Livingston, Edward (1764-1836)

views updated May 23 2018

Edward Livingston (1764-1836)



New York Aristocrat. Edward Livingston was born in 1764 into one of the wealthiest and most influential families in America. His father was the largest landholder in New York, owning on the eve of the Revolution more than 250, 000 acres between Manhattan and Albany. Edward Livingstons older brother, Robert R. Livingston, helped to draft the Declaration of Independence before becoming a distinguished chancellor of New York, and his cousin Brockholst Livingston would sit on the United States Supreme Court. After graduating from Princeton in 1781, Edward entered law, practiced for several years, and took a seat in Congress in 1794. His political affiliation followed a sudden twist in the longrunning factional saga of the Livingstons and their rivals, the Schuylers. Although the families had united briefly to support ratification of the Constitution, the Livingstons felt snubbed by the distribution of patronage under Alexander Hamilton, who had married into the Schuyler family, and allied themselves with the Jeffersonians. Remaining in Congress for three terms, Edward Livingston loyally supported Jefferson in the presidential election of 1800 against Aaron Burr, an intimate friend from the New York elite. Jefferson accordingly appointed him U.S. attorney for the District of New York, a position that Livingston held while also assuming the lucrative office of mayor of New York.

New Orleans. For the next three decades Livingstons financial adventures would shift his career in unexpected directions. After one of his agents absconded in 1803 with more than $40, 000 in federal funds, for which Livingston acknowledged liability, his public and private debts came close to the immense sum of $250, 000. He resigned his offices, sold his property to the partial satisfaction of his creditors, and set out to revive his fortunes by participating in the absorption of New Orleans into the United States. There he fell out of favor with Jefferson, partly because Livingstons repayment of a debt to Burr prompted allegations that he was involved in the conspiracy to detach a western empire, and partly as a result of Livingstons shrewd land speculations. Most sensitive was his claim to a large tract of tremendously valuable waterfront property in New Orleans known as the Batture, which the city and federal governments also claimed. But through his many services on behalf of Andrew Jackson in the Louisiana theater during the War of 1812, which included most sensationally the recruitment of the pirates Jean and Pierre Laffite to the American side, Livingston formed a new connection that would eventually prove to be politically valuable.

Civil Law. Livingstons greatest fame resulted from his work in codifying the laws of Louisiana. French control of the territory until 1769 and subsequent Spanish possession had left Louisiana with a hybrid, confusing legal framework derived from the Roman civil law. Attempts following the Louisiana Purchase to substitute the Anglo-American common law met with strong local resistance. The territory took a few steps to rationalize its French and Spanish codes, most notably by adopting legislation drafted by Livingston in 1805 to regulate civil procedure and by adopting a partial civil code in 1808. Thoroughgoing overhaul began in March 1822, however, when the state legislature commissioned Livingston and two others to prepare a full revision of the civil code, a commercial code, and a comprehensive code of civil procedure. The only commissioner trained both in civil law and the common law, Livingston led the way in establishing the foundations of a legal framework that would remain unique among American states. The commission adopted the bulk of the Civil Code from the Napoleonic Code, a vital legacy of the French Revolution, but Livingston effectively incorporated key common-law principles of property and contract into the continental framework. As the author of the 1805 legislation governing civil procedure, he also took primary responsibility for the new Code of Practice that provided an important precedent for the Field Code adopted in New York in 1848 and the widespread codification of procedural rules which gradually followed.

Penal Reform. Observers applauded the codification of civil law and procedure in Louisiana, but Livingstons proposals for criminal law brought him even greater renown. In the four separate codes that he presented to the Louisiana legislature in 1825 and published as System of Penal Laws for the United States of America in 1828, Livingston embodied the results of an exhaustive study of the Enlightenment principles of crime and punishment developed by Beccaria, Montesquieu, and Jeremy Bentham as well as the laws of Spain, France, and England. Livingston envisioned a more comprehensible and humane approach to criminal justice, requiring plain legislative sanctions and abolishing all penalties except imprisonment, fines, and deprivation of civil and political privileges. His conception of the penitentiarythe cornerstone of a system that rejected executions, maiming, and ritual humiliationwas one of the most important statements in the American debate over criminal punishment during the second quarter of the nineteenth century. Although not adopted by the Louisiana legislature, the penal code made Livingston an international celebrity. The rulers of Russia, Sweden, and the Netherlands praised his work, as did James Kent, Joseph Story, and John Marshall. Jeremy Bentham urged Parliament to use the Louisiana proposals for guidance, and Thomas Macaulay considered implementing them in India. Victor Hugo ranked Livingston among the men of this age who have deserved most and best of mankind, and the English scholar Sir Henry Maine declared him the first legal genius of modern times.

Diplomat. A partial victory in the litigation over the Batture, which continued long after Livingstons death, enabled him in 1826 to repay his debts. Freed from the financial pressures that had brought him to New Orleans, he gradually loosened his ties to Louisiana, although he represented the state in Congress for three terms beginning in 1822, followed by one term in the Senate. Andrew Jackson appointed him secretary of state in 1831, then minister to France in 1833. Livingston died at Montgomery Place, a family estate he had inherited on the Hudson River, in April 1836.


William B. Hatcher, Edward Livingston: Jeffersonian Republican and Jacksonian Democrat (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1940).

Livingston, Edward

views updated May 29 2018


Edward Livingston was an important lawyer, politician, and diplomat who served under Presidents thomas jefferson and andrew jackson. Apart from the many government offices he held, Livingston is remembered for proposing a comprehensive criminal code in which all offenses were clearly and simply defined.

Livingston was born on May 28, 1764, in Clermont, New York. His father, robert r. livingston, was a prominent New York political leader and judge in the years leading up to the American Revolution. His older brother, also named Robert R. Livingston, was a lawyer and a member of the continental congress committee that drafted the Declaration of Independence. He was a close advisor to President Jefferson and negotiated the louisiana purchase from France. Edward Livingston followed in his brother's footsteps. After graduating from the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) in 1781, he studied law in Albany, New York. He was admitted to the New York bar in 1785 and entered private law practice. In 1795, Livingston was elected to Congress. He served three terms and chaired the House Commerce Committee during his second term. Livingston earned Jefferson's loyalty when he opposed the alien and sedition acts and Jay's Treaty.

In 1801, Livingston left Congress to become U.S. attorney for New York City. That same year, he was elected Mayor of New York. What seemed a promising start to a successful political career came crashing down on Livingston in 1803. One of his aides either lost or took public funds, and Livingston was obligated to sell his property to pay off the debt. He severed ties with New York in 1804 and moved to Louisiana. He pursued his legal career, but the war of 1812 brought him back into public life. He organized the New Orleans public defense committee and then served as General Andrew Jackson's top aide during the Battle of New Orleans. After the war, he returned to law practice, but by 1820 he was back in politics as part of the Louisiana state legislature.

In 1821, Livingston produced a criminal code that he urged Louisiana to adopt. He sought to bring order and clarity to criminal law and procedure, which was a mixture of statutes and many common law decisions. It was his belief that people were entitled to know, rather than to guess, what actions constituted crimes. His code was not enacted by Louisiana but he tried again at the federal level when he entered the U.S. House of Representatives in 1823. In 1829, he was elected to the U.S. Senate as his model code, A system of Penal Law for the United States of America, drew favorable reviews in Europe. Although his code was never enacted, it remains an important document for the codification movement that reached its zenith during the twentieth century.

Livingston resigned from the Senate in 1831 to serve as secretary of state for President Andrew Jackson. Two years later, he left that post to serve as U.S. minister to France. He returned to the United States in 1835 and died on May 23, 1836, in Barrytown, New York.

further readings

Elkins, Stanley M., and McKitrick, Eric. 1994. The Age of Federalism. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

Hall, Kermit L. 1989. The Magic Mirror: Law in American History. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

Hatcher, William. 1970. Edward Livingston: Jeffersonian Republican and Jacksonian Democrat. Gloucester, Mass.: P. Smith.

Edward Livingston

views updated Jun 27 2018

Edward Livingston

Edward Livingston (1764-1836), American jurist and statesman, was one of the great legal reformers of the 19th century.

Edward Livingston was born on May 28, 1764, at Clermont, N.Y., into a wealthy family. He graduated from the College of New Jersey (Princeton) in 1781. After a legal apprenticeship he was admitted to the bar in 1785. In 1789 he married Mary McEvers, daughter of a New York merchant.

In 1794 Livingston was elected to the U.S. Congress. Vigorously anti-Federalist, he attacked Jay's Treaty and the Alien and Sedition Acts. After serving three terms he declined to seek reelection in 1800, instead accepting two appointments: as U.S. attorney for the District of New York and as mayor of New York City. In office he sought to reform the Mayor's Court and showed concern for the city's poor, but a clerk's misappropriation of federal taxes, for which Livingston accepted full responsibility, ruined his career in New York.

Livingston began life anew in New Orleans and was instantly successful in his law practice. He also engaged in extensive land speculation. One of his deals, the acquisition of a portion of riverfront property below the city, involved him in a lengthy controversy with the Federal government. This was but one of several differences with Thomas Jefferson's administration. Another saw Livingston champion civil liberties against martial rule, when he was unjustly implicated in the Burr conspiracy by the commander at New Orleans in 1806-1807. Yet during the War of 1812, when Andrew Jackson proclaimed martial rule, Livingston, who was serving as volunteer aide-de-camp and confidential adviser, did not oppose the action publicly. He did, however, tell Jackson privately that the proclamation was unconstitutional. Livingston was later to benefit politically from his service to Jackson.

Livingston's interest in and understanding of legal reform during his term in the Louisiana Legislature (1819-1821) led to his designation as one of the three codifiers of the state legal system. They revised the civil code and code of procedure and prepared a commercial code. He had previously been asked to prepare a revised criminal code. Neither the commercial code nor the penal code was enacted, the latter because it was too far ahead of its time. Livingston held that the purpose of punishment was to prevent crime. If a penalty did not deter criminal acts, it should be abolished; therefore he advocated abolition of the death penalty. However, publication of the penal code gave Livingston a reputation as a legal reformer, and the code was acclaimed in Europe and the United States.

In 1822 Livingston was elected to the U.S. Congress and reelected in 1824 and 1826. He unsuccessfully supported Andrew Jackson in the disputed election of 1824. Livingston was defeated for reelection in 1828, but with the support of President Jackson (newly elected that year) he was appointed to the Senate in 1829.

Livingston's Senate stay was short. In a major Cabinet realignment in 1831 Jackson appointed him secretary of state. He drafted Jackson's Nullification Proclamation, which forthrightly denied the right of states to nullification and secession. Two years later Jackson made him minister to France. His main task was to bring about implementation of the French spoliation treaty. His skillful negotiation paved the way for the amicable settlement in 1836. He died at Montgomery Place, his New York estate, on May 23, 1836.

Further Reading

William B. Hatcher, Edward Livingston: Jeffersonian Republican and Jacksonian Democrat (1940), is solid and readable. Livingston's background can be understood by reading George Dangerfield's entertaining and insightful Chancellor Robert R. Livingston of New York, 1746-1813 (1960). Indispensable for Livingston's New York political background is Alfred F. Young, The Democratic Republicans of New York: The Origins, 1763-1797 (1967). □

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Edward Livingston