Conceived in Liberty: How William Livingston Gave the American Revolution Its Rationale
n John Adams’s view, the American Revolution started long before the shots rang out at Lexington and Concord in April 1775. “But what do we mean by the American Revolution?” he asked in an 1818 article. “Do we mean the American War? The Revolution was effected before the War commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people; a change in their religious sentiments, of their duties and obligations … . This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people was the real American Revolution.” And anyone who wants to trace how that revolution managed “to change the temper and views of the people and compose them into an independent nation” need only consult the “pamphlets, newspapers, and even handbills” that flooded America between 1760 and 1775. However spectacular, the war “was only an effect and consequence” of that revolutionized worldview, Adams told Thomas Jefferson in an 1815 letter.
But the cultural transformation that Adams described had started even earlier than the 1755 Harvard grad remembered. It began in New York, with a shy but inwardly fiery lawyer named William Livingston, the “most experienced polemical writer in the colonies,” judges Bernard Bailyn, our leading historian of colonial thought. Livingston edited and mostly wrote a weekly magazine, The Independent Reflector, that from November 1752 to November 1753 infused throughout British America the Lockean ideas of government by consent and the right of the people to depose a tyrannical king. Livingston won loyal subscribers, including Benjamin Franklin, in Philadelphia, Boston, and beyond, and colonial newspapers reprinted theReflector’s essays for years afterward. James Madison recalled that his fellow Princeton students read them avidly two decades later and strove to emulate their distinctive “energy and eloquence” in their public-speaking assignments. Though Livingston remained an active polemicist for the next quarter-century, and though he served in the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention and as governor of New Jersey for 14 years, no mark he made on the fate of the continent proved as indelible as the one he imprinted in those 12 momentous months in the mid-eighteenth century.