Summer Reading 2019: NJ’s First Governor Invents the Job as He Reinvents Himself

In the first biography of William Livingston since the 1830s, James Gigantino II paints a vivid portrait thrown into sharp relief by the tumult and threats of revolutionary New Jersey

William Livingston
Regular readers of NJ Spotlight know that August is our time for kicking back and taking advantage of the lull in the news cycle. To tide you over during our summer hiatus, we’re posting excerpts from books by New Jersey authors or with Garden State hooks. We’ll be back tanned and ready on September 3.

William Livingston, New Jersey’s first elected governor and signer of the U.S. Constitution, has been described as a “reluctant revolutionary,” but by all means an effective one. James Gigantino II has written the first biography of Livingston since the 1830s that explores the complicated life of the man who led New Jersey’s war effort from behind the scenes, marshaling badly needed support and resources. Spending much of the time in what was then Elizabethtown, he served as governor from 1776 to 1790, re-elected each year. The following excerpt from “William Livingston’s American Revolution” describes Livingston’s role in the early years of the American Revolution and his work in helping the country survive its tumultuous birth.

Although [William] Livingston no longer had a seat in the Continental Congress, his commission as a brigadier general in the New Jersey militia placed him at the center of colonial military operations. He never saw combat but became closely involved in Washington’s preparations to defend New York against the anticipated British invasion. Livingston himself admitted that he was a lackluster general, but his service in this critical period redeemed him in the eyes of the state’s patriot leadership and propelled him into the political spotlight. In his role as New Jersey’s de facto leader, he interacted with Washington and mediated among the Continental Army, the Continental Congress, and the Provincial Congress. The political skills he had learned in New York enabled him to organize New Jersey’s defense effectively and would become valuable later as he took the governor’s chair. Most of the Provincial Congress’s business during that summer of 1776 involved supplying Livingston’s forces or supporting Washington’s army in New York, allowing Livingston to take part in important political decisions and serve as a symbol of imperial resistance.

After the state elected its first legislature under its new constitution, legislators understood Livingston’s importance and installed him as New Jersey’s first governor — a position he heartily accepted because it removed him from the military post in which he felt increasingly uncomfortable. In his new role, Livingston served at the center of the revolutionary movement as General William Howe’s forces successfully captured New York and invaded New Jersey in November 1776. Livingston utilized his militia experience to rally the state’s defense, though few New Jerseyans volunteered to stand in the face of the British onslaught. By early December, British and Hessian troops had chased Livingston and Washington’s army into Pennsylvania.

The British invasion and the subsequent counterattacks by Washington resulted in significant economic devastation and social dislocation for thousands of New Jerseyans. Livingston’s warnings to the Continental Congress early in 1776 as he worked toward reconciliation came true. The first several months after the signing of the Declaration of Independence taught New Jerseyans that the war would be bloody and long. Moreover, the presence of sizable numbers of loyalists and the proximity of the British in New York portended constant foraging raids, skirmishes, and loyalist uprisings. The destruction experienced by average New Jerseyans lowered their support for the war effort and led Livingston to accuse legislators of failing to support the militia properly and refusing to force their constituents to share the burdens of defending the nation. Without an effective militia, he believed, the state would never be safe.

Livingston understood militias to be the enforcement arm of the new patriot governments across the nation. They replaced the old royal authority by functioning at the lowest level of government, interacting with every single individual in a state, assimilating those who joined, and using violence to become the ultimate political authority in towns and counties. In New Jersey, the militia represented the state’s main defense against increasingly dangerous British assaults from New York and maintained control of the state in the absence of Washington’s army. Even the British saw the militia as an unpredictably troublesome part of the war; they exacted casualties for every foray into East Jersey and prevented any attempt at reinstalling a royal government in the state.

Enthusiasm for the war subsided across the new nation by late 1776. Divisions between states stymied cooperation among them, and patriots had created no state institutions to compel military service and mobilize men effectively. The centrality of New Jersey in the war propelled Livingston into the role of wartime bureaucrat. He mediated among Washington, state legislators, national politicians, and the public, especially in securing men to fight and in responding to the war’s intense destruction and the subversive loyalism in the state. The interplay of this wartime state-level administration among Livingston, the public, and other political actors reveals the difficulties faced by even the most seasoned politicians in prosecuting the war, especially after so many men refused to fight. By March 1777, Livingston realized that the legislature, empowered by strong Whig ideology in 1776, could not adequately fight the war. Viewing the legislature with disdain, he knew that the executive needed far greater power than the state constitution had provided for. Livingston’s previous political experience and his general flexibility seen during his New York years made him the perfect candidate to carve out this greater power in a fraught revolutionary environment. This confrontation became the turning point in his political career, as Livingston positioned himself as a central political actor defending his beliefs against the legislature on how the government should operate, how to quash loyalism, and how to respond to economic destruction and social dislocation.

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No documentary evidence remains to determine why legislators supported Livingston for the governorship, though his central role in organizing the state’s defense not only gave him visibility but also made him the de facto leader of the state. His political savvy likely contributed as well. However, some in the revolutionary leadership hoped others would ascend to the post. John Adams, just after Livingston had been replaced in the Continental Congress, wanted Joseph Reed, an aide to Washington, to become the state’s first governor; Adams believed Reed to be a “man of sense and principle” with a “coolness and candor and goodness of heart” that would make New Jerseyans “very happy.” Jonathan Dickinson Sergeant, writing to Adams after Livingston’s election, believed “from the Manner in which the great Offices have been disposed of” that too many leaders in the state still hoped for reconciliation. However, despite his reluctance to support independence while he was in Congress, Livingston had for the last two months been at the center of revolutionary activity in the colonies, and his performance had done much to repair his reputation. In a letter to Livingston, William Hooper, a delegate to the Continental Congress from North Carolina, congratulated the members of the legislature “upon the return of their reason, that they have found at length discernment enough to distinguish real merit, & virtue enough to reward it.”

The governorship represented a welcome opportunity for Livingston to make a graceful exit from his militia duties. His inexperience and uneasiness in military affairs continued to weigh on him. In a letter to his son Brockholst, he rejoiced in his election and confessed that he had been “prodigiously hurried and fatigued for this month past.” Especially after the events leading to the Battle of Long Island, Livingston told Hugh Mercer, he felt “immense fatigue … both in mind and body”; the news of his election caused him to be “agreeably relieved … on that account more than any other.”

The last letter Livingston received in his capacity as a militia general, from his successor, Jacob Ford, congratulated him on his new post and foreshadowed the most important issue that Livingston would deal with over the next two years as governor: rooting out loyalism within New Jersey. Ford told of officers and men within the militia who would “embrace the first opportunity to cut our throats” and highly recommended that Livingston institute loyalty oaths for militia officers who renewed their commissions. Ford’s concerns were not unfounded. Some militiamen, such as George Taylor of Monmouth County, supported loyalists while serving the patriot government. In late July, Taylor had used his authority to issue passes to Shrewsbury loyalists to travel to New York, and he assisted Monmouth loyalists Samuel Wright and Daniel Van Mater in securing supplies for the British before he left the militia. In 1777, he began to operate as a loyalist partisan on Sandy Hook, raiding patriot targets across Monmouth County. His father, who had been a key figure in the Provincial Congress, also became a loyalist. The question of loyalty, explored by both Livingston and the Provincial Congress in a preliminary fashion, now became a top priority in Livingston’s new position, along with defense of the state from the overwhelming British threat.

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Livingston’s militia experience gave him vivid insight into the danger New Jersey faced in the fall of 1776. British forces remained entrenched around New York City, and New Jersey’s defense was tenuous. In his inaugural speech to the legislature on September 13, Livingston, with characteristic rhetorical flourishes, reflected on the path the state had taken, contrasting independence against the “long … system of despotism concerted for our ruin … and … attempted to be enforced by the violence of war.” More important, however, he recast his role in the decision for independence, claiming that only after “the decisive alternative of absolute submission or utter destruction” brought by the British military “had extinguished all hope of obtaining justice … the whole continent, save a few self-interested individuals, were unanimous in the separation.” Of course, Livingston and several other Continental Congress delegates who opposed independence did so in recognition that the likelihood of a victory against Britain would be slim after the fighting began. However, by invoking his military service instead of his congressional service, Livingston reclaimed himself as a defender of liberty instead of a cowardly moderate ejected from Congress in disgrace. Even John Adams, who thought ill of Livingston for his moderation, wrote to Abigail that Livingston’s address was “the most elegant and masterly, ever made in America.”

More practically, as the state’s highest-level wartime bureaucrat, Livingston immediately identified two key areas for legislators to focus on in the coming months: better organization of and pay for the militia and more consistent provisioning of it through impressment of civilian property. Organizing and paying the militia took precedence, given that half of the state’s militia remained active in defense of New York, stationed both in New York City and throughout Essex, Bergen, and Middlesex Counties.

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Livingston’s February call to rouse the legislature and the state’s residents made some difference, but by mid-March the lack of support for the militia bill continued to frustrate Livingston. Especially against the backdrop of sustained loyalist activities and significant economic devastation, he grew increasingly concerned about the legislature’s failure to take decisive action on almost every major initiative to further the patriot cause. The legislators’ indecision reflected the general attitude of average New Jerseyans. The failure in March to pass a stronger militia law that compelled military duty served as a major turning point for Livingston and for the state as a whole: it forced Livingston to see the need for greater executive authority to counter the powerful Whig-infused legislature.

The destruction that Livingston witnessed during the 1776 invasion and the dithering of the legislature in its aftermath convinced him to mold himself yet again to his circumstances and to become that stronger executive. Along with Attorney General William Paterson, Livingston devised options to break out of the constitutional restraints that impaired his ability to do much of anything. Like many former royalists, Livingston still believed the legislature to be problematic in its approach to government. By the end of March 1777, Livingston convinced legislators of the importance of expanding executive authority to deal with both the military crisis and the continued loyalist threat. This solution became the Council of Safety, a group that had previously exerted executive power in 1775 and 1776 when the colony’s Provincial Congress was not in session. This smaller independent organization headed by Livingston had wide latitude in dealing with impending crises as they developed. If the invasion had taught New Jerseyans much about the dangers of war and the limitations of their government in responding to it, Livingston hoped to use the next three years to show them a more positive and productive path.

Excerpt from William Livingston’s American Revolution by James J. Gigantino II. Copyright © 2018 by University of Pennsylvania Press. Reprinted by permission of University of Pennsylvania Press. All rights reserved.

Purchase from University of Pennsylvania Press.

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