The 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.”
Drafted 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.