The ancestry of the
Fourteenth President must be sought in the archives of the ancient
Livingston Family of Monyabroch and Ancrum, Scotland, which gave so many
distinguished men to the Province and State of New York, and whose
worthy representative, Robert Livingston, was the first to locate in the
Robert R. Livingston,
lineal descendant of Robert Livingston and of close kin to Philip
Livingston, the first President, was the son of Judge Robert Livingston
of “Clermont,” Dutchess County, New York, and Margaret Beekman. He was
born on the 27th November, 1746, in New York, and died on the 26th
February, 1813, at his country residence at Clermont in the
sixty-seventh year of his age.
He graduated from King’s
(now Columbia) College in 1765 at eighteen years of age and forthwith
commenced the study of law in the office of William Smith, the historian
of New York, and his kinsman, William Livingston. Admitted to practice
in October, 1773, he was for a short period in partnership with John Jav,
his class-mate at college.
Owing to his natural
talents and the influence and importance of his family connections, he
achieved success in his profession from the start, and was appointed
Recorder of the City of New York by Governor William Trvon in 1773, but
his lively sympathy with the Independent Party lost him this position in
1775. In the Spring of 1775 he was elected to the Provincial Assembly as
deputy from Dutchess County, and on the 22d April, 1775, he was chosen
by this body as one of the twelve delegates to represent the Colony of
New York in the Continental Congress, and took his seat in that historic
body on the 15th May, 1775. Here his talent and legal acumen earned for
him immediate recognition and he was placed upon important committees,
viz.: The committee of three to prepare an address to the inhabitants of
Great Britain; the committee to draw ii]) instructions “touching the
most effectual method of continuing, supplying and regulating a
Continental Army”; the secret committee of nine to contract for the
importation and delivery of gunpowder and other military stores in which
the American Army was lacking.
It was to aid in
supplying such wants that he privately built and equipped a powder mill
on his estate at Rhincbeck about this period.
Fulton at that time had
definite ideas in regard to the application of steam power to navigation
and had already conducted some successful experiments. Mr. Livingston
took an immediate and keen interest in this discovery and realizing the
immense advantage to be gained by using steam as a motive power for
shipping, obtained from the New York State Legislature the “exclusive
right to navigate its water-ways by steam power for twenty years.” He
and Fulton forthwith commenced to build a thirty-ton boat with which
they were able to make a speed of three miles an hour. As the
legislative concession was for not less than four miles an hour, this
experiment resulted in no gain, and the concession lapsed. Fulton,
however, continued to make numerous experiments, and with the financial
aid of Mr. Livingston, finally launched a boat on the river Seine, at
Paris, which gave promise of ultimate and complete success.
After Mr. Livingston’s
return to the United States, he and Fulton commenced the construction of
a new and larger steamboat, and their enterprise and persistence was
finally rewarded when the steamer Clermont navigated the waters of the
Hudson River at the then marvelous speed of five miles an hour.
Upon his retirement from
public office, Mr. Livingston applied his time and attention to
agriculture and kindred subjects. He succeeded in introducing the
general use of gypsum as a fertilizer and in breeding the merino sheep
from Rambouillet, France, into the farming districts west of the Hudson
He was a founder and
first President of the New York Academy of Fine Arts in 1801, and gave
to this institution his fine collection of busts and statues. He was
also President of the New York Society for the Promotion of Useful Arts,
established in 1793, and was elected a Trustee of the Society Library
when it was reorganized in 1788. The regents of the University of the
State of New York conferred the degree of LL.D. on him in 1792.
He published an oration
delivered by him before the Society of the Cincinnati on the 4th July,
1787, an address to the Society for Promoting the Arts in 1808, and
“Essays on Agriculture” and an “Essay on Sheep” in New York in 1809 and
London in 1811.
He was elected a member
of Saint Andrew’s Society in 1784 and served as Vice-President from
1784-1785, and as President from 1785-1792.
For ability and
character, Chancellor Livingston stands preeminent among the remarkable
group of patriots and statesmen which called the United States into
being. The man who could frame the Declaration of Independence, the
Constitution of the United States, and negotiate the Louisiana Purchase
Treaty—works of stupendous magnitude and far-reaching effect—must have
possessed wonderful attainments.
Although not generally
known, Mr. Livingston, even at that early period of American history,
was strongly in favor of the gradual abolition of slavery in the United
States, and a member of the early Abolition and Manumission Society.
He was called the “Cicero
of America” by Benjamin Franklin, and his statue has been placed in the
Capitol at Washington by Act of Congress as that of one of the two most
eminent citizens of the State of New York.
A description of his
private character by one who knew him intimately is as follows:
“In Mr. Livingston, to
the proud character of integrity, honour and disinterestedness, was
added the mild, yet enobling features of religion. An inquiring believer
in its truth, an exemplar of its gentle effects on character, he daily
sought its consolation, and strengthened his pious resolutions in the
rich inheritance it promised. He was devoted to the Protestant Episcopal
Church, from an enlightened preference of its doctrines and discipline.
* * * His person was tall and commanding and of patrician dignity—gentle
and courteous in his manner—pure and upright in his morals. His
benefactions to the poor were numerous and unostentatious. In his life,
without reproach, victorious in death, over its terrors.”
Mr. Livingston married
Mary Stevens, only daughter of John Stevens of Hunterdon, New Jersey,
and had issue: (1) Elizabeth Stevens, born 5th May, 1780, who married
her kinsman, Edward Philip Livingston; (2) Margaret Maria, born
nth-April, 1783, who married Robert L. Livingston.
His portrait is
reproduced from an admirable oil painting by Vanderlyn, now in the
possession of the New York Historical Society.