This Day in History: Robert Livingston, little-known (but critical) Founder
On this day in 1746, a future Patriot is born. Robert Livingston’s name is one that most Americans don’t recognize, but perhaps they should. He played a critical role in several founding events.
Did you know that he is the one standing next to George Washington in portraits of the first inauguration? Or did you know that Livingston obtained the territory that would become Louisiana, Arkansas, and Missouri—to say nothing of states such as Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska?
Livingston was an early supporter of the Patriot cause, opposing the Stamp Act as early as 1765. He was a well-regarded statesman, and he was soon representing New York in the Continental Congress. As a delegate, he was given at least one important task: He was asked to sit on a Committee of Five, charged with drafting the Declaration of Independence.
We hear a lot about Thomas Jefferson, the primary author of the Declaration, but much less about the four men who helped him: Livingston and Benjamin Franklin (representing the middle colonies), along with John Adams and Roger Sherman (representing the New England colonies). Jefferson represented the southern colonies.
During the Revolution, Livingston served as America’s minister of foreign affairs, and he helped to draft New York’s first state constitution in 1777. Livingston was the chancellor of the state of New York for nearly 25 years. As the highest ranking judicial official in the city, it fell upon him to administer the presidential oath of office to George Washington in 1789.
If you are one of the few Americans who know Livingston’s name, then chances are that it is because you know what he did during the Jefferson administration.
Livingston was minister to France at the time of the Louisiana Purchase. He and special envoy James Monroe had been authorized to spend up to $10 million for New Orleans, lands east of the Mississippi, and free navigation of the Mississippi River. However, Napoleon was then feeling desperate for funds with which to wage war in Europe. He offered to sell the entire territory for $15 million. Livingston and Monroe decided to commit to the deal in April 1803, despite the fact that it far exceeded their authority. They knew it would take months to update and receive approval from Jefferson, and they felt there might not be another chance to gain the territory.
Jefferson was surprised, to say the least, but he supported the decision. The Senate had only a few months to consider what they would do: The purchase treaty had to be ratified by the end of October 1803 in order to be valid. Many worried that the purchase was unconstitutional, but they also thought that a constitutional amendment would take too long. The Senate decided to go ahead and ratify the deal on October 20, despite the open constitutional question.
Do you think they did the right thing?!
Primary Sources & Further Reading:
Benson John Lossing, Biographical Sketches of the Signers of the Declaration of American Independence (1866)
Charles A. Goodrich, Lives of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence (1832)
Dennis Brindell Fradin, The Signers: The 56 Stories Behind the Declaration of Independence (2003)
John Ferling, Independence: The Struggle to Set America Free (2011)
Milledge Louis Bonham, Robert R. Livingston, Secretary for Foreign Affairs of the Continental Congress, August 10, 1781, to June 6, 1783 (1927)
Pauline Maier, American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence (1998 edition)
Sanderson’s Biography of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence (Robert T. Conrad ed. 1865)