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A Box of Letters: Looking at my Revolutionary Ancestors from Post-Constitutional America

By       Message John Coster       (Page 2 of 3 pages) Become a premium member to see this article and all articles as one long page.     Permalink

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Commerce has been burthened with many useless and oppressive restrictions.

Duties are imposed on us for the purpose of raising a Revenue; and the powers of Admiralty and Vice Admiralty Courts are extended beyond their ancient limits, whereby our property is taken from us without our consent; the trial by jury, in many civil cases, is abolished; enormous forfeitures are incurred for slight offences; vexatious informers are exempted from paying damages, to which they are justly liable, and oppressive security is required from owners before they are allowed to defend their right.

The apprehension of being degraded into a state of servitude, from the pre-eminent rank of English freemen, while our minds retain the strongest love of liberty, and clearly foresee the miseries preparing for us and our posterity, excites emotions in our breasts which, though we cannot describe, we should not wish to conceal. Feeling as men, and thinking as subjects, in the manner we do, silence would be disloyalty.

This document lays out issues which are often raised today by those who distrust government: militarized force being used against citizens, burdensome bureaucracies, unfair taxes, corrupt judges, punishments meted out by the authorities without fair trials, warrant-less searches and the privacy of citizens invaded by government. This largely forgotten document is a kind prelude to the Declaration of Independence and Constitution.

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The last of my letters from the Judge is worth quoting as well:

New York, May 3, 1775

My dear,

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Since my last by Robert, this town has been in continual confusion, Mssrs Sears and Lamb calling out the people almost every day to the Liberty Pole. On Thursday I think it was they called out the people and many of them in arms, to whom they proposed to shut up the port and this was immediately done by obliging Mr Eliot to deliver them the keys of the custom house. The next day they were alarmed by the intelligence they had from Philadelphia that Oliver Delancey and John Watts had wrote letters home very unfriendly to the liberties of the country and so enraged were some that they actually charged their pieces in order to shoot them; however by the interposition of numbers the ferment was allayed and now has quite subsided by the affidavits they have published. By the (illegible) to abide the direction of the county committee of the Provincial and Continental Congress we have got now into a regular kind of government and the power of our demagogues are at an end. You'll say what have I to do with all this? Why do you not write of your own affairs? Why don't you come up? I have large accounts to pay and want to receive some money. I have had a man with me about the water late and I expect him again very soon. I must meet today about the division of Camden. Salt Peter I can get none. I hope you are not uneasy at these troublesome times. We are in the hands of God. To him let us trust all our concerns. He that places his confidence in Him He will not forsake. Various are the accounts we receive of the action at Boston, so various that it would seem very tedious to mention the many ways it is told. But I think it most certain that the regulars were beat, beat by much inferior numbers. That they marched 48 miles in twenty four hours and that they are at last convinced that the Yankees will fight. The American Army have encamped from Boxborough to Cambridge and are so near to General Gage's lines on the Neck that the sentries speak to each other. I'm afraid I shan't get from hence till Saturday.

God bless you

Your most affectionate Husband

Robert R Livingston

The reference to salt peter is interesting since I have learned elsewhere that the Judge invested some of his considerable resources into producing gun powder for the American patriots. He died suddenly, however, in December of that year, less than two weeks before his son-in-law, Montgomery, was felled by a blast of grapeshot as he stormed the lower barricades of Quebec City in a raging blizzard. Death was a larger presence in every day life, to say nothing of war, in the 1700s and religion, as this letter illustrates, was still the foundation on which many people constructed their philosophies. The Judge's remarks about getting into a "regular kind of government" more than a year before the Declaration of Independence demonstrate the strong drive towards self-rule that he and his political allies felt.

To the more skeptical men of the Enlightenment or the many ragged troops who were more comfortable in a tavern than a church, the illusion of control that permeates our modern media and the minds of our "elite" would have seemed laughable. Moreover, white America was mainly populated by protestants, whether English, Scotch Irish, or Huguenot, heirs to the reformation, to Calvinism, and the kinds of controversy that had sent John Livingston to Holland. Whatever authority the King might have, the individual met God and the larger questions of existence head on, unmediated by the authority of priest or state. Add to this the model of Republican Rome, which the classically educated upper classes revered in both England and America, mix in some of the Yankee Independence, which helped the first farmers of the Northern colonies survive, look back to 17th-century revolutions in England, Glorious and not-so-glorious, kings beheaded and kings restored to the throne, and one starts to see the currents swirling in the matrix from which our country was born. If every individual has a primary relationship with God or with a code of honor, the state must serve the individual more than the individual must serve the state. The pursuit of happiness, spiritual included, is not the sole prerogative of kings and queens or hedge-fund managers. The men who were the creators of our social contract, the Constitution, sought above all else to separate the powers of government, to disavow any system that offers a monopoly of force to those who come to power.    The militarization of civil authority, the loss of privacy and honestly representative government in matters of finance and justice, these were then and remain today the signs that a predatory ruling elite has emerged to cannibalize the society that supports it.

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By the time the Declaration of Independence had been proclaimed to the public (with one Livingston, Phillip, a signer, and the Judge's son, Robert, on the committee that approved Jefferson's draft), the Livingston clan was a dominant political family in New York and New Jersey. What were they thinking? With vast land holdings, originally granted by the crown, they were among the richest families in the colonies; it was a far cry from being a prominent Whig party leader to advocating war with the mother country. Declaring Independence was a hanging offense. In the New York Public Library, I found one particularly poignant letter from Margaret Livingston, the Judge's widow. She was writing to her son Robert on July 6 1776, and she feared she might never see him again. Revolution was a dangerous business. The Stamp act and other "intolerable acts" were a severe burden, but some of the money they were intended to raise had indeed defrayed the costs incurred in defending the colonies against the French and their Indian allies. The French and Indian war had been a very bloody conflict during which civilians were massacred. British rule was repressive, but as tyrants go, the King of England was pretty mild. Nevertheless, a high percentage of colonists were mad enough to fight, even among those who were privileged and had much to lose. Mad and determined to break free of the British Empire.

I believe what they were feeling is well expressed in that Petition to the King. They could foresee what many today fear, a "train of abuses" emanating from a government of the few: "Our minds retain the strongest love of liberty, and clearly foresee the miseries preparing for us and our posterity." Coming from the old world in a time of religious controversy and repression, many of the colonists harbored a healthy suspicion of authority. In such a time, when religious dogmas were in dispute, they had had to act out of individual convictions and now they found themselves liberated in a rich landscape, full of opportunity and to a great extent emptied of its former inhabitants by diseases. I suspect that in the Livingstons, old Scottish enmities against the English, played a role, as they did among the many Scotch Irish who took up arms, and that the Livingstons harbored a visceral distrust of the English aristocracy with all its unearned privileges. Though the family could trace its history back through the ranks of Scottish nobility, and by some accounts to Robert the Bruce (rebellion must be in the blood), young Robert, when he landed in 1673, arrived with only what he could carry yet ended up as one of America's first frontier tycoons. Montgomery, an Irishman, had left England after he could reach no higher rank in the British army because he could not afford the costs of a higher commission. The best British soldiers could only advance as far as their class and purse would allow. Once married into the Livingston family, it was hard for him to resist the call to arms in spite of his personal friendships honed in combat with many British officers and his deep desire to live a peaceful life as a gentleman farmer. This Livingston populism was admittedly expedient and maybe a little ironic in view of their position as "lords of the manor", but family honor, their religious heritage, and Scottish blood demanded a certain amount of disdain for the British aristocracy. The revolution they promoted would ultimately guarantee the end of many of their own privileges.

Beyond anything else, what the Revolution achieved was a Constitution, a social contract that sought to codify a system of checks and balances, which would prevent power from metastasizing and endangering the society as a whole. This was the goal implicit in the earlier Petition to the King. Too much power in too few hands always leads to destruction since it prevents a society from making necessary adaptations. It is always the group in power who most profit from the status quo. Resistance to change almost always comes from the top. It seems particularly notable to me that the American patriots were drawn from different social groups. Certainly the leaders were educated and mostly from wealthier backgrounds, but not exclusively, and they all understood how fortunes can change in a flash when the whims of the powerful dictate what happens in a society. John Livingston had fallen in and out of grace with the powers in London, traveling back and forth across the Irish sea. He even attempted to lead his flock to Massachusetts Bay in 1636 but was turned back by a mighty storm off the coast of Newfoundland that almost broke the ship apart, leaving them no choice but to struggle back to England with the prevailing winds. He died in exile. No wonder the revolutionary Livingstons, wealthy as they were, could imagine "miseries preparing" for them and their posterity. I think they shared a belief, common among the patriots, that they finally had a chance to break the pattern and set up a stable system that would not be undermined by the excesses of power. The whole Livingston clan in their separate dominions in New Jersey as well as New York, like it or not, threw in their lot with the common man, including those "sons of liberty" the old Judge had described as demagogues.

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Long time recording and performing songwriter and musician. BA from Harvard. Appalled at a lack of reality based news coverage in the face of systemic threats to society. I have done a variety of jobs in addition to my various musical projects. (more...)

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A Box of Letters: Looking at my Revolutionary Ancestors from Post-Constitutional America