Saturday, July 3, 2010

Happy Fourth of July

The following post appeared last year on the Fourth of July.

“We mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.’’

Those words are taken from the preamble to the Declaration of Independence, and for many of the signers, the personal cost for rebelling against the British Crown cost them dearly. American Heritage has an excellent article on these men. But there were many others who suffered because of their involvement with the cause of liberty, including Robert (Chancellor) Livingston of Clermont, New York, who served on the committee to draft the Declaration.

Life had been good to the Livingstons of Dutchess County, New York (including Philip, a signer of the Declaration). From their manor house, Clermont, on the Hudson, the Robert Livingstons could view some of their half million acres of land acquired through patent and marriage. Robert R. Livingston (1718 – 1775, aka “The Judge”) added hundreds of thousands of acres to the family’s landholdings when he had married Margaret Beekman,* a formidable woman from one of the most prominent old Dutch families in the Hudson River Valley.

When Robert the Judge died in 1775, he left Margaret and their children to face the trials of the Revolution. Most dramatic was the burning of Clermont and its outbuildings on October 19, 1777 by British troops under the command of General John Vaughan, who was throwing a hissy fit because of the surrender of the British Armies by General Burgoyne at nearby Saratoga. Once Margaret was informed that General Vaughan had burnt Kingston across the Hudson, she hid the silver and other valuables in her garden fountain. Other possessions were loaded aboard carts, and Mrs. Livingston, her daughters, servants, and slaves fled. Robert was not at Clermont during this time, but he would return to his childhood home to find only the foundation and exterior walls remained.

"Nevertheless, his mother (Margaret Beekman) energetically went about the task of rebuilding Clermont upon its original foundation and on the same Georgian plan. In order to get workmen, she wrote to Governor George Clinton requesting that he exempt skilled tenants, masons, carpenters, plasterers, etc. from military service, and he agreed. By 1782 she was able to entertain General and Martha Washington in her new home, the British forever gone from the Hudson River Valley." (Taken from the official Clermont site)

The Livingstons are excellent examples of the conundrum one faces when writing about the heroes of the Revolution. Yes, they pledged their lives, fortunes, and sacred honors, but many had set off on that path because they were protecting their fabulous wealth. (Remember: “No taxation without representation.”) The Livingstons wanted to be free of British tyranny, but kept slaves. And they kept their heels on the necks of their tenants and were disinclined to sell their property to anyone. During wartime, Margaret Beekman had asked and had received the release of able-bodied men from military service to rebuild her house. But the bottom line is that if the Americans had not succeeded in their quest for independence, their leaders, including the Livingstons and Beekmans, would have had their estates confiscated, and Robert would very likely have been hanged. As Abraham Clark of New Jersey, a signer of the Declaration, put it, they would have “freedom or a halter.”

Here is a comment from my friend, Tony, who is British:

Did you know Mary, in the 1920's the Commonwealth of Virginia wanted to present a statue of George Washington to the British people. There was one problem. George Washington had expressly wished to never stand on English soil again after The War of Independence. The good people of Virginia were in a quandry. A brilliant idea came to somebody. They dug up a truck load of soil in Virgina and shipped it over to England. In Trafalgar Square they dug a big hole outside The National Gallery, filled it with the soil from Virginia, and then plonked George Washington on top of it. Everybody was happy. Don't know about George though.

*In August 2011, I will publish a novel, Darcy on the Hudson in which Darcy, Georgiana, and Charles Bingley visit New York. The Beekmans appear in the story.

5 comments:

  1. "The Livingstons wanted to be free of British tyranny, but kept slaves. And they kept their heels on the necks of their tenants and were disinclined to sell their property to anyone. During wartime, Margaret Beekman had asked and had received the release of able-bodied men from military service to rebuild her house. But the bottom line is that if the Americans had not succeeded in their quest for independence, their leaders, including the Livingstons and Beekmans, would have had their estates confiscated, and Robert would very likely have been hanged. As Abraham Clark of New Jersey put it, they would have “freedom or a halter.”

    Aren't we all a mixture of opposites, good and bad, honesty and dishonesty, truth and lies, blck and white.

    We are all a mucky grey really if we were to be really honest, or is that, dishonest.
    Oh darn it , I'm just an old synic.

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  2. I think the Founding Fathers were "big picture" guys, and their wealth allowed them the time to think great thoughts. But I agree, like most of us, they were flawed. But some were truly giants, particularly Geo Washington. One of the more flawed fellows was Thomas Jefferson. But like Livingston, he could very well have returned home to find Monticello in ashes.

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  3. ....just an old, CYNIC. Yes, got it right now!!!!!!We are a mixture of black and white, as I was saying. My spelling....!!!!

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  4. Good old George Washington.

    Did you know Mary, in the 1920's the Commonwealth of Virginia wanted to present a statue of George Washington to the British people.
    There was one problem. George had expressly wished to never stand on English soil again after The War of Independence.

    The good people of Virginia were in a quandry. A brilliant idea came to somebody. They dug up a truck load of soil in Virgina and shipped it over to England.In Trafalgar Square they dug a big hole outside The National Gallery, filled it with the soil from Virginia and then plonked George on top. Everybody was happy. Don't know about George though.

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  5. This is very interesting, thanks for posting this. I love to read about such subjects.

    ReplyDelete