Newly Discovered Livingston Manuscript Being Exhibited

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12UnitedColonies_Livingston_p01The New-York Historical Society is displaying an important, recently discovered handwritten document that sheds new light on the period leading up to the Declaration of Independence and the final break with Great Britain.

The manuscript was discovered last summer in the Morris-Jumel Mansion in New York City, which served as George Washington’s headquarters during the Revolutionary War, and was recently acquired by Brian Hendelson, a noted New Jersey-based Americana collector. Hitherto unknown and unstudied, the manuscript is on view at New-York Historical in the Patricia D. Klingenstein Library through November 7, 2014 and will remain on loan to New-York Historical for purposes of study and display for two years.

Hendelson, who often loans objects from his large Revolutionary War collection to museums, states: “Half the fun is acquiring these important pieces of history, the other half is sharing them with the public. I look forward to working more with the New-York Historical Society.”

1960_89_RobertLivingston_byStuartDrafted in the late spring of 1775 by New York jurist Robert R. Livingston (1746-1813), with additional text by Richard Henry Lee (1732-1794) of Virginia, the document is written as a letter from “The Twelve United Colonies, by Their Delegates in Congress, to the Inhabitants of Great-Britain” was commissioned by the Second Continental Congress as an eleventh-hour attempt to reconcile with the mother country. The document is a striking piece of testimony to the internal struggles of colonial leaders and patriots as they tried to develop a framework of reconciliation that would both address their grievances and retain an ongoing relationship with Great Britain. Scholar Michael Hattem of Yale University has said that the document is “the missing piece from the culminating moments in which the colonists began to think of themselves not as British subjects, but as American citizens.”

In 1775, Livingston was the most prominent member of one of New York’s wealthiest and most eminent families, with extensive land holdings that made him New York’s largest property owner. From his years as Chancellor of the New York Supreme Court, he was renowned for his fairness, intelligence, and rhetorical skills. Addressed not to King George III or to Parliament but directly to the people of Great Britain, the document attempts to persuade the British to concede liberty to the colonies while at the same time having the colonies remain within the protective embrace of the British Empire. His tone is both pacific and aggressive. The letter begins with acknowledgement of “the tender ties which bind us to each other” and “the glorious achievements of our common ancestors,” and is followed by a list of complaints about the infringement of colonists’ rights and a description of oppression exercised against colonists in Boston: “That once populous, flourishing, commercial Town is now Garrisoned by an army sent not to protect, but to enslave its inhabitants.”

The manuscript joins an unusually rich set of resources at New-York Historical for the study of the pre-Revolutionary and Revolutionary period, including the papers of Robert R. Livingston himself. The New-York Historical Society is complementing the display of the Livingston manuscript with other contemporaneous documents that make the case for reconciliation, including John Dickinson’s draft of the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms (1775), and Thomas Jefferson and John Dickinson’s Olive Branch Petition (1775).

Illustrations provided: The newly discovered Livingston Manuscript and Livingston himself in a portrait by Stuart.

5 thoughts on “Newly Discovered Livingston Manuscript Being Exhibited

  1. Bob Ulrich

    ??? I’m confused here. Why does it state that it’s from “The TWELVE” united colonies ? I can only guess that it may have excluded Georgia as being too British, but that’s just a guess.
    Q: Why 12, and when did 12 officially become 13 ?

  2. Taylor Stoermer

    It all has to do with representation in the Continental Congress. Georgia did not send delegates until relatively late in the day, which well might have been after this address was written, so you might be in the right direction, just on the wrong road. I find the second paragraph in the mss image provided the most interesting, the appeal to the commonalities, rather than differences. I think this plea says as much about Livingston wanting to point out their shared Britishness rather than mark differences, but that would make sense for a document like this in that early period.

  3. Geoff Benton

    Two points about Mr. Livingston:
    1) In the spring of 1775 Livingston did not actually own very much as his father and grandfather from whom he would inherit were both still alive.
    2) How was he renowned for his time as Chancellor in 1775 when the position wasn’t created until the New York Constitution of 1777?

  4. Peter Evans

    This is a wonderful find, to say the least, and I am certain that scholars will study this manuscript and then there will be many illuminating articles written. I eagerly await these efforts, however, even more intriguing to me is the story behind this lost manuscript and its discovery (or rediscovery) after almost 240 years since its creation. Was it actually delivered to the people of Great Britain? If so, why hasn’t its’ existance come to light before now?

    Secondly, how was the manuscript discovered in the Morris-Jumel Mansion? Who recognized it for what it was? How is it that a collector in New Jersey managed to acquire it?

    I would welcome an article in a publication like the “New York Archives” published by the Archives Partnership Trust describing the the background on the manuscript and where it has been hidding these past 240 years unrecognized and just how it managed to emerge today. There must be a great deal more to this whole story and I am totally intrigued. As a person who manages a county historical archives, it is one of the principal reasons I get out of bed each morning….today I may just have an opportunity to save a letter, journal or manuscript from the garage sale, flea market or even the trash. Important and priceless materials are lost forever everyday. I’ve seen it happen in my own family so I know it is true.

  5. Michael D. Hattem

    Peter, I am the one who did the research and handwriting and textual analysis of the document for Keno Auctions and the Morris-Jumel Mansion. The document was found by an archivist who was going through boxes of old manuscripts in the archives of the Morris-Jumel Mansion. The MJM decided to put the document up for auction and in January it was bought by Mr. Hendelson for $912,500 (including the auction fee). The document turned out to be a first draft of this letter written by Robert Livingston. Part of its importance comes from the fact that, until now, no one knew who the author of the document was because no original draft was thought to have survived. Most historians through the years mistakenly assumed Richard Henry Lee to have been the author. In fact, an initial draft of this letter was written by Lee (and appears in the Letters of the Delegates) but it bears no resemblance whatsoever to this draft or the final document (meaning it was likely scrapped by the committee or the Congress). A second aspect of its importance has to do with Livingston. Once you get beyond the initial paragraphs (which Taylor mentioned), the rhetoric turns much more heated and defiant (and, surprisingly, far more so than the rather pedestrian draft written by Lee). Hence, the letter should occasion a reexamination of Livingston’s own personal trajectory toward independence.

    Also, I should note that almost all the press releases having to do with this document misquote me (which I think originated with the auction house). I did not say that the document was “…the missing piece….” I said it was “a missing piece.” A few months ago I gave a talk at the Morris-Jumel Mansion describing my work on the document and the prepared text of the talk is available here.


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