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Supreme Court Justice Livingston Recommends
a Danish Son-in-Law of Jacob Astor
to John Quincy Adams, on Duty in Russia
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Supreme Court Justice Brockholst Livingston recommends “Mr: Bentzon,” a Danish official and son-in-law of John Jacob Astor, to John Quincy Adams, Minister to Russia. Docketed by John Quincy Adams. “He is since married into the family of Mr. Astor, one of our first & most respectable merchants, & is going with his Lady to Denmark … as Mr. Bentzon intends visiting Petersburgh he is desirous of doing himself the honor of calling on you ...”

BROCKHOLST LIVINGSTON. Autograph Letter Signed, to John Quincy Adams. New York, January 19, 1811. 1 p. With autograph address leaf to Adams, then Minister Plenipotentiary at St. Petersburg. Docketed by John Quincy Adams, who finally received the letter on August 9, 1811.

Inventory #21466.06       Price: $600

Complete Transcript

                                             New York 19th Jany. 1811 –
               Mr: Bentzon will have the honor of delivering you this letter. This gentleman is a subject of the King of Denmark, & resided for several years in Santa Cruz where he held an important office under his Sovereign. He is since married into the family of Mr. Astor, one of our first & most respectable merchants, & is going with his Lady to Denmark, in company with Mr. Erving and Minister to that court – as Mr. Bentzon intends visiting Petersburgh he is desirous of doing himself the honor of calling on you. I have therefore taken the liberty of recommending him to your attentions, not doubting that you will find him highly agreeable & intelligent. With great respect I have the honor to be Sir,
                                            Your most obed sert
                                            Brockholst Livingston
His Excy
J.Q. Adams

[Address Leaf:]  His Excellency – Jno: Quincey Adams - / Minister Plenipotentiary / &ca – Petersburgh - / Hond by - Mr. Bentzon
[docket in Adams’s hand:] Livingston – Brockholst 14 Jany: 1811 / 9 Augt: 1811. recd:

Historical Background

Written  a year before the War of 1812, when John Quincy Adams was still Minister to Russia, Justice Livingston’s letter recommends one “Mr: Bentzon,” who intends visiting the Russian capital, to Adams’s attention. The docket, indicating that the letter was received by Adams nearly seven months after Livingston had written it, gives a fascinating glimpse at the slow rate of communication in the early nineteenth century.

Interestingly, just months before, President Madison nominated Adams to fill deceased Justice William Cushing’s place on the Supreme Court, where he might have served with Livingston. Adams declined the appointment, citing his wife’s health, in a letter to Madison of June 3, 1811. To his brother Thomas, however, Adams was more honest: “I am also, and always shall be, too much of a political partisan for a judge.” Adams went on to perform sterling service in European diplomacy, helping to negotiate the Treaty of Ghent in late 1814, which ended the War of 1812. This rejuvenated his political prospects at home, where he soon rose to become Secretary of State and President.

Perhaps unbeknownst to Livingston, Bentzon was traveling to Russia in large part on behalf of his new father-in-law, America’s first millionaire, John Jacob Astor. Bentzon successfully obtained from Tsar Alexander the right for Astor’s American Fur Company to trade in Russian territories in North America (Alaska) in exchange for a promise to supply Russian outposts and not to trade with Indians living near Russian settlements. Later, Bentzon was present at the negotiations in Ghent, ending the War of 1812, with John Quincy Adams, suggesting that a working relationship emerged from the meeting Livingston helped arrange.

Adrian Bentzon was a citizen of Denmark and, for a time, governor of St. Croix. He married Magdalen Astor in 1807, moved to New York City, and served as John Jacob Astor’s emissary in Europe. In particular, Bentzon negotiated an important agreement with Tsar Alexander of Russia. After Adrian and Magdalen’s son, John Jacob Bentzon, drowned tragically, she turned to alcohol and he to adultery. They divorced in 1818.

Henry Brockholst Livingston (1757-1823) – member of the powerful Livingston family of New York and New Jersey, the future Supreme Court Justice dropped his first name to distinguish himself from other relatives of the same name. He attended the College of New Jersey (now Princeton) with James Madison. In the early years of the Revolution, Livingston was a captain of the New York line and served on the staffs of Benedict Arnold and Philip Schuyler, falling into disfavor when Horatio Gates assumed command of the Northern Army. He accompanied his brother-in-law, John Jay, as secretary in 1782, and was captured by the British. After his release, he returned to New York City and studied to enter the law. He was active in New York politics as a Jeffersonian Republican, killed Federalist James Jones in a duel in 1798, and helped Jefferson and Burr win New York in 1800. From 1802 to 1807, he served on the New York Supreme Court. In 1807, Jefferson nominated him to replace William Paterson on the U.S. Supreme Court. Though many expected him to be a spokesman for the Jeffersonian party on the Marshall Court, Livingston fell under the sway of the affable Federalist Chief Justice, John Marshall, and produced only eight dissents in sixteen years on the court. He was an expert in commercial and prize law and generally favored using the law to promote capitalist development.

John Quincy Adams (1767-1848), sixth president of the United States, and the son of John Adams. He studied at Harvard and was admitted to the bar in 1790. Having been educated partly in Europe while his father held various diplomatic posts in the 1780s, John Quincy served successively as minister to The Netherlands, Portugal, Prussia, Russia, and Britain. He began his career a moderate Federalist but switched to the Jeffersonian Republican Party around the year 1807. He helped negotiate the Treaty of Ghent, ending the War of 1812, and was a brilliant Secretary of State (1817-1825), taking the lead role in formulating the Monroe Doctrine. He won the election of 1824, which was decided in the House of Representatives because no candidate won a majority in the electoral college. Adams’s “deal” with House Speaker Henry Clay, who he named Secretary of State, helped spark the formation of an opposition party around Andrew Jackson. John Quincy Adams served one largely frustrating term as president, and lost in the election of 1828 to Andrew Jackson. Surprising most observers, Adams stood for election to the House of Representatives in 1831 and served seventeen memorable years, becoming a bulwark for civil liberties and a voice in the emerging anti-slavery movement. He defended the Amistad slaves before the Supreme Court in 1841, and died of a stroke on the floor of the House in 1848.


Slight loss at left margin: corners clipped.

Nagel, Paul. John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, a Private Life. New York, 1997, 197-199.

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