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History of the St Andrew's Society of the State of New York
Biographies: Hon. Robert L. Livingston

Fourteenth President

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 new land.

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 River.

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.

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