Philip Livingston: Reluctant Revolutionary

As the early morning mist rolled off the Hudson, it silhouetted the dark shape of the delegate’s carriage as it rattled down the winding country road to Albany.  The carriage was traveling at a high speed, and would have made the ride an uncomfortable one for the two men who sat inside, had they not been so engrossed in the issue at hand.  Their voices rose, barely audible above the racket of the thundering horse’s hooves.  One of the men argued loudly; “The King has yet to show any progression in bringing these colonial wars to an end, yet the Crown continues it’s refusal to fund it’s own exploits!”  He was a younger man, and was doing most of the talking.  His audience of one, an older, dignified man of some 50 years, sat across from him in silence.  “We are taxed unwaveringly without representation, and to what end?  And now this ‘Stamp Act’ is forced upon us.  Meanwhile, we are not secured the same rights as our fellow Englishmen across the sea!  Philip, how can you tolerate this violation of our colonial rights?”  The older man broke his silence.  “You know full well that I do not approve of your revolutionary methods, James.  Rioting will only breed further misunderstanding between our Colonies and the Crown. Be slow to join the young men who cry ‘revolution’ in the street, for they will surly be the first to fall from the cause.  What these Colonies need is common sense and patience, not romantic revolutionaries.”  The younger man, James, was becoming angry.  “Perhaps what these Colonies need is fearless leadership.  Leadership that is not afraid to commit everything to the cause of liberty.”

Suddenly, the carriage was no longer lurching and swaying, and the door opened as the footman announced, “Welcome to Albany, Mr. Livingston”.

“Come, James.  I wish you to join me at the legislature.” Philip beckoned his young companion to follow him down the cobblestone street to the congressional building.  “You hold great sway among these men, sir.”  James’ tone changed to one of pleading.  “You are one of the most successful and affluent merchants in New York, your family name is respected at every turn.  Now you are a representative to the New York Legislature.  Please, Go and stir their hearts to passion and revolution!”  The two men stopped at the door.  “My friend,” Philip began.  “I desire freedom as much as any man, but my task is a simple one. I am to represent those who appointed me to this assembly.  There is a time for peace and a time for war, James, but the people are not ready to face an enemy like Britain in open revolution.  It would be a slaughter, and I will not now betray them by preaching my own opinion over their best interest.”  “And is it in their best interest to remain slaves to this tyranny?”  James spat back.  “It is my duty to the people of my state not to commit them to a fate they do not know without exhausting all other possibilities of peace.  If there is to be revolution, the world must know that it was a diplomatic declaration of independence, not a youthful rebellion.”  James was repulsed.  “You are young and idealistic, James, you have passion and spirit, but those who seek a swift answer and jump to revolution in haste may repent at leisure, if they live that long.”  James turned and began to walk down the street before turning and shouting, “Turn to your own bureaucratic endeavors.  See how that helps our Colonies.  Meanwhile, I, James Caldwell, will march triumphantly with the true patriots!”

At the legislature, Philip bore the hours of debate and discussion over the ‘Stamp Act’ with silence and solemnity before he spoke up.  He was calm and collected as he rose and addressed his fellow delegates.  “I have been ridiculed as a coward, hesitant to defend a faction, but If you wish to know my position, allow me to make it clear.  I hope you will join with me in an endeavor to secure that great badge of English liberty, of being taxed only with our consent, to which all His Majesty’s subjects at home and abroad are equally entitled to.”  He was denouncing the spirit of revolution in favor of peace.  There was an outcry from some, praise from others.  Philip countered each argument hurled against him.  “Who are we, but a small delegation, to condemn an entire people to war before so much as offering our grievances to the King and offering him the opportunity for restitution or rebuttal.  If we are to enter into a conflict with the sovereign, our cause must be just, and our conscience clean.  Esteemed Gentlemen, once we embark upon the path of revolution, there is no return. The world will surely watch, and if we are not sure of the innocence and justice of our cause, we will fail, and may well condemn freedom to a hundred more years of subjugation.”

“Patience” was Philip’s cry during the outrage over the unjust ‘Stamp Act’, and the zealous patriots resented his hesitance to revolution.  “He is afraid to lose his wealth and reputation” some claimed.  Others simply thought him a coward.  Still others saw him as “A Royal sympathizer”, but many listened to his words, and years of strained peace passed, but brought little change.

The sun dawned on the frosty Spring morning of March 5th, 1770.  The streets of Boston were crowded, a few men watching a British detachment of guards patrolling the square.  The next few moments were a blur to all the witnesses.  Some say a boy threw a rock at the commander, some said the troops were harassed by multiple assailants armed with snowballs.  The next thing anyone in the square knew was the ringing in their ears, and the smoke of muskets choking the air.

The day after, Phillip received the news from the New York press.  There was a massacre in Boston.  British troops had fired into a crowd of citizens.  He read further.  Of the dead listed, one name brought tears to his eyes and a pain to his chest.  ‘Of the first rioters to die was a sailor, James Caldwell.’

Passion and hatred were rising in the Colonists as the British rule tightened its grasp on the Americas, but Philip, as outraged as any, stood his ground for peace.  It was 1771, another regiment of British regulars was stationed in the Northern Colonies.  It was 1772, taxes were raised.  It was 1773, a new tax on tea was implemented, and Boston harbor blockaded.  It was 1774, and the intolerable acts were passed upon the colonies.  Many colonists were not silent.  The ‘Sons of Liberty’, a group of revolutionaries, had gained popularity and praise from the patriots of the day, as they spread revolutionary sentiment across the colonies.  They were the heroes, while epithets and slurs were reserved for men like Philip Livingston, who advocated for a  formal declaration of grievances.

As a result, the colonies convened the First Continental Congress.  There, Philip fought for the process of diplomacy, of peaceably stating grievances, and petitioning for peace with the Crown.  “By no means are we to abandon the cause of liberty” Philip declared, “but as men of this delegation, it is our duty to fight only when we are forced by a direct denial of our grievances.”  Again, he was called a coward.  The debates of the first Congress were long and largely inconclusive, with some members believing that immediate action must be taken against the British, and others, like Philip, in favor of utilizing every means for making peace.

The next year, the Congress met for the second time.  The delegates were seated at their tables by Colony, as the meeting came to order.  Philip watched as the olive branch petition, his brainchild, was signed by the delegates.  It was the last offer of peace to King George.  Philip approached the clerks desk and took the quill in hand.  “There is a time for peace.”  He whispered as he signed his name.  He returned to his chair.  Now they must wait for the reply.

When the reply came, it was clear.  The king had refused to even open the petition, and instead declared the Colonies in a state of rebellion. The use of all military force was authorized to quell the rebels.

Philip approached the clerks desk for the last time.  The wear of the past years was evident in his physical demeanor, but in his eyes shone the bright spark of patriotism.  He took the quill from the clerk and held it in his wrinkled hands, “And there is a time for war”.  He began to read the words penned on the parchment.

But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”

His thoughts drifted to James, one of the first men to give his life for these words.  He remembered the last thing James had told him. “I hope my ‘bureaucratic endeavors’ have made you proud, my friend.”  Philip read the last line.

“We pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”

Philip, the peacemaker, armed with a clear conscience and assurance in the justice of his cause, signed the declaration with resolve.

Philip Livingston would lose his home, business, fortune, and health when the British marched into New York.  He fled, hounded by the British as a traitor.  The next two years were cruel to the young American cause.  By 1778, a string of defeats left many disheartened, and thousands of the young revolutionaries deserted the cause, for most of them had rushed into revolution as radical idealists, never having first sought peace.  Philip died that year, but until his last breath, Philip was resolute in his pledge.  He lost his fortune, he lost his life, but he never lost his sacred honor.

Ethan

Sources + Bibliography:

  • Benson, Lossing J. The Lives of the Signers. Benson J. Lossing 1848.
  • New Netherland Institute Historical Archives
  • U.S. Congress, Journals of the Continental Congress, Government Printing Office, 1904.
  • Boyer, Marilyn. For You They Signed: Marilyn Boyer, 2009.
  • Adams, James T. Atlas of American History: Scribner, 1943
  • McCullough, David. 1776: Simon and Schuster, 2005
  • Sanderson, John. Biography of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence:                    R. W. Pomeroy, 1823. 

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