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 on Edward Livingston

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).