​​​​​​​“A Merchants’ College:” King’s College (1754-1784) and Slavery

By Sharon Liao

King’s College, in its founding and early development, was intimately connected with New York City’s economy. Slavery, as the driving force of this economy in the colonial period, supplied merchants such as John Watts and the Livingstons with the wealth that they donated to the college. In addition to establishing the college’s financial foundation, merchants who owned and traded slaves were actively involved in shaping the college in its early days, serving as trustees and other officials. King’s College was a merchants’ college in every sense of the word; the institution was founded by, governed by, and financially dependent upon merchants, whose sons constituted the majority of the students.

In this paper, I explore the connections between King’s College and the slave trade by examining two notable merchant families, the Watts and the Livingstons, and their roles within New York City’s colonial economy. These families invested in the trade of Black slaves as well as the more widespread trade of goods produced by slave labor. Members of the Livingston and Watts families were intimately connected to both the slave economy and the early development of King’s College. Consequently, King’s College became an extension of the city elites’ commercial success as well as an outlet for their philanthropic impulses.

The first section discusses New York City’s position within the larger Atlantic economic network, specifically examining how merchants from the Livingston and Watts families profited from this system. In the second section, I explain the connections between these families and Columbia, highlighting their roles as benefactors and trustees. Finally, in the third section, I explore the ways the merchants benefited from their relationships with the college and vice versa.

New York City and the Slave Trade

Slavery was at the heart of economic activity in New York City and among the British Atlantic colonies more generally in the eighteenth century. New York, considered a leading slave port, was a major nexus of the cross-continental trade of slaves and goods produced by slaves between the West Indies, Africa, East Coast American colonies, and Europe. New York merchants who imported slaves from West Africa could sell them in New York or ship them to the West Indies or the southern colonies. The demand for slave labor was high in each of these areas, as James Lydon argues in his account of the development of New York’s slave trade:

“More than 60 percent of the voyages to Africa were triangular, with the slave cargoes being sold in the West Indies or the southern colonies. The motive here was the profits made by supplying the demand for slaves in those markets… The second motive was to meet the demand for slaves in New York… Almost 40 percent of the voyages to Africa terminated at New York, signaling a very important motivation for merchants to invest in the traffic.” [1]

New York was a vertex of the “triangular trade,” as well as an end destination for the goods and people exchanged.

Trading in slaves and slave-produced goods, in the words of historian Edgar McManus, rapidly became “one of the cornerstones of New York’s commercial prosperity in the eighteenth century (1700-1750).” This business proved “enormously profitable” to the merchant community. [2] Lydon and another historian, Cathy Matson, agree that the New York City slave trade took off in this period because of rapid expansion in the sugar colonies, growth in rice and indigo production in the American South, the transfer of the Spanish asiento to the British, and the breakup of the Royal African Company.[3] The asiento was a license that the Spanish government could grant to individuals or other countries, giving them a monopoly of the trade of African slaves to Spanish America. The British won the asiento in the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, gaining the right to be the exclusive suppliers of African slaves to Spanish-American colonies. This agreement, along with the growth of cash crop production in the West Indies and the American South, marked a dramatic escalation of the slave trade in the British colonies. Matson notes, “The heaviest years of slave importing involved an average of over 150 slaves a year from 1725 to 1735, with a high of 309 in 1731.”[4]

It was in this period that members of the Livingston family moved their primary focus as merchants away from the fur trade with Europe towards the trade of slaves and slave-produced goods with the West Indies. Robert and Peter Livingston and Company shifted from sending furs to Amsterdam and London to trading with the West Indies in the 1720s and 1730s.[5]

The family’s involvement in this line of business had started decades earlier. The Livingstons had begun investing in the business of slavery as early as 1690 and became increasingly involved throughout the eighteenth century, up to the start of the American Revolution. From Robert the Elder through three generations of descendants, the Livingstons owned trading ships and profited from slave voyages to West Africa and the West Indies.

The story of the Livingston family in New York starts with Robert the Elder (1654-1728) whom, along with his wife Alida Schuyler Van Rensselaer, we consider the founders of the family dynasty. Cynthia Kierner, in Traders and Gentlefolk, her history of the Livingston family in America, argues that Robert was a self-made man who rose from being an ordinary immigrant to prosperous patriarch. Robert emigrated from Scotland to America in 1674, arriving with a “decidedly middling personal background,” but gained invaluable family and political connections by marrying into the prominent and wealthy Schuyler family in 1679.[6] Schuyler family members became his trading partners and political allies, and by 1686, he had convinced Governor Thomas Dongan to grant him 160,000 acres in the Hudson River valley. This property became Livingston Manor, an estate which evolved into the cornerstone of the Livingstons’ landed wealth and commercial enterprise. [7] By 1690, Robert and Alida were investing in slaving voyages. According to Kierner, they bought a half-interest in the Margriet, a ship that traveled to Madagascar, Barbados, and Virginia to trade in slaves, sugar, and tobacco. Over the next few years, Livingston bought shares in four additional ships, three of which he co-owned with Peter Schuyler, his brother-in-law.[8] When Robert died in 1728, he bequeathed to his six children wealth, property, elite social status, and a powerful network of connections. His children consolidated greater wealth and secured almost one million acres of land within two generations.[9]

The business of trading became a family institution. Philip Livingston (1686-1749), son of Robert the Elder, recruited his relatives and sons into his mercantile ventures and spread them throughout the commercial centers of the Atlantic economy. Five of Philip’s six sons followed in their father’s footsteps and became merchants, but not without his assistance. Philip leveraged his connections to set up successful careers for his sons, who, as Kierner notes, “in turn took up their responsibilities in his growing commercial network.” Philip, for example, helped son and future King’s College trustee John launch his career with the top trading firms in Europe; John eventually became a crucial part of the family’s business, importing slaves and slave-produced goods from the West Indies and selling them in New York. In addition to securing apprenticeships for his sons in prestigious trading companies, Philip trained them to play “specialized roles” within his business, making his trade “more self-sufficient and systematic.” He taught his five merchant sons to specialize in different braches of his business in Albany, New York City, the West Indies, London, and Boston. Philip dispatched sons Henry, Peter, and Philip Philip to live and manage trading in Antigua and Jamaica. [10]

This generation of the Livingstons – including Philip Philip, Robert Jr., John, and Peter – expanded the family business and became some of the most prolific slave traders in New York. James Lydon counts Philip Philip Livingston (1716-1778) as the “third ranking importer” among merchants bringing the most slaves into New York in this period based on NORNY (Naval Office Records for New York) records.[11] Philip imported 219 slaves from the West Indies and owned shares in numerous slaving ventures that traveled to African areas such as Sierra Leone, the Windward Coast (modern day Liberia and Ivory Coast), Gold Coast (Ghana) and islands in the West Indies such as Antigua, Jamaica, Barbados, and Hispaniola. He invested in at least 15 such ventures, based on the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Voyages Database and records of “Negroes imported into New York, 1715-1765” in Elizabeth Donnan’s collection, Documents Illustrative of the History of the Slave Trade to America (1969).[12] Some were partnered ventures with his brothers Peter and Robert Jr.; others were co-sponsored by New York merchants outside of the family; and, for a few, Philip was the sole ship owner. [13]

The Livingstons established their presence in the West Indies by controlling at least two plantations in Jamaica and sending family members to live there and serve as commercial agents. In Jamaica, the Livingston men learned the sugar business and oversaw the family’s plantations.[14] The Livingstons owned at least two plantations on the island, named Aleppo and Friendship. According to surviving mortgage records, Philip Philip Livingston (1716-1778) bought the sugar plantation Friendship Estate in 1775 for £8764 and passed the property to his son Philip Philip (1741-1787)[15] and son-in-law (and first cousin once removed) John Henry Livingston (1746-1825) when he died. They sold Friendship in July of 1784, assigning the mortgage of the family plantation to Richard Grant of Kingston and transferring to Grant the “goods, chattels, rights, and credits” of the estate. The “chattel” of the estate included 207 male and female slaves, whose names the document enumerates as part of the property.[16] Craig Wilder, in Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities, notes that, like the Livingstons, several other powerful merchant families of New York went to the West Indies to enhance their commercial networks, forge social connections through marriage, and expand their property.[17] These ties to the West Indies became advantageous to the trustees of King’s College, who, as I will discuss in the third section, capitalized on their wealth.

As was common with New York merchants, the Livingstons exported wheat and grain to the West Indies in exchange for sugar, molasses, dye woods, and cocoa. They exported bread that was made on Livingston Manor property from grain ground at the family mills.[18] The sugar and molasses that they received in exchange for wheat and grain was then used toward purchasing English goods that could be sold in New York or Albany.[19]

The Livingstons’ slaving voyages to the West Indies and Africa suffered massive casualties, but even with significant portions of the slaves dying in transit, they earned handsome profits by selling the survivors in America. Wilder recounts the “horrific, but ordinary, slaving voyage” of the Wolf, a ship owned by Philip Livingston that traveled along the African coast for more than a year:

“According to Dr. Chancellor’s diary, Captain Wall purchased 147 people on the African Coast, but Philip Livingston reported only 66 at New York City. Wall claimed seven people as part of his contract. Livingston had killed almost as many people as he traded. He and Wall then quickly put the survivors up for sale.”[20]

Crew members “tossed scores of human bodies into the water,” and “little children were primary casualties of Livingston’s investment.”[21] Based on the numbers of slaves embarked and disembarked for slave voyages in the records of the Slave Voyages Database, at least 85 slaves died on voyages sponsored by Philip Livingston and his business partners (not including the Wolf).[22]

Philip, John, and Robert Livingston posted dozens of advertisements, for the sale of newly imported slaves and for slaves they owned who ran away, in newspapers in both New York and the South. In September of 1773, John Livingston placed an advertisement in the Virginia Gazette of Williamsburg announcing the auction of three young slaves[23]:

Members of the Livingston family also placed advertisements in the New York Gazette and New York Mercury for runaway slaves, including a 36-year-old woman named Nell and an unnamed man “lately imported from Africa.” Philip Livingston’s ad for this man described him as a “very likely lusty fellow” who “cannot speak a word of English or Dutch, or any other language but that of his own country.” He offered three pounds as a reward.[24]

These newspaper records indicate that the Livingstons actively sold and held slaves throughout the eighteenth century.

The Livingstons undoubtedly counted among the elite of New York in the mid-eighteenth century. In addition to their family’s massive landholdings and impressive wealth, Livingston men held manifold political offices: for example, Philip Philip (1716-1778) served as a delegate at the first and second Continental Congress and signed the Declaration of Independence; Walter (1740-1797) served as Speaker of the State Assembly and as a member of the Continental Congress and was appointed Commissioner of the U.S. Treasury; and Robert R. Livingston (1746-1813), perhaps the most famous figure of the family, served as Chancellor of New York, Secretary of Foreign Affairs, and U.S. minister to France.[25] These individuals became, trustees, supporters, and/or students of King’s College, as I will discuss in the next section.

John Watts (1715-1789) was a prominent New York merchant who also profited from the slave economy, actively supported King’s College, and acted as a politician and city leader. Watts’ father was a leading merchant who passed on to John his commercial ties to England and the West Indies. John Watts married into the influential DeLancey family in 1742, gaining important commercial and political connections.[26] Watts made his fortune trading slave-produced goods, especially sugar, molasses, and rum, as well as wine. According to Cathy Matson, his “specialty” as a merchant was wine and spirits; he imported huge volumes of alcoholic products from the West Indies.[27] In a letter to a trading partner in 1762, Watts listed the following inventory, a sample that is representative of what he typically traded: “The Sloop has on board 85 hogheads; 12 tierces and 16 barrels rum.”[28]

Watts also sold slaves from Africa and the West Indies to the Southern colonies and in New York. He partnered with captain Jasper Farmer, who had formerly captained Catherine (owned by the Schuylers), to invest in Ruby and Hawke, slaving ships that traveled to Africa in 1751.[29] Donnan’s records reveal that Watts also invested in the voyage of Virgin, a ship co-owned by Henry and John Cruger (from a fellow prominent King’s College family), that traveled to St. Christopher (a.k.a. St. Kitts) in 1751 and brought back to New Jersey 31 slaves.[30] Henry Cruger and Watts traded sugar together as well, operating a joint account for their sales. In a letter written in 1763, Watts states that he and Cruger netted in total £3099 from selling three hundred chests of sugar.[31] Later in his career, Watts became a city politician and served in public office while holding his job as a merchant. He continued his mercantile enterprises while serving on the New York Assembly and Council from the 1750s until the outbreak of the American Revolution.[32]

John Watts, who in the public eye embodied an upstanding civic leader, privately tried to increase the profitability of his slave trading through smuggling and selling children. In a letter to Gedney Clarke (a New England merchant who smuggled slaves from the West Indies) in 1762, Watts wrote:

“For this market they must be young[,] the younger the better if not quite Children, those advanced in years will never do I should imagine a Cargo of them none exceeding thirty might turn out at fifty pounds a head gross Sales. Males are best.”[33]

Watts had realized that white northerners were increasing their demand for slave children – “the younger the better.” Lydon suggests that this preference for children stemmed from owners’ worries about their ability to control the slave population and prevent revolt, especially after the 1741 slave conspiracy in New York City.[34] Watts maintained reputable standing as a merchant, even as he smuggled slaves into New York to avoid paying duties/taxes.[35] In the same letter to Clarke in 1762, he wrote that he planned to evade the duties, which were “four pounds a head from the West Indies” and “forty shillings from Africa,” by landing his ship in New Jersey and then smuggling the slaves into New York City.[36]

Like the Livingstons, the Watts family also owned household slaves. John Watts held one of his slaves, Belinda, in such contempt that, in a letter in 1763, he asked John Riddell of Virginia to help him sell her as quickly as possible. In the letter, he deprecated the “wench” for her unattractiveness and old age, calling her a “stupid Being” who possessed only the ability to cook. He asked Riddell to sell her for £100, even though he, in previous attempts, was not able to sell her for above £25.[37] According to Federal Census records, John’s sons (and future King’s College graduates) Robert and John owned slaves; Robert owned six slaves, and John Jr. owned one.[38]

John Watts and the merchants of the Livingston family constituted the elite of New York City society and acted as influential players in Atlantic commerce in the mid to late eighteenth century. Through intermarrying with other wealthy, prominent families and investing in the trade of slaves and goods produced by slaves, the Livingstons and Watts accumulated land, wealth, political connections, and social status. They in turn used these resources to support and shape King’s College in its early days.

Benefactors, Trustees, and Graduates: the Livingstons and Watts at King’s College

King’s College in numerous ways represented an extension of New York City merchant wealth. The majority of college officers and students’ parents had prosperous merchant backgrounds. Wilder asserts that King’s College was founded in an era marked by the rise of merchant wealth:

“By the mid-eighteenth century, merchant wealth was reconfiguring the colonies… The great landlords of colonial New York had transitioned into a more diverse range of investments, including shipping and insurance. These were the families that laid the foundations of the metropolis… Sixteen merchants served as trustees of King’s College in the twenty years before the Revolution.”[39]

King’s College, in addition to having sixteen merchant trustees, enrolled more children of Atlantic traders than any other college in British North America.[40] According to Virginia Harrington, eighty-nine sons of New York merchants matriculated at King’s College during the colonial period. In comparison, Yale and Princeton each enrolled ten in the same timespan.[41]

Members of the Watts and Livingston families became students, trustees, and benefactors of King’s College, an institution that embraced and even actively sought the support of New York’s merchant elite. Three Livingstons (James, John and William) served as founding trustees (or governors, as they were then called) in 1754, and, before 1800, six additional Livingstons became trustees, and one served as treasurer. Before the American Revolution, six members of the Livingston family graduated from King’s College. John Watts served as a founding trustee, and his sons Robert and John and grandson John graduated from King’s College.[42] While serving as founding trustees of King’s College, John Watts and members of the Livingston family shaped the early development of the college, serving on committees that deliberated everything from the layout of buildings to the appropriation of funds to the college curriculum. The Trustees minutes from 1756 noted that Watts and John Livingston were assigned to a committee that would meet the Mayor and Aldermen about “calling in and dividing monies [or] securities” for the college.[43]

The King’s College trustees among the Livingston family supported the growth of the slave economy directly as merchants and indirectly as slave-owners. John (1714-1786) was perhaps the most actively involved in the founding and funding of King’s College, serving as a loyal donor and trustee from its founding in 1754 until 1780. As mentioned above, John continued the legacy of his father Philip Livingston (1686-1749) by becoming a merchant and trading in both slaves and goods produced by slaves. He posted dozens of advertisements in newspapers in New York and throughout the South, selling recently imported slaves. In the advertisement included on page 8, for example, he sold “three prime young Negro fellows” in The Virginia Gazette. In November 1748, he also placed an ad for “a very likely Negro girl,” and, in August 1749, for “Negro men and women:”[44]

John Livingston also owned a rum distillery in New York and traded foodstuffs, spirits, and tobacco from Jamaica that were likely grown or refined on one of his family’s plantations.[45] Receipts of John’s sales from October 1772 to January 1776 show that he sold rum, lump sugar, powder sugar, lime juice, flour, cherry wine, and Indian meal.[46] His son Philip Livingston (1744-1818) graduated from King’s College in the class of 1760 and carried on John’s leadership in the college, serving as a trustee from 1797 to 1806.[47]

John’s relatives John Henry and Walter Livingston served as trustees of the college while owning multiple slaves. Reverend John Henry Livingston co-owned and then sold Friendship plantation, the family’s sugar estate in Jamaica, with his brother-in-law/second cousin Philip Philip (1741-1787). According to the 1790 census, the Reverend owned three slaves.[48] John Henry, a minister of the Reformed Dutch Church, joined the King’s College board of trustees in 1801 and left in 1810 to assume the presidency of Queen’s College in New Jersey (now Rutgers University).[49] Walter Livingston, a grandson of Philip Livingston the elder (1686-1749) and nephew of Philip Philip Livingston, owned shares in the other family plantation in Jamaica, the Aleppo estate. In a letter to Walter in September of 1782, Philip John Livingston said that he forwarded £80 to Walter for his shares in Aleppo and updated him on recent shipments of sugar.[50] Walter owned 10 slaves according to the 1790 census and served as a trustee of Columbia College, the reincarnation of King’s College after the American Revolution, from 1787 to 1797.[51] In serving as the leadership of King’s College, these members of the Livingston family augmented the school’s identity as a merchant’s college catering to Atlantic traders and their sons.

These families also donated generously to King’s College before the American Revolution. John Watts and John Livingston, both merchants and trustees of the college, were the most consistent donors from their respective families. The two each donated twice in 1755, Watts giving £200 that year and Livingston giving £100.[52] A manuscript from 1767 listing the names of subscribers who committed to paying three pounds annually for five years for “the encouragement of learning in Kings-College” includes John Watts and John Livingston.[53] In a letter from 1765, John Watts mentioned that he donated 250 pounds sterling to King’s College.[54] His grandson John (King’s College class of 1796) continued the legacy of philanthropy, appearing in Columbia’s book of Gifts and endowments, 1754-1904 for donating gifts of books to the library in 1824.[55] After increasing his family fortune through Atlantic trade, Philip Livingston (1716-1778) donated liberally to Yale College and contributed funds to the Dutch and Methodist churches. Family biographer Cynthia Kierner claims that Philip also donated to King’s College; however, I was not able to verify his contributions based on the subscription lists I accessed, as few of them remain.[56] Yet, regardless of whether Philip made financial contributions, several accounts describe him as an active supporter of King’s College. According to The Genealogical and Family History of Southern New York, “he was one of the earliest advocates of the establishment of King’s,” and endowed the first professorship of divinity at Yale College.[57] A significant portion of Philip’s wealth derived from trading slaves and goods produced by slaves; he was one of the largest importers from West Indian sources in the 1730s and 1740s, and invested in numerous slaving ventures.[58]

The trustees’ fundraising strategies demonstrate that, indeed, the leaders of King’s College proactively tried to curry the favor of Atlantic traders, capitalized on their wealth, and leveraged their social and economic connections. Their principal fundraising scheme, according to a 1755 report, was to solicit donations from wealthy businessmen in the West Indies. Lawyer and trustee Joseph Murray, writing on behalf of the Committee to Consider Ways and Means, recommended that “application be made to all the islands in the West Indies…as may be thought best for subscriptions.”[59] William Livingston drafted such promotional materials to circulate around the West Indies. His template for subscription paper requests donations for the college, an institution that Livingston claims will “be of great benefit and advantage to all his majesties islands and plantations in the West Indies.”[60] Two years later, the trustees drafted a similar letter template that asked gentlemen in the West Indies for gifts to King’s College. In addition to soliciting subscriptions from these men, the letter encourages them to look forward to sending their sons to King’s College:

“The youth with you, who are now sent to Europe for education, may in a course of time have the same advantages with us, much nearer home, on more reasonable terms, and under the inspection of your friends and acquaintance, which may be a means of preserving their morals.”[61]

This letter template makes it clear that the administrators of the college sought the favor, funds, and sons of prosperous New York expatriates who made their fortunes in the West Indies. The message assures the recipient that King’s College, with its network of elite “friends and acquaintances,” will look after and instill integrity in the students that enroll. The trustees assigned John Watts and John Livingston to “direct and transmit” the letters to “such gentlemen in the several islands in the West Indies as they shall judge proper.”[62] They likely asked the two Johns to manage this responsibility because of their existing ties, from both family and business connections, to the elite of the West Indies. Perhaps thanks to the persuasion of his uncle later on, Philip Philip Livingston (1741-1787), the aforementioned owner of Friendship Plantation in Jamaica, enrolled his son Philip Henry (1769-1831), a resident of Kingston, at King’s College in the class of 1786. Younger son Edward Philip (1779-1843) also attended, graduating in the class of 1796. [63]

The administrators of King’s College clearly saw the advantages of attracting wealthy donors and students. It would be misleading, however, to strictly differentiate the college administrators from the merchant patrons. In reality, many merchant patrons became administrators of these institutions by serving on their boards and shaping important school policies, meaning that these sets of people overlapped considerably. In the next section, I will discuss merchants’ incentives for patronizing institutions of higher learning and illustrate how they benefitted from sponsoring the college and enrolling their sons.

King’s College and the Merchants: Relationships and Motives

What were the merchants’ motives for supporting King’s College and sending their sons there? Participating in the growth of an elite educational institution provided them with opportunities for private banking and the cultivation of civic/aristocratic ideals. The account books of Augustus Van Horne, the college treasurer, show that eminent New York merchants and government officials took out both short-term and long-term loans from the college. For these elite New Yorkers, King’s College became a vehicle for extending social influence as well as for securing credit. The institution actively sought and leveraged relationships with these families, and vice versa.

King’s College fulfilled a critical need that could make or break the success of a transatlantic merchant: access to credit. Cathy Matson, in her analysis of eighteenth century trading in New York, characterizes this era as a period of “scarce specie” and “want of cash.” Trading was an unpredictable line of business with unpredictable flows of credit. One failed venture, bad judgment, or miscalculation of prices could plunge a merchant into debt[64]. Despite the volatility of merchant finances, indebtedness carried a stigma. Matson writes that regular indebtedness “brought frowning scrutiny from one’s fellow merchants.” The city court and provincial assembly heard cases of bankruptcy and unpaid debts, but most merchants arranged to settle debts through “kin and peers.”[65] By refinancing their debt privately through family members or personal connections, debtors could maintain their reputations within the merchant community. Alternatively, merchants could loan to each other – some wealthy traders set up “private banking” practices to loan cash to local acquaintances looking to buy cargo or finance insurance, sailors’ wages, and ship repairs. These loans, of course, charged interest; according to Matson, a personal bond for six months to five years was issued at 5 to 7 percent interest. Interest rates on prime investments in general ranged from 7 to 9 percent in the eighteenth century. [66]

King’s College acted as an exclusive private bank by extending lines of credit at lower interest rates to powerful politicians and wealthy businessmen, including members of the Livingston family. The Account Book of treasurer Augustus Van Horne shows that five Livingstons took out loans, at interest rates at or below the market rate[67]:

+-------------------------------------------+-------------------+-----------+-----------------+-----------------------+
| Name(s)                                   | Maturity          | Principal | Due at maturity | Nominal interest rate |
+-------------------------------------------+-------------------+-----------+-----------------+-----------------------+
| John Livingston                           | 5 years (1774-79) | £500.00   | £642.00         | 5.04%                 |
+-------------------------------------------+-------------------+-----------+-----------------+-----------------------+
| Walter & Robert C. Livingston             | 6 years (1773-79) | £1,000.00 | £1,316.00       | 4.68%                 |
+-------------------------------------------+-------------------+-----------+-----------------+-----------------------+
| Philip Ph. Livingston & Philip Livingston | 5 years (1774-79) | £500.00   | £619.00         | 4.02%                 |
+-------------------------------------------+-------------------+-----------+-----------------+-----------------------+

As discussed in previous sections, John, Walter, Philip Philip, and Philip were merchants who profited from the trade of slaves and slave-produced commodities between New York and the West Indies. Walter, Philip Philip, and Philip owned and operated the family’s two Jamaican sugar plantations. For the Livingstons and other traders who borrowed from King’s College, these advantageous interest rates would have financed trading ventures and boosted the profitability of these endeavors. The administrators of King’s College, by extending credit to them, essentially subsidized the mercantile activity of its trustees and fueled the continuing prosperity of the slave trade. The numerous merchant trustees of the college likely implemented this private banking function as an additional benefit for themselves and as a strategy to draw support (and funds) for the college from other wealthy New Yorkers. This practice fit in with and complemented the college’s other policies that favored merchants and attracted their involvement. In addition to these private banking perks, merchant philanthropists realized other incentives to support elite institutions of education.

In part, the New York elites saw philanthropy and the development of educational institutions as their privilege and duty. What were the characteristics of these elites who comprised the so-called ruling class of colonial New York City? This paper thus far has emphasized the role of elite merchants in the formation of King’s College in order to illuminate the school’s connections to slavery and Atlantic trade. Because city wealth became concentrated in the hands of merchants, they became the leaders “in fashion, in intellectual and philanthropic projects, in politics.”[68] We should note, however, that merchants were not the only people who constituted New York’s rich and powerful. Virginia Harrington argues that it would be misleading to compartmentalize New York society into separate classes of landholders, lawyers, merchants, and small farmers and artisans. On the contrary, she contends that the first three groups, through generations of intermarriage and fraternization, welded themselves together into a “single, privileged, important ruling class … whose interests could not be far separated.”[69] Unlike the aristocracy of Europe, the aristocracy of New York was one of wealth rather than lineage or peerage. Members of the elite such as John Watts and Philip Philip Livingston (1716-1778) channeled their wealth into philanthropy by patronizing new institutions of health and learning in the mid-eighteenth century, including the New York Society Library, the first public library in the city, and the New York Hospital. A contemporary observer wrote that Philip Philip Livingston established a reputation as a respected gentleman on the merit of his philanthropy: “Among the considerable merchants in [New York] no one is more esteemed for energy…and public spirit than Philip Livingston.” Philip, the prolific slave trading merchant, enjoyed such an esteemed public persona thanks to his generosity towards charitable organizations, churches, nascent universities.[70] Likewise, John Watts branched out from his work as a merchant and enjoyed secondary careers as a philanthropist and city leader. In addition to being elected to the New York Council, he became the first president of the New York Hospital, founded the New York Merchants’ Exchange, served as president of the St. Andrews society.[71]

Philip Livingston and John Watts’s careers exemplified the growing civic-mindedness of New York’s elite in this era of merchant prosperity and patronage. Other upper-class merchant families such as the Crugers patronized and controlled the boards of these institutions, including King’s College, in similar fashion.[72] These establishments in turn embodied and represented the civic virtues and prosperity of the ruling class.

This colonial ruling class also eagerly developed King’s College, and peer institutions such as Yale and Princeton, in order to justify and pass on to their children their power, wealth, and economic and political significance. In the words of Livingston family biographer Cynthia Kierner, this interlocking elite of merchants, landholders, and lawyers promoted learning and education as a means to justify their claims to be a “proper governing class” and self-proclaimed “American aristocracy.” Kierner argues that the “distinct elite ethos” combined bourgeois ideals and aristocratic traditions and valued gentility along with education, public spirit, and the Protestant work ethic. [73] A ruling class by definition seeks to act as the ruling intellectual, economic, and political force of society. For these New York elites, the drive to wield intellectual power and influence went hand in hand with the movement to found colleges in the colonies. Governing academic establishments provided elites intellectual or cultural authority, as well as the means for consolidating and preserving their power within their families. The ruling class embraced the aristocratic notions of social leadership and noblesse oblige, espousing the belief that they carried a responsibility to govern and look out for the lower classes of society and to exercise political power on their behalf. [74] They sent their sons to universities to develop the knowledge and genteel manners that would justify these positions and help expand their political, social, and economic influence

In the eyes of these families, education was as much about academic learning as it was about cultivating genteel young men and setting them on the path to preserve and increase their inheritance. To this end, King’s College administrators tried to foster a genteel and elitist environment at the school. According to David Humphrey, a scholar of Columbia University’s history, King’s College President Samuel Johnson listed the names of the students of each class in the matriculation book “roughly in the order of their social status, much like the practice of ranking students at Yale.” These rankings were intended to reflect the hierarchy of students’ families. He placed John Watts Jr., the son of merchant, trustee, and politician John Watts, “at the head of his class.”[75] The influence of the merchant elites permeated the culture of King’s College, even in the classroom. Professor Robert Harpur’s math problems for students applied the material to mercantile activity; for instance, he prepared examples that asked students to convert the ratios of quantities of sugar to be traded and convert currencies to facilitate trade with the East Indies.[76] A King’s College education prepared merchants’ sons to continue the family trade and, ideally, to become politicians and gentleman leaders of New York. In 1749, before King’s College was chartered, William Livingston anonymously published a pamphlet advocating that New York construct a college. He argued that a “well-regulated academy” would improve “the behavior of our young gentry.” Such were the attitudes of college administrators and parents who anticipated that the school would mold undergraduates into respectable members of the future gentry.

To what extent have traces of this legacy endured at Columbia College? The residence hall, Livingston Hall, renamed Wallach in 1979, formerly honored Chancellor Robert R. Livingston, the accomplished politician who helped negotiate the Louisiana Purchase. This celebrated Columbia alumnus, like his many relatives, had indisputable connections to slavery. He reported owning 44 slaves in the 1790 census.[77] A British writer who visited him at Livingston Manor observed that he retained child slaves between the ages of five and eleven to wait on him and his guests.[78]

Robert R. Livingston, the other Livingstons, and the Watts discussed in this paper represent just a sample of the many elite New Yorkers who patronized and established King’s College. Continued research is needed to study the many additional families who shaped King’s College. Focusing on these two families has, however, elucidated how the school was fundamentally connected to the slave trade and slave labor. These donors and trustees were so actively involved in governing the school and developing its policies that their objectives and designs directly and indirectly controlled those of the institution. In many ways, the institution fueled the continuation of New York’s slave economy and helped the city’s elites cement their identity and influence as a ruling class. King’s College embodied the political, social, and economic influence of this class and represented a medium for them to establish intellectual authority. In the context of colonial New York, education was about wealth and authority just as much as it was about scholarship.

Appendix 

WORKS CITED

Primary Sources: Letters, Newspapers, and Other Records (excluding Manuscripts)

1790 United States Federal Census, Livingston, Columbia, NY, Family History Library Film 0568146. Accessed via Ancestry.com database, May 2015.

1800 United States Federal Census, New York Ward 1, NY, Family History Library Film 193711, Series M32, Roll 23, Page 657, Image 38. Accessed via Ancestry.com database, May 2015.

Advertisement, New York Gazette (New York), November 7, 1748.

Advertisement, New York Gazette (New York), August 7, 1749.

Advertisement, New York Mercury, November 6, 1752.

Advertisement, Virginia Gazette (Williamsburg), September 16, 1773.

Columbia University. Trustees. Early Minutes of the Trustees. New York : The University, 1770.http://archive.org/details/earlyminutesoftr1175colu.

Donnan, Elizabeth.Documents Illustrative of the History of the Slave Trade to America. New York: Octagon Books, 1969.

Literary Society. Subscribers Names, Who Have Agreed to Pay Three Pounds Yearly, for Five Years, Commencing November the Ninth, 1766, for the Encouragement of Learning, in King’s-College, New-York. : With the Subscriptions Received, and Expended by Dr. Clossy. New York, NY: sn, 1767.

Strickland, William. Journal of a Tour in the United States of America, 1794-1795. New York: New-York Historical Society, 1971.

University, Columbia. “Gifts and Bequests.” Text. Accessed March 26, 2015.http://www.columbia.edu/cu/lweb/digital/collections/cul/texts/ldpd_7833975_000/index.html.

Gifts and Endowments, with the Names of Benefactors, 1754-1904 . New York, 1904.

Officers and Graduates of Columbia College, Originally the College of the Province of New York Known as King’s College: General Catalogue 1754-1900. University, 1900.

Van Horne, Augustus. Accounts, 1757-1796 (1796).

Watts, John. Letter Book of John Watts, Merchant and Councillor of New York, January 1, 1762-December 22, 1765. New York: Printed for the Society, 1928.

Primary Sources: Manuscripts

“Assignment of Mortgage of Jamaica Sugar Estate,” July 6, 1784, Misc Jamaica papers (West Indies, folder 2), New York Historical Society Library.

“Bill of John Livingston for lump sugar,” 1775, Misc. Manuscripts (Livingston), New York Historical Society Library.

“Draft of a letter of appeal for support of King’s College through subscriptions,” New York, ca. 1757, Columbia College Papers (Box 1), Rare Books and Manuscripts Library (Columbia University).

Joseph Murray to the Governors, “Report of the committee to consider ways and means, for making a plan to build the college,” June 2, 1755, Columbia College Papers, Rare Books and Manuscripts Library (Columbia University).

King’s College, Subscription Paper, New York, July 10, 1755; King’s College, Subscription List, New York, December 1755. Both manuscripts are from Columbia College Papers (Box 1), Rare Books and Manuscripts Library (Columbia University).

Literary Society, Subscribers names, who have agreed to pay three pounds yearly, for five years, commencing November the Ninth 1766, for the encouragement of learning in King’s-College, New York : With the subscriptions received, and expended by Dr. Clossy (New York, N.Y.: 1767).

“Mr. Humphrey Jones his account with John Livingston,” February 10, 1777, Misc. Manuscripts (Livingston), New York Historical Society Library.

Philip John Livingston to Walter Livingston, discussing returns from Jamaica Plantation, September 12, 1782, Misc. Manuscripts (Robert R. Livingston Papers), New York Historical Society Library.

“Robert Harpur Account Book,” Columbiana Manuscripts (Item 7), Rare Books and Manuscripts Library (Columbia University).

William Livingston, “Draft of Subscription paper to promote the College because of its ‘Great Benefit and Advantage to all his Majesties Islands and plantations in the West Indies,’” New York, 1755, Columbia College Papers (Box 1), Rare Books and Manuscripts Library (Columbia University).

Secondary Sources

Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, “Livingston, Walter (1740-1797),” http://bioguide.congress.gov/scripts/biodisplay.pl?index=L000373. Accessed May 2015.

Reynolds, Cuyler. 1914.Genealogical and Family History of Southern New York and the Hudson River Valley: A Record of the Achievements of Her People in the Making of a Commonwealth and the Building of a Nation. Lewis Historical Publishing Company.

Frusciano, Thomas. “John Henry Livingston,” http://www.rutgers.edu/about/john-henry-livingston. Accessed May 2015.

Harrington, Virginia D. “The Place of the Merchant in New York Colonial Life.”New York History 13, no. 4 (October 1, 1932).http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.cul.columbia.edu/docview/1297179050?accountid=10226&OpenUrlRefId=info:xri/sid:summon.

Humphrey, David C. From King’s College to Columbia, 1746-1800. New York: Columbia University Press, 1976.

Kierner, Cynthia A. Traders and Gentlefolk : The Livingstons of New York, 1675-1790. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992.

Lydon, James G. “New York and the Slave Trade, 1700 to 1774.” The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, 35, no. 2 (April 1, 1978): 375–94. doi:10.2307/1921840.

Matson, Cathy D. Merchants & Empire : Trading in Colonial New York. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.

McManus, Edgar J. A History of Negro Slavery in New York. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1966.

Wilder, Craig Steven. Ebony & Ivy : Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities. New York, NY: Bloomsbury Press, 2013.


[1] James G. Lydon, “New York and the Slave Trade, 1700-1744,” William and Mary Quarterly, April 1978, pp. 375.

[2] Edgar J. McManus, A History of Negro Slavery in New York (Syracuse, N.Y., 1966), pp. 26.

[3] Lydon, “New York and the Slave Trade, 1700-1744,” pp. 378.

[4] Cathy D. Matson, Merchants & Empire: Trading in Colonial New York (Baltimore, M.D., 1998), pp. 203.

[5] Matson, Merchants & Empire: Trading in Colonial New York, pp. 185.

[6] Cynthia Kierner, Traders and Gentlefolk: The Livingstons of New York, 1675-1790 (Ithaca, N.Y., 1992), pp. 10-20.

[7] Kierner, Traders and Gentlefolk: The Livingstons of New York, 1675-1790, pp. 5, 21.

[8] Kierner, Traders and Gentlefolk: The Livingstons of New York, 1675-1790, pp. 40.

[9] Kierner, Traders and Gentlefolk: The Livingstons of New York, 1675-1790, pp. 47; Craig Steven Wilder, Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities (New York, NY: 2013), pp. 53.

[10] Kierner, Traders and Gentlefolk: The Livingstons of New York, 1675-1790, pp. 69-70.

[11] Lydon, “New York and the Slave Trade, 1700-1744,” pp. 389.

Note: Philip Philip Livingston was the son of Philip Livingston (1686-1749) and grandson of Robert the Elder (1654-1728).

[12] Elizabeth Donnan, Documents Illustrative of the History of the Slave Trade to America, volume 3 (New York, NY: 1969), pp. 462-512.

[13] Tables with information on the dates, vessel names, number of slaves embarked, and owners are in the Appendix at the end of this paper.

[14] Kierner, Traders and Gentlefolk: The Livingstons of New York, 1675-1790, pp. 69.

[15] Philip Philip Livingston (1741-1787) was the son of Philip Philip Livingston (1716-1778).

[16] “Assignment of Mortgage of Jamaica Sugar Estate,” July 6, 1784, Misc Jamaica papers (West Indies, folder 2), New York Historical Society Library.

[17] Wilder, Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities, pp. 53.

[18] Kierner, Traders and Gentlefolk: The Livingstons of New York, 1675-1790, pp. 66.

[19] Kierner, Traders and Gentlefolk: The Livingstons of New York, 1675-1790, pp. 73-74.

[20] Wilder, Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities, pp. 65.

[21] Wilder, Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities, pp. 64.

[22] Entries for Stork and Rhode Island from the Slave Voyages Database.

[23] Advertisement, Virginia Gazette (Williamsburg), September 16, 1773.

[24] Advertisement, New York Mercury, November 6, 1752.

[25] Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, “Livingston, Walter (1740-1797),” http://bioguide.congress.gov/scripts/biodisplay.pl?index=L000373. Accessed May 2015; Cuyler Reynolds, Genealogical and Family History of Southern New York and the Hudson River Valley: A Record of the Achievements of Her People in the Making of a Commonwealth and the Building of a Nation (New York, 1914), pp. 1337.

[26] The Letter Book of John Watts: Merchant and Councillor of New York, January 1, 1762-December 22, 1765, vol. LXI of The Collections of the New-York Historical Society for the Year 1928 (New York: Printed for the Society, 1928), pp. ix-x.

[27] Matson, Merchants & Empire: Trading in Colonial New York, pp. 150.

[28] John Watts to Gedney Clarke, January 2, 1762, The Letter Book of John Watts, pp. 6-8.

[29] Lydon, “New York and the Slave Trade, 1700-1744,” pp. 389.

[30] Donnan, Documents Illustrative of the History of the Slave Trade to America, pp. 512.

[31] John Watts to John Kennion, January 10, 1763, The Letter Book of John Watts, pp. 115.

[32] The Letter Book of John Watts: Merchant and Councillor of New York, January 1, 1762-December 22, 1765, vol. LXI of The Collections of the New-York Historical Society for the Year 1928 (New York: Printed for the Society, 1928), pp. xiii.

[33] John Watts to Gedney Clarke, March 30, 1762, The Letter Book of John Watts, pp. 31.

[34] Lydon, “New York and the Slave Trade, 1700-1744,” pp. 393.

[35] Edgar J. McManus, A History of Negro Slavery in New York (Syracuse, N.Y.: 1966), pp. 39.

[36] John Watts to Gedney Clarke, March 30, 1762, The Letter Book of John Watts, pp. 32.

[37] John Watts to John Riddell, February 21, 1763, pp. 126; John Watts to John Riddell, November 27, 1762, pp. 97.

[38] 1790 United States Federal Census, New York City West Ward, NY, Family History Library Film 056146, Series M637, Roll 6, Page 10, Image 519. Accessed via Ancestry.com database, May 2015; 1800 United States Federal Census, New York Ward 1, NY, Family History Library Film 193711, Series M32, Roll 23, Page 657, Image 38. Accessed via Ancestry.com database, May 2015.

[39] Wilder, Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities, pp. 48.

[40] Wilder, Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities, pp. 67.

[41] Virginia D. Harrington, “The Place of the Merchant in New York Colonial Life,” New York History 13, no. 4 (October 1, 1932), pp. 375.

[42] Columbia University, Officers and Graduates of Columbia College, Originally the College of the Province of New York Known as King’s College: General Catalogue 1754-1900; Wilder Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities, pp. 100-106.

[43] Columbia University, Early Minutes of the Trustees (New York, N.Y., 1770).

[44] Advertisement, New York Gazette (New York), November 7, 1748; Advertisement, New York Gazette (New York), August 7, 1749.

[45] Kierner, Traders and Gentlefolk: The Livingstons of New York, 1675-1790, pp. 79n.

[46] “Bill of John Livingston for lump sugar,” 1775, Misc. Manuscripts (Livingston), New York Historical Society Library; “Mr. Humphrey Jones his account with John Livingston,” February 10, 1777, Misc. Manuscripts (Livingston), New York Historical Society Library.

[47] Columbia University, Officers and Graduates of Columbia College, Originally the College of the Province of New York Known as King’s College: General Catalogue 1754-1900, pp. 100.

[48] 1790 United States Federal Census, New York City West Ward, NY, Family History Library Film 056146, Series M637, Roll 6, Page 18, Image 523. Accessed via Ancestry.com database, May 2015.

[49] Thomas J. Frusciano, “John Henry Livingston,” http://www.rutgers.edu/about/john-henry-livingston. Accessed May 2015.

[50] Philip John Livingston to Walter Livingston, discussing returns from Jamaica Plantation, September 12, 1782, Misc. Manuscripts (Robert R. Livingston Papers), New York Historical Society Library.

[51] 1790 United States Federal Census, New York City West Ward, NY, Family History Library Film 056146, Series M637, Roll 6, Page 12, Image 520. Accessed via Ancestry.com database, May 2015.

[52] King’s College, Subscription Paper, New York, July 10, 1755; King’s College, Subscription List, New York, December 1755. Both manuscripts are from Columbia College Papers (Box 1), Rare Books and Manuscripts Library (Columbia University).

[53] Literary Society, Subscribers names, who have agreed to pay three pounds yearly, for five years, commencing November the Ninth 1766, for the encouragement of learning in King’s-College, New York : With the subscriptions received, and expended by Dr. Clossy (New York, N.Y.: 1767).

[54] The Letter Book of John Watts: Merchant and Councillor of New York, January 1, 1762-December 22, 1765, vol. LXI of The Collections of the New-York Historical Society for the Year 1928 (New York: Printed for the Society, 1928), pp. 403.

[55] Columbia University, Gifts and Endowments, with the Names of Benefactors, 1754-1904 (New York, N.Y.: 1904).

[56] Wilder, Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities, pp. 76.

Kierner, Traders and Gentlefolk: The Livingstons of New York, 1675-1790, pp. 163.

[57] Cuyler Reynolds, Genealogical and Family History of Southern New York, pp. 1327.

[58] Lydon “New York and the Slave Trade, 1700-1744,” pp. 389.

[59] Joseph Murray to the Governors, “Report of the committee to consider ways and means, for making a plan to build the college,” June 2, 1755, Columbia College Papers, Rare Books and Manuscripts Library (Columbia University).

[60] Livingston, William, “Draft of Subscription paper to promote the College because of its ‘Great Benefit and Advantage to all his Majesties Islands and plantations in the West Indies,’” New York, 1755, Columbia College Papers (Box 1), Rare Books and Manuscripts Library (Columbia University).

[61] “Draft of a letter of appeal for support of King’s College through subscriptions,” New York, ca. 1757, Columbia College Papers (Box 1), Rare Books and Manuscripts Library (Columbia University).

[62] Columbia University, Early Minutes of the Trustees (New York, N.Y., 1770), October 2, 1759.

[63] Columbia University, Officers and Graduates of Columbia College, Originally the College of the Province of New York Known as King’s College: General Catalogue 1754-1900, pp. 103-106.

[64] Matson, Merchants & Empire: Trading in Colonial New York, pp. 160, 162.

[65] Ibid, pp. 161.

[66] Matson, Merchants & Empire: Trading in Colonial New York, pp. 154; Edgar J. McManus, A History of Negro Slavery in New York, pp. 56.

[67] Augustus Van Horne, Accounts, 1757-1796 (1796).

[68] Virginia D. Harrington, “The Place of the Merchant in New York Colonial Life,” pp. 368.

[69] Virginia D. Harrington, “The Place of the Merchant in New York Colonial Life,” pp. 366.

[70] Kierner, Traders and Gentlefolk: The Livingstons of New York, 1675-1790, pp. 163-164.

[71] The Letter Book of John Watts, pp. xiii.

[72] Wilder, Ebony & Ivy, pp. 48.

[73] Kierner, Traders and Gentlefolk: The Livingstons of New York, 1675-1790, pp. 128-129.

[74] Kierner, Traders and Gentlefolk: The Livingstons of New York, 1675-1790, pp. 146-159.

[75] David C. Humphrey, From King’s College to Columbia, 1746-1800 (New York, 1976), pp. 196.

[76] “Robert Harpur Account Book,” Columbiana Manuscripts (Item 7), Rare Books and Manuscripts Library (Columbia University).

[77] 1790 United States Federal Census, Livingston, Columbia, NY, Family History Library Film 0568146, Series M637, Roll 6, Page 241, Image 266. Accessed via Ancestry.com database, May 2015.

[78] Strickland, William, Journal of a Tour in the United States of America, 1794-1795 (New York, 1971).