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Edward Livingston

Edward Livingston worked on Louisiana's civil and criminal codes and played a role in the battle of New Orleans.

Edward Livingston

Courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Edward Livingston. Wellmore, E (Engravor) &Longacre, J. L. (Illustrator)

Edward Livingston left an indelible mark on Louisiana as the territory became a US possession, and ultimately a state, when he successfully advocated for preserving the colonial legal system based on Roman civil law even though the legal codes of the rest of the United States were derived from the English system of common law. He enjoyed a full life and career before moving to New Orleans in 1804 at age forty. Born in his family’s manor home, Clermont, in the colony of New York on May 28, 1764, Livingston was the much younger brother of Robert Livingston, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, and as US Minister to France in 1803 served as the chief negotiator of the Louisiana Purchase.

Early Career

Edward Livingston attended private schools and graduated from the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) at the age of seventeen. With fellow students Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, he studied law in Albany and was admitted to the New York bar in 1785. Livingston practiced law in New York City for ten years; he then was elected as a New York representative to the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Congresses. Livingston belonged to the Democrat-Republican faction that opposed George Washington’s and John Adams’s federalist policies.

Livingston secured the New York congressional delegation’s majority vote for Thomas Jefferson when the House of Representatives decided the presidential election of 1800, after a tie vote in the electoral college for Jefferson and Aaron Burr. In 1801 Jefferson appointed Livingston as district attorney for the state of New York, a post he held simultaneously with his position as appointed mayor of New York City. In 1803 he caught yellow fever during an epidemic in the city. After the epidemic, he found that $100,000 of public funds for which he was responsible as district attorney had been lost or stolen by a clerk he had employed. Livingston resigned his two positions and resolved to repay the government personally. He sold his property in partial payment of the debt and sailed to New Orleans in December 1803. Louisiana had become a territory of the United States upon the Louisiana Purchase the previous April, and Livingston recognized New Orleans as a vibrant commercial center where he might earn enough money to retire his debt.

Move to Louisiana

In February 1804 Livingston arrived in New Orleans; he had appeared in court on behalf of thirty-five clients by May. That month he wrote his sister and described the city and its people: “The impressions I have received are very favorable to the character of the inhabitants. They are in general, hospitable, honest, and polite, without much education, but with excellent natural abilities, and, in short, people with whom a man who had nothing to regret, might pass his life as happily as can be expected in any part of this uncertain world.”

When the United States took possession of Louisiana, Congress had established a court system but left in place the existing colonial laws “until altered, modified, or repealed by the legislature.” The major question that needed to be resolved was whether Louisiana would conform to the United States and adopt the English common law system or maintain the French and Spanish system based on Roman civil law. Gov. William C. C. Claiborne, as a representative of the federal government, favored the common law. Livingston, who had already experienced notable successes in Louisiana courts, had quickly come to appreciate the finer points of the Roman civil law. The two American men became bitter enemies.

To prevent the first territorial legislative council—whose members were appointed by Gov. Claiborne—from adopting the common law, Livingston gathered signatures for a petition asking Congress for immediate statehood. Instead, Congress determined the Louisiana Territory’s appointed legislative council would be counterbalanced by an elected House of Representatives. In 1806 Louisiana’s first legislature passed an act declaring that Louisiana would retain the Roman civil law and the Spanish laws that were in effect at the time of the purchase. After a brief showdown, Claiborne capitulated; historians credit Livingston’s efforts in favor of the civil law for shaping the outcome.

The legislature assigned the task of producing a revised version of Louisiana’s civil code to Louis Moreau-Lislet and James Brown. Their work was completed in 1808; it incorporated elements of France’s newly developed Napoleonic Code and was published as A Digest of the Civil Laws Now in Force in the Territory of Orleans with Alterations and Amendments Adapted to the Present System of Government.

Distinguished Public Servant and Reformer

In 1815 Livingston also played a notable role in the Battle of New Orleans. As a fellow former-congressman with Andrew Jackson and as the chairman of a civilian committee charged with cooperating “with the constituted civil and military authorities,” Livingston assisted Gen. Jackson in preparing for and fighting the battle. Livingston helped Jackson make the case for declaring martial law in the city, advocated the enlistment of Jean Lafitte and the Baratarians in fighting the British, and acted as an aide-de-camp once fighting began. In gratitude for Livingston’s service, Jackson gave him a portrait painted on ivory “as a mark of the sense I entertain of his public services, and a token of my private friendship and esteem.”

The following year Livingston moved to Plaquemines Parish; in 1820 he won election to the state legislature as a representative of the parish and was selected in 1821 to prepare a criminal code of law. Livingston worked with Moreau-Lislet and Pierre Derbigny to revise the state’s civil code and code of practice because the French, Spanish, and American laws on the books were often found to be in conflict. Working alone, Livingston also completed a code of commercial law. The legislature ratified both sets of legal codes in 1824.

The next year Livingston presented the legislature with his complete revision of Louisiana’s criminal code of law that he had begun in 1821. Rejected by the legislature because of its progressive ideas—including the abolition of the death penalty and an emphasis on reforming poor criminals through job training—the “Livingston Code” was, however, acclaimed in Europe. Its Reform and Prison Discipline section was adopted word for word by Guatemala in 1834.

By 1823 Livingston had returned to the US Congress as a representative from Louisiana and served for six years. He introduced legislation to improve navigation between New York and New Orleans through installing a system of lighthouses, buoys, and floating lights. He spoke in favor of bills to create judicial circuits to serve newly admitted states to the Union and supported acts of internal improvements, such as the construction of a national road. During this period he also finally paid off his twenty-year-old debt to the state of New York through the sale of a Louisiana property he had acquired as payment for legal services.

Livingston served a shortened term in the US Senate from 1829 to 1831; President Jackson asked him to succeed Martin Van Buren as Secretary of State after Jackson dissolved his first cabinet. Livingston’s most notable accomplishment in this role was in the domestic sphere, writing a proclamation that the president delivered to Congress after the South Carolina legislature passed “Nullification Ordinances” in 1832, a major challenge not only to Jackson’s presidency but also to the US Constitution. South Carolina’s ordinances asserted the state’s right to nullify federal tariffs that the legislature deemed unfair. Livingston’s legal dissection of South Carolina’s nullification ordinances asserted that they were at best misguided and at worst treasonous; he concluded the president’s proclamation with a warning that the military would intervene if necessary and included an emotional appeal against “the threat of unhallowed disunion.”

Livingston ended his public career as Jackson’s minister to France from 1833 to 1835. His main duty was to seek French payments—agreed to by treaty—for damages suffered by US maritime companies during the Napoleonic Wars. After an unresolved conclusion to this controversy, Livingston returned to the United States to retire. He died the next year on May 23, 1836, at his home in Dutchess County, New York.