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History of the St Andrew's Society of the State of New York
Biographies: Robert Lenox

Fifteenth President

The term of the Fifteenth President covers a longer period than that of any predecessor or successor, being for sixteen years, and attests his popularity and value in the Society.

Robert Lenox was the son of James Lenox, of the Parish of Kirkcudbright, and the grandson of William Lennox, of Milnhouse, Parish of Kirkcudbright, Scotland. His mother was Elizabeth Sproat, the daughter of David Sproat of the same parish. One of eleven children, he was born on the 31st December, 1759, at the small seaport town of Kirkcudbright, located on the southwest border of Scotland, and died on the 13th December, 1839, at his residence, No. 59 Broadway, in the City of New York.

His parents were in somewhat straitened circumstances, and hardly able to support so large a family, and consequently Robert Lenox, with his brothers David and William, came to America just prior to the Revolutionary War, being sent out to join their uncle, David Sproat, a merchant in Philadelphia, who had come to this country in 1760. Shortly after the outbreak of hostilities David Sproat left Philadelphia to join the British Army at New York, and in the Autumn of 1779 received the appointment of Commissary-General of Naval Prisoners in North America, which office he held until the close of the war. From time to time he acted in a similar capacity with reference to prisoners of the army and it was he who received and exchanged the British soldiers taken prisoners at Saratoga and Yorktown. In this connection, it is an interesting fact that the Continental Congress upon the recommendation of Robert Morris, then Superintendent of Finance, voted that upwards of £550 currency should be repaid to Mr. Sproat for moneys personally advanced by him for the relief of American naval prisoners.

Robert Lenox, after his arrival in this country, went to school for a short time at Burlington, New Jersey, and then joined his uncle in New York, whither his brother William had already journeyed. William Lenox was soon appointed British Commissary of Naval Prisoners in the South, and stationed at Charleston, South Carolina, where he died in 1781 in the twenty-ninth year of his age. David Lenox, another brother, espoused the cause of the patriots, joined the Continental forces and rapidly rose to rank and prominence. He had attained the rank of a major at the close of the war and later entered into a mercantile career at Philadelphia, where he died in 1828. Robert Lenox, however, appears to have remained with his uncle and was employed as clerk, acting at times as “director of Flags of Truce.”

During the war he made various trips between New York, the West Indies, Charleston and elsewhere to conserve his uncle’s business interests and was at one time taken prisoner by a French man-of-war, but soon released at the request of his brother, Major Lenox.

Upon the evacuation of New York by the British in 1783 he went to Scotland with his uncle, Mr. Sproat, to assist him in settling his accounts with the British Government. He returned to this country in the following September and then took up his permanent residence in New York City. Previous to his departure he had married a daughter of Nicholas Carmer, a merchant of this City, who was later a vestryman of Trinity Church and one of the Commissioners for rebuilding that church in 1788.

Shortly after the Treaty of Independence Robert Lenox was joined by his youngest brother, James, who came from Scotland, and established the great commercial house of Jas. Lenox & Wm. Maitland in 1796. James Lenox retired from the firm in 1818 and returned to Scotland, where he died in 1839; the firm being successively Kennedy & Maitland; Maitland, Phelps & Co., and later Maitland, Coppell & Co.

Robert Lenox soon became one of the greatest merchants of his day, trading extensively abroad, in the West Indies and throughout this country. His business transactions surpassed in importance and extent for many years those of any other merchant in this City at that period and he rapidly amassed a large fortune. He was a man of great strength of character and unswerving integrity. It is stated that when Mr. Lenox was an executor of the estate of his friend, Archibald Gracie, a mortgage held by the estate was foreclosed and in order that the estate might not lose the amount invested, of which there was some likelihood, and to net the beneficiaries an exceptional sum, he purchased the mortgaged premises at public auction, held in the old Tontine Coffee House, for what was then the remarkable price of $6,420, the land then being considered to be worth only $500. The premises were known as the “Five Mile Post Farm” and comprised land within the boundaries of Fourth and Fifth Avenues and Sixty-eighth and Seventy-first Streets. Four months later Mr. Lenox purchased three parcels of land bounded by Fourth and Fifth Avenues and Seventy-first and Seventy-fourth Streets, exactly equal in area with the parcels purchased under foreclosure at public auction, for the sum of $500. Thereafter these two tracts were known as the “Lenox Farm.”

Mr. Lenox never sold any of the land in his lifetime, and had a high opinion of the value of this tract. In his will, referring to this plot and his son, James Lenox, he stated: “At the same time I wish him, my son, to understand that my opinion of the property is not changed and though I withdraw all legal restrictions to his making sale of the whole or any part of the same, yet I enforce on him my advice not to do so.” His son, James Lenox, held the land until 1864, when he commenced to convey various lots in the tract, and at his death in 1880 sales of portions of this land had netted him over $3,000,000 and the value of the remainder, which included the tracts he had given to the Presbyterian Hospital, the Phillips Presbyterian Church, the Home for Aged Women and the Lenox Library, was over $4,000,000. On an investment of about $7,000, this meant an increase of $7,000,000 in a little over sixty years, and at the present time a conservative appraisal of the value of this Lenox Farm would be about $40,000,000.

The History of the Chamber of Commerce states of Robert Lenox: “He was one of the most extensive as well as successful merchants in the United States,” and at his death, “an eminent merchant who for a period beyond the ordinary course of human life had been distinguished for great prudence, a clear and sound judgment and unblemished reputation.”

Mr. Lenox held numerous positions of trust and importance during his lifetime. He was Alderman of this City from 1795-97, and 1880-02; one of the founders of the Lying-in Hospital, incorporated in 1799, and its President from 1829-35 • a member of the Chamber of Commerce; Vice-President from 1819-26, and President from 1826 until his death in 1839: a Trustee and Chairman of the Board of Managers of the Sailors’ Snug Harbor; a trustee of Princeton College; an Elder in the First Presbyterian Church for over thirty years, and director in many other institutions and corporations.

In politics he was a Federalist, a strong believer in free trade and one of the delegates to the celebrated free-trade convention held at Philadelphia in the Fall of 1820. In January, 1824, he was appointed Chairman of the Committee of Correspondence organized to oppose the threatened increase of the tariff.

He joined the Saint Andrew’s Society in 1784 and immediately took the greatest interest in its progress and welfare, acting as Secretary from 1785-1791; as Second Vice-President from 17921794; as First Vice-President from 1796-1798, and as President from 1798-1814.

He married on the 1st September, 1783, Rachel Carmer, daughter of Nicholas Carmer and Alethea Blanchard, and had issue: (1) Elizabeth Sproat, born 19th May, 1785, who married Robert Maitland; (2) Alethea Carmer, born 12th February, 1797, died 28th August, 1806; (3) Isabella Henderson, born 26th February, 1789, who married William Banks; (4) David Sproat, born 22d December, 1790, died 9th March, 1792; (5) Rachcl Carmer, born 27th December, 1792, who married David S. Kennedy; (6) Charlotte Murdoch, born 15th December, 1794, died 9th May, 1807; (7) Robert, born 31st May, 1797, died 21st January, 1798; (8) Jennet, born 12th November, 1798, died 27th April, 1870; (9) James, born 19th August, 1800, died 17th February, 1880; (10) Mary, born 20th September, 1803, who married John Fisher Sheafe; (11) Henrietta Anderson, born 18th November, 1804, died 6th July, 1886; (12) Alethea Lenox, born 2d March, 1807, who married James Donaldson.

The portrait of Robert Lenox is reproduced from an oil painting by Trumbull, now in the possession of his granddaughter, Miss Mary Kennedy.

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