Robert R. Livingston

Chancellor Robert R. Livingston could be a powerful and influential friend to have. Unfortunately, it was very easy to earn the man’s enmity. As a result, Livingston retained few friends for long periods of time. His three most significant friends from before the Revolution were Richard Montgomery, Gouverneur Morris and John Jay. All three men were at one time or another as close as brothers to the Chancellor but over the years the closeness ended.

            Richard Montgomery was married to Chancellor Livingston’s older sister, Janet. The two men became close friends often spending time talking science, agriculture and politics. Both had similar political leanings. Both were sent to New York to guide New York in the early days of the war. Livingston was chosen to go to Congress in Philadelphia while Montgomery remained in New York. With Livingston’s influence, Montgomery was selected as a brigadier general in the new army. On the last day of 1775 his friendship with Livingston came to a sudden and rather violent end when he was struck by several grapeshot while leading an assault on the city of Quebec.

The real death of Montgomery was less clean and dramatic and more taking grapeshot to the head and groin


Gouverneur Morris. How could the ladies resist?

Gouverneur Morris met Livingston at King’s College, when he entered a few years behind the Chancellor. Morris and Livingston had similar backgrounds, both were from landed family, and, again, similar political leanings. During the war they frequently served together in various bodies or corresponded about their respective duties. Livingston even had Morris check into the background of Thomas Tillotson when he proposed marriage to one of the Chancellor’s younger sisters. If there was one thing about Morris that Livingston particularly disliked, it was Morris’s penchant for the ladies. Livingston once even took the time to write a letter to Morris admonishing him for spending time with ladies when he should have been attending to his Congressional responsibilities. Given his reputation as a lothario it is unlikely that Livingston would trust Morris alone with his wife, mother, daughters, sister or any particularly attractive sheep. After the war Morris moved to Pennsylvania and his duties took him away for long periods of time. While he and Livingston never formally ended their friendship they had lost the closeness they once shared.


            John Jay was the Chancellor’s closest friend for many years. The two had also met at King’s College. After graduating they served their time as law clerks at the same time and passed the bar together. They briefly operated a law firm together and became fairly prominent in New York City society life. Jay even married a cousin of Livingston’s. As they matured they became the god father to each other’s children. In 1776 they made plans to live together with their wives while attending Congress but an illness for Sarah Jay prevented this from happening. During the war the men wrote the lion’s share of the New York Constitution together, they worked on the defense of the Hudson River together and they were even involved in some counter espionage together.

John Jay shortly before he stabbed the nation in the back

   The brother like closeness these two men shared makes the ending of their friendship all that much more tragic. The first cracks appeared during the war. In 1777 Jay tried to slip some anti-Catholic clauses into the New York Constitution which Livingston prevented. Later when Livingston was Secretary of Foreign Affairs and Jay was one of the peace negotiators in France, Livingston rebuked the negotiators for exceeding their authority and keeping the French in the dark about their negotiations. Jay responded with an enormously long letter explaining their reasoning.

            After Livingston issued the oath of office to George Washington, making him the first President of the United States of America, his relationship with his friend Jay was further strained. Jay was made Chief Justice of the Supreme Court while Livingston received no federal title. Not only was Jay earning his enmity but so was the entire Federalist party.
            In a relatively short amount of time Robert Livingston would switch his allegiance to the Democratic-Republican party and bring along most of his family or “faction” as his political enemies preferred to call it. In 1795 John Adams celebrated the defeat of Tillotson for office as a victory over the Chancellor in a letter to his wife. “Mr. King is re-elected by the Legislature of New York by a majority of five in the House and two in the senate, in opposition to Mr. Tillotson, whom you know, to have married a Sister of Chancellor Livingstone. This is a great Point gain’d.”[i]  Of course Adams had always hated Livingston although he blamed their animosity on Livingston saying “The Passion which has influenced the Chancellor, through Life has been envy of Mr. Jay, and consequent Jealousy of the Friendship between Mr. Jay and me. He hated me because I was the friend of Mr. Jay.”[ii]

Of course everyone is jealous of you John Adams

The relationship between the Livingstons and the Federalists became so bad that a cousin of Livingston’s, Maturin Livingston, very nearly dueled Alexander Hamilton in 1796 but Hamilton begged off because he already had another duel scheduled.[iii]

People still voted for the man. Twice.
            It seemed that Livingston and Jay had a chance to become friends again in 1794, until Washington sent Jay to England to negotiate a new treaty that would tie up some loose ends from the Revolution. When the text of what became known as the “Jay Treaty” became generally known John Jay became one of the most hated men in America. People felt he had conceded far too much to the British. Jay was quoted as saying he could have traveled from Boston to

A rather elegant bit of graffiti from Boston. They don\’t vandalize like they used to.

Philadelphia at night by the light of his burning effigies. Livingston was perhaps the loudest voice criticizing the treaty. He published a series of letter under the pen name “Cato” blasting the treaty and even wrote directly to Washington to pressure him not to ratify it. To Washington he wrote; “Nothing but your glory can save under these circumstance the honor of our nation.”[iv]

Not this George Clinton

            In 1795, while he was still in England, Jay had been elected governor of New York when long time governor George Clinton declined to run again. Many had expected Livingston to be Jay’s opponent in the election but the Democratic-Republican surprisingly chose Robert Yates, whom Jay easily defeated.

            Three years later the Chancellor was chosen to run against Jay. The election was tough and dirty. Vicious ads and letters filled the newspapers. It attracted the notice of people in other states.

Seriously thought Livingston was worse than Satan

Abigail Adams wrote to her son John Quincy Adams of the Chancellor “An insatiable Ambition devours the Chancellor. To see Mr. Jay stand higher in the publick estimation and Elected chief over him; fills him with the same sensations, which Milton puts into the mouth of the Arch Fiend. “Better to Reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven.””[v] That’s right. She compared him to Satan. Thomas Jefferson wrote to James Madison “Hard elections are expected there between Jay & Livingston.”[vi]

 Worse yet the Federalists of New York moved in masse against the Chancellor. Alexander Hamilton, who had never forgiven Livingston for opposing his financial plans in the 1780’s, went so far as to write to Timothy Pickering to ask him to examine the papers of the Chancellor from his time as Secretary for Foreign Affairs looking for ammunition to use against him.[vii]
            At one point during the campaign Livingston paid a visit to Philip Schuyler at Schuyler Mansion in

Philip Schuyler, \”Go to Canada? I mean ow, my toe.\”

Albany. Livingston and Schuyler had often found themselves on the same side during the war, even though a very convenient case of gout kept Schuyler from commanding the expedition against Canada which effectively ended with Montgomery’s death. Livingston complained of Jay and the federal government, perhaps forgetting the Schuyler was Alexander Hamilton’s father-in-law. No sooner had Livingston finished his rant and departed the house than Schuyler put quill to paper to report the meeting to Hamilton; “he and his friends are Assiduous in blackening Mr. Jay’s character.”  He went on to say of the Chancellor “The man my dear Sir has worked himself up to such a pitch of Enmity against our Government as approaches Madness.”[viii]

Lets be honest Schuyler Mansion (top) really was shabby compared to the elegant Arryl House (bottom)

            Livingston lost the election. Three years later Thomas Jefferson sent him to France. He returned a few years later having doubled the size of the country with the Louisiana Purchase and went on to a life of success in agriculture and business. In the meantime, his “faction” had seen to the end of the political careers of Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton.(Check that story out here)  Jay had retired from public service in 1801 to become a farmer but he and Livingston never spoke again.

[i]John Adams to Abigail Adams 29 January 1795 Adams Papers
[ii]John Adams to Francois Adriaan Van Der Kemp, 23 August 1806 Adams Papers
[iii]  See letters between Hamilton and Maturin Livingston January 18, 20 and 21, 1796. Hamilton Papers
[iv]Robert R. Livingston to George Washington, 8 July 1795 Washington Papers
[v]Abigail Smith Adams to John Quincy Adams 27 May 1798, Adams papers
[vi]Thomas Jefferson to James Madison 3 January 1798, Madison Papers
[vii]See letters between Alexander Hamilton and Timothy Pickering 10 February and 5 April 1797 Hamilton Papers.
[viii]Philip Schuyler to Alexander Hamilton, 31 March 1798, Hamilton Papers