through the labels that were placed on other people (traitor, pirate, criminal) and to see what good there was in each person. Without his help, a lot of innocent men would have been much worse off. Without his help, the country would have fallen to the British.
Is Edward Livingston remembered today? The answer is: yes and no.
The town of Livingston, Guatemala is named after him, largely a result of the popularity of the Livingston Code abroad. Livingston County, Illinois, Livingston County, Michigan, Livingston Parrish, Louisiana, Livingston County, Tennessee and Livingston County, Missouri are all named after Edward Livingston. Edward Livingston Middle School in New Orleans and Fort Livingston are also named after him. But does anybody remember why? Because if they don’t, he might as well be just another fat cat rich donor who bought his way to fame.
Edward Livingston is one of those famous people that few have heard of who actually did some good. If you want to see an example of a virtuous man in public life, study the life and career of Edward Livingston.
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