Robert R. Livingston (chancellor)

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Robert Robert Livingston (November 27, 1746 (Old Style November 16) – February 26, 1813) was an American lawyer, politician, diplomat from New York, and a Founding Father of the United States. He was known as "The Chancellor", after the high New York state legal office he held for 25 years. He was a member of the Committee of Five that drafted the Declaration of Independence, along with Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Roger Sherman. Livingston administered the Oath of Office to George Washington when he assumed the presidency in 1789.

Early life

Livingston was the eldest son of Judge Robert Livingston (1718–1775) and Margaret (née Beekman) Livingston, uniting two wealthy Hudson River valley families. He had nine brothers and sisters, all of whom wed and made their homes on the Hudson River near the family seat at Clermont Manor. Among his siblings was his younger brother, Edward Livingston (1764-1836), who also served as U.S. Minister to France, his sister Gertrude Livingston (1757–1833), who married Gov. Morgan Lewis (1754–1844), sister Janet Livingston (d. 1824), who married Richard Montgomery (1738–1775), sister Alida Livingston (1761–1822), who married John Armstrong, Jr. (1758–1843) (who succeeded him as U.S. Minister to France), and sister Joanna Livingston (1759–1827), who married Peter R. Livingston (1766–1847).

His paternal grandparents were Robert Livingston (1688–1775) of Clermont and Margaret Howarden (1693–1758). His great-grandparents were Robert Livingston the Elder (1654–1728) and Alida (née Schuyler) Van Rensselaer Livingston, daughter of Philip Pieterse Schuyler (1628–1683). His grand-uncle was Philip Livingston (1686–1749), the 2nd Lord of Livingston Manor. Livingston, a member of a large and prominent family, was known for continually quarreling with his relatives.

Livingston graduated from King's College in June 1765 and was admitted to the bar in 1770. King's College was renamed Columbia College of Columbia University following the American Revolution in 1784.


The Committee of Five stands at the center of John Trumbull's 1817 painting Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson is depicted presenting the draft Declaration to the Second Continental Congress with Benjamin Franklin at his side, and just behind them are, from left to right, John Adams, Roger Sherman, and Robert Livingston.

In October 1773, Livingston was appointed Recorder of New York City, but soon thereafter identified himself with the anti-colonial Whig Party, and was replaced a few months later by John Watts, Jr.

From June 11, 1776, Livingston became a member of the "Committee of Five" that drafted the Declaration of of Independence, although he was recalled by his state before he could sign the final version of the document. However, he sent his cousin, Philip Livingston, to sign the document in his place. (Another cousin, William Livingston, was a signer of the United States Constitution.)

Chancellor of New York

On July 30, 1777, Livingston became the first Chancellor of New York, which was then the highest judicial officer in the state. He became universally known as "The Chancellor", retaining the title as a nickname even after he left the office. Livingston was also U.S. Secretary of Foreign Affairs from 1781 to 1783 under the Articles of Confederation. In 1789, as Chancellor of New York, Livingston administered the presidential oath of office to George Washington at Federal Hall in New York City, then the Capital of the United States.

In 1789, Livingston joined the Jeffersonian Republicans (later known as the Democratic-Republicans), in opposition to his former colleagues John Jay and Alexander Hamilton who founded the Federalists. He formed an uneasy alliance with his previous rival George Clinton, along with Aaron Burr, then a political newcomer. He opposed the Jay Treaty and other Federalist initiatives.

In 1798, Livingston ran for Governor of New York on the Democratic-Republican ticket, but was defeated by incumbent Governor John Jay.[8] He served as Chancellor until June 30, 1801.

U.S. Minister to France

Following Thomas Jefferson's election as President of the United States, once Jefferson became President on March 4, 1801, he appointed Livingston U.S. Minister to France. He and his family arrived in France 13 November, 1800. Livingston's instructions from the government were vague, but his foremost concern was access to the Mississippi and New Orleans control of [[West Florida, Territory|West Florida.]] Serving from 1801 to 1804, Livingston kept these two concern before the French government for two years, finally negotiating the Louisiana Purchase. In April he began negotiations with his old friend, Marbois, and in May 1803 he and James Monroe signed the treaty and convention of the Louisiana Purchase agreement. His work completed, Livingston returned home to New York, making this memorable statement:

We have lived long but this is the noblest work of our whole lives... The United States take rank this day among the first powers of the world. [The use of the plural verb, "take"—identifying the States as separate entities, was common, even with an individual who was very much in favor of a strong federal authority, as was Livingston. —dff]

During his time as U.S. minister to France, Livingston met Robert Fulton, with whom he developed the first viable steamboat, the North River Steamboat, whose home port was at the Livingston family home of Clermont Manor in the town of Clermont, New York. On her maiden voyage she left New York City with him as a passenger, stopped briefly at Clermont Manor, and continued on to Albany up the Hudson River, completing in just under 60 hours a journey which had previously taken nearly a week by sloop. In 1811, Fulton and Livingston became members of the Erie Canal Commission.

Later life

Returning to New York, the Chancellor devoted his time to the management of Clermont and the Chancery. From 1784 to 1786 he helped to settle the border dispute between New York and Massachusetts. [NYHS library]

Livingston was a Freemason, and in 1784, he was appointed the first Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of New York, retaining this title until 1801. The Grand Lodge's library in Manhattan bears his name. The Bible Livingston used to administer the oath of office to President Washington is owned by St. John's Lodge No. 1, and is still used today when the Grand Master is sworn in, and, by request, when a President of the United States is sworn in.

On July 4, 1786, he was part of the second group elected as honorary members of the New York Society of the Cincinnati, along with Chief Justice Richard Morris, Judge James Duane, Continental Congressman William Duer, and Justice John Sloss Hobart.

Personal life

On September 9, 1770, Livingston married Mary Stevens (1751–1814), the daughter of Continental Congressman John Stevens and sister of inventor John Stevens III.[11] Following their marriage, he built a home for himself and his wife south of Clermont, called Belvedere, which was burned to the ground along with Clermont in 1777 by the British Army under General John Burgoyne. In 1794, he built a new home called New Clermont, which was subsequently renamed Arryl House, a phonetic spelling of his initials "RRL", which was deemed "the most commodious home in America" and contained a library of four thousand volumes. Together, Robert and Mary were the parents of:

  • Elizabeth Stevens Livingston (1780–1829), who married Lt. Governor Edward Philip Livingston (1779–1843), the grandson of Philip Livingston, on November 20, 1799.
  • Margaret Maria Livingston (1783–1818), who married Robert L. Livingston (1775–1843), the son of Walter Livingston and Cornelia Schuyler, on July 10, 1799.

Livingston died on February 26, 1813, and was buried in the Clermont Livingston vault at St. Paul's Church in Tivoli, New York.

Livingston family

Through his eldest daughter, he was the grandfather of four:

  • Margaret Livingston (1808–1874), who married David Augustus Clarkson (1793–1874)
  • Elizabeth Livingston (1813–1896), who married Edward Hunter Ludlow (1810–1884)
  • Clermont Livingston (1817–1895), who married Cornelia Livingston (1824–1851) and
  • Robert Edward Livingston (1820–1889), who married Susan Maria Clarkson de Peyster (1823–1910).

Legacy and honors

  • Livingston County, Kentucky, and Livingston County, New York, are named for him.
  • A statue of Livingston by Erastus Dow Palmer was commissioned by the state of New York and placed in the National Statuary Hall collection of the U.S. Capitol building, pursuant to the tradition of each state selecting two individuals from the state to be so honored.
  • Livingston is included on the Jefferson Memorial pediment sculpture which honors the Committee of Five.
  • The Robert Livingston high rise building at 85 Livingston St. in Brooklyn, NY is named for him.
  • In 1904, the U.S. Post office issued a series of postage stamps commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase along with the central figures involved in this historical transformation of the United States. The engraved image of Livingston is taken from a Gilbert Stuart (1783–1872) oil painting of 1794.