and the wealthy Nicholas William Stuyvesant.
And did I forget Eleanor Roosevelt, President George Herbert Walker Bush and President George Walker Bush? Not to
mention Henry Jr., himself!
Poughkeepsie, during and soon after the Revolution, was a political center. The first
session of the Provincial Congress under the New York Constitution met at Kingston, and ran for
a month in the autumn of 1777. They left when the British, annoyed by meeting resistence from
the town, burned it. So the government picked up lock, stock, and legislation and moved to
Poughkeepsie. With the center of New York government in Henry's home town, there was no
way he could ignore politics. Walter Livingston,(3) Henry's second cousin, was Speaker of the
Assembly, of which brother Gilbert was a member. Cousins John Jay and Sarah moved in next
door to Gilbert, and Uncle Pierre Van Cortlandt was elected Lt. Governor, frequently taking
charge of the state when General, as well as Governor, Clinton was away on military business.
Clinton was described by his contemporaries as a physically impressive man; he was 6
feet tall and of massive size, with the nickname of "Magnus Apollo". Considered a man of broad
learning and humane ideals, he could also be overbearing and tactless.(4)
Mrs. William Smith,
John Adams' daughter and a member of high society, noted that Clinton lived modestly and was
mostly a homebody, and was not much loved or respected. Ms. Smith also noted that the
Governor's wife, Cornelia Tappen, "is not showy, but is a kind, friendly woman."(5)
Add in the
fact that the Clintons were members of the Dutch Reformed Church, and you get a picture of a
family that might not have run with the tops of society, but who were probably very comfortable
in the down-to-earth world of Dutch New York.
Clinton's wife was the sister of Dr. Peter Tappen, who was married to the sister of
Henry's brother Gilbert's wife. Dr. Tappen's daughter Caty married Henry's younger brother
Robert Henry, which makes Henry's sister-in-law the niece of Governor Clinton. Binding the
families even closer, Clinton's daughter Maria married Henry's young first cousin, Stephen
David Beekman, the grandson of Aunt Cornelia and General Pierre Van Cortlandt, and Clinton's
eldest daughter Catherine married the general's son. And Henry's son-in-law, Arthur Breese,
was a personal friend of the Governor, traveling with him down the Mohawk to Albany when the
river was so shallow that passengers and sailors had to continually pull the boat from the mud.(6)
If you're starting to see the tree branches of the extended Livingston clan as a plate of
spaghetti, congratulate yourself. You understand perfectly. And just to tie the knot a little tighter,
Governor Clinton was the brother of Colonel James Clinton, Henry's commander under
Montgomery and a later Governor, DeWitt Clinton, was the son of Colonel James. Old Dutch
New York towns like Poughkeepsie tended to run on family ties. And because the Dutch had
large families, there were a lot of people tied together!
With all these connections to the Governor and Lt. Governor, it's not surprising that the
Poughkeepsie Livingstons had their share of government posts. Brother Gilbert was named
Surrogate in 1778 and Master in Chancery in 1781. Henry Jr. served as Commissioner of
Sequestration from 1777 through 1781,(7) responsible for confiscating the property of Tories and
selling or leasing it to support the revolutionary government. At the same time he was a
commissioner, Henry was also a Dutchess County Coroner(8) and by 1785, a Justice of the Peace.
But a career in politics was definitely not the goal of his life. Henry aimed a little closer to home.
The Soliloquy of a careless Philosopher.
I rise when I please, when I please I lie down,
Nor seek, what I care not a rush for, renown;
The rattle called wealth I have learnt to despise,
Nor aim to be either important or wise.
Let women & children & children-like men
Pursue the false trollop the world has called fame.
Who just as enjoyed, is instantly flown
And leaves disappointment, the hag, in her room.
If the world is content not to stand in my way
The world may jog on both by night and by day
Unimpeded by me - not a straw will I put
Where a dear fellow-creature uplifteth its foot.
While my conscience upbraids not, I'll rise and lye down,
Nor envy a monarch His cares and his crown. R--(9)
In fact, Henry appears not to have been any more political than he needed to be to hold
down his political jobs. His Carrier's Address from 1787 was almost apolitical
When earth quakes make old chimnies rattle
Or gossips in a corner tattle
Or twenty pumpkins in a row
Enormous on one tendril grow.
When flush'd with wine (the modern nectar)
Two Beaus as bluff & bold as Hector
Like lions meet and nobly dare
To flash their pistols in the air.
When sons of Neptune stoutly try
Who shall affirm the toughest lye
And swear they saw a fish, complete
From stem to stern, twelve thousand feet.(10)
But you couldn't live in Poughkeepsie and ignore politics. Even after the New York
government moved out of town, the town was still a draw for other political events, such as the
1788 Constitutional Convention, where New York would decide whether or not to ratify the new
U.S. Constitution. Brother Gilbert and Chancellor Robert R. Livingston, Jr. were both members.
As Governor, Clinton had managed to stack the deck so that the attendees were 46-19 on his
side, which was against ratification, and he was elected President of the Convention. The
Governor's fear was that there weren't enough protections for the rights of individuals and of
states. The camp opposing Clinton was led by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James
Madison, who pushed public opinion towards ratification in a series of pamphlets known as the
Federalist Papers. Clinton countered with his own articles under the
pseudonym "Cato,"(11) while
brother Gilbert and John Lansing (later Chancellor Lansing) wrote Anti-Federalist Paper No. 65,
"On the Organization and Powers of the Senate (Part 4)."(12) In the end, New York ratified the
Constitution by just one vote, with Gilbert voting to ratify. In a book on the "What Ifs" of
history,(13) the question is put, " "[What] If Gilbert Livingston Had Not Voted New York Into the
Union." The answer Chamberlin gives is that Rhode Island and North Carolina would have not
ratified the constitution, and the country would never have been joined into a truly United States.
Henry, as usual, took his delight in deflating the pomposity that surrounded such events.
For the Country Journal.
The legislators pass along
A solemn, self-important throng!
Just raised from the common mass,
They feel themselves another class.
--But let them in the sunshine play
For every dog must have his day.
There moves the law's close-wedged band
The scourge and terror of the land!
Pandora's box replete with ills
Not half so baleful as their quills.
The sons of Galen, ghastly crew!
Next pass in horrible review:
Arm'd with each instrument of death
To sap the citadel of Health.
Ten thousand times ten thousand fall
And physic's monster gulps down all.
Bellona's sons, a num'rous train,
now darken all the dusky plain!
--War, their amusement, Death their trade
And the one sin, to be afraid.
They're but another dire disease
The soul from prison to release:
And man forlorn, as well may be
A prey to steel as malady:
Explore he must the mortal road,
The only diff'rence is the mode.
The men in black bring up the rear,
More warm to preach than folks to hear:
Each points to his own fav'rite road
As leading to the blest abode;
Proclaiming loud that all are wrong
Who don't around his banners throng,
Till, all confounded, FAITH retires
And frighten'd CHARITY expires.(14)
The year 1789 was exciting. George Washington had been elected president, with cousin
Robert R. Livingston, Jr. administering the oath of office, then becoming, himself, Chancellor of
New York. Uncle Pierre Van Cortlandt was still New York's Lt. Governor and, back from
Spain, John Jay became Chief Justice of the first U.S. Supreme Court. In the New York
Assembly, brother Gilbert was joined by Rev. John Henry Livingston's nephew, Stephen Van
In 1790 baby sister Helen married Jonas Platt, the son of politician Zephaniel Platt,
bringing another budding politician into the family. Henry, as usual, had a poem for the
'Twas summer, when softly the breezes were blowing,|
And Hudson majestic so sweetly was flowing,
The groves rang with music & accents of pleasure
And nature in rapture beat time to the measure,
When Helen and Jonas, so true and so loving,
Along the green lawn were seen arm in arm moving,
Sweet daffodils, violets and roses spontaneous
Wherever they wandered sprang up instantaneous.
The ascent the lovers at length were seen climbing
Whose summit is grac'd by the temple of Hymen:
The genius presiding no sooner perceived them
But, spreading his pinions, he flew to receive them;
With kindest of greetings pronounced them well come
While hollidays clangor rang loud to the welkin.
In the 1791 election, it looked as if George Clinton's hold on the governorship would
finally end. John Jay had run a strong campaign against him but, with defeat almost certain,
challenges were made by Clinton's supporters to the ballots from three strong Jay counties on the
grounds that they had been improperly delivered to the Secretary of State. By excluding those
three counties, Clinton won by 8,440 votes to Jay's 8,332 - a winning margin of eight votes!
Jay's supporters were outraged, and it took Jay's calm voice to keep them from taking the
election into their own hands. But even without winning the governorship, Jay still had coattails
long enough to bring in a Federalist legislature. The party was so angry at the wrong done to
their candidate, that they threw Clinton patronage incumbents out, and replaced them with
Federalist appointees, such as brother-in-law Jonas Platt, who became Clerk for Herkimer
County. But even with the dosey-doh-left and dosey-doh-right of Clintonians and Federalists,
Henry promenades down the middle, now as an Assessor and Commissioner of Bankruptcy.
But there were still family ramifications to this election. In 1785, brother Gilbert had
taken in as a law partner a young, newly married lawyer, James Kent. The young man, a Yale
graduate at eighteen, was a hothead and a passionately partisan Federalist. On the 26th of May,
1790, Kent had won election to the New York Assembly. With the hope that he might be able to
help the effort being made to overturn the 1791 election and give it to Jay, Kent wrote two pieces
for the Daily Advertiser. The effort failed, and Kent's relationship with Gilbert Livingston
became so severely strained that in the next Assembly election, Livingston and his family and
friends supported Kent's wife's brother as a candidate against Kent, Livingston's own partner!
The brother-in-law won and the partnership split apart. Kent was bitter. "The partnership with
Mr. Livingston had by this time become a heavy and mortifying burden, and this was my
principal inducement to quit Poughkeepsie and remove to New York the last of April, 1793."(16)
It might well have been this same election that turned Henry in a more political direction
because he became active in 1795 in Jay's next campaign for the governorship. What made it
easier for Henry to support Jay, a friend and a cousin, was that the election of 1795 was the first
year that Governor Clinton was not running for reelection. When the results were in, John Jay
was Governor and young Stephen Van Rensselaer, Lt. Governor. Jonas Platt was elected to the
state Assembly in 1796, where he was joined the next year by Henry's son-in-law, Arthur Breese.
In the election of 1798, things got a little sticky. John Jay's opponent was also family -
Chancellor Livingston. Although the Chancellor and John Jay had once been friends, Robert
Livingston was deeply upset at being passed over for national office. After subtle suggestions
failed, he had written Washington directly, suggesting he be made Secretary of the Treasurer or
Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. He received neither post, and took himself and the Clermont
Livingston branch out of the Federalist camp.(17) But his disappointment was so great that he also
aimed a public attack on John Jay, who had received the post that Livingston wanted.
So when Henry decided to support Jay over his second cousin, he had to do it very, very
carefully. After noting the praises that Livingston supporters had given their candidate, Henry
seconded those opinions, then went on to argue that Jay had those same virtues and deserved to
be continued in the office he had filled to universal praise.(18) Jay won again, and Henry was
appointed Principal Assessor for the 2nd assessment district.(19) In the election of 1800, the tide
had turned against the Federalists and toward the Jeffersonian Republicans, who had evolved
from the supporters of George Clinton. Gilbert Livingston was elected again to the New York
congress, and was also made a presidential elector, casting his vote for Thomas Jefferson.
In the last six months of his second term, Jay found himself locked in a corner by the
New York Constitution. As governor, Jay alone had the power to suggest appointments to
various offices, but the Council of Appointments had to approve his suggestions. When the
power in the Council went against Jay, they were at an impasse.
His Excellency the Governor having nominated Jesse
Thompson, for the office of sheriff of the County of Dutchess, the
Council, excepting Mr. Sanders, did not consent to his
appointment. His Excellency proceeded to nominate John B. Van
Wyck ... Samuel Clift ... William Emott ... Aaron Stockholme ...
Isaac Smith ... Henry Livingston of Poughkeepsie ... (and)
Samuel Augustus Barker for the said office; the Council, excepting
Mr. Sanders, did not consent to his (their) appointment(s).(20)
Jay wouldn't nominate the Council's candidates, and the Council of Appointments
wouldn't approve his. Stalemate. The upshot was that Jay refused to convene the Council again.
Jay annoyed his fellow Federalists, as well as the opposition. When they supported John
Jay for governor, his party had expected that he would send the goodies home in Federalist
wheelbarrows. But that just meant that they hadn't done enough screening on their candidate.
Jay was a man of integrity, and he wanted the right person in the right job. If that happened to be
a Clintonian incumbent, so be it. Jay accomplished a great deal during his two terms in office,
and he did it in a way that made him an extremely popular governor, even if he was on the bad
side of both parties. Jay was pro-business at the same time that he worked to improve everyday
life in New York. And, in his second term, Jay used that popularity to get a bill passed that
would eventually abolish slavery. It stopped all importations of slaves into New York, and
declared that all children born of slaves were free, though indentured until their majority to cover
the cost of their childhood support.
Former governor George Clinton was brought back in 1801 to put the Federalists out of
power when Jay retired at the end of two terms, and he promptly did. When Clinton won, there
was a political bloodbath. Every Federalist incumbent was out, replaced by a Jeffersonian
Republican. In fairly fast order, they created a huge political machine that reached down into
every local district. As for Henry, he still appears as a Commissioner of Bankruptcy from 1801
to 1804, so he seems to have maintained some support in both camps. But he was definitely not
happy about the political squabbling, as he made clear in his 1803 Carrier's Address.
Well -- since from abroad no great tidings are brought,|
Let us see what at home there is, worthy of note;
Why here we find little to trouble hour heads,
Except paper-battles 'twixt Demos and Feds;
Abusing and squabbling and wrangling and spite,
Though I, for my life, see not what they get by't,
Unless 'tis the pleasure their venom to spit
And make folks believe they've abundance of wit;
But in this they mistake, for abuse, 'tis well known,
Is the wit and the wisdom of blackguards, alone.(21)
The election of 1810 was another big one for the Poughkeepsie Livingstons, with U.S.
Representative and brother-in-law Jonas Platt running for Governor against Daniel Tompkins,
who had succeeded Morgan Lewis. Platt lost that race, but did win a seat in the New York
Senate. And it was in that legislative body, on March 12th 1810, that Jonas Platt made a motion
to examine and survey a possible route between the Hudson River and Lake Ontario. That vision
would someday become the Erie Canal,(22) one of Henry's passions.
In 1818, Gilbert's son-in-law, Smith Thompson, became Chief Justice of the New York
Supreme Court, but resigned his position to become James Monroe's Secretary of the Navy. That
same year, Thompson's son, Gilbert Livingston Thompson, consolidated the political families
and married Arietta Tompkins, the daughter of then Vice-President Daniel Tompkins.
Secretary Thompson was offered a lifetime seat on the U.S. Supreme Court, but held off
accepting it while he considered running for the Presidency in 1824. When he became convinced
that he could not win the nomination, he took the position as Justice. In 1828, while still serving
on the court, Thompson ran for the governorship of New York, but lost. Henry Livingston died
before the election took place, never knowing the results of Thompson's run. Three years after
the death of Thompson's wife in 1833, he married her first cousin, Elizabeth Davenport
Livingston, the daughter of Henry Livingston. For the last seven years of Thompson's service on
the Supreme Court, Eliza was his Capitol hostess.
When Thompson died, Eliza married the widower of another first cousin, Judge Richard
Ray Lansing, whose first wife had been the daughter of Jonas Platt and Helen Livingston. While
on a fishing trip, Lansing had stopped at a favorite tavern/store for supplies. A meeting was in
progress to choose a name for their town, and it was going nowhere until one of the residents
suggested that, as Dick Lansing was a favorite among them, they name their town for him.
Everyone immediately agreed, and so the town was named Lansing Michigan.
In 1879, Eliza Livingston Thompson Lansing wrote to her cousin Annie Thomas.
Your letter has just reached me, and I hasten to tell you all I
know about the poem 'Night Before Christmas.' It was approved
and believed in our family to be Father's, and I well remember our
astonishment when we saw it claimed as Clement C. Moore's.
My father had a fine poetical taste, and wrote a great deal
both prose and poetry, but not for publication, but for his own and
our amusement; he also had a great taste for drawing and painting.
When we were children he used to entertain us on winter evenings
by getting down the paint box, we seated around the table, first he
would portray something very pathetic, which would melt us to
tears, the next thing would be so comic, that we would be almost
wild with laughter. And this dear good man was your