1723 - 1790
Contributed by Larry Kidder
Edited by Larry Kidder
Delegate to the Continental Congress, General of the New Jersey Militia, First Governor of the State of New Jersey
When the American Revolution broke out in 1775 I was in my fifties and had recently moved to New Jersey from New York in order to escape my complicated political life there. After spending twenty some years in New York as a lawyer and politician, who also wrote satirical essays, I moved to Elizabethtown where I built a large house in 1772 that I named “Liberty Hall.” I could not resist getting caught up in New Jersey politics and after serving as a delegate to the First and Second Continental Congresses I took on the job of leading the New Jersey militia, even though I had no military training. After three months of on-the-job training my military career ended when I was elected by the New Jersey legislature to be the first governor of New Jersey. Serving as governor of a newly created state still fighting for independence was extremely wearing and often frustrating. I was unable to get the legislature to improve the militia laws or to abolish slavery. In other areas I was more successful, but I always worked under the threat of capture or assassination so that I had to keep moving my residence, while also attending meetings and putting out 25 to 30 pieces of correspondence each day. I continued to serve throughout the war and afterwards served at the convention that wrote the United States Constitution in 1787. I died while still in office as governor in 1790.
Learn More About William Livingston…
I was born in 1723 into a wealthy New York family descended from early Dutch and English settlers. I graduated from Yale University and practiced law in New York City from the 1740s through the 1760s. I also enjoyed writing essays, poetry, military history, and political satire. My writings made me a controversial figure in New York politics, so in 1770 I decided to leave the hectic life I had built in New York and moved with my wife and nine children to New Jersey, hoping to spend my time peacefully engrossed in my writing. At Elizabethtown, I built a large home in 1772 that I called “Liberty Hall.”
My hopes for a quiet life in the country were dashed by the onset of the American Revolution. Well known through my writings for my opposition to the British actions that were raising the ire of my fellow colonists, I was encouraged to become involved in New Jersey’s politics so I served as a New Jersey representative to the First and Second Continental Congresses. My work in the Continental Congress, where I was an early advocate for independence, brought me into contact with other leaders and I developed a close friendship with George Washington.
With a British invasion of New York City imminent, I resigned from Congress in June 1776 at the urging of the New Jersey Provincial Congress to take command of the East Jersey Militia. I had no military training so I had to learn the necessary military skills on the job. I endeavored to establish myself as an uncompromising enemy of the Loyalists, a leader unafraid to seek counsel and admit to his own weaknesses, and someone who could begin the process of whipping the militia into shape. Although I was from a higher social class, I tried to be sympathetic to the problems faced by militiamen called out for duty during the harvest season or other critical time for farmers. My short military career ended on August 31, 1776 when I was chosen by the legislature to be the first governor of the new State of New Jersey.
I had many arguments with myself, struggling with my deep feelings about individual rights applicable to all men, while still believing I belonged to a privileged class. I was one of the many aristocratic colonists who chose the Patriot side of the Revolution for philosophical reasons, and at great risk to our property and lives. But supporting the Revolution did not mean that those of us from prominent families of high social class, with advanced education and opportunities to interact with influential political and economic leaders, were equal to the common folk. Although I sought to minimize the problems faced by my militiamen, I was extremely critical of them when they did not meet my high expectations in serving the Revolution. From my earliest days as governor I urged the legislature to toughen up the militia laws to force more men to turn out for duty. I was frustrated and unsuccessful in these efforts and criticized both the legislature and those men who took advantage of the loopholes in the militia law. I felt the law should force every eligible man to serve, rather than continually inconvenience those few men willing to serve. I had to struggle with the belief that my aristocratic class was superior while also believing that slavery should be abolished. I could not convince the legislature to abolish slavery in New Jersey, but I personally had it pass a bill to free my two slaves as an example to others. I continued to write while serving as Governor and frequently contributed essays, sometimes satirical, to the newspapers under pen names, such as “Adolphus”.
I worked extremely hard as governor and am proud to be remembered as honest and consistent in my actions and beliefs. Although I did not succeed in persuading the legislature to tighten up the militia law, I was very successful in other areas. Historian Carl Prince later said of me, “He brought efficiency, order, unity, honesty and understanding to a critical battleground area and thus immeasurably augmented the new American nation’s ability to wage war.” As governor I had to keep moving to avoid capture or assassination, but I still produced between 25 and 30 letters each day, in addition to attending frequent meetings with groups and individuals and dealing with the unending governmental activities I encountered daily. Historian Prince noted that both my contemporaries and later historians have judged me to have been the best governor among the newly declared independent states during the war.
After the war I served as a delegate to the federal Constitutional Convention in 1787 and remained governor until I died in office on July 25, 1790.
Prince, Carl E. William Livingston: New Jersey’s First Governor, New Jersey’s Revolutionary Experience #21. Trenton: The New Jersey Historical Commission, 1975.
Livingston, William The Papers of William Livingston, Carl E. Prince, Editor, 5 volumes. Trenton: New Jersey Historical Commission, 1979-1988.
Liberty Hall Museum at Kean University – http://www.kean.edu/libertyhall/
Art: Joe Barsin