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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Career of a Colonial Dictator

By William Livingston (1723–1790)

[From A Review of the Military Operations in North America. 1757.]

AS the Lieutenant-Governor will appear, in the course of this letter to bear a principal part in our public transactions, it will be necessary, before I proceed any farther, to present your Lordship with his picture at full length. Without an intimate knowledge of that gentleman’s history and genius, it will be impossible to comprehend his conduct, or trace his actions to their genuine source.

He is the eldest branch of one of the first families in the province. His father, a French refugee, a gentleman of distinguished rank in this city, and who here acquired a large fortune, sent him for his education to the University of Cambridge. He was a youth of prompt parts, and made a considerable progress in learning, especially in the classics. In the year 1729 he was, by Governor Montgomery’s recommendation, created one of his Majesty’s Council of New York; but never engaged the public attention till the time of Mr. Cosby. He became then very famous. With this governor he took part in most or all of his measures—measures extremely arbitrary, and productive of an administration odious and turbulent. Cosby, in return for his ministerial services, loaded him with favors. Deposing Chief-Justice Morris (the main obstacle to his perilous projects) he raised him to the first seat on the bench. But though his Excellency had the disposition of offices, he could by no means delegate the affections of the people. Accordingly, our politician was equally honored and despised. He enjoyed the smiles of the Governor, which loaded him with the curses of the people; was caressed by the former, and by the latter abhorred. Cosby leaving a successor capable of governing without a prompter, the Chief-Justice found it necessary to deface the memory of his former conduct, by cultivating the arts of popularity. Mr. Clarke, who succeeded, being perfectly master of our constitution, a gentleman of experience and penetration, and intimately acquainted with the temper of the people, in a short time reconciled all parties; and by restoring the public tranquillity, rendered Mr. De Lancey’s plodding abilities utterly useless. Hence he was at full leisure to court the populace. Suddenly he became transformed into a patriot; and strange to relate without a single act of patriotism. His uncommon vivacity with the semblance of affability and ease; his adroitness at a jest, with a show of condescension to his inferiors, wonderfully facilitated his progress. These plausible arts, together with his influence as Chief-Justice, and a vast personal estate at use, all conspired to secure his popular triumph. To establish such an undue power and amazing influence would, in a Grecian commonwealth, have exposed a man of less ambition and better principles to the ostracism.

Mr. Clarke being superseded by Governor Clinton, Mr. De Lancey was presented with a fresh opportunity for the exhibition of his political genius. Mr. Clinton, a gentleman of but indifferent parts, wholly resigned himself into his hands. Contenting himself with the title and salary of Governor, he left the sole direction of affairs to his minister, who, by reason of his late acquired omnipotence with the assembly, carried all his points, and even endeared him to the people. This intimacy subsisted no longer than it was found conducive to his designs. Having obtained from Mr. Clinton a new commission for his office of Chief-Justice during good behavior; and flattering himself with the hopes of another appointing him Lieutenant-Governor, through the interest of his friends in England, he cared not how soon his Excellency abdicated the province, nor how tempestuous he rendered his administration: and was therefore prepared for an open rupture. He no sooner thought himself capable of acting independently of the Governor, than, like Sixtus Quintus, who threw aside his crutches the moment of his exaltation to the popedom, he put off all that humble devotion by which he had so fatally deceived his too credulous master, and openly set himself at defiance against him. Now he began to dictate rather than advise; and instead of Sejanus, chose to be Tiberius himself. Dining one day with Mr. Clinton and insisting upon some favorite point with great imperiousness, the Governor, who had hitherto very cordially suffered himself to be led, refused on this occasion to be driven. The Chief-Justice then arose and left him; declaring with an oath, he “would make his administration uneasy for the future.” His Excellency replied “he might do his worst.” Thus they parted; nor were ever afterwards reconciled.

This breach gave rise to the contentions which so unhappily imbroiled our provincial affairs during the remainder of his administration. The assembly were instantly inflamed. He who before had been able to make them connive at very unjustifiable steps, could at once stir up an opposition to the most unexceptionable measures. Remonstrances, warm and virulent, were now drawn up; unworthy their own dignity to offer, and replete with the grossest language to his Majesty’s representative. Thus was formed against Mr. Clinton a powerful party, which ceased not, while he continued at the helm, to harass and perplex him. To such an exorbitant length did they carry their opposition, as to throw off the restraint of humanity: they had even recourse to force and violence. Nay, a partisan of the Chief-Justice, in defiance of the sacred rights of the magistracy and the law—to show his resentment against Mr. Clinton and his adherents—assaulted the mayor; whipped the sheriff; damned the Governor; and stabbed his physician. My Lord, we became the sport and contempt of our neighbors; and it is beyond contradiction that Mr. De Lancey, by blowing up the coals of contention, did the province more injury than he will ever be able to repair. Nor is there any reason to doubt that the enormous power of this gentleman, and the ferment raised against Mr. Clinton, occasioned the 39th article of the King’s instructions to Sir Danvers Osborn; which appears purposely calculated to render our future Governors independent on his influence over the assembly. For a law indefinite, making provision for the salary allowed by the King to his Governors, and competent salaries to all judges, justices, and other necessary officers and ministers of government—such a law, I say, would effectually render a Governor independent of the assembly, and consequently of any undue influence in it. Not without such independence, or an abridgment of Mr. De Lancey’s power, by reducing him to his primitive private station, do I see any probability of the extinction of that party-spirit which hath so long disturbed the tranquillity and injured the public weal of the colony.

Mr. Clinton being superseded by Sir Danvers Osborn, a gentleman of a most amiable moral character, retired into the country; from whence he proposed to embark for Great Britain. The Chief-Justice, notwithstanding his long declared enmity, and unwearied industry to embarrass his administration, had now—the humility, shall I call it?—to dispatch a messenger to him, with design if possible to procure an accommodation, in order to secure his favor in England, when he could no longer distress him in America. It were difficult to determine whether this required a higher degree of assurance or servility. But it is no uncommon thing to behold the same person fastidious and fawning, supercilious and sycophantic. Mr. Clinton, far from an implacable enemy, began to be softened; when his lady (who, if born among the Scythians, had been the Thalestris of antiquity) unravelling the secret, frustrated at once all expectations of a composition; and gave the plenipotentiary such a volley of invective against his constituent, as rendered all future overtures entirely hopeless. On the death of Sir Danvers Osborn, equally unexpected and deplored, Mr. De Lancey published the commission he had just received, appointing him Lieutenant-Governor.

He was now to act a part entirely new, and demanding the full exertion of his political dexterity. In the first place he had to convince the ministry of his utmost efforts to carry the King’s instructions in the house of representatives; and in the next, in order to preserve his popularity with the assembly, and not in the most flagrant manner counteract his avowed principles, he was to satisfy them that in reality he by no means expected their compliance with them. To execute the former part of this plan—in his speech of the 31st of October, 1753, to the Council and General Assembly, he says, “You will perceive by the 39th article of his Majesty’s instructions to Sir Danvers Osborn (copies of which I shall herewith deliver you) how highly his Majesty is displeased at the neglect of, and contempt shown to his royal commission and instructions, by your passing laws of so extraordinary nature, and by such your unwarrantable proceedings, particularly set forth in this instruction. Hence also his Majesty’s royal pleasure as to these matters will appear, and what he expects from you. On this head, I must observe to you, that by our excellent constitution the executive power is lodged in the crown: That all government is founded on a confidence, that every person will discharge the duty of his station; and if there should be any abuse of power, that the legal and regular course is to make application to his Majesty, who having a paternal tenderness for all his subjects, is always ready to hear and redress their grievances.” And then addressing himself to the assembly in particular:—“I must earnestly press it upon you, that in preparing your bill for the support of government, and other public services, you pay a due regard to his Majesty’s pleasure signified in his instructions, and frame them in such a manner as when laid before me for my assent, I may give it consistent with my duty to his Majesty.”

What think you, my Lord? could your favorite Garrick have personated Richard the Third in a livelier manner, than this gentleman the real advocate for the royal instruction? Could the man, who but a day or two before had intrigued with the members how to elude that very instruction, preserve his gravity while acting such a tragi-comical farce? for that, my Lord, was the method in which he performed the second part of his plan. As his Majesty’s representative, he was obliged to urge their compliance with seeming sincerity and warmth—but as James De Lancey, Esq., their old friend and best adviser, it was his real sentiment, that never ought they to submit.

Matters being thus previously adjusted, the assembly in their address studiously avoid a categorical answer with respect to the indefinite support; but to gratify his honor, and blacken the memory of Mr. Clinton, that he might not prejudice him in England, they make use of this memorable evasion:—“On reading the 39th article of his Majesty’s instructions to Sir Danvers Osborn, your honor’s immediate predecessor, we are extremely surprised to find that the public transactions of this colony have been so maliciously misrepresented to our most gracious sovereign. We can, sir, with truth and justice, affirm that his Majesty has not in his dominions a people more firmly, and that from principles of real affection, devoted to his person, family, and government, than the inhabitants of this colony, and we are greatly at a loss to discover in what instances the peace and tranquillity of the colony have been disturbed, or wherein order and government have been subverted. If the course of justice has been obstructed, or in any case perverted, it has been by the direction, or through the means of Mr. Clinton, late Governor of this province, who sent peremptory orders to the judges, clerk, and sheriff of Duchess county, to stay process, and stop the proceedings in several cases of private property, depending in that court; and who did in other counties commissionate judges and justices of known ill characters and extreme ignorance. One stood even presented for perjury in the Supreme Court of this province, whom he rewarded with the office of assistant judge; and others were so shamefully ignorant and illiterate, as to be unable to write their own names. From whence we greatly fear that justice has in many cases been partially, or very unduly administered.”

I shall not trouble your Lordship with a vindication of Mr. Clinton; but only observe that the suits commenced in Duchess county were by deserters against their captains; that the Governor, who was no lawyer, assured the house, his letters to the justices were written unadvisedly, and with precipitation; and that, if any man was injured, he would readily compensate his damages. And as to the charge of appointing ignorant justices, it lies with equal truth against all our governors (Mr. De Lancey himself not excepted) who, to influence elections, have gone into an unjustifiable practice of intrusting blank commissions with certain favorites in the respective counties, empowered to place and displace civil and military officers at their pleasure. These election jobbers are generally the court members in assembly; and decency, my Lord, should have induced them to stifle the ridiculous assertion that Mr. Clinton rewarded a man for being perjured, as well as the more pertinent invective against the dangerous usage just mentioned, for corrupting the house of representatives. But to disgrace Mr. Clinton was expedient to the Lieut.-Governor, and hence this attack upon the former.

Upon his honor’s advancement to the government, the press labored with addresses; and the incense offered upon the occasion might have perfumed the whole temple of Delphos. It was not enough, that, agreeable to ancient usage, he was presented with the compliments of public bodies alone. It was necessary, from the number of addresses, to display his extensive influence and the universal joy, thereby, if possible, to lay the foundation of his continuance in the administration. Accordingly, the very militia officers and supervisors of Queen’s county (a motley assemblage) were made to groan out their aspirations for this auspicious event—“Oh! that his gracious Majesty would be pleased to confirm and fix for you, for a long time, in this exalted station!” Never have I seen an insignificant interjection more insignificantly employed. To so extravagant a pitch, my Lord, did this exuberant ardor arrive, that we at length found him clothed with an incommunicable attribute of the Deity himself—even his immutable moral rectitude. “These things in you,” say they, “are not so properly called virtues, as natural endowments. You will not, you cannot, act otherwise than you do.” With such fustian can some men be regaled; and by such fustian is sometimes a whole nation deluded.

To proceed in the character of this remarkable American; he is a person of quick apprehension and extensive acquaintance with the law, which he acquired with incredible application, to obliterate the indifferent figure he made when first elevated to the chief seat on the bench, to serve the purposes of Governor Cosby. Without the talents, he has all the ambition of a Ripperda. His thirst after popularity, which in him is a mere engine of state, hath almost banished all public spirit; and the triumphs of power occasioned the exile of common sense. Apprehensive of the diminution of his own lustre, his jealousy will not admit a competitor; but sets him at mortal odds with a rising independent spirit, lest it be rewarded with popular favor, and thence result into popular interest—in derogation of his own sovereign influence. Hence, whoever would accomplish a patriot measure must either obtain his leave; and then he arrogates to himself the merit due to its author; or carry it by mere stratagem, without which he may be sure of a disappointment. In the latter case, he has generally address enough to be revenged on the projector, by rendering both him and his project universally odious. Some among us see these arts; many suspect them; few dare mention them; and fewer still oppose them. Thus a people who would by no means be forcibly deprived of their liberties, post into voluntary bondage; and they who would scorn a vassalage to the greatest monarch, become dupes to a dictator of their own creation. Of all provincial affairs he is the uncontrolled director.

As Chief-Justice, great is his interest in the counties; with that interest he commands elections; with his sway in elections he rules the assembly; and with his sovereignty over the house controls a governor. His influence with the members of the assembly being the main source of his exorbitant power, never will he serve the Crown at the risk of a dissension with the house. He will only stand by a governor while at his devotion and standing fair with the people; but in case of a rupture instantly sacrifice prerogative on the altar of popularity. His own interest is his idol, and everything else made subservient to procure it veneration and esteem. The men who are his greatest tools are generally by himself the most despised; and sometimes treated with despite and insult. If they discover the least freedom of resentment (which few of them dare discover), he can with a smile, or a joke, or a promise, or a bottle, at once dissipate the struggling resolution, and reduce them to their primitive obsequiousness. By hints, by threats and blandishments, by emissaries, by dark insinuations, and private cabals, he is able to render any measure hateful or popular—to put down, or raise up, whom, when, and what he pleases. Nay, my Lord, I will venture to affirm—and every man in the province must bear me testimony—that while his influence continues to be supported with his office of Chief-Justice, no operation, in which this colony is concerned, can promise success, should this monopolizer of power be determined to obstruct it.

Should it now be inquired, must not a man so extremely popular be necessarily possessed of eminent virtue, and warmly devoted to the weal of the people, who thus cordially resound his fame, submit to his control, and agree to adorn his triumph? The question can only come from a novice in history and a stranger to mankind. In the judgment of your Lordship, who is deeply read in both, I am confident that popularity is no indication of merit. With the deluded multitude the best men are often unpopular—the most pernicious extolled and adored. The people are ever ready to be bewitched, cheated, and enslaved by a powerful, crafty seducer; and, what is worse, ever ready to sacrifice whoever would disabuse and release them. The same people who could without emotion behold a Sidney bleeding in defence of public liberty, could commit a riot in rescuing a Sacheverell for preaching sedition and subverting the nation. Your Lordship remembers that Masaniello, in the short space of ten days, was a poor fisherman.—a popular incendiary,—a sovereign viceroy,—stripped of his honors,—treated like a malefactor,—knocked on the head,—and thrown into a ditch. Who, in fine, was more popular than the pestilent Claudius, except perhaps the more pestilent Catiline? ’Twas, therefore, well observed by the Protector Cromwell that the very men who followed him with acclamations and torrents of flattery, would with the same demonstrations of joy accompany him to the gallows. Thus, my Lord, I have presented you with a faithful portrait of the Lieut.-Governor of New York, who is to bear no small share in the public affairs, of which I have the honor to transmit your Lordship an account—a portrait under which there had been no need of fixing a name, to direct to the original those who have the least knowledge of that gentleman’s character.