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Edward Livingston was an important lawyer, politician, and diplomat who served under Presidents Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson. Apart from the many government offices he held, Livingston is remembered for proposing a comprehensive criminal code in which all offenses were clearly and simply defined.
Livingston was born on May 28, 1764, in Clermont, New York. His father, Robert R. Livingston, was a prominent New York political leader and judge in the years leading up to the American Revolution. His older brother, also named Robert R. Livingston, was a lawyer and a member of the Continental Congress committee that drafted the Declaration of Independence. He was a close advisor to President Jefferson and negotiated the Louisiana Purchase from France. Edward Livingston followed in his brother's footsteps. After graduating from the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) in 1781, he studied law in Albany, New York. He was admitted to the New York bar in 1785 and entered private law practice. In 1795, Livingston was elected to Congress. He served three terms and chaired the House Commerce Committee during his second term. Livingston earned Jefferson's loyalty when he opposed the Alien and Sedition Acts and Jay's Treaty.
In 1801, Livingston left Congress to become U.S. attorney for New York City. That same year, he was elected Mayor of New York. What seemed a promising start to a successful political career came crashing down on Livingston in 1803. One of his aides either lost or took public funds, and Livingston was obligated to sell his property to pay off the debt. He severed ties with New York in 1804 and moved to Louisiana. He pursued his legal career, but the War of 1812 brought him back into public life. He organized the New Orleans public defense committee and then served as General Andrew Jackson's top aide during the Battle of New Orleans. After the war, he returned to law practice, but by 1820 he was back in politics as part of the Louisiana state legislature.
In 1821, Livingston produced a criminal code that he urged Louisiana to adopt. He sought to bring order and clarity to Criminal Law and procedure, which was a mixture of statutes and many Common Law decisions. It was his belief that people were entitled to know, rather than to guess, what actions constituted crimes. His code was not enacted by Louisiana but he tried again at the federal level when he entered the U.S. House of Representatives in 1823. In 1829, he was elected to the U.S. Senate as his model code, A system of Penal Law for the United States of America, drew favorable reviews in Europe. Although his code was never enacted, it remains an important document for the Codification movement that reached its zenith during the twentieth century.
Livingston resigned from the Senate in 1831 to serve as Secretary of State for President Andrew Jackson. Two years later, he left that post to serve as U.S. minister to France. He returned to the United States in 1835 and died on May 23, 1836, in Barrytown, New York.
Elkins, Stanley M., and McKitrick, Eric. 1994. The Age of Federalism. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.
Hall, Kermit L. 1989. The Magic Mirror: Law in American History. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.
Hatcher, William. 1970. Edward Livingston: Jeffersonian Republican and Jacksonian Democrat. Gloucester, Mass.: P. Smith.