Founding Father Philip Livingston is not widely known, but he was a successful New York City merchant, a philanthropist, a New York politician, a statesman, and a signer of the Declaration of Independence. He represented New York in the First and Second Continental Congresses, and like many Patriots, did not initially favor separation from Britain. However, when attempts to reach an accommodation were spurned by King George III, he became a Revolutionary. Livingston died unexpectedly while attending the sixth session of Congress in York, Pennsylvania.
Philip Livingston was born into the wealthy and politically important Hudson River Livingston family on 15 January 1716 at Albany, New York. He was the fourth surviving son of Philip Livingston (1686-1749), 2nd Lord of the Manor; and Catherine Van Brugh daughter of Albany mayor, Captain Pieter Van Brugh.
The Livingstons traced their American lineage back to Robert Livingston, a native of Scotland who immigrated to the New World in 1672. Robert’s father, Reverend John Livingston, and family were exiled from Scotland to the Netherlands in 1663 for refusing to pledge allegiance to English King Charles II. Nine years later, Robert returned to Scotland following his father’s death and migrated to the New World. Fluent in English and Dutch, he settled in Albany in New York Colony.
Robert Livingston enriched himself in the fur trade and was respected by both the old Dutch families and the English who had taken over the colony in 1664. He married Alida Schuyler van Rensselaer, which established him in the aristocracy of colonial New York. The New York governor granted him the “lordship and Manor of Livingston” which consisted of 160,000 acres near Albany. His son Philip was 2nd Lord of the Manor and Philip’s eldest son, Robert, was the 3rd Lord of the manor.
Philip and his younger brother, William, grew up in the Albany area dividing time between an Albany townhouse and the Manor House in Linlithgo. The Manor House was located at the junction of Roeliff Jansen Kill and the Hudson River. This area is now part of the town of Livingston, New York.
Since Philip was not the eldest son, he was not heir to the family fortune and had to establish a career of his own. He graduated from Yale in 1737 and returned to Albany to serve a mercantile apprenticeship with his father. Through his father’s influence, he became active in local government.
On 14 April 1740, Philip married Christina Ten Broeck. She was the daughter of Colonel Birck Ten Broeck and Margarita Cuyler and the sister of Albany Mayor Abraham Ten Broeck. This marriage established Philip in the old Dutch community, which helped his career. Philip and Christina had nine children, five boys and four girls.
Like many of his relatives, Philip settled in New York City where he entered the import business, trading with British sugar plantations in the West Indies. He made the bulk of his fortune during King George’s War (1744-1748) provisioning and privateering. He also speculated heavily in real estate and the slave trade. Philip maintained a townhouse in Manhattan and a forty-acre estate in Brooklyn Heights.
Philip became highly active in New York City politics and development. He was a promoter of the founding of Kings College (Columbia University today) and helped organize the New York library. He founded the first Chamber of Commerce and was president and founding member of the St. Andrew’s Society, which was New York’s first benevolent organization. He was one of the first governors of New York Hospital.
In 1754 Philip became a delegate to the Albany Congress, and also served as a New York City Alderman from 1754 through 1762, His service to the colony and his successful import business earned Philip the respect and admiration of his peers. In 1755, Sir Charles Hardy, Royal Governor of the Province of New York wrote: “among the considerable merchants in this city, no one is more esteemed for energy, promptness and public spirit than Philip Livingston.”
As a Congressional delegate, Philip joined with other colonies to negotiate with their Indian allies to develop plans for dealing with the French and Indian War (1754-1763). He supported the war and helped efforts to raise and fund troops.
Philip served in the Provincial House of Representatives from 1763 to 1769. In 1765 he attended the Stamp Act Congress and joined New York City’s Committee of Correspondence. New York established their Provincial Congress in 1775. Philip was president of the Congress and was selected to attend the Continental Congress.
In July 1775, Philip signed the Olive Branch Petition, which was a final attempt to negotiate with the Crown. Like many others, he did not initially support a total break with Britain, but when King George III refused to negotiate, Philip became a revolutionary, and was a strong advocate for independence. He voted for the Declaration of Independence on 4 July 1776 and signed the final copy in August.
Philip’s brother, William, was a delegate to the Continental Congress from New Jersey where he was a prominent lawyer. He served in Congress from 1774 to June 1776 when he was called to command the New Jersey militia and missed signing the Declaration. William went on to become the first Governor of New Jersey and a signer of the Constitution.
Robert R. Livingston was a first cousin once removed of Philip and was also a New York delegate to the Continental Congress. He was a member of the Committee of Five who drafted the Declaration, but other duties prevented him from being present for the signing. He became the first Chancellor of New York and administered the oath of office to President George Washington on his first inauguration.
Adoption of the Declaration of Independence was a giant political step, but the war was not going very well. British General Howe was conducting a major campaign to capture New York City. Following the massive and successful British attack on Long Island, Washington and his officers met in Philip’s Brooklyn Heights estate to discuss the military options. Their decision was to make a strategic withdrawal from Long Island and to abandon New York City.
When the British occupied New York City in late August 1776, Philip and his family fled to Kingston, New York where he maintained another residence. The British used the Livingston’s townhouse as a barracks and the Brooklyn Heights residence as a Royal Navy hospital. Later, the British burned Kingston to the ground as they did the Robert R. Livingston mansion, Clermont, across the Hudson River.
The New York State Constitution was adopted in April 1777 and Philip was chosen as a senator for the southern district. He also continued to sit in the Continental Congress. The British military had forced the Congress out of Philadelphia, and they had reconvened in York, Pennsylvania. Philip was attending the sixth session of Congress in York on 12 June 1778 when he suddenly died. He had suffered from dropsy (congestive heart failure) for several years and his health began to deteriorate significantly about a year before his death.
Philip Livingston was buried in the Prospect Hill Cemetery in York. His estate was not sufficient to pay his debts and his executors renounced the administration of the estate. In recognition of his loyal service to the state and the nation, on 25 February 1785, the New York legislature passed an act that authorized the state to settle the estate and pay off all the debts. This was quite an exceptional tribute to Philip and showed the great affection and respect New York had for him.
Philip’s name is engraved on one of the 56 granite blocks in the memorial on the National Mall in Washington, DC that honors the signers of the Declaration of Independence. His grave in Prospect Hill Cemetery is marked by an obelisk erected by his grandson Stephen Van Rensselaer. Part of the engraving states: “Eminently distinguished for his talents and rectitude, he deservedly enjoyed the confidence of his country and the love and veneration of his friends and children.” A DAR marker identifies him as a “soldier of the Revolutionary War.” In 2005, the Descendants of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence attached a plaque to the obelisk to recognize him as a signer.