What the Fuck Does the Second Amendment Actually Mean?

The Second Amendment to the United States Constitution; “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” The amendment was passed by Congress on September 25, 1789 and ratified on December 15, 1791 as part of the first ten amendments to the Constitution, The Bill of Rights.

First lets talk about what the Second Amendment is not. The Second Amendment is not a god-given right to own guns. No rights in the Constitution are god given. All rights in the Constitution derive from “We the People…” In fact if you really want to piss off overly religious conservatives, remind them the Constitution does not mention god or anything divine once.

The Second Amendment was also never intended to give anyone the right to defend themselves against the tyranny of the government. James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and the rest of the delegates hadn’t spent four months creating a government full of checks and balances for some dirt farmer to try to decide what tyranny was. The president could veto a law from the legislature he felt was unjust, the legislature could override the veto if they felt the veto was unjust. Any president or legislator could be impeached if they behaved in a way unbecoming of their office. Add to the judicial review as established in the 1808 case of Marbury v. Madison and you’ve got what should be, in theory, a government incapable of tyranny.

No, the free state that the Second Amendment refers to is the United States of America, state being used here as a synonym for country as is grammatically correct. In 1789 the freedom of the United States was fragile at best. A standing army wasn’t event authorized by Congress until September 29, 1789, the last day of the first session of Congress. Despite the lessons of the Revolutionary War many politicians still believed that a militia could stand up to a trained, professional army. The most obvious army they might have to stand up to was the British army. The British were still stinging from their defeat in the war and had decided not to abide by several clauses of the 1783 Treaty of Paris that ended the American Revolution, among those was there refusal to abandon forts in the Northwest Territory that had been turned over to the United States in the treaty. It would take a whole other treaty in 1794, commonly known as the Jay Treaty, for the British to finally give up those forts. But in truth any of the major European powers could have sought to bring the mewling infant of the United States under their sway, Spain, France even the Dutch.

Of course there was also the domestic threat by Native Americans, whom the Americans were actively trying to push off their land. When ever and where ever they chose to fight back against the encroachment violent and bloody confrontations followed.

Foreign powers and Native Americans were the threats to a “free State”, not the government itself.

So let’s now turn to the opening clause of the Amendment, “A well regulated Militia”. Contrary to today’s perception of militias which consist of a bunch of misogynistic, white supremacists getting together in the woods with body armor that doesn’t go over their beer guts desperate to prove that they do in fact have penises despite the fact that said beer guts have kept them from seeing them in several years. Although I suppose the misogynistic and white supremacist parts could hold true considering the new government that had been created did not acknowledge women as people, allowed black people to be owned by white people, only counted black people as 3/5 of a human being and actually took away many people’s right to vote.

No, in 1789 a militia was a government run organization. Having studied militia law in New York extensively I offer this state as a case study. Militia law was renewed year to year but the basics stayed the same. The militia belonged to the individual state but could be called out at the request of the federal government for the common defense ( This is in Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution). Each county in the state was considered a regiment and was commanded by a colonel who was selected by the state. Reporting to him were captains who were frequently elected by their local constituents and tended to be the richer, more affluent men of the district rather than anyone with any real military knowledge.

It was the captain’s job to ensure his district, or company as it was known, was ready to fight. This meant that all the firearms in each house were registered with the captain to ensure that all men age 16 to 62 had access to a gun. If for some reason a household contained more guns than people of fighting age, those guns could be seized in times of trouble to give to people who did not own weapons of their own. In addition to registering your gun, you were required to report the amount of gunpowder and shot you had on hand along with any cartridge boxes, bayonets, swords, hatchets and if required preserved food that could be used on a march.

The captain would report all this to the colonel of the regiment who would in turn give it to the state so they would know exactly how well their citizens were armed. Once a month men of fighting age were required to turn out for a day of drill with their companies and once a year they were required to turn out with the entire regiment. These musters, as they were known, ensured that the men knew how to properly use their guns and that they were in good repair. Failure to turn up without the equipment you had registered to your name could result in pretty hefty monetary fines.

Some regiments, and it became almost universal during the 19th-century, required uniforms for the militia that each man was responsible for purchasing and maintaining on their own dime.

It can be argued that the American Civil War and the creation of the National Guard was what finally did away with the militias that the Second Amendment protected, although the militias performed pretty wretchedly in the War of 1812 as well. Again, militias could not stand up to a trained, professional army. But lets say for arguments sake that the Civil War was the end of the militia as the Second Amendment sought to protect, people have been fighting, viciously, for the last 160 years over what a now defunct amendment to the Constitution means.

The Second Amendment does not say anything about weapons used to hunt for food. It also does not mention anything about an individual’s right to defend themself with a gun, although in a monumental case of judicial overreach the Supreme Court, in the 2008 case of District of Columbia v. Heller, decided that the Second Amendment did in fact allow people to own guns for self defense.

The Second Amendment was never about owning guns. It was about the right to join a militia. A state run, well organized and fully registered militia to defend the United States of America.

The problem is it has been warped over the the last 160 years into something it was never intended to be. The gun lobby has bought, lock, stock, and barrel, if you’ll excuse the phrase, the Republican party. The gun lobby doesn’t care about the safety of the people because they want to sell more guns. In fact they want the guns they sell to create more fear in the hopes that more people will in turn buy more guns. And the Republicans are happy to let them do it because the gun lobbyists and the Super PACs they run are giving millions of dollars to them. Millions.

The Second Amendment is the appendix of the Constitution. It is a vestigial organ that serves no purpose in the modern world. It can be argued that the Constitution, because it was written at time when muskets were “the” weapon of war, allows people to carry weapons of war. However the Constitution, despite what the originalists say was created as a living, breathing document. As a people we have changed it over the years; women can vote and hold office, private citizens can not hold slaves anymore, black people are now full people with the same rights as all American citizens. We’ve made mistakes with it too. We used the Constitution to ban the sale of alcohol in the United States and we used the Constitution to undue that amendment.

The Second Amendment should be repealed. It should. There are no more militias, therefore it is unnecessary for any private citizen to own a weapon of war. We have a standing army now, those guys playing with their guns and their tally whackers in the woods are never going to be called upon to protect anybody.

I’m not talking about taking away your hunting rifle. My grandfather hunted deer his whole life with a single shot rifle and filled his tags every year. No one needs a semi-automatic gun with multiple high capacity magazines to kill a deer. If you do need that you should probably give up hunting because you suck. I have heard people say that they need those guns to fight off wild boars in the south. You want to hunt wild boar? You can buy a boar spear on Amazon. Boar spears have been good enough for thousands of years, and now they have carbon fiber handles and all kinds of features. Prove you’re a man and use a spear.

To put it simply no one should be able to buy an assault rifle and nearly 400 rounds of ammunition at any time. They should not be allowed to walk into a school and destroy untold numbers of lives because they are angry the girl they asked to the prom said no. They shouldn’t be able to fire bullets that decapitate and blow off limbs with one shot. They shouldn’t.

What breaks my heart is that we had a demonstrably effective law against these types of weapons. It worked. Was it perfect? No. Did people still die from gunshots during the assault weapons ban. Yes. But did a lot less people die from gun shots during the assault weapons ban. Yes.

It was during the Republican administration of George W. Bush and the Republican controlled legislature that the assault weapons ban was allowed to expire. Hell, it was because of the Republican party that the assault weapons ban had a time limit any way. But of course, as we have seen, if the Republicans don’t bow down and service the NRA and the gun lobby than they don’t get their money.

This is a uniquely American problem. A problem that Republican leaders are keen to ignore because of the money. Somehow they are able to sleep each night knowing that the blood of thousands of people, thousands of innocent children who never had a chance at life, is on their hands because their bank accounts got a little bigger. And it truly is that. NRA and gun lobby spending go up every time there is a mass shooting, just on the off chance that one of the politicians they have purchased might develop a conscience.

So we are stuck in an endless cycle of doing nothing. A gunman kills dozens, often times children, the Republicans offer thoughts and prayers with one hand while taking their money in the other, Democrats call for change but they don’t have the votes to do anything meaningful. Then it all happens again.

Despite the checks and balances of the United States Constitution the system is broken. We are being held hostage by the minority. Right now Republicans represent, in both houses, millions less people than the Democrats yet they are able to prevent any legislation from happening. What’s truly astounding is that they are holding up legislation that their own constituents want because they are so deep in the pockets of guns. 90% of Americans would agree that universal background checks are a good idea. Yet nothing happens.

Nothing happens. Meaningful legislation seems impossible. There’s too much money in politics to take money out of politics. There’s not enough will to do anything. Mitch McConnell, Ted Cruz and their ilk have managed to break the United States government. The whole goddamn confederate army couldn’t do that. The Nazis couldn’t do that. But they have. And I don’t see the another Benjamin Franklin or George Washington to fix it. When the hell is there going to be a true profile in courage, a true patriot? Someone who says “Americans are dying by the thousands, lets fix this. Damn my party, damn the money, lets fix it.”

The Constitution was a brilliant document when it was written. A document meant to change over time. It is a sacred yet flexible document but some people refuse to see that. Refuse to understand that. It could fix the problem of gun violence in the United States. Repeal the Second Amendment, outlaw assault rifles, buyback assault rifles and destroy them. If they are found during a search of a house or car, destroy them. Make background checks mandatory for all other gun purchases in the country. This is all doable. Other countries have done it, Canada is doing it right now and they have polar bears to contend with.

I’ll finish with history. The Second Amendment is a dead amendment that needs to be swept from the Constitution just like the part of Article 1, Section 2 that excluded “Indians” and 2/5 of each black person from being counted as an American. The Constitution was designed to protect us, to allow us to be free members of society. It was never meant to be destroyed by one antiquated amendment.

The Sugar Maple Bubble: The Attempt to End Slavery with Maple Sugar


Sugar Maple Tree

            Acer Sacharinum, The sugar maple tree. Every year, about this time, thousands of Sugar Maples are tapped so that the sap can be collected. Boiled it becomes syrup or even maple sugar. And there for a very brief time in the early 1790’s intersected abolitionists, land speculators and entrepreneurs.


Benjamin Rush

  Dr. Benjamin Rush was an ardent abolitionist. He was also one of the most ardent supporters of the maple sugar. In an address read before the American Philosophical Society on August 19, 1791 Rush espoused the benefits of maple sugar. Each sugar maple could produce twenty to thirty gallons of sap which could be boiled down to five or six pounds of maple sugar. Some families had produced up to 600 pounds of sugar a year using just the family labor. And for all intents and purposes the sugar was as good if not better than the sugar that came from the West Indies. Rush even conducted an “experiment” where he, Alexander Hamilton, a merchant by the name of Henry Drinker and several ladies tasted tea and coffee sweetened with cane sugar and maple sugar. It was unanimous that they could not tell the difference.[i]

             And that was the key for Rush. If Americans could make their own sugar, for their own consumption and for export, people would become less dependent on West Indies sugar and the need for enslaved people would decrease there. He got many people on his side, the Quakers who were very much against slavery were in favor of the plan to end enslavement in the harsh conditions of the West Indies. He also got Thomas Jefferson and George Washington on his side.[ii]

            In the midst of this growing interest of maple sugar, Janet Livingston Montgomery sent a sample of the sugar to Edward Newenham, a member of the Irish Parliament who she had met on her trip to Ireland in 1790. In a letter to George Washington, Newenham admitted the product was good and that if it could be commercialized would be a boon to the American economy but doubted New York could produce enough of the sugar to be effective.[iii]

            Washington replied that the manufacture of maple sugar was promising because the sugar maple tree grew in several states and that there was no reason to doubt the production of the sugar would not be profitable.[iv]

            Another great proponent of the maple sugar craze was William Cooper, founder of Cooperstown

William Cooper

and father of James Fenimore Cooper. In fact Alexander Hamilton thought no one could shed more light on the subject of maple sugar production than William Cooper.[v]He thought that the desire for maple sugar would bring more people to his land grant and he could make money selling land to the settlers moving west. He also produced his own sugar. In 1791 he expected to bring in £3,000 worth of sugar to market himself alone. For the anti-alcohol groups it was also said that less profit could be made by turning maple sugar into liquor than selling it as sugar so people were less likely to distill it. Although Thomas Jefferson thought that the liquor produced tasted exactly like whiskey.[vi]

            America was now fully in the midst of a maple sugar bubble. Benjamin Rush even formed the Pennsylvania Company of Quakers to produce maple sugar. Thomas Jefferson had more than 60 maple trees planted on the property at Monticello. It was expected that even with domestic consumption the yearly export of maple sugar would be worth at least $1,000,000.

            Then the bubble burst. Several maple sugar venture in New York failed. William Cooper found that people were not willing to move to the wilderness just to produce maple sugar. Rush’s company went bust, in debt for £1,400. Supply had outstripped demand, leaving the entrepreneurs and land speculators holding the bag. As for the abolitionists, they were disappointed that maple sugar had not been able to put the sugar islands and their associated enslavement, out of business.[vii]

            From beginning to end the maple sugar bubble lasted about three years, from 1791 and 1794. Everyone was disappointed, except for those who like the flavor of maple. Thousands of trees are still tapped every year and their sap boiled down for maple syrup and even a little maple sugar. Perhaps next time you take a bite of syrup covered pancakes you’ll think of Benjamin Rush and his attempt to use maple trees as a way to end slavery in the West Indies.

[i] Rush, Benjamin An account of the sugar maple-tree, of the United States, and of the methods of obtaining sugar from it, together with observations upon the advantages both public and private of this sugar. : In a letter to Thomas Jefferson, Esq. secretary of state of the United States, and one of the vice presidents of the American Philosophical Society. : Read in the American Philosophical Society, on the 19, of August, 1791, and extracted from the third volume of their Transactions now in the press. / By Benjamin Rush, M.D. Professor of the institutes and of clinical medicine in the University of Pennsylvania. http://name.umdl.umich.edu/N19030.0001.001accessed 3/3/21

[ii] Lucia C. Stanton, 11/90. Originally published as \”Sharing the Dreams of Benjamin Rush,\” in Fall Dinner at Monticello, November 2, 1990, in Memory of Thomas Jefferson (Charlottesville, VA: Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, 1990), 1-12. https://www.monticello.org/site/research-and-collections/sugar-mapleaccessed 3/3/21

[iii] “To George Washington from Edward Newenham, 10 March 1791,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-07-02-0309. [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 7, 1 December 1790 – 21 March 1791, ed. Jack D. Warren, Jr. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1998, pp. 538–542.]

[iv] “From George Washington to Edward Newenham, 5 September 1791,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-08-02-0349. [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 8, 22 March 1791 – 22 September 1791, ed. Mark A. Mastromarino. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1999, p. 496.]

[v] “From Alexander Hamilton to William Cooper, 3 August 1791,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Hamilton/01-09-02-0006. [Original source: The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, vol. 9, August 1791 – December 1791, ed. Harold C. Syrett. New York: Columbia University Press, 1965, p. 8.]

[vi] “From Thomas Jefferson to George Washington, 1 May 1791,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-20-02-0101. [Original source: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 20, 1 April–4 August 1791, ed. Julian P. Boyd. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982, pp. 342–344.]

[vii] Lucia C. Stanton, 11/90. Originally published as \”Sharing the Dreams of Benjamin Rush,\” in Fall Dinner at Monticello, November 2, 1990, in Memory of Thomas Jefferson (Charlottesville, VA: Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, 1990), 1-12. https://www.monticello.org/site/research-and-collections/sugar-mapleaccessed 3/3/21

Henry Brockholst Livingston: Soldier, Lawyer, Duelist, Judge

Henry Brockholst Livingston - Wikipedia
Henry Brockholst Livingston


Henry Brockholst Livingston or Brockholst Livingston as he preferred to be called was born on November 25, 1757, the son of William Livingston, future governor of New Jersey, and his wife Susanna French Livingston. He was educated, eventually graduating from the College of New Jersey in 1774. One of his classmates was James Madison. Brockholst intended to continue his studies but the Revolutionary War got in the way.


Philip Schuyler

Brockholst rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel in the army. He served first as an aide to Philip Schuyler, then as an aide to Benedict Arnold during the Battle of Saratoga. He was one of the officers who signed a letter beseeching Arnold not to abandon the army between the two Battles of Saratoga.[1]

Benedict Arnold

            In 1779 he left the army on furlough to serve as personal secretary to John Jay, his brother in law and newly appointed minister to Spain. They learned French on the way across the Atlantic. Brockholst also picked up Spanish quickly in Spain. He held the post until 1782 when he returned to America. On the way back to the States, his ship was captured by the British and he was taken to New York as a prisoner. Three weeks later General Guy Carleton arrived in New York City and paroled Brockholst as a lieutenant colonel in the army. Brockholst was shocked to find that in his absence he had been “retired” from the army. He wrote to Washington, unsure if he had violated a rule of war.[2] Washington assured him he had done nothing wrong.[3]

John Jay

Henry began reading the law and in 1783 passed the New York Bar. He was in private practice from 1783-1802. In 1785 he survived an assassination attempt. He wen on in 1790 to deliver a Fourth of July address at St. Paul’s Chapel in New York City in front of President Washington and both houses of congress.[4]

            In 1798 Brockholst was accosted by a Federalist in the street (Brockholst was an ardent anti federalist) who struck his rather prominent nose. A duel ensued in which the other man was killed. (Read more about that here)

            In 1800 Brockholst, Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton served as the defense team for Levi Weeks who was accused of murdering Gulielma \”Elma\” Sands, a young woman who he was either courting or engaged to. Despite overwhelming evidence against Weeks, he was acquitted after five minutes of jury deliberation.

Alexander Hamilton

Aaron Burr


   In 1802 Brockholst was made a justice of the New York Supreme Court. A few years later Thomas Jefferson appointed him an associate justice of the Supreme Court in a recess appointment. This was probably a reward for the work Brockholst had done for Jefferson in New York in helping him get elected. He spent a great deal of his time on the bench agreeing with Chief Justice John Marshall.

Chief Justice John Marshall

            Brockholst held his supreme court seat until he died in Washington D.C. in 1823. He was buried in Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York. He was mourned by nine children from three wives. 

Brockholst\’s grave in Brooklyn


[1] Robert R. Livingston Papers, Reel 1

[2] “To George Washington from Henry Brockholst Livingston, 16 June 1782,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-08702

[3] “From George Washington to Henry Brockholst Livingston, 3 July 1782,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-08829

[4] “[Diary entry: 5 July 1790],” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/01-06-02-0001-0007-0005. [Original source: The Diaries of George Washington, vol. 6, 1 January 1790 – 13 December 1799, ed. Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1979, pp. 85–86.]


Pointy End Toward the Bad Guy: Chancellor Livingston\'s Sword

The Chancellor\’s colichemarde from the collection of the New-York Historical Society

Chancellor Robert R. Livingston was nothing if not a fashionable man. As such he frequently carried a sword. He was not a soldier, but the style of the time called for men of a certain position to carry a blade.

One of the swords that the Chancellor carried during his life was a small sword known as a colichemarde. The colichemarde was developed in the 1680’s and was extremely popular for about the next half century. The sword itself was transitional in nature, shorter and lighter than the rapier’s that proceeded it, hence “small sword”. Not that it was particularly small, the Chancellor’s sword was 39 ½ inches long from its steel tip to its ornate silver hit and grip. The silver work was created by silversmith John Parry of London. [i]

            Colichemarde blades were triangular in shape. The blade started fairly wide near the hilt, which made an excellent surface for parrying a blow from an enemy, but after several inches narrowed sharply to a thin blade with shape edges for slashing and a very sharp point made for lethal thrusting. These swords were ideal for use in duels.

            The colichemarde sword was on its way out as a fashionable sword when the Chancellor was wearing it. Perhaps it would have gone completely out of style had not another famous American taken to wearing one during the French and Indian War, George Washington. Washington’s sword was even more ornate than the Chancellor’s. Historians at Mount Vernon believe that Washington is wearing the sword in at least two portraits done of him.[ii]

The hilt of the sword at Washington\’s hip appears to match the hilt of his colichemarde

Again, the hilt of the sword shown seems to match the hilt of Washington\’s colichemarde

            Click here to see one of Mount Vernon’s curators explore George Washington’s colichemarde.  

            As far as we know the Chancellor never fought a duel with his colichemarde, but he would have proved a lethal adversary with this blade in his hand. Had he. Perhaps his size and the sword on his hip prevented many duels he could have found himself in, were he a smaller man or carrying a different sword

[i] The Chancellor’s sword is in the collection of the New York Historical Society. Information about the blade comes from their online collections guide.

[ii] Information on George Washington’s colichemarde comes from George Washington’s Mount Vernon

Soldiers and Statesmen and Loyalists, Oh My! Lesser known Livingstons of the American Revolution


On this blog we often talk about Robert R. Livingston, Henry Beekman Livingston and Margaret Beekman Livingston and their importance during the American Revolution. However there were more than a few other Livingstons who played important roles in the war. From soldiers to statesmen and even loyalists you could swing a cat during the Revolution and not hit a Livingston.

    James Livingston was the grandson of Robert \”the nephew\” Livingston. Robert \”the nephew\” was the nephew (surprise, surprise) of Robert Livingston, the First Lord of Livingston Manor. He came to America to help his uncle with his business ventures. His grandson James was born in New York but was living in Quebec when the Revolution broke out. He raised a regiment of men, soon to be known as the 1st Canadian Regiment and joined his distant cousin by marriage, Richard Montgomery, at Chambly.

    After Chambly James took part in the Battles of Quebec City, Fort Stanwix, both Battles of Saratoga and the Battle of Rhode Island. Perhaps his most important contribution to the war effort came in 1780 while he was in command at Verplanck\’s Point. His men spotted a British ship in the river and James gave the order to fire on it, driving it back down the river. This turned out to be the Vulture which was supposed to carry Major John Andre to New York City with the plans for West Point that he had obtained from Benedict Arnold. With his ship gone, Andre was forced to travel on foot and was captured, unravelling the entire plan.

    Philip Livingston was the son of Philip Livingston, the Second Lord of Livingston Manor. The

Philip \”The Signer\”

younger Philip was a merchant in New York City before the war. He was also something of a politician. He was a member of the Albany Congress in 1754, where Benjamin Franklin first proposed a plan of union for the thirteen colonies. Philip was also a member of the Stamp Act Congress in 1765. When the war broke out several of his houses around New York City were occupied by the British while his house on Long Island was briefly used by George Washington\’s as a headquarters. He became a member of the First and Second Continental Congresses. During the Second Continental Congress he signed the Declaration of Independence.  When Philadelphia fell in 1777 it moved to York where Philip continued to serve despite declining health. He passed away in York in 1778.


William Livingston

William Livingston was another son of Philip Livingston, the Second Lord of Livingston Manor. He attended Yale like his brother. He became a lawyer and publisher of a weekly journal in New York City. In 1772 William moved to New Jersey. He was appointed to Congress from July of 1774 to June of 1776 when he was not reappointed for not backing Independence. However he must have come around as he was soon appointed brigadier general of the New Jersey militia, where he would be in almost constant movement and communication with George Washington as New Jersey proved to be a frequent meeting place for the Continental and British armies. In 1776 William was elected governor of New Jersey, a position he held into his death in 1790. In 1787 William attended the Constitutional Convention and became one of the signers of the document.

William Alexander, Lord Stirling

    A Livingston by marriage to Philip Livingston the Second Lord of Livingston Manor\’s daughter Sarah, William Alexander rose to the rank of major general during the Revolution. Alexander was heir to the title of Earl of Stirling but was denied the title by the House of Lords in 1762. Despite this he referred to himself as Lord Stirling for the rest of his life. During the Battle of Long Island Lord Stirling led a rearguard action that saved the American army but cost Lord Stirling his freedom. He was exchanged in a prisoner exchange and went on to serve at Trenton, Brandywine, Germantown and Monmouth. He also helped to expose the Conway Cabal that planned to replace George Washington with Horatio Gates. Lord Stirling died in Albany shortly before the war ended probably of the effects of alcoholism. 

    On the loyalist side Captain Martin Livingston led a company of loyalists in South Carolina. His brother Michael served as a sergeant in his company. Martin served as Savannah but was killed on April 24, 1781 at Camden, South Carolina in skirmishing before the Battle of Hobkirks Hill or the Second Battle of Camden where American forces led by Nathaniel Greene faced off against British soldiers and loyalists under the command of Francis Rawdon. 

    However Martin and Michael were not true Livingstons. Their parents were Swiss with the last name Liebenstein. When the parents moved to America they anglicized their name to Livingston. 

    We have only begun to scratch the surface of Livingstons in America. In the coming years you can look forward to more information about Livingstons famous and not.

What Ever Happened to Meriwether Lewis?

 On April 30, 1803 Robert Livingston, with a little help from James Monroe, signed what was

The French copy of the Louisiana Purchase 

possibly the greatest land deal in history. For a mere 15 million dollars, much of which was not in the form of cash payments but in forgiveness of French debts to American, the United States acquired more than 820,000 thousand acres of land, the Louisiana purchase.  By the end of the year the 

The Louisiana Territory 

Senate and Jefferson had approved the treaty and the House of Representatives had agreed to release the funds to pay for the land. 

Jefferson knew that he had to send a mission to explore the land Livingston had recently acquired to assert American possession of the land and to see what they had purchased. He hoped that his expedition would find a water way to the Pacific Ocean that would allow America easy trade with Asia. 

To lead the mission he chose his personal secretary Meriwether Lewis, who chose William Clark to co-lead the expedition with him, thus guaranteeing the expedition would not be know by its official name The Corps of Discovery Expedition but as the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Lewis had been Jefferson\’s choice to lead the expedition event before the purchase was complete. While he worked at the White House, Jefferson had Lewis trained by botanists, physicians and other scientists.

Meriwether Lewis

Between September May of 1804 and September 1806 the expedition traveled more than 8,000 miles through the territory and beyond to the Pacific Coast collecting hundreds of plant and animal specimens and making contact with at least 50 different of indigenous people. 

In 1807 Meriwether Lewis was appointed the governor of the Upper Louisiana Territory as a reward for the successful expedition. He arrived in St. Louis, the de facto capital of the territory in 1808.

The following year, new president James Madison began denying payment on vouchers that the Jefferson administration had approved. Lewis suddenly found himself on the hook for not only money he paid out during his time as governor but money he paid out during the expedition.

Facing ruinous debt Lewis decided to go to Washington D.C. in

William Clark 

September 1809 to defend his claims for money from the federal government. Initially he had decided to travel down the Mississippi by boat and then sail to Washington D.C. but changed his mind and decided to travel overland. Among the possessions he carried with him were the journals of the Lewis and Clark expedition which he had been tasked with publishing but three years after the expedition had returned he had failed to do so.

During his trip overland Lewis decided to take the Natchez Trace which ran from Mississippi to Tennessee. On October 10, 1809 Lewis stopped at Grinder\’s Stand a tavern on the Trace. He had a meal prepared by Mrs. Grinder and then retired to a private cabin for the night. 

In the late hours of October 10 or the early hours of October 11 two gunshots broke the night time silence. Meriwether Lewis was found with gunshot wounds to the chest and head. He lived for several hours but died around sunrise on October 11. He was 35 years old. He was buried about 200 yards from Grinder\’s Stand. 

At the time it was assumed that Lewis had committed suicide. He was certainly depressed as he faced financial ruin and his failure to publish the journals of his expedition. Both Thomas Jefferson and William Clark believed he had committed suicide.

Lewis\’s mother however believed her son had been murdered. Her speculation has lead a small number of historians to look at the case with a critical eye. Their are several facts that are lost to time. When were the shots fired? When was Lewis found? How did he manage to shoot himself twice? Did he have two guns or had he managed to reload after shooting himself once? 

Despite these questions it is most likely that Meriwether Lewis committed suicide when left alone with his thoughts of depression, ruination and failure. A sad end for a hero of the early American republic.

If you are struggling with suicidal thoughts, help is available. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline can be reached at 1-800-273-8255


Meriwether Lewis\’s grave is now a national monument

The Livingston Sugar House Prison

 In 1754 the Livingston\’s of Livingston Manor had a sugar house constructed in New York City to refine sugar cane shipped from their plantations in the Caribbean. The building was stone and stood six stories tall although the floors were very low. It stood on Crown Street, now Liberty Street.

The Livingston Sugar House on the left

    When the British seized New York City in 1776 the building was seized, because it belonged to the patriot Livingston family. It was turned into a makeshift prison to hold captured Americans.
    Levi Hanford, who was captured in 1777 said the prison initially held 40 to 50 prisoners but was soon crammed with 400 to 500 prisoners. One estimate puts the number of men stuffed into Livingston Sugar House at 800.
    Conditions in this prison and prisons like it throughout the city were atrocious. Food consisted of salt pork and ship\’s biscuits, hard unchewable bread that would have to be soaked in water before it could be eaten. Rations were usually at least partially rotted and full of insects and worms. The close quarters of the building combined with the terrible rations led to the spread of disease like scurvy and fevers that killed men at astonishing rates. Of the 2,600 men captured at the Battle of Fort Washington in 1776, 1,900 died in captivity. Somewhere between 17,500 and 18,000 men died in captivity in New York City throughout the war. Hanford reported that up to 15 men died every day in the Sugar House Prison. Although there never seemed to be an end of American prisoners to replace the dead. For example the men captured at Fort Montgomery and Fort Constitution were sent to the Livingston Sugar House and the VanCortlandt Sugar House.
    The bodies were picked up every morning at 8:00 AM.There are some reports that the bodies were thrown into a trench at Trinity Church, where a monument to them now stands although their is some dispute whether or not the church accepted the bodies.

Memorial to Unknown Soldiers at Trinity Church


    After the war the Livingston Sugar House was again used to refine sugar by the Livingston family. It was torn down sometime between 1840 and 1846.
    At the end of the 19th Century it was decided to memorialize the prisoners who died at the Sugar House Prison. Two barred windows were saved from the recently demolished Rhinelander Sugar House, which ironically was not used as a prison during the Revolution because it was run by a loyalist named Cuyler. One window was mounted on New York City Police Headquarters at One Police Plaza
in Manhattan and the other was reconstructed in VanCortlandt Park in the Bronx.

The memorial window at One Police Plaza

The memorial window at VanCortlandt Park

From Enemy to Neighbor: British and German Soldiers who stayed in America


Many British and German soldiers stayed in America when the Revolutionary War was over. Some deserted from their regiments to take up a life in America or, in the case of officers, resigned their commissions to stay in the new United States. The prospect of land or relationships with women were too strong a pull for some of the men to return to their homelands.

On October 17, 1777 General John Burgoyne surrendered nearly 6,000 men to American

Burgoyne surrendering at Saratoga

general Horatio Gates after the Battles of Saratoga. The Convention Army, as it became known, was marched from Saratoga to Kinderhook, NY and then east toward Boston and later to Pennsylvania.

At some point in that journey a British soldier named Richard Dickinson slipped away from the army. By 1783 he had married and had a child. They were living as tenants on Henry Beekman Livingston’s land. All seemed to be going well for Dickinson until he was in a tavern one night and a stranger bought him too many drinks. When Dickinson came out of his drunken stupor, he found himself enlisted in Captain Conner’s company of Marinus 
Willets Regiment of State Levies and on his way to the frontier.

            His family appealed to Henry Beekman Livingston to obtain his discharge. Livingston wrote to Willet and Governor George Clinton to no avail so he finally wrote to George Washington to see if he could obtain Dickinson’s release.[i]

Not that George Clinton

            In his response Washington informed Livingston that he believed the entire levy was to be 

Marinus Willet 

discharged soon. He also issued orders to Col. Willet to release Dickinson if he found that the recruiting officer had done anything shady in enlisting him. It is unclear when Dickinson was discharged.[ii]

            Frederick Augustus de Zeng was a Hessian cavalry officer who was born in Dresden in 1756. He joined the army of Hesse-Cassel in 1774. In 

1780 he was sent to America in one of the regiments rented to the British. When the war ended in 1783 de Zeng resigned his commission. He had fallen in love with Mary Lawrence of Queens.

            The pair were married and moved to Red Hook, NY probably because de Zeng felt comfortable in the large German community, the descendants of Palatine refugees, in the area. de Zeng was always on the

Frederick Augustus de Zeng

move though. Always looking for a way to gain wealth. He was naturalized in 1789 and by 1792 had moved to Ulster County to land that was owned by Chancellor Robert Livingston. In 1792 he was named major of the Ulster County militia.

            Again, de Zeng was always looking for a new deal. In 1796 he invested in a window making business in Albany. In 1798 during the Quasi -War with France he wrote to Alexander Hamilton to offer his services as a soldier to his “adopted country.” He listed his fifteen years of experience and offered to command or at least train mounted troops for America. He offered to do this without taking any payment, although being a gentleman he could do nothing less. It would be uncouth to ask for money.[iii]

            de Zeng continued to work his way west in the state. Along the way he and Mary had five children. de Zeng became very involved in the evolution of canals in New York including the Chemung Canal. He also owned a bridge over the Susquehanna River.

de Zeng lived until 1838 finally dying in the town of Clyde in Wayne County, New York near the Finger Lakes region, 4,021 miles from his birthplace.

Dickinson and de Zeng are only two examples of the hundreds of enemy combatants who stayed in America after the Revolutionary War. These two men made the best of the opportunity the new country gave them as did many of their peers.

[i] “To George Washington from Henry Beekman Livingston, 26 May 1783” Founders Online, National Archives https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-11328

[ii] “From George Washington to Henry Beekman Livingston, 29 May 1783” Founders Online, National Archives https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-11344

[iii] “To Alexander Hamilton from Frederick Augustus de Zeng, 28 July 1798” Founders Online, National Archives https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Hamilton/02-01-01-0005

The Origin of the Headless Horseman

For The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Washington Irving based several characters on real people. Ichabod Crane was based on Kinderhook, NY school teacher Jesse Merwin, with the name possibly

Washington Irving, 1809

coming from a soldier Irving met during the War of 1812. Katrina Van Tassel was most likely based on Serena Livingston with the name coming from a girl Irving knew of the same name. Brom Bones, may not have been based on a real person but may have represented all the descendants of Dutch settlers in the Hudson Valley who resented the encroachment of \”Yankees\” from New England who were moving into the area in the early 19th-Century. So who then was the Headless Horseman based on?

    Headless horsemen are a common ghost across Europe, from Germany to Scandinavia and England, Ireland and Scotland. But in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, published in 1820, the Headless Horseman is described as the ghost of a Hessian Trooper who had his head carried away in \”some nameless battle\” of the Revolutionary War. 

Major General William Heath   

     For Irving\’s specific inspiration we turn to the Memoirs of Major General William Heath by Himself, originally published in 1798. The Battle of White Plains took place on October 28, 1776. General William Howe was pursing George Washington north having driven him from Manhattan. At the village of White Plains Washington turned to fight. After vicious fighting
Washington was forced to retreat further north.

Americans at the Battle of White Plains

    Rather than pursue in force Howe spent the next several days trying to draw Washington into another battle by sending out small parties to skirmish with the Americans. On November 1 Major General Heath recorded the following:

Hessians advance


  \”The British artillery now made a circuitous
movement, and came toward the American right. Here unknown to them were some 12 pounders; upon the discharge of which they made off with the their field-pieces as fast as the horses could draw them off. A shot from the American cannon at this place took off the head of a Hessian artillery-man. They also left one of the artillery horses dead on the field.\” 

American Gunners at White Plains

    On November 5, 1776 Howe turned around and headed back to Manhattan to clear the few remaining Continentals off the island. 

    Lets break this down shall we? We\’ve got an unnamed battle in this little skirmish. We\’ve got a decapitated Hessian, who by the way would never be able to find his head as a 12 pound cannon ball most likely reduced it to nothing but mist. We\’ve got a dead horse by the Hessian, perfect for the Headless Horseman to ride for eternity.

    Though we will never know the exact inspiration for the Headless Horseman, the evidence strongly points to the dead Hessian in Major General Heath\’s memoir.


Henry Beekman Livingston: Loving Father?

Mea culpa

Henry Beekman Livingston

Several years ago I wrote a post about Henry Beekman Livingston (read it here ) which I concluded
by saying Henry died alone and unmourned. While this is what his daughter, Peggy Livingston, would have liked us to believe it simply is not true.

Information buried deep in Henry Beekman Livingston\’s pension record paints a very different picture of the man. Testimony gathered by Henry Beekman Livingston\’s son, John, shows a loving father who was more welcome in his family then we previously believed.

According to John and the testimony, much of which comes from Henry\’s sister\’s husband the Reverend Freeborn Garretson, who had oddly enough inherited the sword that Henry had been presented by Congress in 1775. Nancy Shippen left Henry

Nancy Shippen Livingston

Beekman Livingston after only six weeks of marrige in Rhinebeck to move back to her family in Philadelphia. Henry then met another woman named, Maria Van Clief, with whom he would eventually have three children. They were together until her death in 1809.

He never married Maria but he did divorce Nancy in 1791. He had to move briefly to Salisbury, Connecticut to obtain the divorce. An earlier attempt to divorce in  New York in which Aaron Burr represented Nancy Shippen had been blocked in the Chancery Court by Henry\’s brother Chancellor Robert R. Livingston. Its unclear if there was a legal reason to block the divorce or if the Chancellor was trying to avoid having the family name associate with the scandal of divorce.

As mentioned Henry had three children with Maria Van Clief. They were Harriet, John and Charles. Harriet never married and lived with her father until he passed away in 1831. When she died twenty years later she was buried along side Henry in the Thomas Tillotson tomb at the Rhinebeck Reformed Church. Henry had been buried there in a mahogany coffin with a silver plate engraved with his name on it.

Rhinebeck Reformed Church

John was Henry\’s youngest child. He had aspired to be a soldier and Henry has written to both Thomas Jefferson and James Madison to try to get him an appointment as an officer in the army but failed to accomplish this. John settled for becoming a lawyer.

In between Henry and Maria had a son named Charles who was developmentally disabled. He lived with Henry for his entire life and sadly died only a month after his father and was buried in the same churchyard as his father.

Henry acknowledged all of these children, he educated them and tried to find them jobs and posts. Yet because he never married their mother the children were considered illegitimate and could not inherit from their father. His only legal heir was their half sister Peggy. Henry had tried to get her to build a relationship with her siblings but she rebuffed him at every turn.

The documents pertaining to Henry\’s second family came about from an attempt by John to get a portion of Henry\’s pension from the army. Ultimately he lost his case because the judge ruled he was an illegitimate child and could not inherit anything.

These documents paint a very different picture of Henry Beekman Livingston then we have seen before. He did not die alone and unmourned  but surrounded by his loving children, He was buried by the Tillotsons and Garretsons out of filial respect if not love.

Perhaps Henry was not the angry, hermit that many sources paint him as. Perhaps in Maria Van Clief and the children born out of their love he found some peace and solace.