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Livingston, Edward

Edward Livingston (May 28, 1764 – May 23, 1836) — Jurist, Statesman, Elected Official and Prison Reformer


Editor’s Note: The second part of this entry for Edward Livingston was written in the “present tense” by Charles Richmond Henderson, a notable prison reformer. Henderson’s first book was, “An Introduction to the Study of the Dependent, Defective, and Delinquent Classes,” which appeared in 1893. While the book in its original form has long since passed out of print and out of date, yet it formed an important landmark in the development of practical social science. It was the first serious attempt in America to present a complete view of the work of society along charitable and corrective lines. The new note that it struck was its emphasis upon the fact that all the interests of society were affected by the existence of the depraved and unfortunate classes, and that therefore the work in their behalf was a social task which must be shared by the whole community.

The Introduction was compiled from materials on Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.Edward Livingston,11th U.S. Secretary of State [View Image]
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Edward Livingston
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Introduction: Edward Livingston was born on his family’s estate at Clermont, New York on May 28, 1764. He studied at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), graduating in 1781. Following his admission to the bar in 1785, he practiced law in New York City.

With the benefit of political advice from his older brother Robert, who had served as Secretary of Foreign Affairs during the Articles of Confederation government, Livingston won election to the U.S. Congress as a Representative of New York and served from 1795 to 1800. He next served as U.S. Attorney for the District of New York and Mayor of New York City from 1801 to 1803.

In 1804 Livingston moved to New Orleans and practiced law. He served as an aide-de-camp to General Andrew Jackson during the Battle of New Orleans.

In 1820 Livingston returned to politics and enjoyed a series of victories: first to the Louisiana State House of Representatives; next as a U.S. Representative from Louisiana from 1823 to 1828; and finally, as a U.S. Senator from Louisiana from 1829 to 1832.

Edward Livingston was appointed Secretary of State by President Andrew Jackson on May 24, 1831. Livingston entered duty on the same day. His tenure as Secretary of State ended on May 29, 1833. Livingston brought considerable legal expertise to the office but operated under strict presidential constraints upon his authority.

From 1833 to 1835, Livingston was minister plenipotentiary to France, charged with procuring the fulfillment by the French government of the treaty negotiated by W. C. Rives in 1831, by which France had bound herself to pay an indemnity of twenty-five millions of francs for French spoliation of American shipping chiefly under the Berlin and Milan decrees, and the United States in turn agreed to pay to France 1,500,000 francs in satisfaction of French claims. Livingston’s negotiations were conducted with excellent judgment, but the French Chamber of Deputies refused to make an appropriation to pay the first installment due under the treaty in 1833, relations between the two governments became strained, and Livingston was finally instructed to close the legation and return to America.

He was twice married. His first wife, Mary McEvers, whom he married on the 10 April 1788, died on the 13 March 1801. In June 1805 he married Madame Louise Moreau de Lassy or D’Avezac, a widow 19 years of age, whose maiden name was Davezac de Castera, and who was a refugee in New Orleans from the revolution in Santo Domingo. She was a woman of extraordinary beauty and intellect, and is said to have greatly influenced her husband’s public career.

Charles Richmond Henderson’s Description: It is fitting that the face of Edward Livingston should look out from the pages of a book prepared for Europeans interested in prison reform. As he was probably the earliest, he remains the most distinguished, of the men of this country who have devoted themselves to improving the laws of the land for the sake of bettering the condition of prisons and prisoners.

Edward Livingston, by birth a happy union of Scotch and Dutch blood, is an instance, quite frequent in America, of a man whose whole life was deeply influenced by womanly influences in the home. From his distinguished father of illustrious lineage, he must have inherited many great qualities, but from his mother he learned bravery, justice, industry, patience, and gentleness. She was a woman loved and revered in her own day and remembered with admiration and affection. Courage too he learned from his sister, the wife of General Montgomery who fell at Quebec. The little lad of nine who saw the parting between his sister and her valiant husband, and who lived to see the long stretch of sixty years of widowhood, was keenly sensitive to the sorrow that came to her so early in life and which she bore so bravely ever after. And these influences kept the heart tender as the boy as growing up.

He was born in Clermont, Columbia country, New York, May 20, 1764 in a beautiful home on the Hudson River where he early learned to love the charms of nature; and to this beautiful spot he returned seventy-two years later, to pass out of life, as he had entered it, among the beauties of the countryside.

At the age of fifteen he entered the junior class at Princeton and was graduated at the age of seventeen. During these years he several times came into close contact with George Washington and the men who were shaping the future of this new country, one of whom was his own brother Robert, a member of the committee which reported the Declaration of Independence.

It having been determined that young Livingston should study law, he went into a law office in Albany where among his associates were Kent, Hamilton and Burr, names all destined to be kept in mind by Americans. Later he continued his law studies in New York City where he was admitted to the bar.

In 1788, the young man of twenty-four married Mary McEwers of New York and three children came into their home, none of them living to grow up, save a son who died on the verge of manhood. It was a very happy marriage and on the death of Mrs. Livingston in 1801, he referred most tenderly to the friendship which had “brought them together in the springtime of life,” a friendship “cemented by mutual esteem.”

In 1794, Mr. Livingston was elected to the fourth Congress as a member from New York; and reelected in 1796 and 1798. During the sixth Congress he moved that a committee should be appointed to report whether changes could be made in the penal laws of the United States substituting milder punishments for certain crimes. Such a committee was appointed and he was made chairman. From then till the end of his life he was interested in penal reform and better laws. Soon after he was appointed by president Jefferson United States District Attorney for New York and in 1801, he became the mayor of the city. The Mayor in those days presided over a high court having both criminal and civil jurisdiction and he was due to do much toward reforming the rules and practices in the court for civil actions; he also published a volume of reports entitled Judicial Opinions. He was always planning the bettering of existing conditions. He proposed, for instance, that the city and the Mechanic’s Society should combine to make some arrangement to give newly arrived strangers work for a month; that employment should be found for men out of work through accident; that widows and children old enough to work should be provided with something to do and that discharged convicts should have suitable labor. Three things he believed might be accomplished: the suppression of begging, the prevention of crime and the reformation of the criminal, and work, he held, was essential in these three reforms. In the year 1803 while Mr. Livingston was still mayor, the city was smitten with yellow fever. His kindness and courage were manifest then, for he never left the city but visited the sick, inspired doctors, nurses and priests to do their duty and was as self-sacrificing and devoted himself as he expected others to be. He won for himself the gratitude and appreciation of all the people. He did not escape himself but when the fever struck him too, though he was able to throw it off, it was not so easy to throw off a more serious trouble which he found himself facing soon afterward. During his illness a clerk who had been entrusted to care for government funds in the office of the attorney for the United States, had proved untrue and Mr. Livingston was saddled with a debt of fifty thousand dollars to the government which it took him twenty years to rest, though he turned all that he possessed into money toward this emergency. With his clear strong sense of right, though innocent himself, he resigned his offices, and with a hundred dollars in money and a small letter of credit, went to New Orleans to begin life anew. Great regret was expressed by the public at his leaving New York. In the southern city he soon became the leading member of the bar, his wonderful legal ability being helped by the fact that he spoke French, Spanish and German, languages that could be used to advantage in New Orleans. He was soon busy in adjusting the laws which Louisiana had inherited from Spain and France and in helping them meet the requirements of American life. In 1821 he was appointed to prepare a code for Louisiana and three years were devoted to this great work. In one night, the original copy which was all ready for the printer was entirely destroyed by an accidental fire in his study. Undismayed, he declared that like the Phoenix, it should rise from its ashes and the next morning he resumed his labors, and at the close of another two years the copy was again ready for the printer.

The aim of this code, says his biographer, Charles Havens Hunt, was to bring under one system-crime, vagrancy, mendacity and all forms of pauperism. It provided first, a house of detention for misdemeanants and for witnesses; second, a penitentiary for criminals above eighteen years who have been convicted of crime; third, a house of refuge and industry for graduates of the penitentiary who were willing to work; and compulsory work for able-bodied beggars and vagrants, including prostitutes; fourth, a school of reform for persons under eighteen who were to be taught some mechanical arts.

The work was divided into a code of procedure, a code of evidence, code of reform and prison discipline. Capital punishment was to be abolished and imprisonment for life substituted. Labor was to be a privilege and not a punishment. Flogging was prohibited as degrading. Criminals were to be put into solitary confinement, to receive a better diet and to be allowed to work; and they were to have lessons from teachers, with permission to read instructive books, to occasionally receive their friends, and, after certain evidence of reform, to be allowed to labor in society with others; and finally to receive a certificate of good conduct in industry, schooling and in the trades they had followed. The first great object was to prevent crime.

Mr. Livingston’s ideas soon became well-known in Europe. His code was translated into French and German and Jeremy Bentham wanted to have the English government print it for the benefit of the nation. Brazil made it the basis of legislation and Guatemala adopted it. Louisiana, for whom it was prepared failed to adopt it. In 18?? Mr. Livingston was again sent to Congress, this time to represent his adopted state. Her served six years and was instrumental in having light-houses, beacons, buoys, and floating lights mark the way from New York to New Orleans and in that far off day, he was greatly interested in the possible construction of the Panama canal.

The year that his friend, Andrew Jackson, began his career as President of the United States, Mr. Livingston entered the senate from Louisiana. While in Congress, he prepared a code for the United States. The year 1831 saw him Secretary of State and four years later he went as minister to France. After successful diplomacy there he returned to his own land and his own home where he died the 23rd of May, 1830.

The complete works of Mr. Livingston, consisting of systems of penal law for the state of Louisiana and for the United States of America were published by the National Prison Association in 1873. Dr. K. C. Wines, in a prefatory note to that edition, says: “The Association is happy in being made the organ of giving to the country and the world a new edition of the writings of an American jurist and philanthropist who has done so much to illustrate and advance his age in one of the highest and noblest departments of civilization.”

Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase, who wrote the introduction to this edition of Mr. Livingston’s works, says of him:

“A learned lawyer, familiar with the theory and practice of common and civil law and thoroughly versed in the general principles of jurisprudence, a statesman already eminent and destined to be much more eminent, he was singularly qualified for the task, which, in obedience to the legislature of Louisiana, he undertook in preparing a system of penal law for the state of his adoption.”

In an address before the American Philosophical Society, of which Mr. Livingston had been a member, Mr. H. D. Gilpin, in 1843, gave the following estimate of this distinguished jurist:

“The private life of Mr. Livingston was a daily exhibition of domestic and social qualities which secured affection and diffused happiness. His temper was serene, his disposition cheerful and his heart was keenly alive to all the impulses of affection and friendship. He could bear misfortune with equanimity and up to the close of life readily participated in the cheerful amusements of society. Devotedly fond of study and having untiring industry and a retentive memory, his mind was richly stored with all the knowledge that literature could impart. Fond of scientific investigations, so far as his many engagements permitted him to pursue them, he readily gave his aid to those who engaged in them. Actively benevolent, he was unceasing in his endeavors to promote every plan which he deemed conducive to the welfare or improvement of men. In his profession he was eminently distinguished, as an advocate and lawyer he stood by general consent in the highest rank; and his labors in those kindred branches of study and reflection which were required in the preparation of the systems of civil and criminal law which he framed, gave him a reputation and secured to him honors and distinctions in his own and other countries not surpassed by any of the jurists of his times.”

 Source: Henderson, Charles Richmond. Papers, [Box 2, Folder 10], Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Henderson, H. C. (1893). Edward Livingston (May 28, 1764 – May 23, 1836) — Jurist, statesman, elected official and prison reformer. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved [date accessed] from


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