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Today in History - November 27

Robert R. Livingston

November 27, 1746, marks the birth of Robert R. Livingston, jurist and statesman. Born into a wealthy and influential New York family, Livingston’s great-grandfather had purchased the Native American claims to large tracts of land along the Hudson River, eventually acquiring an estate of some 162,000 acres. Clermont, the family estate, is today a 500-acre historic site.

U.S. Capitol Paintings. Bust of Livingston Fresco in U.S. Capitol I, Washington, D.C., Theodor Horydczak, photographer, ca. 1920-50. Horydczak Collection.
Prints & Photographs Division.

Livingston graduated from King’s College—now known as Columbia University—in 1765. He next studied law and formed a law partnership with another alumnus, John Jay, future chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1773 he was appointed recorder for New York City and presided over criminal trials but was removed because of his support for independence for the American colonies.

Livingston served in the First (1774) and Second (1775-89) Continental Congresses. In June 1776, Livingston was one of five men—along with Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Roger Sherman—appointed by the Continental Congress to draft the Declaration of Independence. However, his signature is not on the document as he was in New York at the time of its formal signing. Along with John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison, Livingston, as chancellor, was instrumental in persuading New York to ratify the federal Constitution.

Livingston was the first chancellor of New York State—from 1777 to 1801—until he was appointed minister to France. After the ratification of the Articles of Confederation in 1781, Livingston was elected and served as secretary of foreign affairs (secretary of state) until 1783. He also administered the first presidential oath of office to George Washington on April 30, 1789.

Livingston served as America’s minister to France under Thomas Jefferson, who instructed him to buy New Orleans and the Floridas from Napoleon. Jefferson subsequently sent James Monroe to Paris with authority to offer the French ten million dollars. When Napoleon unexpectedly offered to sell the entire Louisiana territory for fifteen million dollars, Livingston and Monroe decided that the offer was too good to pass up and signed a treaty, subsequently ratified on October 20, 1803, by the U.S. Senate.

Livingston was one of the founders of the Society for the Promotion of Agriculture, Arts, and Manufactures, a learned society and the first scientific organization in New York State. Livingston’s scientific interests also extended to agricultural experimentation—particularly farming and merino sheep culture. George Washington, owner of the plantation at Mount Vernon, shared Livingston’s interests in agricultural matters and corresponded frequently with him. On February 10, 1793, he wrote to Livingston, “that the prosperity of our Country is closely connected with our improvement in the useful Arts.” Two years later, on February 16, 1795, Washington again wrote to Livingston stating, “Works of this sort are of the most interesting importance to every country…” and he sent Livingston a pamphlet on the cultivation of potatoes.

Clermont, between 1892 and 1899. Detroit Publishing Company.
Prints & Photographs Division.

The inventor John Stevens was Livingston’s brother-in-law, and they were associates in experiments relating to the development of steam navigation. Livingston also supported Robert Fulton, whose steamer Clermont, named for Livingston’s estate in New York, became the first successful steam-propelled vessel. For many years Livingston and Fulton held a hotly contested monopoly in steam navigation in New York State, still unresolved at the time of Livingston’s death at Clermont in 1813.

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Delancey and the Zenger Case

James Delancey was born into the English aristocracy on November 27, 1703. He presided over the 1733 libel suit brought by Governor William Cosby against journalist Peter Zenger. This case is a major landmark in establishing freedom of the press in America.

Manatvs gelegen op de Noot [sic] Riuier. Joan Vinckeboons, 1639. Cities and Towns. Geography & Map Division

Delancey was educated at Cambridge and trained in law. He arrived in colonial Manhattan in 1729. Prior to being named Chief Justice by Royal Governor William Cosby, he served on the Governor’s Council and as second judge of the colony’s Supreme Court.

Eighteenth century American colonists demanded increased freedom while proponents of royal rule desperately sought to maintain power in the face of rising opposition and democracy. Delancey and Cosby staunchly supported the English Crown and the concept of royal privilege. Many colonial New Yorkers were individualistic entrepreneurs seeking financial success and independence and did not quietly defer to what they viewed as antiquated claims of royal privilege.

Statue Force, Appellate Court Building, New York. Between 1900 and 1906. Detroit Publishing Company. Prints & Photographs Division
Statue Wisdom, Appellate Court Building, New York. Between 1900 and 1906. Detroit Publishing Company. Prints & Photographs Division

Conflicts between proponents of royal privilege and colonists occurred throughout the 18th century. No skirmish proved as significant as the libel suit against Peter Zenger. Zenger’s New York Weekly Journal enjoyed the enthusiastic support of critics of royal privilege and, in the early 1730s, published articles exposing Governor Cosby’s unjust policies, backroom financial deals, and bullying tactics. Cosby condemned the Journal and imprisoned Zenger for eight months while he awaited trial for seditious libel. Zenger’s imprisonment and trial created widespread public outrage and helped further fuel anti-royal sentiment.

Farm Journal, 1906. Alfred Harrell, photographer. Buckaroos in Paradise: Ranching Culture in Northern Nevada, 1945 to 1982. American Folklife Center

A hostile Chief Justice Delancey presided over the case. The prosecution argued that there were sufficient grounds for conviction as the publication was highly critical of Cosby and thus libelous and treasonous. In the eyes of the prosecution, the relative truth of the publication was irrelevant.

Zenger’s lawyer, Andrew Hamilton (like Zenger a former indentured servant turned successful businessman), directed his defense to the jury rather than the judge, hoping that a public fearful of royal abuses of power would condemn Cosby and protect Zenger. Hamilton conceded that Zenger had published articles critical of Cosby but eloquently argued that because the articles contained truths in the form of statements of verifiable facts, they could not be libelous. The jury’s “not guilty” verdict generated spontaneous cheers from anxious onlookers.

This first colonial freedom-of-the-press case established the veracity of reported statements as the principal criteria for determining grounds for libel and set a precedent against judicial tyranny in libel suits, thus marking a major advance for freedom of expression later enshrined in the United States Constitution and its First Amendment.

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