Conceived in liberty

September 5th, 2012

Myron Magnet has a new article at City Journal exploring the political thought and influence of William Livingston.

Writing in 1818, John Adams argued that the actual American revolution was “effected before the [Revolutionary] War commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people; a change in their religious sentiments, of their duties and obligations….This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people was the real American Revolution.” As Magnet points out, few people are as responsible for that revolution as William Livingston, a “shy but inwardly fiery lawyer” in New York who “edited and mostly wrote a weekly magazine, The Independent Reflector, that from November 1752 to November 1753 infused throughout British America the Lockean ideas of government by consent and the right of the people to depose a tyrannical king.” Though Livingston went on to join both the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention and served as governor of New Jersey for 14 years, “no mark he made on the fate of the continent,” Magnet writes, “proved as indelible as the one he imprinted in those 12 momentous months in the mid-eighteenth century.”

When the first issue of The Independent Reflector appeared on November 30, 1752, politics, not taste, was its keynote. The magazine, Livingston wrote, wouldn’t shrink “from vindicating the civil and religious RIGHTS of my Fellow Creatures: From exposing the peculiar Deformity of publickVice, and Corruption: and displaying the amiable Charms of Liberty, with the detestable Nature of Slavery and Oppression.” Nor would he hesitate to point fingers, since “the obdurate Criminal, who fears not GOD himself, is seized with a Panic, at the Apprehensions of having his Actions publickly exposed by a Writer of Genius and Magnanimity,” he wrote, paraphrasing Pope’s Epilogue to the Satires. […]

But his greatest battle concerned the founding of King’s College, later Columbia, which New York’s Anglicans (including the De Lanceys) wanted to establish as a sectarian institution with a royal charter. Their plan opened an old wound: in a colony only 10 percent Anglican, only the city’s two Dutch churches and the Anglican Trinity Church had royal-charter protection, and Trinity alone received all the money from a 1693 tax imposed to support Protestant ministers, not specifically Episcopal ones. Now the Anglicans wanted to set up their own college with money raised from lotteries that the Assembly had authorized for the general “Advancement of Learning,” with a faculty to be paid from the colony-wide excise tax. “It is a standing Maxim of English Liberty, ‘that no Man shall be taxed, but with his own Consent,’ ” Livingston wrote. The “Money hitherto collected is public Money,” the Reflector observed of the college. “When the Community is taxed, it ought to be for the Defence, or Emolument of the Whole: Can it, therefore, be supposed, that all shall contribute for the Uses, the ignominious Uses of a few?” […]

At its heart, the college debate was political, and it led Livingston to set forth his deepest political beliefs, the first public exposition of Lockean social-contract theory in the colonies, complete with Locke’s insistence on the right to resist and depose a monarch. Journalistic and unsystematic, his half-dozen essays on the subject add up to a coherent argument that provided the Revolution’s key justification. Untangled, it runs like this.

Before there was any government, nature made men free and equal and endowed them with rights. Yet people voluntarily “consented to resign that Freedom and Equality” and put themselves under “the Government and Controul of” a ruler, as “a Remedy for the Inconveniences that sprang from a State of Nature, in which . . . the Weak were a perpetual Prey to the Powerful.” To “preserve to every Individual, the undisturbed Enjoyment of his Acquisitions, and the Security of his Person,” men “entered into Society” and appointed magistrates or kings “to decide Controversies,” investing them “with the total Power of all the Constituents, subject to the Rules and Regulations agreed upon by the original Compact, for the Good of the Community.”

This was a choice of the lesser of two evils, for “Government, at best, is a Burden, tho’ a necessary one. Had Man been wise from his Creation, he . . . might have enjoyed the gifts of a liberal Nature, unmolested, unrestrained. It is the Depravity of Mankind that has necessarily introduced Government; and so great is this Depravity, that without it, we could scarcely subsist,” wrote Livingston, more strongly influenced by Thomas Hobbes’s vision of the State of Nature as a war of all against all than even Locke was. To guard against man’s inborn tendency to invade the “Person or Fortune” of his neighbor, he wrote, echoing Hobbes’s understanding of psychology, we “have ceded a Part of our original Freedom, to secure to us the rest.”

For Livingston, the point of this account of government’s origin was that it clearly marked the limits of royal power. “Communities were formed not for the Advantage of one Man,” he insisted, “but for the Good of the whole Body.” Since subjects gave their king power only to defend them “in the peaceable Possession of their Rights, by punishing the Invader,” only “what is injurious to the Society, or some particular Member of it, can be the proper Object of civil Punishment; because, nothing else falls within the Design of forming the Society.”

Yet all history shows that rulers hanker to overstep the limits of their legitimate authority because of the same all-too-human “depravity” that made the social contract necessary in the first place. “The very Notion of Government supposes in some Person or other, a Right to decree and execute Justice,” but “this Power may be well or ill applied,” Livingston cautioned. Rulers have abused it, because “men being naturally ambitious, and aspiring after illimitable Dominion, are too apt to measure the Extent of justifiable Authority, by their insatiable Appetite for an unbounded Licentiousness.” So “a People should be careful of yielding too much of their original Power, even to the most just Ruler, and always retain the Privilege of degrading him whenever he acts in Contradiction to the Design of his Institution.”

They should erect checks and balances to strengthen the limits they’ve placed on royal power, as the British constitution, with its “Compound of Monarchy, Aristocracy and Democracy,” does better than any other, Livingston thought—and the framers of the American Constitution puzzled mightily over how to recreate that equipoise, desperately searching for a counterpart to aristocracy in a senate of the wise, good, and rich, until James Madison came up with an alternate mechanism in the balance of interest against interest. But even “the best devised civil Constitution, is subject to Corruption and Decay, thro’ the Pride, Ambition, and Avarice of those in whose Care it is lodged,” Livingston warned. And at a certain depth of oppression, “Men of true Principles would rather return to a State of primitive Freedom, in which every Man has a Right to be his own Carver, than be the Slaves of the greatest Monarch, or even suffer under the most unlimited Democracy in the Universe.” It takes a lot of tyranny to lead people to that desperate step, however; for “let us still remember, that as the Magistrate is cloathed with Power for the Security of the Subject, the People cannot strip him of his Authority, without reducing themselves to their original Independency, the most joyless uncomfortable State in which human Nature can possibly exist.”

On November 22, 1753, after 53 issues, the printer of the Reflector suspended publication, after the lieutenant governor of New York made clear that the printer would not get any government printing jobs if he were to continue printing Livingston’s magazine.  As for Livingston, as a delegate to the First Continental Congress in the fall of 1774, he worked to clear up the colonists’ differences with England. “Even when he saw that independence was inevitable,” Magnet writes, “he fussed about the timing, worried that the army was too green and that the French hadn’t yet vowed support. Less than two weeks before the Declaration of Independence, his constituents recalled him, naming delegates raring to break with England. The rebuke stung, but on August 31, New Jersey elected him its governor, and, as British invaders drove him and his legislature across the state for years as they pursued and stalked Washington’s army, he helped keep the Patriots’ resistance alive, never doubting America’s right ‘to renounce our Allegiance to a King, who in my Opinion had forfeited it, by his manifest Design to deprive us of our Liberty.’ Still serving as governor, he died at 66 on July 25, 1790, having lived long enough to sign the Constitution and see the government he helped frame get under way with George Washington’s inauguration a year before.”

Read the entire essay here.

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