- William Livingston's American Revolution by James J. Gigantino II
William Livingston served as governor of New Jersey from the inauguration of the state's first revolutionary-era constitution in 1776 until his death in 1790, and he played a leading role in every aspect of New Jersey's political affairs from the protests against the Intolerable Acts through the ratification of the United States Constitution. He also bore day-to-day responsibilities for governing a state located on the front lines of British-occupied territory and vulnerable to repeated military incursions. In his new study of Livingston, James J. Gigantino II offers a view [End Page 549] of his subject as "a second-tier founding father," whose independence and efforts "to prosecute the war effectively" (108) sometimes clashed with the popular opinions of his local constituents.
Livingston was born in 1723 to a wealthy and politically prominent family in colonial New York. He studied law following his graduation from Yale in 1741 and settled in New York City. He earned intercolonial renown for his polemical writings during the Stamp Act and King's College controversies. In 1772 he retired to Elizabethtown, New Jersey, where he built a country home, but the imperial crisis called him back to the political arena.
Livingston joined the protest movement in 1774 and served as a delegate to the First and Second Continental Congresses, but he remained wary of popular protests going too far in the direction of lawlessness and violence. Gigantino characterizes him as "a reluctant revolutionary" (41), who was afraid of the destruction that a war with Britain would wreak. In what emerges as a major theme of his, Gigantino portrays Livingston as out of step with his fellow New Jerseyans, who replaced him in Congress in June 1776 with delegates more unequivocally in favor of independence. Following Eric Nelson's The Royalist Revolution, Gigantino attributes Livingston's reluctance to "royalist leanings" (4), but this appellation strikes me as ill-fitting, especially because he also uses it, with greater accuracy, for William Franklin, New Jersey's last royal governor.1 Whatever Livingston's initial misgivings, however, he never wavered in his support of the American cause following the Declaration of Independence.
To be governor during the years that Livingston was in office was extremely trying, especially due to the British occupation of New York City and Staten Island, which left New Jersey exposed to foraging raids and illicit trading throughout the war. Economic woes compounded the difficulties of the military threat, especially the inflation that steeply depreciated paper currency. The heart of William Livingston's American Revolution focuses on its eponym's role as "a wartime bureaucrat" (1) who had to deal with the pressing issues of recruiting and supplying troops, combatting loyalists and suppressing trade with the enemy, stabilizing the currency, and raising tax revenue. Amid the exigencies of war, [End Page 550] Livingston governed with the assistance of the Council of Safety and Privy Council, taking on more executive authority than the framers of the state constitution had imagined. He again found himself out of step with his constituents, whose enthusiasm flagged as the war dragged on and who were more sympathetic when their neighbors sold goods to the British in exchange for hard money. Gigantino accepts as basically accurate Livingston's frequent complaints about the performance of the state's militia, but I wonder if the frustrated governor did not always give enough credit where it was due.2 Not surprisingly, given his experiences with unstable currency and weak executive powers, Livingston was a strong proponent of the U.S. Constitution. Here was one issue, at least, where the governor aligned with the people of New Jersey, where the Constitution was widely popular and unanimously ratified.
William Livingston's American Revolution is a well-written and deeply researched book, drawing particularly on Livingston's published and microfilmed papers.3 With its tight focus on one man, it often presents its subject in isolation, and I would have liked to have learned more...