Another Perspective

Honor and Taking Responsibility: Edward Livingston

Pace President Obama and David Brooks, but power need not corrupt our public officials.

By 1.29.10

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On December 11, 2009, columnist David Brooks repeated a story on the PBS NewsHour with Jim Lehrer that he had said in an interview in the Atlantic on the Monday before President Obama's election. On December 11, it was in the context of the President's speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize. On the Monday before the election, it was in the context of his argument that President Bush and Republican vice-presidential candidate Palin's were anti-intellectual:

Obama has the great intellect. I was interviewing Obama a couple years ago, and I'm getting nowhere with the interview, it's late in the night, he's on the phone, walking off the Senate floor, he's cranky. Out of the blue I say, "Ever read a guy named Reinhold Niebuhr?" And he says, "Yeah." So I say, "What did Niebuhr mean to you?" For the next 20 minutes, he gave me a perfect description of Reinhold Niebuhr's thought, which is a very subtle thought process based on the idea that you have to use power while it corrupts you. And I was dazzled, I felt the tingle up my knee as Chris Matthews would say.

Knowing what we know about President Obama, it is more likely that he thought of power corrupting with respect to our Nation, rather than with respect to the Democratic Party or himself personally. But let us assume Brooks' report is accurate -- and I reply that power need not corrupt our officials.

Let's make this a column even more interactive than usual.

In comments you post below, please identify any American official of local, state or federal government, at any time in our history, who resigned his or her position voluntarily (that is, without being fired or yielding to a public outcry) when something went amiss on his or her watch, but for which the official was not personally responsible. (So, by these criteria, the official's extramarital activities do not qualify.) Please identify name, position, approximate year of resignation, and, in a brief sentence, describe the event that caused the resignation.

FOR MY PART, let me name one. And I'll write more than a brief sentence about him.

When the event occurred in 1803 that prompted his voluntary resignation, Edward Livingston occupied not just one, but two, prominent positions. He was an appointed mayor of New York (before it became Greater New York) and the U.S. Attorney for the District of New York. The mayoralty was highly desirable -- enough that DeWitt Clinton resigned his U.S. Senate seat to fill the vacancy Livingston created when he resigned. And the U.S. Attorney position was a presidential appointment, confirmed by the Senate, and its territory was the entire state of New York (now New York is divided into four districts). It was not a salaried position, but it was lucrative since remuneration came from fees.

Livingston (1764-1836) was the youngest of 10 children who survived to adulthood. In an 18-month period when he was 11 and 12, his two grandfathers and father died and his brother-in-law, General Montgomery, was killed in the Battle of Quebec. When he was 13, the British burned his and his neighbors' homes to the ground in retaliation for their defeat at Saratoga.

It was during the War, in 1779, that he commenced his collegiate studies. He arrived at the College of New Jersey (now called Princeton) shortly after British soldiers had vacated the buildings. He graduated in 1781 -- still in the middle of the War with no end in sight -- in a class of six. After graduation, he studied law (before there were law schools) in Albany under John Lansing, who would become one of three delegates of New York to the 1788 Constitutional Convention. Edward Livingston was admitted to the bar in 1785, age 20 -- young but not unusually young in those days.

Livingston was unsuccessful in two attempts at being elected to the state Assembly (1791, 1792) but won election three consecutive times to the U.S. House (1795-1801). In 1803, just a few days after his wife died of scarlet fever, he received President Jefferson's appointment as U.S. Attorney, and then shortly after that he was appointed mayor.

It is not necessary to describe the kind of job Livingston did at these posts before July 20, 1803, because you will get the picture when we focus on the period of July 20 to the end of October. This is when an epidemic of yellow fever hit New York. While many people fled the city, Livingston stayed. Each and every day, Livingston went to homes where someone had been stricken and assessed and supplied their needs. He did the same at the hospitals. In August, he himself was stricken. His 1864 biographer relates: "He was now the object of extraordinary popular gratitude and regard…. A crowd thronged the street near his door, to obtain the latest news of his condition; and young people vied with each other for the privilege of watching by his bed."

The U.S. Government notified Livingston that same month of irregularities that had occurred in the office of U.S. Attorney during his tenure. A large sum of money had been embezzled by one of its employees. The culprit was known but the amount was not yet certain. No one accused Livingston of personal involvement, but only of lack of care in supervision.

Livingston accepted moral responsibility. He decided to resign, not only from the post of U.S. Attorney, but also from that of mayor. Officials and friends asked him to reconsider and remain, but he declined, staying in office only until the epidemic was over -- at which time the Common Council of the City addressed him in most touching terms. Furthermore, he decided not to wait until a complete accounting had occurred before signing an agreement to pay the U.S. Government $100,000 (in 1803 dollars) to completely cover its losses. He immediately conveyed real and personal property to a trust for partial payment. His net principal due the Government was $43,000.

Did he make good on his promise to pay? You betcha -- but there were difficulties and delays -- caused by President Jefferson and the War of 1812.

Livingston said several years later that he was humiliated, mortified, beyond words. He wanted to leave the situation, yet his professional and familial ties were all in New York. He was busy sorting out how he could make enough money to pay this kind of debt when he examined the opportunity presented by the recently negotiated Louisiana Purchase. Livingston knew the French language and the French Civil Code (a legal regime vastly different from English common law) used in New Orleans. He left his two children, ages 9 and 5 (a third had died in 1802), with a brother and his wife (who was his late wife's sister), took $100 of gold and a letter of credit for $1,000, and went by ship for six weeks to New Orleans, arriving in February, 1804.

With his knowledge of both French and English legal systems, he had six cases by April and 29 in May. Clients preferred to pay for his services in kind rather than in cash. Livingston was most willing to accept real property since real property would appreciate as the city grew as part of the United States. One such payment was a claim to the "Batture St. Marie," an alluvial plain between the buildings of the City and the Mississippi River. After he had received a judicial declaration of title in 1807, Livingston started to improve the property, but the townspeople objected because they had been using it as a commons. When complaints reached President Jefferson, Jefferson ordered U.S. Marshals to seize the property as U.S. Government-owned property, without judicial process. Livingston was irate, not only over this abuse of a citizen, but that the government was preventing him from accumulating wealth to pay his debt to the government. (The lawsuit he brought against the government did not resolve itself until his widow compromised in 1841, five years after his death.)

In addition to his efforts at real estate development and at rebuilding his professional life, Livingston rebuilt his personal life. At age 41, he married a 24 year old widow, Louise D'Avezac de Castera Moreau de Lassy, on June 3, 1805. (She is one of Cokie Robert's subjects in her 2008 book, Ladies of Liberty: The Women Who Shaped Our Nation.) She was a refugee from a slave rebellion in Santo Domingo who had arrived in New Orleans about the same time Livingston had and she had lost family members in the uprising. Upon their marriage, Livingston now lived with Louise's mother, young sister, and brother.

Livingston also rebuilt his political life. He was elected in 1820 to the Louisiana state legislature. He had been a congressman from New York and now he was elected for three terms to the U.S. House from Louisiana (1823-1829). The state legislature elected him to the U.S. Senate (1829-1831) before President Jackson (whom he had served during the Battle of New Orleans -- but that's another story) appointed him Secretary of State (1831-1833). After more than one request from the President, Livingston finally agreed to serve as ambassador to France (1833-1835). When he returned from France, he was feted upon his landing and at dinners in New York and Philadelphia for having upheld the honor of the United States. (Again, that's another story.)

It was in the middle of all of this, in 1826, at age 60, when two huge events occurred. The Louisiana legislature had commissioned him in 1821 to draft a penal code. He had completed it in 1824 but it was accidentally consumed by fire and he had to recompose it. In 1826, he finished this work -- a comprehensive legal treatment on crime and punishment which included a proposal to abolish capital punishment (to which he was no stranger, having defended and lost such cases). For this work, he received international acclaim.

The second event in 1826 was the satisfaction of his debt to the U.S. Government which he had incurred 23 years earlier. He offered parcels of New Orleans property to the government that were valued at $100,000 (the original principal plus interest). The government accepted them and soon resold them for $106,000, making $6,000 in the process.

THERE IS ONE MORE STORY that needs to be told. Livingston's widow told his biographer this incident: The two of them were riding a stagecoach in the interior of Pennsylvania. At one stop, the father of a young girl who would be riding without an escort appeared at the door and surveyed the passengers. He singled out Livingston and asked him if he would look after his daughter. Livingston's wife responded, "You judge rightly, Sir; he has been the protector of innocence all his life." What a beautiful thing for a wife to say about her husband.

We can use this incident at different levels. It certainly applies to male politician predators (of whom we have seen so many in the past year alone). And let it stand as a retort to newly elected Senator Scott Brown of Massachusetts who, during the campaign, said that, as a father of daughters, he supported Roe v. Wade.

Edward Livingston has no living direct descendants. Of the three children by his first wife, Charles died at age 12 in 1802, Julia at age 17 in 1813 (she died the day before he arrived in New York after having rushed to her from New Orleans and evading capture by British ships during the War of 1812), and Lewis at age 23 when he died at sea on the way home from France to New Orleans. Of his second wife, Louise, he had one child, Coralie. Although Coralie married, she and her husband had no children.

But you and I can be his descendants, just like we are George Washington's. We can adopt Edward Livingston as our model for honor and taking responsibility.

Furthermore, in honoring him, we also honor the people of this country -- in Louisiana, in the U.S. House, in the U.S. Senate, in the Jackson Administration -- who allowed him to begin again.

Livingston's widow, Louise, and his 30-year old daughter, Coralie, had a plaque placed on his tomb:

A Man --
For Talents Equalled by Few,
For Virtues Surpassed by None.

Now, please take some time and tell us about more Americans like Edward Livingston.

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About the Author
James M. Thunder is a Washington, D.C. attorney.