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judge , lawyer

Henry Brockholst Livingston was an American Revolutionary War officer, a justice of the New York Court of Appeals and eventually an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.


Born in New York, New York to Susanna French and William Livingston, he received a B.A. from the College of New Jersey, (now Princeton University), in 1774.


Henry Brockholst Livingston—who ultimately abandoned use of his first name and chose to be known as “Brock- hoist”—graduated from the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) in 1774, on the eve of tire Revolutionary War. While at Princeton, Brockholst Livingston had James Madison as a classmate.


When the war began, he served under General Philip Schuyler and General Benedict Arnold and ultimately progressed from his initial rank of captain to that of lieutenant colonel. A different service intruded on a further military career, however, and in 1779 Livingston traveled abroad to serve as secretary to John Jay, his sister’s husband, American diplomat to Spain, and future chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

The association between Livingston and Jay soon turned bitter and poisoned the relationship between two men for years. In 1782 Jay departed Spain for France as one of the American commissioners delegated to negotiate the end of the Revolutionary War. Livingston set out for home, bearing dispatches for Congress, but was captured by the British on the return voyage. He managed to destroy the dispatches prior to his capture, but the British held him for a time as a prisoner of war in New York. Eventually, though, he was paroled. He was soon able to undertake the study of law in 1783 with Peter Yates in Albany, New York. Thereafter, Livingston set up a law practice in New York City, where his work included successfully defending tire accused in the famous “Manhattan well mystery” case. In that murder trial, Livingston served as co-counsel with Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr for the accused, the fiance of a woman whose body had been found in a well. The ensuing years also saw him enter the arena of politics, winning election in 1786 to the New York Assembly.

Toward the end of the 1780s, Brockholst drifted from the Federalist fold into that of the Democratic Republicans. Unwelding hostility-' toward his brother-in-law John Jay may have partially fueled this transformation—a hostility given full vent during Jay’s 1795 gubernatorial campaign in New York, when Livingston actively opposed Jay’s election. Jay won the election of 1795 and again in 1798, but popular sentiment soon veered toward Democratic Republicanism, and Livingston rode the rising tide of political support for die new party to successes of his own. He won election to more terms in the New York Assembly, and in 1802 he was appointed to a seat on the New York Supreme Court.

As early as 1804, Livingston’s judicial service and Democratic sensibilities had attracted the attention of President Thomas Jefferson, who appears to have considered him for the seat on the Supreme Court that eventually went to Thomas Johnson of South Carolina. Two years later, however, Jefferson seized the opportunity presented by the death of Associate Justice William Paterson to nominate Brockholst Livingston to fill the vacant seat. The Senate confirmed his nomination in December 1806, and Livingston arrived at the Court in time to participate in the February 1807 term.

On March 18, 1823, in his 66th year, he died of pleurisy in Washington, D.C. As he had been preceded on the Court by a family relation - his brother-in-law John Jay - so he would be immediately followed by another: Smith Thompson, married twice to Livingstons.


Livingston’s appointment to the New York Supreme Court placed him in close association with the eminent jurist James Kent, whose Commentaries on American Law (1826—30), would become a classic legal treatise. Also, due to New York’s important commercial status, Livingston gained experience in the resolution of business and maritime issues that he would carry forward into his service on the U.S. Supreme Court. While on the state court he was a vigorous participant in the legal disputes that were the court’s diet; in four years he authored 149 opinions.


In addition to his work on the Supreme Court, Livingston found time and energy to pursue a variety of public services. He helped found the New-York Historical Society and was a trustee of Columbia University for nearly 40 years.


Though Livingston eventually earned a reputation as a congenial man, during the early years of his adulthood he appears to have been burdened with a more violent temper. He participated in several duels, with such regularity that one female relative wrote to Livingston’s sister at the time he left the country to serve as John Jay’s secretary in Spain, warning her to restrain Livingston from his practice while on foreign soil. “Tell Harry to beware of engaging in a quarrel with die Dons in Spain. This dueling is a very foolish way of putting oneself out of the world.” Whether this caution had any effect during Livingston’s sojourn in Spain is unclear. It did not deter him from further duels, however, and in 1798 he killed a man during one. Livingston’s temper also seems to have inspired of enmity against him; in 1785 he was the object of an unsuccessful assassination attempt.

  • “Here, according to the official eulogy delivered on his death and apparently written by his friend and eminent jurist Associate Justice Joseph Story, Livingston’s judicial talents found room for expression:

    His genius and taste had directed his principal attention to the maritime and commercial law; and his extensive experience gave to his judgements in that branch of jurisprudence a peculiar value, which was enhanced by the gravity and beauty of his judicial eloquence.”


Justice Livingston was married three times, to Catharine Keteltas, Ann Ludlow, and Catharine Kortright. He had a total of eleven children: five by Catharine Keteltas, three by Ann Ludlow, and three by Catharine Kortright, who survived him.

Catharine Keteltas - United States

Ann Ludlow - United States

Catharine Kortright - United States