Over the last year I've been researching the contents of a box of letters passed down to me from my ancestors. By a bizarre coincidence each of my parents was descended from one of two sisters, Gertrude and Alida Livingston, in the revolutionary-era household of those Livingstons who lived at Clermont on the east bank of the Hudson River. The sisters each married a prominent soldier in the revolution, Morgan Lewis and John Armstrong respectively, each of whom in turn achieved high political offices in the years that followed the War for Independence. Hence, two different groups of letters drifted through more than two centuries, handed down in families that had lost all connection to each other and finally, by the accident of my parents' chance meeting in a parking lot, ended up in one box in an old chest of drawers that I inherited.
Among the ten siblings, spouses, and in-laws of this extended family were prominent statesmen and soldiers including Robert Livingston of the Declaration of Independence and Louisiana Purchase and Richard Montgomery, husband of Janet Livingston, a martyr to the cause of Independence killed leading the attack on Quebec on December 31 1775. Montgomery was for the first decades of the nation's history the most revered military figure except for Washington and to this day, though his story is largely forgotten by the public, his exploits are recalled in the names of towns and counties from Alabama to Massachusetts. The actual history of this family, preserved in many scattered archives and scholarly works, reads like the scenario for some extravagant movie production or a vast historical novel, Game of Thrones meets War and Peace, its scenery shifting back and forth from the American Wilderness to New York and Boston and across the Atlantic to London, Paris, and Madrid. The secondary characters, whose lives intersect with those of the family, include the chiefs of the five Iroquois nations, Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Madison, the King of England, Napoleon, and even the two most famous pirates of the era, Captain KIdd and Jean Lafitte. As Michael Gabriel, Montgomery's biographer, told me, "Hollywood couldn't have made this stuff up."
I began my research into the letters with the intent of learning how the character of family members from over two hundred years ago might in subtle ways have affected my own personal history. I was exploring the larger question of how family histories, even when the details have mainly been forgotten, might subtly influence who we are and how we make our way in the world. At the beginning of the project, I knew little about the letters' authors and did not yet realize how they all had been bound together by birth or marriage to this one extraordinary household. I never imagined the epic adventures I would discover; nor did I comprehend that few if any families had had so major a role in shaping the early history of the country. As my research broadened and I found more letters from these same ancestors and from other family members preserved in various archives, I realized that my situation was very unusual. I began to know several ancestors from as far back as the 17th century much better than I knew my own grandparents who had all died when I was still a small child. In one case (the first Robert Livingston in America and his wife Alida),I could track the daily lives and concerns of grandparents nine generations back through letters written over 46 years (1680 to 1726) of a 50-year marriage. Of course, that far back, we all have many ancestors, but it was clear to me from family traditions and the passing down of first and middle names that the lives of certain of the people whose correspondence I was reading had influenced the attitudes and assumptions I grew up with, for better or for worse, in very basic ways. I heard in their words the voices and inflections of my parents and older relatives and shared some of their attitudes and assumptions. In a strange way, these ancestors became my companions, expanding whatever sense of family remained to me after the deaths of my parents and one sibling.
This project has evolved during a time of discontent, deteriorating economic conditions, and a growing distrust of the federal government. Since the letters are for the most part very personal communications between husband and wife or siblings, they have provided me with a glimpse of the inner lives of some individuals who were there at the beginning and who in fact helped evolve the social contract that was codified in the US Constitution. My long-term book project will take up some of the stories I have uncovered, flesh out the characters, and attempt to take a look in the mirror they hold up before us. I have found much to admire in the people of my letters. Their saga is full of all the human virtues and weaknesses of any time, but their lives were much more dangerous and they were in general a very courageous lot. Ship wreck, captivity among the Iroquois, a narrow escape from the executioner, several critical battles of the American Revolution, even a buried pirate treasure that likely inspired Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island, these are all important elements in the actual story. Completing that project will take a while, but in the meantime, my encounter with the ancestors has made me think about present day America in a different light.
At the time of the Revolution, the Livingston clan, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Robert Livingston, the founder, were among the largest private land owners in North America. Robert, my great (x 7) grandfather, stepped ashore in Charlestown, Massachusetts, in June of 1673 at the age of nineteen. He had grown up in Rotterdam where his father, John, a well-known Scottish non-conformist minister, had taken refuge after being banished by the English King. An important seaport as well as a center of philosophical learning, Rotterdam seems to have provided Robert with a mercantile savvy learned on the waterfront more thoroughly than it inspired him to engage in the kind of theological disputes that had necessitated his father's flight from Scotland. His youth in the city also gave him two native languages, Dutch and English, an asset he would put to good use in America. In the new world, his father's reputation and his own charm and street sense landed him a job representing a Boston merchant in Albany as a trader negotiating with the Dutch and Iroquois for the beaver and other furs that were so eagerly sought by Europeans. The future capitol of New York State, recently taken over from the Dutch by England, was essentially a frontier trading post, the major transhipment point north of Manhattan. Across the Hudson, the great eastern forests rolled west into lands no Europeans had yet seen.
Thus began the story that my family papers first pick up in the year 1742 in a letter from Robert (the grandson) to his wife Margaret. This latter Robert, known as "the Judge", died in 1775 just as the war was heating up, but despite his conservative nature, he was an ardent supporter of the rebel cause as was his aged father who died in the same year, according to family tradition, after receiving an exaggerated account of the colonists' defeat at Bunker Hill. Supposedly, the news so distressed him that he took to his bed and died a week later. As a prominent member of the Stamp Act Congress, Robert the Judge had been an early spokesman for two very important principles: colonists should not be taxed by a government in which they had inadequate representation; nor should they be threatened with imprisonment or other such punishments for alleged crimes without a trial by jury. The Judge believed these were the rights of all English subjects, and even the legitimacy of the Crown itself depended on the King's commitment to an Englishman's basic rights. Listen to some of the grievances enumerated in First Continental Congress' Petition to the King, a document to which Judge Livingston had contributed:
A Standing Army has been kept in these Colonies ever since the conclusion of the late war, without the consent of our Assemblies; and this Army, with a considerable Naval armament, has been employed to enforce the collection of Taxes.
The authority of the Commander-in-Chief, and under him of the Brigadiers General has, in time of peace, been rendered supreme in all the Civil Governments in America.
The Commander-in-chief of all your Majesty's Forces in North America, has, in time of peace, been appointed Governour of a Colony.
The charges of usual offices have been greatly increased; and new, expensive, and oppressive offices have been multiplied.
The Judges of Admiralty and Vice Admiralty Courts are empowered to receive their salaries and fees from the effects condemned by themselves.
The Officers of the Customs are empowered to break open and enter houses, without the authority of any Civil Magistrate, founded on legal information.
The Judges of Courts of Common Law have been made entirely dependent on one part of the Legislature for their salaries, as well as for the duration of their commissions.
Humble and reasonable Petitions from the Representatives of the People, have been fruitless.
The Agents of the People have been discountenanced, and Governours have been instructed to prevent the payment of their salaries.
Assemblies have been repeatedly and injuriously dissolved.