Livingston, Robert R.

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Robert R. Livingston served the United States in many ways, from participating in the continental congress, to administering the oath of office to george washington and negotiating the louisiana purchase.

Livingston was born November 27, 1746, in New York City. His great-grandfather came to America in the 1670s with little, but through hard work and a fortuitous marriage soon began building a vast empire. Livingston's father, Judge

Robert R. Livingston, was called the richest landowner in New York, and real estate holdings of the influential and politically active Livingston clan eventually totaled nearly 1 million acres.

After graduating from King's College (now Columbia University), Livingston studied law, and was admitted to the bar in 1770. He practiced law for a time with his college classmate and friend john jay. In 1773 he received a political appointment as recorder for New York City, wherein he presided over certain criminal trials. He held the position until 1775, when his Revolutionary sympathies made him unacceptable to the Crown.

"On the whole I think it would be more dignified and more safe to act upon our ground and if we must enter into the war [against Napoleon], secure to ourselves all the advantages that may result from [doing so]."
Robert Livingston

Livingston was elected to the Continental Congress in 1775. He was soon appointed to the committee charged with drafting a declaration of independence, with roger sherman, benjamin franklin, john adams, and thomas jefferson. However, Livingston was apparently not involved in the actual drafting of the document; his appointment was seemingly a political maneuver designed to encourage the equivocating province of New York into a firm commitment to independence. Livingston himself was ambivalent. He believed that autonomy from Britain was necessary and inevitable, but inexpedient at that time; in debate he advocated postponement of the issue. When the Continental Congress voted on the declaration on July 2, 1776, New York abstained, preventing a unanimous ballot. The New York delegation was forced to abstain because the New York convention had not authorized it to vote affirmatively. Within weeks a newly elected New York convention ratified the declaration, and the ratification was retroactively ruled unanimous. When the signing of the Declaration of Independence commenced in Philadelphia on August 2, Livingston was elsewhere organizing a committee to coordinate New York's defense and conferring with General Washington on military matters.

Livingston, Jay, and Gouverneur Morris were the principal writers of New York's constitution, which was submitted for approval in 1777. Livingston's main contribution to the document was a council of revision, which could veto legislation. The council of revision was composed of the governor, chancellor, and state supreme court justices.

In 1777 Livingston was appointed chancellor of New York, the state's highest legal officer, second in precedence only to the governor. In this position, which he held until 1801, he presided over the court of equity. His legal abilities were highly regarded by his colleagues.

Livingston was again a delegate to the Continental Congress in 1779–80. A tireless worker, he was active on committees on financial affairs, military issues, legal organization, and foreign affairs, among others. He helped formulate a court of appeals. In 1780 he was nominated for an appellate judgeship, but declined the position.

In 1781 Livingston was appointed secretary of foreign affairs, a position he held for three years. He organized the newly established department. His most important contribution during this period was his diplomatic correspondence regarding peace with Great Britain. The Revolutionary War was over, but negotiating the peace was a lengthy endeavor. Finally, on April 19, 1783, the treaty of paris made it official, and Livingston had the honor of conveying the news to General Washington.

Livingston served in the Continental Congress again in 1784–85. In 1788 he was a leader in Poughkeepsie, New York, at the convention to ratify the U.S. Constitution. A staunch Federalist, he was one of the most frequent pro-Constitution speakers at the ratifying convention. Livingston, along with alexander hamilton, played a major role in the success of federalism in New York at that time.

By virtue of his position as chancellor, Livingston administered the oath of office to President Washington in the national capital, then New York City, on April 30, 1789. His friend Jay was appointed chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, and Hamilton was named secretary of the treasury. Despite Livingston's activism the new government did not reward him with an office. Possibly for this reason, and because he disagreed with Hamilton's policy of federal assumption of state debts, Livingston turned anti-Federalist and entered into a political alliance with members of the Jeffersonian opposition—then called Republicans—in about 1791.

Jefferson offered Livingston the secretaryship of the Navy in 1800, but he declined. In 1801 Jefferson named him minister to France. Once in Paris Livingston set about investigating rumors that Spain was about to cede its province Louisiana back to France, which had owned it until 1762. Livingston was charged with preventing this. If unable to do so, he was to procure parts of the province, including West Florida and New Orleans, for the United States.

Livingston soon discovered that the retrocession had already occurred. However, because of impending war with Great Britain, a French failure in Santo Domingo, and financial concerns, Napoléon suddenly offered to sell the entire Louisiana Territory to the United States. No one really knew how vast the region was, but it was generally agreed that the Mississippi River formed the eastern boundary and the Rocky Mountains the western edge. Livingston and james monroe, who had recently joined him in Paris, negotiated the final deal for $15 million—purchasing approximately 828,000 square miles for only pennies an acre. Overnight, the size of the United States doubled. The Louisiana Purchase Treaty, closing the purchase from France, signed May 2, 1803, but antedated April 30, 1803, was the triumph of Livingston's career.

Livingston resigned his diplomatic post in 1804. After touring Europe he returned to his home in Clermont, New York, and retired from politics.

Livingston had long been interested in steam navigation. While in Paris he had met Robert Fulton, and the two men had entered into a partnership to develop a commercially successful steamboat. An early venture sank on the Seine, but in 1807 a new boat sailed on the Hudson River from New York City to Albany. The running speed of the Clermont approached five miles an hour, and cut sailing time to a small fraction of that required by the tall-masted Hudson River sloops then in use. Livingston had used his political clout to obtain a steam navigation monopoly in New York in 1798, and he and Fulton set about attempting to exploit and extend the monopoly. Protracted litigation concerning the monopoly kept Livingston occupied in his final years.

Livingston was very active in his home state as well as nationally. In addition to working on New York's constitution, he was a leader in Revolutionary organizations replacing the Crown government, and was a member of the commission that governed the state after the Revolutionary War. In 1811 he was on the first canal commission, which eventually resulted in the Erie Canal.

Livingston also had a keen interest in farming, and maintained an active correspondence with Jefferson, Washington, and others regarding the latest scientific agricultural methods. He was a leader in importing merino sheep from Spain and using gypsum as fertilizer.

Livingston died February 26, 1813, in Clermont.

further readings

Brandt, Clare. 1986. An American Aristocracy: The Livingstons. New York: Doubleday.

Hull, N.E.H. 1997. Roscoe Pound and Karl Llewellyn: Searching for an American Jurisprudence. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.


New York Constitution of 1777.

Robert R. Livingston

views updated May 29 2018

Robert R. Livingston

Robert R. Livingston (1746-1813), American jurist and diplomat, played a key role in negotiating the Louisiana Purchase.

Robert R. Livingston was born in New York City on Nov. 27, 1746, into a family of landed aristocracy. His great-grandfather, Robert Livingston, had married the widow of one of New York's great landowners. By 1746 the Livingstons were related to virtually all their fellow land barons and were, inevitably, deeply involved in the government of the colony. For decades before the American Revolution they had firmly opposed the politics of the royal governor and his colleagues. Livingston's father, a well-known jurist, was a foe of the Stamp Act, but he was also a nervous observer of the popular tumults marking the resistance to it.

Amid the rumblings of rebellion, Robert Livingston graduated from King's College (now Columbia) in 1765. He immediately entered a legal apprenticeship with his father's cousin, and later governor of New Jersey, William Livingston. Admitted to the bar in 1768, Robert acquired a practice befitting his family position, held minor offices, and, in 1770, married Mary Stevens, of a New Jersey landowning family.

Cautious Patriot

As a member of the New York Provincial Convention of 1775 and, a month later, of the Second Continental Congress, Livingston began a steady movement toward supporting American independence but maintained an equally steady resistance to letting radicals control the Revolution in New York. Though appointed to the committee to draft the Declaration of Independence, he neither contributed to the draft nor signed the document. He accepted the declaration, however, and helped arrange for the military defense of New York. With John Jay and Gouverneur Morris, he drafted the New York Constitution of 1777, a conservative but effective document. Livingston's appointment in 1777 as chancellor of the Court of Chancery gave him both a high judicial office and membership on the governor's "Council of Revision." Thus for 24 years, he was a power in the state government despite the dominance of Governor George Clinton, who led a highly successful alliance of yeoman farmers, mechanics, and entrepreneurs deeply hostile to the old, landed gentry.

Nationalist and Francophile

In 1779 Livingston resumed his seat in the Continental Congress. He soon became part of the "nationalist" group, which included Robert Morris, Benjamin Franklin, and, later, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton. Livingston was elected first secretary for foreign affairs in August 1781. During his 2 years of service as secretary he did all he could to strengthen America's alliance with France.

For the next 2 years Livingston indulged his passion for scientific agriculture and efficiently presided over the Court of Chancery. In 1788 he, Hamilton, and John Jay were leading Federalist delegates to the New York constitutional ratifying convention, and in 1789 he administered the oath of office to President George Washington. However, by 1791 Livingston had become a Jeffersonian Republican, in uncomfortable alliance with his old foe Governor Clinton and the energetic newcomer Aaron Burr. At odds with the Jays, Schuylers, Van Rensselaers, and other traditional friends, Livingston began a decade of sometimes lonely, often acrimonious opposition to the Federalists. He fought against Jay's Treaty and maintained strong Francophile sentiments.

Louisiana Purchase

In 1801 President Jefferson appointed Livingston minister to France. Napoleon's acquisition of Louisiana and his plans for a huge Caribbean empire soon placed a grave responsibility on Livingston; possession of New Orleans (and thus control of the Mississippi) by a powerful, expansive France would, in Jefferson's words, "marry the United States to the British fleet" and throttle American dreams of a transcontinental republic. The Americans fretted helplessly in the face of Napoleon's omnipotence until the defeat of one of Napoleon's armies in Santo Domingo and the freeze-up of another in Dutch harbors suddenly changed the prospects. Just as Livingston received instructions to try to purchase New Orleans and, if possible, Florida, Napoleon decided to abandon his American plans. Livingston, meanwhile, had earlier suggested that the United States might be interested in acquiring lands west of the Mississippi. Aided by the arrival of special envoy James Monroe, Livingston held conferences with French ministers who, astonishingly, offered to sell the entire Louisiana Territory. Though lacking instructions to buy the vast territory, the Americans grasped the opportunity and signed the Louisiana Purchase Treaty on May 2, 1803.

Livingston and the Steamboat

Livingston remained 2 more years in Paris, then returned home to devote his last years to an old enterprise— agricultural progress (especially the breeding of Merino sheep)—and to a new one—development of the steamboat. Long interested in steam transportation, he agreed to back the plans of Robert Fulton, at the same time securing a monopoly in New York waters of such navigation. Livingston was aboard Fulton's famous steamboat on the voyage up the Hudson in 1807. However, the monopoly and the operation of the vessels proved contentious and not especially profitable. Livingston died at Clermont, N.Y., on Feb. 26, 1813.

Further Reading

George Dangerfield, Chancellor Robert R. Livingston of New York, 1746-1813 (1960), is a well-written, thoroughly reliable account. Collateral studies related to Livingston's career are Samuel Flagg Bemis, A Diplomatic History of the United States (1936; 5th ed. 1965); James T. Flexner, Steamboats Come True: American Inventors in Action (1944); David M. Ellis, Landlords and Farmers in the Hudson-Mohawk Region, 1790-1850 (1946); and Alfred F. Young, The Democratic Republicans of New York: The Origins, 1763-1797 (1967). □

Livingston, Robert (1746-1813)

views updated May 14 2018

Robert Livingston (1746-1813)


Statesman and businessman

Early Years. Robert Livingston became one of the most important financial figures of the early republic, thanks in part to his position in one of the richest families of colonial New York. Livingston was born on 27 November 1746 and followed brothers, cousins, and other relatives in attending Kings College (now Columbia University) and becoming a lawyer. In 1770 he married Mary Stevens, whose brother John was an inventor and operator of steamships and who would later enter a profitable partnership with Livingston.

Revolutionary Career. Livingston represented New York in the Second Continental Congress and served on the committee to draft the Declaration of Independence, although his contribution was minimal. His later work was more important, and he became a pivotal figure in Congress, active in many areas of managing the war effort. His 14 December 1779 report on the financial aspects of the Revolution made a number of recommendations for funding the government which Congress continued to draw upon during the Confederation period. Livingston remained active in state politics as well, serving on the Court of Chancery as well as a number of committees. In 1777 Livingston, John Jay, and Gouverneur Morris drafted the states constitution. Livingston joined Hamilton in securing New Yorks ratification of the Constitution, although he got no personal reward for that effort and gradually turned away from the Federalist Party to embrace the Jeffersonians.

Foreign Matters. In 1781 Livingston became head of the department of foreign affairs and in that post directed the negotiations for peace and commercial treaties carried on in Europe by Franklin, Adams, Jay, and others. After Jeffersons election in 1800, he became minister to France. There he negotiated the purchase of Louisiana for an advantageous price of $15 million, securing much of Americas future wealth and security. While in Paris he met Robert Fulton, who was already experimenting with warships, submarines, and steam power.

Business Efforts. Like many early Americans, Livingston pursued private interests as well as a public career. He was very interested in agricultural reform, as were Washington and Jefferson, and pioneered the importing of Merino sheep. He was interested in science, like Franklin, and was a founder in 1791 of the Society for the Promotion of Useful Arts, supporting the practical application of scientific advances. His most significant ventures were related to steamships. He gave technical and financial help to innovators such as his brother-in-law Stevens and was an important backer of Robert Fulton, whose Clermont (named for Livingstons New York estate) was the first steamship to travel the Hudson River, in 1807. New York gave a monopoly to Livingston for steamship service on the Hudson as early as 1798, which was renewed and modified several times over the years. Fulton got a share in its final form in 1808. Livingston used the profits from this enterprise to further develop steam technology, as well as to spread their business to the South and to the Mississippi River. Livingston died on 26 February 1813, before the heyday of steamship travel on Americas western rivers that he helped make possible by both his business ventures and his diplomacy.


George Dangerfield, Chancellor Robert R. Livingston of New York, 17461813 (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1960).

Livingston, Robert R.

views updated May 29 2018

Livingston, Robert R.

LIVINGSTON, ROBERT R. (1746–1813). Statesman, diplomat. New York. Scion of the distinguished Livingston Family, Livingston was born in New York City on 27 November 1746. After graduating from King's College (now Columbia University) in 1765 he studied law, was admitted in 1770 to the bar, and for a short time was in practice together with his college classmate and relative by marriage, John Jay. In 1773 Governor William Tryon named him recorder of the city of New York, but two years later he lost this post because of his Patriot leanings. He immediately was elected to the Continental Congress and was a delegate during the periods 1775–1776, 1779–1781, and 1784–1785. He was on the committee that drafted the Declaration of Independence, but although he felt that independence was both desirable and inevitable he did not think that the time had yet come. Accordingly, Livingston was one of the principal advocates of postponing the issue. He did not vote for the Declaration of Independence, and when the time for signing came he was absent. It should be pointed out, however, that New York did not decide until 9 July that its delegates should vote for independence, and Livingston had left for New York on the 15th of that month to sit in the newly elected state convention. He also served on a secret committee organizing the defense of the Hudson River and on New York's Committee of Safety. In 1777 he and John Jay worked to craft a conservative state constitution. The convention appointed Livingston the state's chancellor, or chief justice, a position he filled until 1801.

Even while holding these state offices, Livingston remained active in the Continental Congress, working hard and ably on many important committees. In August 1781 Congress elected Livingston secretary of the newly created Department of Foreign Affairs. An ardent nationalist, he supported the Constitution at the New York ratifying convention and administered the oath of office to President George Washington in 1789. Feeling that the new government failed to recognize his services with appropriate patronage, he changed sides and took many of his relatives with him into the Republican camp around 1791. He helped Aaron Burr defeat Philip Schuyler for the U.S. Senate, and disagreed with Alexander Hamilton's financial plans, particularly the matter of "Assumption." A leading opponent of Jay's Treaty, in 1795 he published, under the name of "Cato," his Examination of the Treaty. In 1801 he accepted Thomas Jefferson's nomination as minister to France, having previously declined to become Secretary of the Navy. Negotiating the Louisiana Purchase, was, in his view, the greatest accomplishment of his life. Resigning his ministerial post in the autumn of 1804, he retired to the family estate, which was known as "Clermont."

Livingston was the founding president of the American Academy of Fine Arts in 1801. He also played a vital role in the development of the steamboat. While in Paris he had given technical and financial aid that made the experiments of Robert Fulton possible. In 1807, Fulton's invention, the Clermont, made the journey from New York City to Albany, becoming the first practical steamboat. Livingston died at home on 26 February 1813.

SEE ALSO Assumption; Jay, John.


Livingston Papers. New York: New York Historical Society.

Dangerfield, George. Chancellor Robert R. Livingston of New York, 1746–1813. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1960.

                            revised by Michael Bellesiles

Livingston, Robert (1654-1728)

views updated May 18 2018

Robert Livingston (1654-1728)

Fur trader and landholder


A Foreign Shore. Robert Livingston was born on 13 December 1654 in Roxburghshire, Scotland, to John Livingston, a Presbyterian minister, and Janet Fleming, the daughter of an Edinburgh merchant. When Robert was nine years old, the Livingston family migrated to Rotterdam, Netherlands, where they could practice their faith. Robert lived with other Scottish refugees among the Dutch community. In 1673, one year after his father died, nineteen-year-old Robert sailed for New England. It was his intention to travel to the New York frontier, a region that Dutch settlers and fur traders controlled. By the time he arrived in the village of Albany in 1674, the Treaty of Westminster had awarded New Netherland to the British.

Marriage. Equally fluent in English and Dutch, Robert Livingston made a place for himself among the Dutch settlers. A shrewd fur trader and knowledgeable frontiersman, Livingston served as town clerk of Albany and secretary of the Board of Commissioners for Indian Affairs. In 1679 he purchased choice tracts of land along the Hudson River. He extended his holdings and secured his standing in the community by making a favorable marriage. Many ambitious men in the colonies improved their conditions by marrying the daughters and widows of other successful men. Alida van Rensselaer was the daughter of the prosperous Schuyler family and a widow of the wealthy van Rensselaer family. His marriage aligned him with two of the most prominent Dutch families in the region.

Investments. In 1686 he secured a patent to turn his 160,000 acres into a manor, which King George I officially recognized. Livingston purchased his land with money he had accumulated from two different sources: wages for his public offices and fur trade with the French and Indians. All of this money multiplied because of his astute investments.

New York Elite. Livingston continued to be involved in both appointed and elected government offices until his death on 1 October 1728. Livingston is a vivid example of an ambitious immigrant who joined the ranks of proprietors of extensive estates. These landholders held tightly the fertile land that they were not willing to sell. Instead they contracted with tenants to work their vast landholdings as a way of developing the colony of New York. In doing so Livingston established a large family fortune that enabled his heirs to influence economic development and political issues in New York.


Lawrence H. Leder, Robert Livingston, 16541728, and the Politics of Colonial New York (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1961).

Robert Livingston

views updated May 14 2018

Robert Livingston

Robert Livingston (1654-1728), colonial politician and landowner, was secretary for Indian affairs in New York province and greatly influenced British policy respecting western lands.

Youngest son of an eminent Presbyterian pastor, Robert Livingston was born on Dec. 13, 1654, in Ancrum, Scotland. His father was exiled in 1663 for resisting attempts to Anglicize the Scottish Church. Robert grew up in Rotterdam, Holland, where he received business training and became fluent in Dutch. Following his father's death in 1672, he emigrated to New England and then moved to Albany.

New York had just been restored to the English, and Livingston's background ideally suited him to become an intermediary between Dutch burghers and proprietary officials. From 1675 he was secretary to the commissioners directing affairs in the Albany area and ex officio town clerk. His marriage in 1679 to Alida Schuyler (widow of Nicholas van Rensselaer) allied him with the province's leading Dutch families, and his knowledge of the Indian trade enabled him to purchase prime tracts of land, including thousands of acres on the eastern bank of the Hudson River. In 1686 Livingston received a patent which allowed him to consolidate his landholdings into Livingston Manor.

As secretary for Indian affairs, Livingston fought against the trade in French furs and promoted England's commercial influence to the west. Albany wholesalers successfully blocked his attempt to prohibit, and then tax doubly, their Montreal traffic. However, Livingston's meticulous records bolstered New York's claims to the western lands in 1780. He also stressed the necessity of friendly relations with the Iroquois. Successive colonial governors came to rely heavily on Livingston's reports and recommendations.

Though favoring the dethroned James II, Livingston accepted the succession of William and Mary to the English throne. But his hostility to Jacob Leisler's rebellion in New York led his foes to attempt sequestration of his lands and offices; trips to England were required to confirm his posts and properties. He served on the councils of several governors, carefully invested his income from official positions, obtained dual salaries for holding more than one job, and probably profiteered in public contracts, such as the one (1710) for provisioning the Palatine German immigrants.

Livingston was elected from Albany to the New York Assembly in 1709 and after 1716 represented his own manor there. Chosen Speaker in 1718, he supported the Assembly in disputes with the governor. However, Livingston broke with most of the assemblymen over furtrading restrictions. Gradually he arranged for his son Philip to succeed him in administrative posts and in 1725 retired because of ill health. He died in early October 1728.

Further Reading

A scholarly account, generally favorable, of Livingston's career is Lawrence H. Leder, Robert Livingston, 1654-1728, and the Politics of Colonial New York (1961). Edwin B. Livingston, The Livingstons of Livingston Manor (1910), is somewhat limited by its almost exclusive reliance upon official records. □

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