An expert in maritime and commercial law, Livingston wrote a number of Supreme Court majority opinions on these issues. His most notable decision stated that the disputed Embargo Act of 1807, which prohibited trade with Great Britain, was constitutional.
Livingston graduated from the College of New Jersey (later Princeton) in 1774, where he was a classmate of James Madison. He planned to study law, but after the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, he joined the Continental Army. Livingston served as a captain with General Philip Schuyler in the siege of Ticonderoga, participated as an aide to Benedict Arnold in the battle of Saratoga, and witnessed the surrender of British General John Burgoyne in 1777.
Henry Brockholst Livingston
In 1779 Livingston traveled to Spain on a diplomatic mission, serving as the private secretary to John Jay, his brother-in-law. Although Livingston served the duration of the mission, he developed a lifelong animosity for Jay and was often a vocal critic of the future chief justice of the United States. In 1782 Livingston returned to the United States and pursued the study of law in Albany, New York. After being admitted to the bar in 1783, he settled in New York City, established a legal practice, and became a respected lawyer. In 1786 he was elected to the New York assembly and was reelected to two more terms.
In 1802 Livingston was appointed to the New York supreme court, where he developed a reputation as an independent and energetic judge. In only four years, he wrote 149 opinions. Because New York was a major port, he became increasingly involved in deciding commercial, maritime, and prize ship cases, areas of expertise that would be invaluable when he served on the Supreme Court.
In 1804 he was considered for the position on the Court that went to William Johnson. After the death of Associate Justice William Paterson in December, 1806, Livingston was nominated to the Court by President Thomas Jefferson and confirmed by the Senate five days later. He was sworn in in January. Although he showed occasional flares of temper, Livingston was generally a very congenial justice. Colleague Joseph Story described him as a very able, independent, solid-thinking judge and noted that Livingston’s judgments on maritime and commercial law were invaluable to the Court.
Livingston’s writing style was crisp and factual. In sixteen years on the Court, he wrote fifty-two opinions, with thirty-eight for the majority, six concurrences, and eight dissents. Because of Chief Justice John Marshall’s persuasive personality and strong influence on the Court, Livingston did not display the independence that he did while serving on the New York court. Although Livingston participated in many of the landmark cases of the Marshall Court, Chief Justice Marshall wrote most of those opinions. Due to his previous experience, however, Livingston left his mark on the Court in eight opinions he wrote concerning prize ship cases.
Admiralty and maritime law