Early American History in the Livingston and Delafield Family Papers

Could an empty box have a story to tell? One such box does. As a result of the ongoing Firestone renovation, Library staff clearing an old storage area recently discovered an early 19th-century document box or chest (36 x 69 x 30 cm), made of wood covered in patterned wallpaper, with residues of red sealing wax, and still with its original hand-wrought iron handles and clasps. The box was probably made in New York around 1815, since it is lined on the inside with printers’ waste from a published address by Dr. David Hosack (1769–1835), Princeton Class of 1789, titled “Observations on the Laws Governing the Communication of Contagious Diseases, and the Means of Arresting their Progress.” Hosack read this address on June 9, 1814 before the newly formed Literary and Philosophical Society of New-York, which published it a year later in its journal, Transactions of the Literary and Philosophical Society of New-York, vol. 1 (1815), pp. 201-239. This volume was printed by Van Winkle & Wiley, a New York printing-and-publishing firm established by Cornelius Van Winkle and Charles Wiley in 1814 at 3 Wall Street–the forerunner of the scientific publisher John Wiley & Sons. Hosack was a physician, botanist, and educator, perhaps best known for treating the mortal wounds of Alexander Hamilton after his duel with Aaron Burr in 1804. In the 1814 address, Hosack gave his opinions about the rate of infection for yellow fever, which had ravaged New York in 1803. The Manuscripts Division has a collection of Hosack’s papers.

A note on the box indicated that it had come to Princeton in the 1980s with the Livingston and Delafield family papers, which were given to the Library in 1986 by Mr. J. Dennis Delafield (Class of 1957) and Professor Penelope D. Johnson. They had originally been housed at Montgomery Place, Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., just over a hundred miles north of New York City. Montgomery Place was the ancestral summer residence of many members of the Livingston and Delafield families. In document boxes such as this, family members kept bundles of personal, political, and legal papers.

The Edward Livingston Papers, comprising 165 boxes of papers as well as maps, rolls, and other artifacts, is one of Princeton University Library’s most extensive collections documenting the early American republic. These papers trace the career of American lawyer, diplomat, statesman, and legal theorist Edward Livingston (1764–1836). The bulk of the collection consists of 56 boxes of Livingston’s correspondence, spanning most of his adult life, including letters from renowned lawyers, economists, jurists, and politicians. Jeremy Bentham, Aaron Burr, Mathew Carey, Henry Dilworth Gilpin, and Martin Van Buren are just a few of the correspondents. Livingston’s papers also document his work on the Louisiana Civil Code and advocacy of penal reform and the abolition of capital punishment, as well as his role in President Andrew Jackson’s administration as a supporter in the Congress and Senate, and later as U.S. Secretary of State and minister to France. Perhaps the most important document in his papers is his draft of the “Nullification Proclamation,” written by Livingston for Jackson during the Nullification Crisis in 1832.

Moreover, the collection encompasses an abundance of legal records, land records, and financial records, many of which pertain to Livingston’s law practice and private affairs, from a scandal involving the disappearance of customs house funds in 1803 to his entanglement with General James Wilkinson over his alleged conspiracy with Aaron Burr and his split with President Thomas Jefferson over title to land in New Orleans, Louisiana. The collection also contains the land records and financial documents of Livingston’s mother and sister, the Hudson Valley landowners Margaret Beekman Livingston (1724–1800) and Janet Livingston Montgomery (1743–1828), and almost three centuries’ worth of ledgers, account books, rent books, day books, receipts, and balance sheets.

The Delafields were avid collectors of family history and family-related memorabilia in the Hudson River Valley region. John Ross Delafield (Class of 1896)’s papers comprise the largest segment of the Delafield Family Papers. As president of the Reserve Officers Association from 1923 to 1926 and of the Military Order of World War from 1930 to 1933, his correspondence and other records reflect his avid interest in genealogy and local history, his views on the cancellation of Allied war debts from World War I, and his advocacy of military preparedness. The papers of John Ross Delafield’s grandfather, Joseph Delafield (1790-1875), a lawyer, soldier, and scientist, are also extensively represented. They include college notebooks; correspondence, proceedings, survey maps, and accounts relating to the United States Boundary Commission survey of the Canadian border under the Treaty of Ghent; correspondence relating to the Lyceum of Natural History (later the New York Academy of Science), of which he was president from 1827 to 1866; and records of the 46th Infantry during the War of 1812 and the bounty claims of some its veterans. Major Delafield’s main correspondents include John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, Benjamin Silliman, and Benjamin Tallmadge.

J. Dennis Delafield and Penelope Johnson also gave the Library a generous endowment that supported the cataloging and preservation of these papers, and which continues to support the processing of other early American manuscript collections. The Library looks forward to reporting on further discoveries to be made from these collections. Other significant collections of early American history in the Manuscripts Division include the Andre De Coppet Collection (Class of 1915), Louis Alexandre Berthier Collection, Blair and Lee Family Papers, Rush Family Papers, and Stockton Family Papers. Items from many of these collections, including this document box, will be on display in an upcoming exhibition of American history in Firestone’s Main Gallery in Spring 2013.

Document box, open. Edward Livingston Papers and Delafield Family Papers. Not to be reproduced without permission of the Princeton University Library.

Document box, closed. Edward Livingston Papers and Delafield Family Papers. Not to be reproduced without permission of the Princeton University Library.

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  1. Pingback: Livingston family, Document box, ca. 1815. | A Republic in the Wilderness

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