Commanding Presence

Governor William Livingston 1723-1790

William Livingston was born in Albany in 1723, a member of a wealthy Hudson Valley family. He attended Yale and set up shop as a politically connected lawyer in New York City, but when he and his family fell out of favor in 1772, he, like many other disillusioned New Yorkers through the years, moved to New Jersey. He built a home in Elizabethtown, now Union Township, and planned to spend his golden years puttering around his garden and otherwise leading the life of a gentleman.

But as tensions increased between the American colonies and Great Britain, Livingston found himself back in the political fray, serving as a delegate to the Continental Congress. In the summer of 1776, New Jersey patriots deposed the royal governor, William Franklin—a son of Benjamin Franklin—and Livingston was elected as the first governor of the state (as opposed to the colony) of New Jersey.

He did not have the powers of today’s governors, but he was a patriot, a canny politician, and a courageous leader. His name was well known to British officials across the Hudson, and troops were dispatched to his home on several occasions in hopes of hauling him to British-occupied New York City. But Livingston had a political intelligence network that Joe Cryan, current state Democratic chair, and Tom Wilson, Cryan’s Republican counterpart, could only wish for.

During the Revolution, Livingston served as commander in chief of the state’s militia; headed the Council of Safety, which dispensed rough justice to the state’s Loyalists; and wrote strident, incendiary anti-British tracts for the New Jersey Gazette. He wrote under pen names, but the British knew he was behind many of the verbal attacks. As a polemicist, Livingston rivaled Thomas Paine for pure fury and righteousness.

As governor, he helped keep the war’s main battleground state in patriot hands. Livingston continued to serve as governor after the war, and he was in Philadelphia for the Constitutional Convention in 1787. He died, still in office, in 1790, one of the most important local figures of his time.

His home, now called Liberty Hall, is a museum. How many governors of New Jersey can say that?

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