Robert R. Livingston 1806

Livingston, Robert R. Autograph letter signed (“Rob R Livingston”), in French, 3 pages quarto, New York, 20 January 1806, to M. Decrée, Minister of the Marine and of the French Colonies; mounting remnants at right margin of blank verso of third page.

Livingston lauds Napoleon’s recent victories in Ulm and Austerlitz, articulates American bitterness towards the English, anticipates a serious quarrel with Spain and mentions the Louisiana Purchase.

Livingston writes in full:

New York, 20thJan.1806


 I have not forgotten your friendliness to me when I was in Paris, and would not wish to be completely forgotten now that I am in America. That is why I am seizing this favorable opportunity to pass on to you congratulations on the astounding victories of Napoleon the Great. You know, my friend, if you remember the conversations we had, that I was the one to predict, and to recommend his ascent to the imperial throne. You will therefore not wonder at my anticipating posterity by giving him the title that he will bear, while his military glory, joined to his love of his country and of humanity, will earn him the respect of mankind. I hope that before you receive this letter he will have forced his enemies to make peace, and that he will have stifled forever all the schemes against France, teaching Austria a lesson in moderation, and creating a new barrier for France through the gift of a crown and territorial expansion in Bavaria. You see, Monsieur, although I am far from the theater of action, I still have a passion for making plans. But in truth, you almost made me into a Frenchman (though I say it to you in poor French), and I hope that you will not give me the occasion to have to choose between my duty to my country and my love for yours.

We are at present feeling quite bitter toward the English, and I think that we will deliver them blows sufficient to upset forever their commerce with the United States. These blows would be stronger if we did not have reason to expect a very serious quarrel with Spain. She has undertaken a pirate war against us in the islands, pillaged all of our vessels that she has encountered at sea, mistreated our sailors, and has even made incursions into our territory in the regions ceded by your Commissioner, such as Louisiana. General Miranda [former General of the French Republican Armies]is here, just arrived from England, certainly not in order to put out the fire. Whatever happens, I hope that we will have the good offices of the Emperor to help us resolve our differences with Spain.

Monsieur Le Carriere who will have the honor to give you this letter has business with your government. He is a very honest and very respectable man who deserves your protection.

I am honored to be to your excellence the most loyal friend and very humble servant, Rob R  Livingston

To his Excellence Monsieur Decrée Minister of Marine & of the French Colonies

Robert Livingston came from an influential New York family. For decades before the American Revolution the Livingston family had firmly opposed the politics of the royal governor and his colleagues. Livingston’s father, a well-known jurist, was a foe of the Stamp Act, but he was also a nervous observer of the popular tumults marking the resistance to it.

Amid the rumblings of rebellion, Robert Livingston graduated from King’s College (now Columbia) in 1765. He immediately entered a legal apprenticeship with his father’s cousin, and later governor of New Jersey, William Livingston. Admitted to the bar in 1768, Robert acquired a practice befitting his family position, held minor offices, and, in 1770, married Mary Stevens, of a New Jersey landowning family.

As a member of the New York Provincial Convention of 1775 and, a month later, of the Second Continental Congress, Livingston began a steady movement toward supporting American independence but maintained an equally steady resistance to letting radicals control the Revolution in New York. He was appointed to the committee of five to draft the Declaration of Independence.

In 1779 Livingston resumed his seat in the Continental Congress. He soon became part of the “nationalist” group, which included Robert Morris, Benjamin Franklin, and, later, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton. Livingston was elected first secretary for foreign affairs in August 1781. During his two years of service as secretary he did all he could to strengthen America’s alliance with France.

For the next two years Livingston indulged his passion for scientific agriculture and efficiently presided over the Court of Chancery. In 1788 he, Hamilton, and John Jay were leading Federalist delegates to the New York constitutional ratifying convention, and in 1789 he administered the oath of office to President George Washington. However, by 1791 Livingston had become a Jeffersonian Republican, in uncomfortable alliance with his old foe Governor Clinton and the energetic newcomer Aaron Burr. At odds with the Jays, Schuylers, Van Rensselaers, and other traditional friends, Livingston began a decade of sometimes lonely, often acrimonious opposition to the Federalists. He fought against Jay’s Treaty and maintained strong Francophile sentiments.

In 1801, President Jefferson appointed Livingston minister to France. Napoleon’s acquisition of Louisiana and his plans for a huge Caribbean empire soon placed a grave responsibility on Livingston; possession of New Orleans (and thus control of the Mississippi) by a powerful, expansive France would, in Jefferson’s words, “marry the United States to the British fleet” and throttle American dreams of a transcontinental republic. The Americans fretted helplessly in the face of Napoleon’s omnipotence until the defeat of one of Napoleon’s armies in Santo Domingo and the freeze-up of another in Dutch harbors suddenly changed the prospects. Just as Livingston received instructions to try to purchase New Orleans and, if possible, Florida, Napoleon decided to abandon his American plans. Livingston, meanwhile, had earlier suggested that the United States might be interested in acquiring lands west of the Mississippi. Aided by the arrival of special envoy James Monroe, Livingston held conferences with French ministers who, astonishingly, offered to sell the entire Louisiana Territory. Though lacking instructions to buy the vast territory, the Americans grasped the opportunity and signed the Louisiana Purchase Treaty on 2 May 1803.

Livingston’s illustrious career is exquisitely encapsulated in the present letter to his French comrade. His keen diplomatic skills are also clearly articulated.


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