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. 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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De Lancey and the Zenger Case

James De Lancey, lawyer, jurist and eventual acting governor of New York, was born in New York City on November 27, 1703. As Chief Justice of New York, De Lancey presided over the landmark 1733 libel suit brought by Royal Governor William Cosby against printer John Peter Zenger. Cosby accused Zenger of printing stories critical of Cosby in his newspaper. Although De Lancey served at the pleasure of Cosby, and was himself biased against Zenger’s cause, the jury at Zenger’s trial still ruled in favor of the printer’s right to publish. The Zenger case is viewed as a milestone in establishing freedom of the press in America.

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

The eldest son of a French Huguenot merchant and a New York Dutch heiress, James De Lancey was sent to England at age twenty to receive his legal education. In 1728 he married Anne Heathcote of Scarsdale Manor (later Scarsdale, West Chester County) with whom he had six children. The following year he was admitted to the New York bar. With his superior training and family connections, De Lancey rose rapidly in political circles. Prior to his appointment as Chief Justice of New York by Cosby in August, 1733, De Lancey also served on the Governor’s Council and as second justice of the colony’s Supreme Court of Judicature.

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

The basis of the conflict surrounding Zenger’s newspaper lay in partisan politics, stemming from Cosby’s 1732 arrival as the new Royal Governor. Cosby demanded a pay raise, but also placed a claim on half the money previously paid to the colony’s interim governor, Rip Van Dam, as salary. New York’s provincial council granted the pay increase but opposed the surrender of Van Dam’s earnings. Cosby brought suit through New York’s Supreme Court. When Chief Justice Lewis Morris refused to hear the case, Cosby responded by removing Morris from the court—the reason for De Lancey’s quick appointment. The politically powerful Morris and his allies next looked for ways to discredit Cosby and his supporters. Led by lawyer James Alexander, the Morris faction soon started the New York Weekly Journal as an opposition newspaper specifically to criticize Cosby, employing printer John Peter Zenger to represent their cause. As printer, Zenger, a German immigrant, was the public face of the anti-Cosby paper, but he was neither the author nor the editor of its largely anonymous content.

After several legal attempts to stifle the paper and a full year of public attacks against him, Cosby had had enough of the New York Weekly Journal. In November, 1734, he ordered that four of the most offensive issues be publicly burned. Ten days later, Cosby had Zenger arrested on charges of seditious libel. Unable to afford an excessively high bail, Zenger spent more than eight months in prison awaiting trial, while the Weekly Journal continued to appear with the help of Zenger’s wife Anna. Though a grand jury refused to indict him, Zenger was finally brought to trial on August 4, 1735.

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

A hostile Chief Justice De Lancey presided over the case. De Lancey had disbarred Zenger’s original defense attorneys and replaced them with a pro-Cosby lawyer. On the day of the trial, however, Zenger was defended by the prominent Philadelphia lawyer Andrew Hamilton, by surprise arrangement of the Weekly Journal’s supporters. Hamilton directed his defense to the jury rather than the judge, conceding that Zenger had published articles critical of Cosby but eloquently arguing that because the articles contained truths in the form of verifiable facts, they could not be libelous—an argument that defied the accepted understanding of libel law at that time.

The Zenger jury’s “not guilty” verdict came quickly and was widely celebrated. Zenger soon published a transcript of the trial, while Hamilton was awarded the “Freedom of the City” and an inscribed gold box by the Common Council of New York. Though scholars may disagree about the long-term effects of the Zenger case in law or legislation, it fully captured the public’s attention. The case set an important political precedent for colonial America, fortifying emerging concepts of freedom of the press while earning the trial of John Peter Zenger an enduring place in America’s historical imagination.

For De Lancey, the Zenger affair was only a minor setback in his own rise to power. With Cosby’s death in 1736, De Lancey joined the governor’s council, now exerting great influence on all three branches of New York government. By 1744, he had earned the role of chief justice “in good behavior,” which effectively meant he could hold the position for life. Three years later he became Lieutenant Governor. During the 1750s James De Lancey served twice as acting governor of New York, convening the Albany Congress of 1754 and signing the charter for King’s College (now Columbia University) the following year. He died suddenly of a heart attack in July of 1760.

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